by Yuriko Toru (百合子 亨)
The Eclipse Festival was a prestigious event, Piper reminded himself determinedly. The colony on the moon was hosting an enormous party to brighten up the dark, and supplying free room, board, and transportation to all their prospective entertainment. An invitation to perform was not the kind of invitation one could just turn down.
Still, he rationalized, if he declined he wouldn’t have to face his inevitable failure. Wanderer could find somebody different to accompany his dancing, and Piper wouldn’t let him down onstage in front of an enormous crowd. Sure, Wanderer would be disappointed, but he could probably persuade himself he could live with that. Then Spoken was handing him a bowl, and it was too late to back out now.
The bowl of silver-white paint was remarkably heavy in Piper’s palm. He held it carefully, tucking the narrow brush between his fingers when Spoken gave it to him and trying not to wither under Spoken’s heavy focus.
“Thank you, sir,” he said, bowing his head, and Spoken nodded in recognition before turning to Wanderer where he stood by Piper’s side.
“Thank you, father,” Wanderer said, taking his own brush and dish of paint with a bow of his head and a little smile.
Spoken smiled back briefly; then Piper and Wanderer were stepping out of the line, and Spoken’s razor-sharp attention moved to the next pair of performers.
Piper sighed. “Gods, your father scares me,” he muttered under his breath as he and Wanderer headed for Piper’s tent.
Wanderer laughed, rich and open like a bell, and Piper readjusted his grip on the bowl of paint, praying wildly that his hands weren’t sweating enough to make him drop it. He ducked around another tent, Wanderer close behind.
There was Piper’s tent, small and insignificant as it was. It squatted at the edge of the ring, conveniently hidden behind two larger tents. “After you,” Piper said, brushing his tent flap open with his elbow so he could grip the paint with both hands. Wanderer kicked off his sandals and ducked through the opening, his bare arm brushing against Piper’s and making the hairs rise.
Stop it, stop it, stop it, Piper chastised himself. It was bad enough that they were inking each other; if he let himself react to every little thing Wanderer did, he’d never survive twelve hours of extremely intimate ceremonial body-painting. He took a deep breath to steady himself, then toed off his own sandals and ducked in after Wanderer.
“So!” Wanderer proclaimed, turning and brandishing his paintbrush at Piper. “Would you like to start, or shall I?”
“Um,” Piper said, and swallowed. “I’m. Drawing a blank, sorry, could you go first?” he managed in a rush.
“Yeah, of course!” Wanderer replied. “Do you have a preference for where I start?”
“How about the back,” Piper found himself saying. Good. His back was good, right? Neutral. More importantly, Wanderer wouldn’t be able to see his face.
“Sure! If you wanna just take that off,” Wanderer said, gesturing to Piper’s tunic, and right, that was a problem, “and take a seat.”
“Oh, yeah! Uh.” Piper swallowed awkwardly, casting about for someplace to set his bowl of paint. He ended up shoving back several dismantled pipes and balancing it on the corner of his bedside crate before turning back to Wanderer.
Wanderer gestured encouragingly with his bowl.
Piper untied his belt and dropped it beside the crate before reaching for the hem of his tunic. Twisting it between his fingers, he took a deep breath that failed to steady him and stripped it off in one utterly graceless movement.
Wanderer barely even acknowledged his bared chest. “Where do you want to sit?” he asked, and Piper relaxed a bit, wondering what else he’d expected from the friend who never wore a shirt if he could help it.
“The bedroll might be the most comfortable, since we’re both going to be sitting for a while,” Wanderer continued, and Piper stifled a nervous giggle.
“Yeah, good thinking,” he said, moving to sit cross-legged at the head of his bedroll, facing the tent wall. Ostensibly, it was so Wanderer could reach his back, but it did have the happy side effect of hiding the blush he could feel spreading across his face. Gods, he was being utterly ridiculous. He needed to pull himself together.
He could hear the swish of Wanderer’s skirt as he moved behind Piper, and Piper couldn’t stop the tension that crept into his shoulders as Wanderer sat behind him.
“You’re very tense,” Wanderer pointed out. “Would you like a massage before I start with the paint?”
Instantly, Piper’s shoulders tensed even further. “No!” he blurted, then winced at how rude that sounded. “Thank you. I’m fine.”
“If you say so,” Wanderer hummed, and Piper thanked the gods that that was that.
There was a pause that felt to Piper like an hour. Wanderer rustled behind him, shifting on the bedroll, but Piper refused to look. Then Wanderer was murmuring a warning, and something cold and wet touched Piper’s back.
Piper yelped, then clapped a hand over his mouth, mortified.
“I did warn you,” Wanderer said, amused.
“Sorry,” Piper said. His voice came out as a squeak.
“It’s fine,” Wanderer said. “That’s the way I was going to go anyways.”
“Oh, shit, did I smudge it?” Piper asked.
“Just a little. It’s fine, it works. Hey, even if it didn’t, it’d be fine. I’m exceedingly clever,” he added, leaning forward to brag right into Piper’s ear.
Among other things, Piper managed not to say. “And so modest, too.”
Wanderer chuckled and sat back. “Okay, here I go again,” he warned, and then the brush was touching Piper’s skin again, still cold and wet but marginally more bearable now that he knew what to expect.
Piper took a couple shaky breaths as Wanderer drew the brush across his skin. The tent was silent aside from their combined breathing and the occasional rustle of movement as Wanderer dipped his brush into the paint. Piper couldn’t work out the patterns by feel, but they felt small, intricate, and absolutely torturous.
He tried not to squirm, but he must’ve failed, because Wanderer let out a hissed breath.
“It tickles,” Piper gasped, going as still as he could manage. “I’m sorry, Wanderer, but it tickles.”
“I’ve done about a palm’s worth,” Wanderer informed him drily, removing the brush from Piper’s skin. “You’re going to have fun with the next eleven hours and fifty-five minutes if this is your limit.”
Piper took a breath and forced himself to relax. “I can handle this,” he muttered to himself. “Okay, I’m good. I’m good. Keep going.”
“You sure?” Wanderer asked.
Piper huffed a laugh. “Don’t ask me that,” he said.
“Fair enough,” Wanderer replied, and Piper could hear him smiling. “I’ll keep going.”
The brush returned to Piper’s back, and Piper forced himself to stay still, clenching his hands around his knees to divert the urge to flinch. He did his best to ignore the way the brush tickled as it swirled slowly up his right shoulder blade, but the more he tried to distract himself, the less he actually succeeded. This was worse than the full-body waxing from two days before; even that pain was preferable to this, although the fact that the waxing was done by professional aestheticians brought in from the lunar colony and not by Wanderer may have had something to do with that preference.
Piper huffed, irritated. Body painting had been part of the Eclipse Festival for generations; there had to be some way to make it stop tickling. Maybe ignoring it wasn’t the right thing; maybe it would work better if he tried accepting it and moving on, just refusing to let it affect him. He tried to relax, to release it, and found the urge to flinch away from the sensation was still there, but less urgent, more like background noise. Piper felt a smile creep onto his face. He was getting the hang of this. He could handle this.
As he stopped focusing on how ticklish the painting was, however, that gave him room to notice other things. Like the way the brush gliding over his skin wasn’t actually unpleasant. Or the way he could feel Wanderer’s eyes on him so intently it made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. Or the way Wanderer’s hand would brush Piper’s back, even lighter than the touch of the brush.
“Should’ve started on your left shoulder,” Wanderer said eventually, and Piper started.
“Wh—” Piper cleared his throat. He hadn’t realized it had been so long since he’d last spoken, but he hadn’t been paying attention; Wanderer had moved from his right shoulder to the back of his ribcage. “What?”
“I should’ve started on your left shoulder,” Wanderer repeated. “Now, to get to it, I’m going to be dragging my hand through all the paint I already put on.”
“That wasn’t exceedingly clever,” Piper noted.
Wanderer poked him in the side with the sharp end of the paintbrush, and Piper yelped, flinching away. “No, it wasn’t.”
Piper resettled his hands in his lap, smiling. His knees were beginning to ache; he carefully uncrossed his legs and recrossed them the other way.
Wanderer traced one last line at the bottom of Piper’s ribcage, then paused to dip his paintbrush again. Then his hand was resting fully against Piper’s left shoulder, and Piper felt the contact like a shock down his spine.
The brush touched Piper’s skin at the apex of his shoulder joint and swooped downwards, Wanderer’s hand gliding before it to guide it. Wanderer’s hand was cool against Piper’s back, or perhaps it was that Piper’s skin was so warm and hyper-aware. Every movement of the brush was echoed by Wanderer’s hand. Piper focused on his own hands, touching his fingers deliberately and sequentially to his thumbs to distract himself from the caress of Wanderer’s hand and the cool lick of the brush. His whole body was tingling, and sparks were dancing up and down his spine. He tried to focus on breathing, counting the length of every breath, but Wanderer’s touch was making his skin prickle.
“What are you painting?” he blurted out, voice too loud in the tiny tent.
“Abstract patterns,” Wanderer replied mildly. “Swirly little things, you know. Like your music.”
Piper blinked. “Did you just call my music abstract, swirly, and little?”
Wanderer’s hand paused. “Okay, yes, I did, but that’s different. When you do it it’s delicate, intricate, and organic,” he said.
“Oh.” That, Piper realized, was quite probably the best thing anybody had ever said about his music.
“I only said it was swirly little abstract patterns because I’m trying to do it,” Wanderer continued. “And you know, intricate isn’t really my style.”
“That’s true,” Piper mused. Wanderer was all about big, sweeping movements, dancing like some great body of water. It was one of the reasons he and Piper worked so well together — Piper’s music quick and intricate, Wanderer’s dancing large and smooth. It was why he danced in a skirt, to follow and highlight the flow of his body. And now, it was Piper’s job to paint that sense of movement onto Wanderer’s skin.
The questions were, how to capture it, and could Piper do it?
“I, uh. I hope you don’t mind if your ink is a little less… complicated,” Piper said.
Wanderer’s hand traced the sweep of a rib, paintbrush dancing along behind, cool paint settling like lines of liquid fire as it lit up Piper’s skin. “Not at all,” he said. “You do what you think works.”
“Thanks,” Piper muttered, but he was already thinking, mind flipping through ideas like pages in a book, looking for a passage he could use. Images sprang up behind his eyes, possibilities dancing across a memory of Wanderer’s body — or, well, most of it. Some was still speculation, for the time being. Piper conjured up the echo of every sweeping motion he could remember and held them up to the image of Wanderer’s body, shifting them around, finding the places where they fit in.
He was so engrossed in his own imagination that he didn’t register the murmured warning, didn’t hear the rustle of fabric as Wanderer shifted, didn’t even notice that Wanderer had finished his left side, until Wanderer was nestling his legs on either side of Piper’s hips and pressing close.
Piper sucked in a breath and went completely still. The images in his mind scattered, leaving a single, crystal-clear thought:
This is going to be a problem.
“Sorry,” Wanderer said, close enough that his breath was hot on the back of Piper’s neck. His hips cradled the small of Piper’s back. Piper could practically feel the heat of his skin, even the shape of his cock through the thin fabric of his skirt. The sparks dancing along his spine were lines of fire now, flames dripping down to pool in the pit of his stomach. He wanted to feel more. He wanted with horrifying clarity to press back against Wanderer, to turn and press him down into the bedroll and taste every inch of skin he could reach.
“Had to reach the back of your neck,” Wanderer murmured, and Piper took a shaky breath, clenching and unclenching his hands.
“That’s fine,” he managed. “Go on.”
Wanderer’s hand settled on the nape of Piper’s neck, and the brush crept up to coil under his left ear. Then it trailed down and centered itself under Piper’s hairline, sweeping back and forth in a slow arch like a rainbow until it reached the scruff of his neck. Then Wanderer stopped and lifted his hand and the brush away.
“Okay,” he said, backing away completely and leaving Piper cold, “could I get you to kneel?”
“Sure,” Piper said faintly, shifting up onto his knees. He tried to ignore how cold the air felt where Wanderer had been touching, how his cock had grown hot in his trousers — not hard yet, but he’d get there, he was sure.
Wanderer made a contemplative noise in the back of his throat and ran his fingers slowly down Piper’s spine.
Piper went tense. “What are you doing?”
“I want to follow the ridges of your spine, but I can’t find them well enough,” Wanderer explained. “Could you fold down? You may have to back up a bit.”
“Yeah.” Piper shuffled backwards along the bedroll. Wanderer snatched up the bowl of paint and moved to the side. Piper wrapped his arms around his knees and pressed his chest to his thighs and his forehead to the blanket.
“Like this?” he asked. He’d never felt more vulnerable. His skin prickled uncomfortably.
Wanderer ran his fingers down Piper’s spine again. “Yeah, just like that.” His voice was low, almost a purr.
“Great,” Piper managed. Just great.
Wanderer shuffled closer, leaning over Piper’s back. He lowered the brush to Piper’s skin again, and Piper tried to remember how to breathe. It was harder like this, with nothing to look at to focus on. With one sense gone, the rest grew sharper; he could hear every steady breath pass through Wanderer’s lungs, could smell the faintly smoky scent of the blanket below him, could feel with even more clarity the careful strokes of the paintbrush as it traced around every knob of Piper’s spine.
Desperate for something else to focus on, Piper began to sing.
“My mother dances like the wind at night,” he sang, “with painted skin like cobwebs / or the tear-tracks of the / weeping moon.” His voice was quiet, and muffled by the blanket, but it helped, a bit.
Wanderer joined in on the next verse. “My son sings like birds, / like blowing grasses in a breeze, / like the ground rejoices / because it is living.”
Wanderer sang quietly, too, but his voice was rich and warm. Piper wanted to hear it in his every waking moment.
“My sister dances like the ground is fire / and her touch will put it out, / and the silver on her skin / moves like water with her,” they sang together. It was an Eclipse Festival song from ages ago; Piper was certain they’d hear it sung during the Festival itself.
“My cousin plays with lightning / in her fingers as they dance across / her pipe, pressing air into / the shapes of music.” Wanderer’s voice dipped below Piper’s, then soared above it, as he slid into the harmony.
Piper was so cheered by the singing that he had plunged headlong into the final stanza before he remembered what it actually said. He faltered, but managed to keep singing:
“My lover dances like water running, / like the fall of a heart / you can’t stop, / and I sing so everyone knows.”
Silence fell again, heavier and ringing in the small tent. Piper felt his face heating, and thanked the gods it was buried in a blanket where Wanderer couldn’t see it. Stupid, stupid, stupid, picking a song with lyrics so close to his own heart. He might as well have told Wanderer outright how he felt about him, and that was the worst idea he’d had in his entire life.
Then Wanderer swept the brush down from the small of Piper’s back all the way to his tailbone, which was quite a sufficient distraction from self-deprecation.
He may also have squeaked again.
“Everything okay?” Wanderer asked, and damn him, Piper could hear him grinning.
“You startled me, that’s all,” Piper managed, though his thoughts were a little more colourful, and not just from swearing. The brushstroke had landed on the fire along Piper’s spine like alcohol, and the flames sprang up in its wake. His cock began thickening again in his trousers.
“That was the point,” Wanderer replied, drawing another line down to mirror the first, slower this time. “Metaphorically, because I meant to startle you, but also physically, I’m bringing your spine to a point.”
He faltered, then lifted the brush away from the point at the end of Piper’s spine. “Oh,” he said. Then: “Oops.”
Piper nearly jerked his head up, remembering only just in time that he was covered in expensive ceremonial body paint which hadn’t had a chance to dry yet. “‘Oops’?” he demanded. “What do you mean, ‘oops‘?!?”
Wanderer hesitated, which was terrifying. “… I may have gone below where your trousers sit when you’re upright,” he explained nervously. “So you’ll have to take them off before you can sit up if you don’t want to smudge the paint.”
“Which I don’t,” Piper added.
“Which you don’t.”
Piper considered this as calmly as he could with part of his mind running around screaming, Abort! Abort! “Well, keep going for now, at any rate,” he said. “We don’t exactly have time to spare.”
Wanderer made an affirmative noise and kept going, drawing branching lines like swirled roots out from the small of Piper’s back, and Piper tried to think of the best way to keep Wanderer from seeing that he was half-hard in his trousers. His mind, frustratingly, seemed not to be working.
“There we go,” Wanderer announced finally, lifting the brush away. “Done your back.”
“Awesome,” Piper croaked. “My turn, then?”
“Yep. Um.” Wanderer cleared his throat. “I’ll be behind you, facing the wall, so you just have to turn.”
“Thanks,” Piper breathed, and heard Wanderer shifting behind him. He waited until Wanderer’s shuffling stopped before wriggling awkwardly out of his trousers and rising to his feet. Wanderer was sitting cross-legged at the foot of Piper’s bedroll, facing the wall, exactly how Piper had been at first. His spine was straight, his hands just finishing the quick braided knot that would keep his curly dark hair off his back. His shoulderblades arched sharply out from his back, but shifted slowly to lie flat again as he lowered his hands.
Piper picked up his bowl and paintbrush. He knew what to paint.
He started on Wanderer’s left shoulder, with a sweeping stroke down onto his arm and back up, then a long swerving curve in towards his spine. He swept down and around Wanderer’s shoulder blade, then back up towards his shoulder, in a number of feathery lines. He paused, inspecting the shape, then moved to the other side.
He tried to mirror the left as best he could, but perfection wasn’t a big concern, as long as it looked okay. As it was, when he finished the shape, he had to look twice to make sure he wasn’t imagining how symmetrically it had turned out.
“That worked nicely,” he said.
“What did?” Wanderer asked. “What are you painting?”
“I’ll tell you in a minute,” Piper murmured, dipping his brush. “Don’t want to jinx it.”
“Wouldn’t saying ‘that worked nicely’ jinx it, too?”
Piper finished the curving stroke beside Wanderer’s spine before replying. “Can’t jinx what’s already done.”
“But you can jinx what’s not done yet, and you’re not done yet,” Wanderer pointed out.
“Wanderer,” Piper told him, “shut up.”
Wanderer huffed a little laugh. “Sure.”
Piper had to slow down to get the details right. The focus almost distracted him from how smooth Wanderer’s dusky skin was, or the interesting planes and valleys of his muscles. Almost.
He moved to the right side of Wanderer’s spine. The sunlight glowing through the tent cast a delta of shadows over Wanderer’s back. Wanderer hummed quietly to himself, but it was a tune Piper didn’t know well enough to join in, and he was focusing too intently on painting to bother. The air around them was warm and muggy from their combined breathing, going slightly stale without circulation.
“Two down, one to go,” Piper muttered, dipping his brush again and starting in on Wanderer’s lower back.
“Two of what?” Wanderer asked, but Piper was distracted by the realization that he’d momentarily forgotten what the image he wanted actually looked like.
“Hold on a moment,” he said, rebuilding the image from the bones up, and there it was, that was what he wanted. He dipped his brush and returned it to Wanderer’s skin.
Wanderer was singing now, in a language Piper recognized but didn’t speak. It sounded like one of the lunar colony’s dialects; he could recognize a few words, but not enough to follow what it said. The tune was repetitive enough that, by now, Piper could have joined in if he’d had the extra focus.
When Piper pulled away again, Wanderer had three gorgeous sets of painted wings.
Piper took a moment to admire his handiwork. “I’m impressed,” he admitted. “I didn’t think I could do that.”
“Do what?” Wanderer demanded.
Piper poked him where his skin was bare of paint, right in the small of the back, with the end of the paintbrush. “I just gave you wings,” he said. “You’re welcome.”
Wanderer tried to twist around and look. “Seriously?”
“Three pairs,” Piper confirmed. “The first pair outstretched, the second curved up, the third folded.”
Wanderer grinned. “That’s awesome,” he announced. “Thanks, Piper. All right, my turn.”
Piper shuffled back to give Wanderer more room. It wasn’t until Wanderer turned around that Piper remembered he’d taken his trousers off. Thankfully, he’d been focused enough on his painting that his ignored cock had given up trying to get his attention.
“Arms?” Wanderer suggested, and Piper shrugged.
“Sounds good,” he said.
As a matter of fact, it was a little less good than he thought it would be, as the first thing Wanderer did was take his hand. Aside from that, however, it was brilliant, not least because this time he got to watch as Wanderer painted him. Piper still wasn’t used to his skin being so bare after the ceremonial full-body waxing two days before; it was bizarre seeing it so smooth.
It was nice, though, getting to see the sort of thing Wanderer had been doing on his back. Piper could tell by feel that it was similar, all swirling lines and curlicues. He watched, a little transfixed by the movement as Wanderer traced patterns down his upper arm and out along his forearm, curling around it and down across the back of his hand. Wanderer was finished with Piper’s arm before Piper realized it, and he set Piper’s hand on his knee and moved to the other side.
“Are you planning to do the same thing all over?” Piper asked, voice a little rusty.
“More or less, yeah,” Wanderer admitted. “Why, is that not okay?”
“No, that’s great,” Piper said. “Wish I’d thought of something like that, because the wings were my only good idea.”
Wanderer laughed. The brush made Piper’s skin tingle in the hollow of his wrist. His cock twitched, and Piper prayed to all the gods whose names he could remember that Wanderer hadn’t seen it.
“There we go,” Wanderer said, setting down Piper’s other hand. “Your turn.”
Piper said something extremely intelligent, like “Um.”
“Do you need ideas?”
Piper took a second to scramble madly for an idea. “I think I’ve got some, thanks.”
Wanderer just smiled and held out his arms.
Piper balanced his bowl of paint on his knee and took Wanderer’s right hand. He held Wanderer’s arm out at a slight angle, trying not to think about the fact that he was holding Wanderer’s hand as he dipped his brush and planted a tiny silver seed in the hollow of Wanderer’s shoulder.
“Copycat,” Wanderer teased, voice hushed, as Piper started weaving a vine aimlessly back and forth across his bicep.
“It’s completely different, don’t be mean,” Piper retorted with a faint smile, just as quiet.
“When am I ever?”
Piper glanced up at him, smile stretching a little wider. “All the time.”
“Oh—” Wanderer smacked Piper in the arm with his free hand, and Piper chuckled.
“Shut up and keep painting,” Wanderer protested.
“I can laugh and paint at the same,” Piper informed him cheerfully.
“You could also not,” Wanderer replied.
“Yeah, but this is more fun,” Piper countered.
Wanderer opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted by the ringing of a handbell just outside. Both of them jumped.
“Was that the lunch bell already?” Wanderer asked. Piper was too busy looking to make sure he hadn’t jerked the paintbrush along his skin.
“Yes it was,” a voice called from outside.
“Hey, Runner!” Wanderer greeted, as Piper set down his paintbrush, moved his bowl of paint off his knee, and stood up.
“Woah, woah, hold it,” Wanderer interrupted Runner’s reply, planting one hand flat on Piper’s abdomen, just above his navel. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“To get our lunch,” Piper said faintly. Wanderer’s hand was huge and hot, his dusky skin just a few tones darker than Piper’s.
“You’re not wearing any clothes,” Wanderer reminded him, and Piper felt himself flush hot all over. “Why don’t I go.”
“Okay,” Piper squeaked. Wanderer could’ve told him the moon was a myth in that moment, and Piper would’ve been helpless to disagree with that hand splayed on his skin. He melted back down onto his bedroll as Wanderer rose and went to the tent flap.
“Careful,” Piper warned, as Wanderer brushed the flap aside and reached out.
“I’m always careful,” Wanderer told him.
“You’re never careful,” Piper corrected.
Wanderer just winked, brandishing their woven lunch basket at him and calling his thanks to Runner. Piper was too busy investigating its contents to hear Runner’s reply, but he heard her footsteps as she ran off again. He hadn’t realized he was so hungry, but his stomach growled as he unpacked bread, cheese, and a selection of fruits from the basket, followed by two small bottles of silver paint to refill their bowls.
Wanderer inhaled deeply as he sat back down next to Piper. “Oh, that’s fresh bread, too,” he said.
Piper broke the loaf in half. Steam rose from the soft center, and he offered one half to Wanderer. “Time for a break, then.”
The moment they finished eating, Wanderer set the basket back outside. Piper picked up his bowl of paint and stirred it. The patterns on his back were starting to dry, getting crispy and itchy, and he was anxious to distract himself.
“Now, where were we?” Piper asked, setting the paint back on his knee and brandishing the brush as Wanderer sat back down.
“About here, I think,” Wanderer replied, pointing to his forearm.
Piper huffed a laugh and returned the brush to Wanderer’s skin.
As Piper drew the vine downwards towards Wanderer’s hand, he added leaves and offshoots, curling around Wanderer’s wrist and out onto the back of his hand. The very end, he turned into a flower — one of the silver lily blossoms that always decorated the Eclipse Festival in gently luminescent heaps, the ones the silver paint was made of.
“Oh, that’s pretty,” Wanderer breathed, and Piper felt a heady rush of pride.
“Thanks,” he said, releasing Wanderer’s hand so he could admire it. “And you’re welcome.”
Wordlessly, Wanderer held out his other arm.
Piper shuffled over so he could reach, then took a moment to think what else to paint. This time, it took only a moment to find something, and he quickly outlined the shape he wanted onto Wanderer’s hand and began filling it in.
“That’s going to take forever to dry,” Wanderer pointed out absently, still admiring the lily on his other hand.
“You’ll be fine, it’s your left,” Piper retorted. Leave a gap here, a gap there, and then bring the outline up…
“Fair enough,” Wanderer acknowledged.
Piper wasn’t really listening, but he made a noise like he was. He was more focused on getting two lines parallel.
“You know Runner and Little Far-Seer broke up,” Wanderer mentioned in the casual tone used only for the least casual of statements.
That got Piper’s attention. There was more to that train of thought, he was sure. “Did they,” he said, continuing to paint, but his focus was on Wanderer’s words. “Amicably, I hope.”
“Oh, of course,” Wanderer assured him. “And they seem to be friends still.”
“That’s good,” Piper said.
“Runner’s very pretty,” Wanderer said, and of course that was where he was going.
Piper gritted his teeth. “Gorgeous,” he agreed.
It came out a bit harsher than he meant it to, being through gritted teeth and all, but Wanderer didn’t acknowledge it. “And Little Far-Seer is hilarious,” he added.
Piper rolled his eyes. “Seeing as they just broke up, you’ll probably have to pick one or the other.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Wanderer give him a look, but couldn’t decipher it. “You mean, you’ll have to pick.”
That made Piper look up. “I beg your pardon?”
Wanderer quirked a grin at him. “I’m thinking for you, not for me. You could go out with either of them.”
Piper snorted to cover the rush of relief he felt. “Not on your life.”
“You don’t like them?”
“I like them both a lot,” Piper said, returning to his painting. “I just don’t want to date either of them.”
“Ohoho, I see,” Wanderer said with enough amusement to make Piper nervous. “Already got your eye on somebody?”
“Something like that,” Piper admitted, because really, it was more a matter of being stupidly head-over-heels for his childhood best friend than anything as simple as having his eye on somebody.
“Who is it?” Wanderer demanded immediately, and really, Piper should have known to expect that.
“I’m not telling,” he said.
“Oh come on,” Wanderer wheedled.
“Piper,” Wanderer breathed, and Piper’s heartbeat picked up. He’d reached Wanderer’s shoulder, so when Wanderer turned to face him like that, they were practically nose-to-nose. Wanderer’s eyes were huge, dark, and so unspeakably earnest. Piper wanted to kiss him so badly.
“You know you can tell me anything, right?”
Piper took a deep breath. “Yeah,” he lied.
Wanderer smiled. “Good,” he said, and the spell was broken. “So who is it?”
“Still not telling,” Piper informed him, returning to his painting and trying to ignore the pound of his blood in his ears.
“Oh, come on.”
“Nope. Done,” Piper announced, moving away. “Your turn.”
“Damn you, Piper,” Wanderer complained, reaching for his bowl of paint as Piper set his aside. “Fine. Could you turn around for a minute, I want to check if your back’s dry yet.”
“Sure.” Piper shifted around.
“Almost,” Wanderer decided. “Okay, turn back, I’m going to do your legs.”
Obediently, Piper turned again, although frankly the thought of Wanderer painting slowly up his legs made him want to curl into a ball and shriek. Wanderer moved forward and lifted Piper’s foot into his lap, and Piper was so fucked.
He tried to control his breathing. As Wanderer swirled patterns across the top of his foot and up his shin, Piper propped himself on his hands and closed his eyes and counted his breaths: in for six, hold for six; out for six, hold for six.
Wanderer crept up his shin. In for six, hold for six; out for six, hold for six.
The paintbrush disappeared, and Wanderer lifted Piper’s foot out of his lap. He shifted Piper’s legs further apart and moved in between them. In, hold; out, hold.
Piper opened his eyes. Wanderer was looking at him with those wide eyes and a face full of concern, a dash of curiosity, and a little bit of something Piper couldn’t identify. Lords, he wanted Wanderer to kiss him.
“Fine,” he managed, and closed his eyes again.
The paintbrush reappeared, swirled over his kneecap. In, hold; out, hold.
Piper’s cock twitched.
Piper forgot about controlling his breathing. He held his breath as the brush moved gradually higher, willing his cock to stay soft.
The brush curled a little higher, and Piper realized all the gods’ combined power couldn’t have kept his cock down at that moment. He was half-hard and getting harder as Wanderer painted with maddening evenness up his thigh.
The brush dipped down to the sensitive skin on Piper’s inner thigh, and Piper’s cock jumped again.
“Sorry,” Piper blurted out, screwing his eyes shut tighter.
“It’s fine,” Wanderer replied, voice as distressingly even as the movement of his paintbrush. “It’s an intimate area.”
“Yeah,” Piper stammered. “That.”
There was a distinctly awkward pause.
“It’d be torture doing this with someone you wanted to fuck, wouldn’t it?” Wanderer speculated as he painted.
Piper huffed out a rueful laugh. “Oh, it is,” he said before he realized what he was saying.
“But I thought you hadn’t done this bef— oh.”
Piper bit his lip and cursed his own stupidity. Wanderer’s brush had stopped; he could practically hear the pieces clicking into place in Wanderer’s mind. He waited for Wanderer to pull away, make his excuses and leave, half-painted.
“I see,” was all he said, and continued painting.
Piper took a shaky breath. He would be good, he would behave himself, he didn’t want to make Wanderer uncomfortable—
Wanderer’s knuckles brushed the underside of Piper’s cock, and Piper’s hips jerked up into the contact before he could stop himself.
“Shit, sorry, I’m so sorry—” he started, but Wanderer dragged his knuckles up Piper’s cock again, slow and deliberate like the way he’d been painting, and Piper choked off with a gasp.
“Nothing to be sorry for,” Wanderer murmured, voice soft and rich and low. Piper wanted to distill that voice so he could get drunk off it.
Wanderer moved to Piper’s other thigh, starting at the top and painting gradually down. Piper clenched his hands in the bedroll and tried to ignore the way he could feel his heartbeat in his cock, or the way his flushed skin made the drying paint on his back and arms itch even worse. He was so focused on ignoring the sensations that it came as a complete surprise when Wanderer finished his foot and set his bowl and brush aside.
“Your turn,” he announced.
Piper took a second to move. Once he regained control over his own limbs, he reached for his bowl of paint and shuffled carefully forward and positioned himself to reach Wanderer’s foot.
“I feel like there’s a smarter order to doing this,” Piper muttered, trying to work out an angle where he could reach Wanderer’s foot without smudging any of his own paint.
“Here,” Wanderer offered, lifting his foot and setting it flat against Piper’s stomach. “How’s that?”
“Better.” Much better, actually, Piper realized as he began painting. Wanderer’s foot was held steady against Piper’s abdomen, and right at a fairly convenient angle for painting. He had left his own legs splayed so the insides of his thighs didn’t rub off on each other. His left leg sat over Wanderer’s right like a bridge.
“Hold on,” Wanderer said, just as Piper was starting up onto his shin.
Piper stopped. “What?”
Wanderer glanced down at his own lap, still covered by his skirt. “We’re forgetting something.”
Piper let out his breath in a whoosh. “Yes, we are.”
Reclaiming his foot, Wanderer stood up. He had to stoop in the low tent. Piper held his breath as Wanderer hooked his thumbs into the waist of his skirt and slid it down over his hips.
Piper didn’t see the skirt fall to pool around Wanderer’s feet, didn’t see him kick it aside. His eyes were on Wanderer’s cock, hard and flushed and Piper wanted to put his mouth on it so incredibly much.
Wanderer sat back down, slid his right leg back under Piper’s and placed his left foot back on Piper’s stomach. “There we go,” he said.
Piper swallowed a swell of lust and went back to painting.
Compared to the first few places he’d painted Wanderer, his left leg went extremely quickly. Piper curled another aimless vine up from tendrils on the top of his foot together into a single stalk, weaving it back and forth and around Wanderer’s leg. The first time Piper grasped Wanderer’s ankle and lifted his foot up to get at the back of his leg, Wanderer made this obscene little shocked noise, and Piper nearly bit a hole through his tongue to keep his composure. He managed not to look away from the task at hand through amounts of willpower he hadn’t known he had, but he couldn’t help noting that Wanderer was awfully flexible, and his mess of a brain supplied plenty of appropriate (inappropriate) imagery for him. He kept the vine mostly on the front of Wanderer’s leg from then on, but still made a point of wrapping it around his thigh a couple times before finishing in another lily blossom, right in the hollow beside his hip bone.
“You know nobody’s going to see that, right?” Wanderer pointed out as Piper finished the flower.
“I know,” Piper replied.
“Mkay,” Wanderer said, and that was that.
Wanderer’s right leg was more difficult to navigate around, although Wanderer’s flexibility helped. Piper tried his best not to think about that too much as he painted a winding river down the top of Wanderer’s thigh and poured it in a waterfall over his knee and down to his ankle. Wanderer watched in quiet curiosity.
“What are you going to put on the back?” he asked.
“The same,” Piper said, setting aside his paint and brush. “But I can’t do it while you’re sitting, I don’t think.”
“Fair enough,” Wanderer replied. “How about my face, then?”
“Sure,” Piper said, shifting closer and picking up his paint again.
He didn’t have any specific ideas in mind when he started, but apparently he associated Wanderer with wings more than he’d thought, because around his eyes and down his cheekbones Piper painted the outlines of a butterfly’s wings.
“More wings,” he muttered to himself. “Original.”
“He says to the one who’s painting the exact same pattern on every square inch of his skin,” Wanderer pointed out. “Nothing wrong with a little consistency.”
“That’s true,” Piper acknowledged, adding a few details to the edges of the wings — just enough to enhance them without being overpowering. It was a delicate balance. Piper didn’t want to claim he had any skill at it, but he did seem to have good luck with it.
“Okay, I think that’s all I want to do for that,” Piper admitted.
“You could do my chest,” Wanderer suggested.
“Or you could do my face and chest,” Piper countered, setting aside his bowl of paint. “I like that plan better.”
“Oh, all right,” Wanderer relented, picking up his own bowl. “Just give me a minute to refill this and I’ll get on it.”
“Thank you,” Piper said. “It’s your turn anyways.”
Wanderer sighed. “I should never have started counting turns.”
“It’s possible I would have started doing it anyways,” Piper pointed out.
Wanderer made a yeah, whatever sort of noise and sat carefully back down. He set down the little bottle he’d used to refill the bowl and beckoned Piper to lean forward.
Piper did what he could without smudging his legs. Apparently it was enough, because Wanderer dipped his brush and started painting Piper’s forehead.
“More of the same again?” Piper guessed.
“Shhh,” Wanderer said, moving his brush from Piper’s forehead to draw a line straight down the center of his lips. “You talk too much.”
Piper hadn’t realized his lips were so sensitive. “I don’t talk any more than you do,” he said, careful not to smudge the paint on his mouth.
“Shhh,” Wanderer repeated, and Piper obeyed.
His face didn’t take long. Aside from the mark on his lips, Wanderer painted patterns in the shape of a mask around his eyes and across his cheekbones and that was it, and then Wanderer was pulling away.
“Is your back dry yet?” he asked, standing up and walking around to check anyways.
“Feels like it,” Piper said, “but that doesn’t mean anything.”
“Mmh, true,” Wanderer replied, inspecting the paint. “Looks dry enough to me. Okay, Piper, could you lie down?”
He stepped off the bedroll so Piper could obey. Piper felt a little awkward, but he lay down. His erection had faded a bit, but he got a feeling Wanderer was about to undo that.
Wanderer proved him right when the first thing he did was trail his fingertips down from Piper’s sternum to almost touch his cock. Piper shivered at the touch.
“Have I ever mentioned how much I like looking at you?” Wanderer mused.
Piper made a derisive noise. “No.”
“Because I do,” Wanderer continued, setting down his bowl of paint so he could run the flats of both hands up Piper’s chest. “You’re gorgeous.”
“You’re more gorgeous,” Piper countered, but his voice broke when Wanderer flicked his thumbs across Piper’s nipples.
“I don’t care who’s more gorgeous,” Wanderer said. “You’re gorgeous, and I’ve always thought so.”
Piper tried to remember how to breathe. “Shouldn’t you be painting?” he managed.
“Mm, you’re right,” Wanderer told him, and straddled Piper’s hips.
Piper made an embarrassing noise. “If you smudge the paint on your legs I will murder you,” he gasped.
“It’s fine,” Wanderer assured him, adjusting his stance. His cock lay next to Piper’s, hot and heavy, and the friction from the movement reignited the fire along Piper’s spine even brighter than before.
“Fuck,” Piper hissed, and Wanderer shifted again, bare skin on skin.
“All right, here we go,” Wanderer murmured with a wicked smirk, and started painting.
Piper cursed and gripped at the blankets as Wanderer ground his hips against Piper’s for the millionth time.
“Oh, sorry, is this distracting?” Wanderer asked with mock concern, grinding down again.
“Um,” said Piper. His eyes were shut but he knew Wanderer was grinning.
“Oh, good,” Wanderer said far too cheerfully, and dragged the brush across Piper’s nipple.
Piper choked on nothing, hips jolting up into Wanderer’s.
“Ohhh, look at that,” Wanderer said, “I’ll have to go over it again.” And he did.
Piper clenched his hands in the bedroll as Wanderer stroked paint back and forth across his nipple. It felt like he was touching a raw nerve ending, and that nerve ending was sending the sensation directly to his dick, stoking the fire.
Then, just as suddenly as he’d started, Wanderer moved on, finishing his swirling path across Piper’s chest before starting another left-to-right (or from Piper’s perspective, right-to-left) swath across his ribs.
“You seem very tense,” wanderer noted innocently. “Maybe you should try to relax. Loosen up,” he explained, punctuating it with two rolls of his hips.
“Fuck,” Piper blurted. “Fuck, Wanderer, you’re fucking evil.”
“Not fucking yet,” Wanderer retorted, and the idea made Piper squirm. Fuck, he wanted to fuck Wanderer. He’d known it before, but this was something else altogether. This was like desire had been put in a bottle and Wanderer was pouring it across his chest. He wondered when Wanderer had stopped with the intermittent movements and just started grinding down constantly. He wondered why he hadn’t noticed it immediately.
“Whoops,” Wanderer announced, just as Piper started grinding up against him, “can’t reach any more,” and lifted off completely.
Piper made a desperately bereft noise, and Wanderer chuckled. “Sorry,” he said, sounding not at all sorry. “Had to.”
“You fuck,” Piper managed.
“Oh, now, that’s not very nice,” Wanderer scolded, swirling paint down Piper’s stomach.
“And you are?” Piper croaked.
“Oh, I’m very nice,” Wanderer said, and swallowed Piper’s cock in one swift movement.
Piper cried out, arching his back. Wanderer’s throat was hot and wet and tight around him, and Piper knew there should be more words to describe it but his mind kept getting stuck on hot-wet-tight and he could feel Wanderer’s throat working around him as he swallowed — but then Wanderer was pulling almost all the way off to play his soft tongue around the head, and Piper swore fluently and spread his legs wider.
He felt the paintbrush touch him again, and nearly jumped out of his skin before he realized that Wanderer was getting Piper’s cock away from his stomach to finish the painting. The realization made him laugh, except then Wanderer swallowed around his cock again and it turned into an embarrassing keening noise.
Wanderer chuckled and pulled off, wrapping his free hand around the base of Piper’s cock. “So you like this idea?”
Piper caught his breath as fast as he could. “Yeah,” he managed after a moment. “Yeah, it’s a good idea so far— Mmh!” He bit back a noise as Wanderer licked across the head of his cock.
“Glad to hear it,” Wanderer purred, and swallowed him down again.
Piper’s orgasm built like fire in a stack of kindling, roaring up so fast and so hot that it sucked the breath right out of his lungs, and then he was coming hard, back arching and blood rushing in his ears as his vision went silver. Wanderer worked him through it, swallowing around him repeatedly before slowly pulling off.
Piper took a few moments to get his breathing back to normal, or at least reasonable. Wanderer sat back, watching him.
“Y—” Piper swallowed to wet his throat. “You swallowed that.”
“Couldn’t have you messing up the paint, could we?” Wanderer replied with a smirk, dropping his paintbrush back into the bowl.
Piper just propped himself on his hands and stared at him for a bit, at that playful grin and those sparkling eyes and the delicately challenging arch of one eyebrow, until the ringing of a bell jolted him back into consciousness. He hadn’t realized how dark it had gotten, but the sun must have been almost down. The faint glow of the paint made it seem lighter in the tent than it actually was.
“Dinner,” Wanderer said, rising to his feet. Piper heard Runner’s footsteps darting away before Wanderer opened the tent flap just wide enough to grab the wicker basket and bring it in, and the scent of fresh hot food wafted in with it, but Piper had other priorities.
“It can wait,” he said, snatching it out of Wanderer’s hand and setting it aside. “Come down here.”
Wanderer sat down, and Piper wasted no time in wrapping his hand around Wanderer’s cock and starting to jerk him off. He was hot and heavy in Piper’s hand, and he sighed prettily, spreading his legs to let Piper closer. “Gods, I want to kiss you,” he admitted, and Piper chuckled.
“Shouldn’t have put paint on my lips, then,” he said, tightening his grip.
Wanderer hummed in agreement, and Piper sped up. Wanderer was gorgeous in the shadows, with the lines of silver fading as they dried on his arms and legs, but as he bit his lip and tossed his head back, Piper couldn’t help wishing he had enough light to see it clearly. What little he could see — of the arch of Wanderer’s neck, the curve of his shoulder, the rise and fall of his chest and the fine sheen of sweat — only made him hungry to see more.
Time smeared as Piper sped up even more, jerking off Wanderer the same way he touched himself, listening to the hitched breaths and the little half-moans that fell from his mouth. It seemed like an eternity and yet not long enough before Wanderer came, and Piper watched his face go slack with pleasure. He wanted to see that every day of his life; he wanted that image to burn itself into his mind until he could never forget it.
Wanderer came down panting, like Piper had. A few dark curls had escaped the knot of his hair and were sticking to his forehead with sweat. His dark eyes were aglow even in the darkened tent.
“Let’s get a light,” he said, voice deep and a little rough, “and take a dinner break.”
“Okay,” said Piper.
Wanderer had wiped his come off on his skirt, which made Piper wince, but at least he hadn’t used one of the cloaks they’d unpacked from the basket. Now he sprawled back across the bedroll, arms jumbled by his head. Piper had checked where his paint was dried white, and Wanderer had checked his, when they’d finished eating.
“Come on, then,” Wanderer said, and Piper rolled his eyes and sat down next to Wanderer with his bowl of fresh paint.
As soon as Piper touched the brush to Wanderer’s skin, Wanderer closed his eyes and sighed like he’d just slid into a cool pond on a hot day. Piper just smiled and started painting.
The first thing he did was connect the vine on Wanderer’s leg with the one on his arm with a tendril that wove down his ribs and across his stomach. Then, right over his heart, Piper painted a cluster of lily blossoms.
Wanderer raised his head and cracked his eyes open. “Oh, that’s lovely,” he said, voice hushed.
Piper hummed. “Like you.”
“Like you,” Wanderer corrected.
Piper smirked. “No, you.”
Wanderer just sighed and shook his head. “I can’t beat that.”
“By the way,” Piper added, painting a tiny figure hanging off of Wanderer’s left collarbone, “have I mentioned I love you?”
Wanderer pondered. “I don’t think so.”
The figure let go. “Well, I love you.”
“Good to know,” Wanderer said. “I love you too.”
The little figure fell like a diver, head-down with its arms crossed over its chest. “Good to know.”
Piper glanced up. Wanderer was trying to suppress a smirk. Piper tried to keep it in, but a burst of laughter slipped out, and then both of them were laughing until they cried.
“Okay, okay, stop,” Piper pleaded, “I’m trying to paint your stomach, you can’t keep laughing.”
“Sorry,” Wanderer giggled, then sighed. “Gods, we’re ridiculous.”
“We are,” Piper agreed, painting the little figure’s landing on one of the vine’s leaves. “But that’s why I like us.”
“I like us, too,” Wanderer admitted.
Piper put down his brush. “What do you think?”
Wanderer looked down, at the vine curling up across his chest, and the figure’s fall from his collarbone, illustrated in four snapshots as it fell. “I like it,” he said. “I like it a lot.”
Piper sat back. “I’m glad.”
“Anything else you’re missing?” Wanderer asked.
“Just the back of your leg, I think,” Piper replied. “You?”
“I’ve got some edges to patch up,” Wanderer said. “Why don’t I go first?”
“Sure,” Piper said. “How do you want me first?”
Wanderer raised an eyebrow, and Piper realized what he’d said.
“I meant — oh, you know what I meant,” Piper huffed, and Wanderer laughed.
“I do know what you meant. I think I’ll do the sides of your legs first, if that’s okay.”
“For sure. Do you want me to stand?”
“Yeah, that’d be good,” Wanderer decided, picking up his paint.
Piper rose to his feet, and Wanderer moved forward, paintbrush at the ready. There wasn’t much to do, just a few places with holes in the pattern, and he was done both legs in a matter of minutes. He added a bit to the small of Piper’s back, touched up his hips and shoulders, and then he was done.
“Your turn,” he said, standing and turning, and Piper knelt carefully down and painted.
It would’ve been nice, he realized, to save something simple for last — like, for instance, touching up holes in the pattern, like Wanderer did. But no, his last task was painting a river down the back of Wanderer’s thigh, a waterfall down his calf, and tributaries joining the river to the matching one on the front of Wanderer’s leg.
“This was bad planning,” he muttered, and Wanderer laughed. Piper could feel exhaustion hovering at the edges of his awareness, ready to pounce at the first sign of weakness. He suspected Wanderer was feeling it, too; everything was funnier to a tired mind.
The tricky thing was, he’d passed the peak. The task at hand was slow and focused; he could feel himself crashing down from the energy high of exhaustion and food, and it was slowing his brushstrokes despite his best efforts.
“Turn,” he requested, and Wanderer obeyed. He was almost done. Just a few more connecting tributaries, and then that was it.
“Why am I so tired?” Wanderer wondered. His voice was soft, a little like hearing it underwater.
“Me too,” Piper admitted. “It’s been kind of a long day.”
“We barely even did anything,” Wanderer protested. “I’ve been less tired than this after dancing for an entire day.”
“It’s a mental workout,” Piper speculated. “Thinking up patterns, and focusing for so long on the same thing, is exhausting. Apparently mental exercise is more tiring than physical exercise.”
“Apparently,” Wanderer agreed. “That the end of it?”
“That’s it,” Piper confirmed, lifting his brush away and setting it back in the paint. “I’m done. You’re finished. You look gorgeous.”
“I am gorgeous,” Wanderer corrected.
“True,” said Piper.
There was a pause.
“So, what do we do now?” Wanderer asked.
“If I remember right, we meditate while the paint dries,” Piper said.
Wanderer yawned so wide his jaw cracked. “Fabulous. And we’re not supposed to fall asleep.”
“Probably not,” Piper agreed.
They did end up falling asleep, though only briefly. The ringing once more of the bell jolted Piper awake, still sitting up with his arms crossed on his knees. He stood up, knees complaining all the way, and nudged Wanderer awake.
“Huh — wha?” Wanderer went to rub his eyes, but thankfully noticed the white crust of dried paint on the back of his hand and stopped. “Did the bell ring?”
Piper picked up the two dark cloaks they’d been given in their dinner basket. “Yes, it did,” he said, tossing a cloak to Wanderer. He caught it groggily, and in unison, they swung them on.
Piper led the way out of the tent, deep hood drawn up over his head to hide his face, Wanderer close behind. Side by side, they followed the rest of the people in cloaks as they filed in pairs out of the village of tents and down the narrow path to the clear pool nearby.
The moon was shining brightly down from its nest of stars. At the water’s edge, Piper cast off his cloak, baring his body for all to see, but somehow he no longer felt naked. He climbed down into the water — wincing a little at the chill — and swam out to the center, then began to scrub at his arms and legs.
Wanderer joined him soon, rubbing at the white paint residue as it slowly dissolved into the water, leaving behind luminescent silver tracks like liquid moonlight on his skin. Piper ran his hands over every place he could remember feeling paint, until he was certain he’d gotten it all. Then he took Wanderer’s offered hand, and together they swam to the edge of the pool.
As more and more people climbed out of the water, everyone began talking and laughing, admiring each other’s paint. The water had turned milky white, reflecting the moon in fractured shards.
Wanderer’s hand found Piper’s again, and squeezed. Piper glanced up at him and squeezed back. Wanderer’s hair had fallen out of its knot and hung in a tangled curtain around his face. With the silver paint and excitement lighting his eyes, Piper thought he’d never looked more beautiful.
“Welcome to the Eclipse Festival,” he said.