by Hashinaka Choko (橋中蝶子)
illustrated by kalong_chan
A wash of red striped across the canvas: Then a hand, covered to the wrist with splotches of muddled-together paints, came smearing it over, all over, until it mixed in purples and oranges with the color bleeding down the canvas.
This girl was a Sunset.
It appeared to him and swam under his hands, as he dipped brush and paint alike into his colors, barely bothering to rinse them off in between, smudging his flopping blond hair out of his eyes until it wasn’t blond but instead was a gooey melting rainbow, a small canvas falling in strands against his scalp.
He threw paint off his fingertips, splattering the canvas in a shock of gray-green-cold stars spreading across this girl’s sunset.
This girl was a Sunset With Stars.
A dolphin in shades of opalescent morphed under his gray thumb, the back of his nail and the wood of his brush highlighting in shining blue-silver across its stretched wetsuit skin.
This girl was a Sunset With Stars and a Dolphin Leaping.
He stepped back from his easel, the spell of intensity bleeding away as he looked up at the girl who watched him, excited beyond measure, waiting to see what he had made of her.
He looked back at the easel. He looked at her. In his mind’s eye, he superimposed the image he had painted over her skin – the soul shining through her, like a flashlight inside a colored balloon throwing its spot of rainbow on the wall.
It shone clear and easy, and he smiled ear to ear, delighted. “It’s done,” he said.
The image seared bright into the backs of his eyelids as she smiled – her soul smiling harder, so pleased it almost hurt. “Oh,” she said. “Can I see? You look so happy.”
He nodded, turning the easel around for her and catching her eye as she saw the smudging soft-defined lines, everything running into each other like an image from a dream. What he saw there was utter delight, and he managed to stop trembling from sheer satisfaction. “I’ll have it delivered to your house in a couple days, then? Once it’s dried and I’ve put a signature on it.”
“Yeah,” she breathed. “Wow. It’s… it feels so perfect,” she said shyly.
“Thank you,” he said in a whisper.
“How much do I owe you?” she asked. She was clearly transfixed – staring enthralled at that leaping dolphin.
He opened his mouth and closed it, a gaping fish out of water, looking lost. He looked up the stairs. “Tom?”‘
He was standing there, the brilliance of his smile crawling in under Remy’s skin of paint. Remy’s nerves practically fizzed with the need to do it – to paint his too. Tom was talking to the girl: talking about money, about how much they would take to give her what had always been hers in the first place.
Tom’s painting – It would move out from a line down the middle. He didn’t know what there would be in it, he just knew it would be mirrored on either side of the canvas.
Tom’s soul was Perfectly Symmetrical.
The girl smiled at him again, giddy with satisfaction (even when asked to be parted with what had always seemed to him to be a ridiculous amount of money for what he could do). She turned and left, and he made his way up the stairs to Tom, wedging himself in between Tom’s arm and his side, wrapping himself up in that secure embrace and making to fall asleep right then and there.
“Remy,” Tom said, his voice low, slipping his arm beneath Remy’s, but refusing to sink to the floor. “Your bed is just over there. Just-”
Remy hauled himself back up to his feet, laughing out loud at the pulling exhaustion he felt – a good kind of tired, where one knew one had done a good work, had accomplished a thing striven for. He stumbled over and around Tom on his way back to the bedroom.
It pulled and drained to try and hold the image of Tom’s soul in his head, to open himself still so completely to what Tom felt as each thought chased itself around his brain, the minute fluctuations of his emotions as each new one crashed through. Remy could never hear the thoughts themselves, but he felt that was an incredibly small price to pay to be able to touch someone else’s soul.
He suddenly latched fiercely to Tom, winding liquid-heavy arms around him and clinging tight. The painting in his mind’s eye morphed and changed even as he fit their bodies together, damp paint smudging across Tom’s shirt, the sheets, the mess of paint in his hair smearing all across the pillowcase. Tom gave a small, long-suffering sigh, and a wash of purple exploded behind Remy’s eyelids.
“Why won’t you let me paint yours?” he asked, dragging his heavy eyes open, fighting the cloying pull of exhaustion. “It’s beautiful.”
“Stop looking,” Tom said, flicking his nose affectionately. “You’ve already worn yourself out keeping contact with that girl’s soul all day. Keep trying to look at mine and you’ll end up passing out and sleeping for a week.”
He had to open himself far too wide in order to feel other people to the point where he could put their purest form down on a canvas. Tom was the one who helped him shut that sense back down, tuck it away in a tidy little box in the corner of his mind. Tom was right – too long spent letting other people’s emotions wash over him like breaking waves, letting the image of themselves form behind his eyes, and it overwhelmed him. He would shut down totally, for a few days or more, and that always worried Tom.
Remy shook his head, grinning like a fool. “Beautiful. Tomorrow,” he whispered, “you should let me take a good long look at you. I want to paint you. I want to hang it up right above the bed.”
Tom laughed low in his throat. “Tomorrow you’ll be too tired to paint anyone,” he said. “We’re closing the studio for a little while, so you can get your strength back.”
Remy frowned. That wasn’t the answer he wanted, but he wasn’t going to argue now. Fuzzy sleep pulled at the corners of his mind, dragging him down, down, dark.
He woke slowly, finding himself cocooned in a mess of blankets. His eyelids felt like they were glued shut, crusty and itchy, and he worked a hand free of his blanket pile to rub at his face before opening his eyes.
What looked like every quilt in the apartment had been spread over him, even the blue one with the music notes that Tom kept packed away in a cedar trunk. Remy frowned down at himself, kicking his way free and climbing unsteadily to his feet.
The floor was cold against his soles as he wandered out of the bedroom and into the dining room, leaning against the walls as he went. His head still felt fuzzy and blank, and he shivered harder than he probably should – Tom kept the apartment at a reasonable temperature, because Remy would crank it down to freezing if he could get away with it. Using his second-sight made him sweat.
Tom looked up from the couch, where he was reading, and immediately stood. “How are you feeling?”
Remy scratched his stomach, running the pads of his fingers over it next and feeling where the bunched-up sheets had left lines pressed into his skin. “Cold,” he said. “How long was I asleep?”
“Two days,” Tom said. “You have to stop working so hard. That girl’s painting could have been stretched over a couple of days. Would have given you more time to recover.”
Remy shrugged. “It wasn’t hard,” he said diffidently. He knew Tom was right – one painting in one day was a grueling pace to set, even if he did only do it every once in a while.
“Rembrandt,” Tom said, in the recriminating tone that meant the next thing he said was, “I don’t care if it was hard or not, you’re not taking proper care of yourself. I hate to interrupt you when you’re in the middle of painting, but… when you get done with one of those all-day sessions, you look like hell.”
Remy smiled slowly, which was probably the opposite reaction Tom was looking for, judging by the way he sighed. He reached out, taking Tom’s hand, and leaned on his chest. “You’ll understand when you let me paint you,” he said. “You’ll see yourself on canvas and you’ll think, ‘That’s me right there in paint, and he did that. How amazing.'”
“Idiot,” Tom said affectionately. “I already think you’re amazing. You don’t have to paint me.”
Remy stood on his toes and put a firm kiss on Tom’s lips. “I want to. Why don’t you want me to? Are you afraid of what you’ll see?”
Tom’s grin went lopsided. “You can see my soul, Remy. If it were bad, you wouldn’t love me.”
“No, I wouldn’t,” Remy said. People who were rotten inside hurt his eyes – the very best people and the very worst people he could always see a little bit, even without really looking. Tom was one of the very best people. “At least let me look for real. You always distract me when you think I’m looking.”
Tom shook his head. “Before you start looking at anyone’s soul, you’re going to have breakfast.”
Remy snorted, but followed Tom into the kitchen anyway, sliding into a chair at the dining room table. Halfway through Tom’s muttering progress on eggs, bacon and pancakes, he got up again, stumbling for the bathroom and then for some of the blankets from his cocoon. He didn’t want to admit Tom was right about him being tired; his body normally ran hot. It only ran cold when he had used too much energy, put too much of himself into his work.
He would paint Tom whether Tom wanted him to or not, he thought, but not very truthfully. Nothing he painted looked right unless permission was freely given – a long time ago he had tried painting bits of strangers he caught glimpses of on the street, but the canvas always looked dull. There was none of the life that came from a long, personal sitting.
“Eat,” Tom said, putting a plate heaped high with breakfast in front of him. Remy ate, making swirls on his plate of egg yolk and syrup, getting them to bleed into each other in satisfyingly sticky patterns before he mopped the whole mess up with a slice of toast. He ate more than he thought he would, packing away three eggs, four pancakes, half a dozen slices of bacon and two pieces of toast.
He felt warmth returning to his limbs as he settled on the couch beside Tom, a cup of coffee cradled in his hands. Remy let his eyes slide closed, let his muscles relax, let his spine straighten itself out until he sat cross-legged on the couch, not even feeling it when Tom plucked the dangerously tilting mug out of his hands with an exasperated noise.
His mind whirled, expanding to surround him, buoying him up in a mesh of color and emotion. He took a very deep breath, moving-but-not through the webs of his thoughts to the tiny corner where he locked away his second-sight. The colors were bright, the webs strong, and he let his sight roll through him easily, running down his back and out to the very ends of his fingertips.
“You know I can’t go more than a day without painting,” he said distantly. “If you don’t let me paint you, I’ll have to go to the train station and set up my travel watercolors and catch glimpses of people all day, and I hate doing that. It makes me feel cheated. I’m always in a bad mood after a day of roughs.”
Remy felt Tom’s fingers brush coolly against his cheek and turned into them blindly, leaning forward for a kiss, not daring to open his eyes in case Tom said no, in case he had to lock his second-sight away again for another day. “Remy,” Tom whispered.
“You should see it,” Remy said. “You should see what you look like inside, because it’s perfect. I’ve never looked for real, but I can’t help but see you out of the corner of my eye, all glass and silver and dark purple almost black. Let me, let me please.”
Tom sighed into his mouth, catching it again in a sticky drag of lips. Remy wondered whether he tasted like coffee or breakfast or both. “If you want to that badly,” he said.
“I do,” Remy said, and opened his eyes.
Tom shone through his skin, smooth bark the shade of the darkest part of dusk that wasn’t yet black, dotted with little pieces of shining silver, not minted hard but soft, pliable, clinging tenaciously to the ends of twisty little twigs. Remy sprang to his feet, grabbing Tom by the wrist and dragging him down to the studio part of their apartment. Tom tried to grab Remy’s coffee on the way down but Remy shook his head violently, muttering about caffeine and its detrimental effect on his creative process.
Tom gave him a small half-smile as Remy shoved him into the chair and hauled a blank canvas from his stack, only barely remembering to set the girl from two days ago down gently instead of flinging it across the studio in his impatience.
His hands were almost immediately coated to the wrist with purple-black paint, the shape twisting up the canvas in slow, sweeping strokes, both hands moving simultaneously across the center line of the canvas.
Tom was Perfectly Symmetrical.
It grew up out of the bottom of the canvas, roots spreading thick across the very edge, trunk towering up to midway, branches reaching skyward in twisting patterns of purplish-black-on-white. Remy pushed his hand through his hair, moving it back out of his eyes, and distantly heard Tom chuckling at him, probably for getting paint all over his hair. He didn’t care. He slapped and moved the paint across in swift jerks, slow curls, shaping a massive twist of branches and twigs in a multitude of directions, keeping both sides exactly the same.
Tom was a Perfectly Symmetrical Tree.
He slowed, scratching the last fine twigs with twin thumbnails on opposite sides, and stepped back for a moment, eying it critically. Then he turned to the bucket of water Tom had thoughtfully filled for him – he couldn’t remember to set up more than a canvas even on his better days – and plunged his hands in to the wrists, scrubbing hard until all of the dark paint was gone. He dried his hands, fumbled around in his paint drawer for a lighter, softer color.
Remy paced the studio, caught in a restlessness mostly but not entirely his own making, throwing glances at the canvas as if willing it to dry. He walked by it and touched it tentatively with the pads of his fingers, sighing slowly as they came away wet, then tacky, then bone dry.
He squeezed a tiny amount of silver onto just his fingertips, rubbing them together lightly until the ends of his fingers shimmered in the studio lighting. Turning to the canvas, he wrinkled his forehead, leaning in until his nose almost brushed the spiderweb lines of purple-black branches. Slowly, delicately, he began to work feathery shapes onto the ends of the tree branches, humming to himself as the stark, dark look of the tree began to morph into something softer, more whimsical.
Tom was a Perfectly Symmetrical Tree of Silver Feathers.
It took him forever, and it took him no time at all. He was dimly aware of Tom pulling him away to have lunch, the shifting pattern of the finished painting under Tom’s skin making him fidget through his sandwich, eager to get back and translate that perfection to his canvas. He sometimes worked for a long time with no sound, sometimes humming, sometimes outright singing. Once he thought he heard Tom catch on to a snatch of hummed melody and sing the whole song to him as he painted. The warm, disconnected feel of his second-sight wrapped around Remy tightly, tighter than it ever had.
He thought he might paint forever and never get it right, but eventually the clinging compulsion relaxed, and he relaxed, and his hands slowly stopped moving. When he stepped back, the entire front of his shirt was speckled with dark purple and silver paint, and his hands were once again purple to the wrists. He looked at the canvas and saw Tom.
“Come see,” he whispered.
Tom stood up from his chair, crossing the room. He hesitated briefly on the back side of the canvas and Remy reached out to grab his shirt. Tom deftly side-stepped him. “I didn’t want you to for the longest time,” he said quietly.
“I know,” Remy said. “You never said why.”
Tom looked up at him, caught his eyes, and Remy thought that the pale, pale green of Tom’s gaze was almost as silver as the feathers in the painting. “Because you can look at me all day every day, but you won’t paint your portrait.”
Remy paused for a long moment, staring at him with his mouth hanging open. “Oh,” he said in a small voice. He knew what his own soul looked like, of course. It ran in patterns across his skin like underwater creeper vines, all blues and greens and whites. Washed-out. Pale. Nothing like the richness of Tom’s. “Oh,” he said.
“So I’m not going to look unless you promise me you will,” Tom said, looking mulish. Remy shifted, his thoughts swirling dazedly through his skull, tumbling around each other. Tom stepped forward, not even looking at his canvas. The image shining through his skin pulsed. “We can hang them right beside each other over the bed.”
The force of that thought struck Remy like a blow – side-by-side forever, immortalized on canvas, there for everyone to see how well they complimented each other, and Remy could already feel the stirring in his blood that meant he wanted to paint. “I promise,” he said in a rush, and grabbed Tom by the arms, turning him forcefully until he was staring straight at the canvas.
Remy looked back at him shyly and was gratified to see a creeping awe stealing over Tom’s face, his eyes lighting up and his soul shining so bright from the inside of his skin that Remy had to squeeze his eyes shut. He felt Tom’s arms wrap around him and hug him hard. “It’s perfect,” he said.
“Yes,” Remy breathed, looking at the painting. Of course it was perfect. It was Tom. He laughed out loud, caught in the transcendent joy that always came to him when he finished a painting, only magnified, one hundred times stronger, when Tom scooped him up and carried him upstairs to the bed, setting him down only long enough to throw his massive heap of blankets to the floor before tumbling him to the bed in a tangle of limbs and paint and clothes.
Remy laughed again, curling his hand around the nape of Tom’s neck, watching, fascinated, as his thumb smudged a line of purple-black paint down his jugular. He propped himself up on his elbow, the soft smile never leaving his lips as he pulled at that line of paint with his fingers, moving it and pressing it until it swirled around Tom’s neck like a choker. Tom’s pulse fluttered under his hand, and Remy couldn’t keep himself from leaning forward, from licking a long swipe up the side of Tom’s neck, tasting sweat, musk and paint.
“Rembrandt,” Tom said, in that long-suffering tone that meant the next sentence to come out of his mouth was, “You shouldn’t eat your paint. It may not be lead-based anymore, but it can’t be good for you.”
“Water-soluble,” Remy said archly, his hands picking apart the buttons of Tom’s shirt, baring skin for his lips to claim. He could hardly help ingesting some quantity of paint – there were very few surfaces, articles of clothing, sets of sheets… very few anythings that didn’t have paint on them in their apartment. “Non-toxic.”
“It probably doesn’t taste very good, though,” Tom said, but it was just an observation, all pretense of scolding lost when Remy had gotten his shirt open far enough to close his mouth over his nipple, warm heat and slickness and just the barest hint of teeth. Remy smiled against his skin, concentrating on wringing small, short huffs of breath from Tom’s heaving chest, on painting trailing lines of color across his skin, trying to recreate the painting he could still feel in his bones on what he saw of Tom’s skin.
Tom caught his wrists, and pulled him up, stripping Remy’s shirt off over his head and setting to wiping the paint off his hands, out of his hair. He threw the makeshift towel aside, and pressed Remy down to the bed this time, holding him there in a long line of lean muscle. The scrape of teeth over Remy’s collarbone made his nerves sing out, ripped a short groan from the pit of his stomach, made him go limp and willing against the covers.
“It came out wonderfully,” Remy whispered, curling his hands in Tom’s hair, his nails scraping against the scalp. Tom hummed against his skin, mouthing across his windpipe, making Remy think of wolves, of animal-instinct trust, and making him tilt his head back further, baring his throat wholly. Tom slid his long fingers across Remy’s jaw, his thumb brushing against Remy’s lip, until Remy slid his tongue out, curled it there, swiped it across the pad, trying his hardest to feel the whorls of Tom’s fingerprint with the tip of it.
Tom brought his mouth up off Remy’s neck, touching it to Remy’s in the barest hint of a kiss, moving their mouths together slowly, lazily, the sticky drag of lips and the wet slide of tongue setting embers to a flame deep at the base of Remy’s spine. He saw feathers, in his minds’ eye, newly-minted silver and shining.
Tom’s tongue curled along his own and Tom’s hands worked busily at the ties of his loose sweatpants, easing them down over his hips. Remy’s other-vision wavered, the shine he saw on Tom’s skin flickering in and out with each touch and breath.
“Remy,” Tom said, his fingers sliding up his thigh, ticklish. Remy squirmed, a laugh bubbling up from his chest. “Remy, quit looking at my soul. You’re exhausted.”
Remy’s laughs turned into a hard breath whooshing from his chest as Tom’s mouth closed over the meeting of his thigh and his body, tongue flickering out, breath ghosting just to the side of where he wanted it the most. He wanted – “Can’t,” he said, tangling his fingers in Tom’s hair and pulling, trying to move him where he wanted, but Tom was having none of it. “It’s so beautiful. Got me all wound up in my second sight and now I can’t break out of it. Tom.” He grinned recklessly, as flickering visions of silver and glass moved over Tom’s skin.
Tom’s teeth dragged over the inside of Remy’s thigh as he left a spectacularly purpling mark where he had just been, sending a bone-rattling shiver down Remy’s spine, almost, almost, almost. “Tom,” he repeated, gasping, muscles like water and bones like syrup.
And then it was there, Tom’s mouth closing over him hot and soft, and the noise Remy heard himself make sounded like it hurt. His eyes flew open and all his colored vision shattered in a sudden flex of glass, sending his eyes flying right back shut. He felt teeth sink into his lip and it took him a fraction of a second to realize they were his own, because Tom’s mouth was busy.
So were Tom’s fingers, he noticed, as the first one worked into him, slowly, letting him feel every centimeter of the burn as he opened up. His chest heaved up and down, and he put a trembling hand to his ribs to feel his heart kicking hard, everything sharper now that he had locked his second-sight away back into the corner of his mind where it belonged. He had a dazed moment of disorientation when a second slick finger pushed into him, wondering when the hell Tom had gotten the time to find lube, but that thought shattered away too, brushed aside by the jolts of electric pleasure up his spine and the short noises wrung from his chest.
Tom’s fingers flexed and he gave a strangled shout, letting go all at once, feeling Tom’s throat work as he swallowed him down. Remy’s eyes dragged, wanting to shut, and he reached feebly for Tom as the other man crawled up the bed. Remy tried to say something but all that came out was “Mmsrfm.”
“Go to sleep,” Tom said gently, kissing him, soothing the bite on his bottom lip that Remy had given himself, the taste of come dragging across his tongue as their mouths sealed together wholly. Remy raised his hand, the movement costing him more effort than it should, pushing it through Tom’s hair to cradle the back of his skull.
Remy pulled his mouth away, licking his lips quickly to catch the last taste of Tom. He tilted his head, intending to whisper in Tom’s ear, but he was so tired that his mouth ended up somewhere in the vicinity of Tom’s jaw. “I’ll paint myself tomorrow,” he said. “We’ll hang them both up over the bed.”
“Go to sleep, Remy,” Tom said. Remy felt Tom shift, move his limp form around like a giant doll, wrap his arms around him securely and hold him tight and safe.
Remy felt his bones settle one by one until it felt like he was melting inside Tom’s skin, and went to sleep.