It all starts with an idle comment. An over-dinner work discussion, with Giovanni explaining that although he paints, it's been a while since he's done any portraiture. "—I tend to find myself much more taken with natural scenes, you understand. Pastoral works, mostly."
"Were you any good at it? Portraits, I mean," Jonah Magnus asks.
"Oh, I'm brilliant at it."
"Perhaps you simply need to find a more entrancing subject."
"Jonah, are you volunteering?"
Their twin smiles agree with one another, and arrangements are made.
During one of what could generously be called their "evenings of revelry among intimate friends," once Jonah has drunk his fill of the festivities—though Giovanni was content to simply watch—Giovanni corners Jonah and kisses him on his flushed cheek and tells him he looks radiant, darling, do you want to lie down so I can paint you?
And Jonah says yes, because he could use the rest and use the quiet. So he lets Giovanni move him to another room where his easel and pencils and paints are already laid out. Jonah scoffs at his preparedness, but he sits down anyway and allows Giovanni to curate the room's arrangement. A lamp here, drapery there. A tableau of books and drinking glasses on the table.
Giovanni, being familiar with Jonah's less intoxicated self (occasionally full of nervous energy and unable to keep still for it), presses a little brown bottle into Jonah's hands. "Something to help relax you," he explains.
Jonah squints to read the label through his hazy glasses. Shrugs, unstoppers it, and raises it to reddened lips. As the laudanum goes down, Jonah cringes at the bitter burn of it. Swallows and tries to work some saliva in his mouth to wash it down. It's brandied on the aftertaste, mixed with something sweet in a feeble attempt to balance it out. Something spicy too—what is that? Turmeric? Clove?
"Come now, Jonah," Giovanni says with a chuckle. Ruffles his hair a little. "Surely that's no worse than other things you've had tonight."
"You're terrible." Jonah takes another swig. "Incorrigible. Perverse, even."
Giovanni, as always, allows the insults to roll off him like water from a duck's back. "You love me. Now, why don't I take that back—"
Jonah cradles the bottle to his chest, turning away from Giovanni's reaching hand. He sneaks another swig in a laughably surreptitious way.
Grinning, Giovanni circles around to the other side of the chaise to extend his hand again. "Jonah, dear, that's enough. You're just going to fall asleep. And who knows what kinds of horrors a person could visit on such a pretty, helpless boy."
Jonah hands the bottle over for Giovanni to re-cork. He knows he's only joking, which is why he's not at all uncomfortable with allowing Giovanni to arrange him on the chaise with encouraging, gentle touches that guide him into motion. It's all easy and expected, settling into a lounging position in his barely-dressed state, propped up by pillows.
Giovanni nods his satisfaction, goes over to the canvas, and begins to sketch.
Truth be told, Jonah appreciates the chance to rest. His racing heart drops off as the alcohol and opium take hold. Sweat dries on his skin but he hardly notices the coolness—the windows are open and the evening is warm and humid and maintains the flush upon him. His impulse is to move; to touch whatever is in reach, but his mind tells him that he shouldn't and his body, sluggish, is not inclined to let him.
Instead, he chats. "What are you doing to do about the, ah—" and pointedly looks down at his own nudity. At the shirt loose and open at the front to reveal the curves of his chest, artfully arranged in its dishevelment. At his bare thighs and the hint of come still drying in his auburn curls. (Giovanni hadn't let him clean up before bringing him here, the horrible man.)
"Why, I don't see a problem," Giovanni teases, raising his free hand to measure out Jonah's proportions on his knuckles and fingers. Translates that over to the canvas, marking him out in graphite ratios. How he relates to the space; the chaise, the table, the floor and walls. Giovanni will save the background for later, when Jonah isn't here, because he knows well his tendency to get engrossed in them.
"You're going to make me say it," and Jonah sighs, theatrically. He'd smack his forehead, were he not discouraged from moving. "The tits, Giovanni."
"Mm? What about them? I think they're lovely." Giovanni allows a wicked grin to take up space upon his lips for a number of infuriating moments—just enough to rile Jonah up. "I had an idea about that, actually. Are you particularly attached to that shirt?"
Jonah gives him a look. Gives the shirt a look. Gives Giovanni another look. "Why?"
Giovanni, grinning, says nothing and continues on with his sketch. In a moment, if Jonah doesn't settle down, he'll have to ask him to in order to get the face right.
"I had a thought," Giovanni begins, with levity; with mollifying care. "You already look so... debauched, let's say, that I thought we may as well lean into it."
Jonah blinks. That could mean an awful lot of things. "Go on."
"Considering the colours, you know," Giovanni gestures with the pencil, pointing out the tones as he says them, "Pale skin, red hair, white shirt, dazzling jewelry—I may have to take some liberties with that." The bars through Jonah's nipples are a plain gold today, glimmering in the lamplight. "Something purple or red would stand out wonderfully. So I was thinking we could get you a glass or two of wine, and you could, oh no, be a bit careless in the drinking."
That sounds much more agreeable than it ought to. Jonah turns the image over in his mind, considering, and concludes that Giovanni is very likely correct. He's the expert here, and Jonah thinks it an entertaining idea, and he'll get to have more drinks brought into somewhere safe where he doesn't need to do anything except lie down and look pleasant. He doesn't need to be clever, and he doesn't need to self-monitor, and he doesn't need to wonder at the private thoughts of other people and how they view him.
Here it's just Giovanni, who expects only stillness and beauty and who sees him maybe not quite as he sees himself, but close enough. Who has called him pretty but also handsome; elegant and majestic. Giovanni freely gives his compliments and has never once called him a woman.
Jonah simply nods and tells him, "That sounds fine. But you're bringing me a bottle. And a spare shirt."
Giovanni makes him wait for that, at least until he's finished sketching out the scene. He pops back into the larger party, now turned to socializing and refreshments with the primary entertainment done. When he returns, Giovanni takes Jonah's cheeks in his hands and presses a long and tender kiss to his hairline as a reward for good behaviour—and to allow him to reposition his head with a minimum of fuss before he returns to the canvas.
It's Barnabas Bennett who comes calling a short time later, shirt and bottle and glass in hand. He takes in the arrangement of Jonah with an appreciative eye, and takes in the scene on the canvas too, and he tells Giovanni that the drawing so far is lovely but that Jonah is far lovelier. The canvas doesn't get a drink reverently poured for it like Jonah does.
"Do you mind if I sit in?" Barnabas asks, slightly hoarse and quiet, not wanting to disturb the little oasis of peace that is this room. He looks to an armchair that he does not believe he saw drawn in the canvas' frame. "I'll try not to get in the way."
Giovanni, busy thinning out his colours and starting to block out the background, makes a sound that's probably a laugh. "Will you."
"I can try," Barnabas shoots back. Passes Jonah a wine glass so he doesn't have to reach and risk disturbing his positioning.
Jonah accepts the glass with a scoff. "Since when have you been able to resist me in your life, Barnabas?"
Barnabas takes the bottle with him when he goes to sit down and takes a theatrical swig from it. "I'll just have to appreciate you from a distance, then. Sit on my hands, if I must."
"Or let the Devil find some work for them," Jonah giggles. Takes a drink and laughs, and laughs.
"Would it be the Devil's work when he's such an angel? Wouldn't that be worship?" Barnabas asks, towards Giovanni.
Giovanni, grinning, keeps on painting. "You boys. He's Venus, clearly—look at him, all post-coital and pretty."
"Mm," Jonah purrs. "And all those admirers." On another sip, Jonah nearly misses his mouth with it, and a dribble of red snakes its way down his chin.
"Dionysus, more like," Barnabas toasts to him with the bottle; drinks again. "Pretty boy. Life of the party."
"Raised as a girl," Jonah muses.
"That's right, he was," Barnabas gasps. "Going to tear me apart one day, Jonah? Drive me mad?"
"I prefer you intact, dearest," and Jonah strokes him with his eyes, taking in his form; his wholeness. "I wouldn't have much use for you in pieces. You're lucky that you're sweet."
"A charmer, am I?"
"I'll take it."
Barnabas and Jonah trade barbs, and they chat, and they make an entertaining scene for Giovanni painting it. It's better background noise than what he's used to, working, and better still than silence. Barnabas incenses passionate indignation in Jonah and it keeps him alert; keeps the flush in his cheeks.
Once Giovanni has some solid ideas on the canvas and palette about colour, he suggests that Jonah make a mess of himself with the wine, only to find that Jonah's glass is mostly empty and the bottle is doing even worse. Giovanni calls them terrible, the both of them, and sends Barnabas out for more—"and a glass for me this time! Boorish children, honestly, making a man do art while sober." While Barnabas is gone Giovanni fusses over Jonah's clothing again while Jonah snickers at being fussed over, at least until Giovanni grabs him by one decorated nipple and pinches. That stops Jonah's laughing and starts him whimpering, biting his lip in a way that begs for ruination.
"Careful, Magnus," Giovanni digs his nail in, watching Jonah's mouth fall open. "Could give a man some thoughts about desecrating something holy."
Jonah swallows; stills. Control and restraint. He's been so very skilled at staying in place tonight that he is not about to be the first to blink—figuratively speaking, for his lashes shade his eyes in the most tantalizing, promising way. "Why, Giovanni, would you like to?"
"Tempting, but I have a job to do." Giovanni lets him go, only to pinch even more colour into Jonah's cheeks, chuckling all the while. "Save your bedroom eyes for your beau and for the picture, hmm?"
Barnabas, none the wiser, comes back to Giovanni crossing the room back to the easel and pours him a drink first because he doesn't need to be told to respect his elders twice.
Then one for Jonah, and the man is both the image of stunning poise in raising it to his lips and intoxication incarnate as the wine paints rivulets down his chin and neck and breast. Purple stains bloom on his white, white shirt and his smirking lips are stained alluringly dark.
When Jonah's audience can bear to tear their eyes away from the bewitching sight before them, they share a knowing look with one another. An acknowledgement of helplessness and just the slightest hint of wonder if the coy talk of the Divine was truly only in jest. Jonah knows, because he always knows, and his crookedly sharp smile makes that clear.
But somehow, they both resist. Giovanni returns to his work and Barnabas has to actually sit on his hands to keep them to himself. And Jonah teases them, needling their restraint with wickedly descriptive words, because he's high and warm and modesty is far from his mind.
Eventually, he settles. Goes from speaking to slurring to mumbling nonsense, and within the hour he is fast asleep, still sprawled out in a model's pose. Barnabas follows him not long after, migrating from the armchair over to a settee to collapse upon.
Giovanni keeps vigil throughout the remainder of the night. Oil painting is slow, deliberate work, though not nearly as much as it would be if he didn't have his little gifts to cheat the drying times—the divide between liquid and solid is space, that's all, on an infinitesimally small level. There's a poetry in the passage of time that speaks to dignity and effort, but not while he's working from a subject who's looking terribly (and delightfully) undignified indeed. He does not wash his brushes and retire until dawn, but before he goes, he ensures that Jonah and Barnabas both have adequate blankets.
It's the distant puttering-around in the kitchen that motivates the groaning Jonah into waking. Cursing, he searches around for and puts on enough clothing to be decent before he stumbles out to relieve himself. He brings back a pitcher of water and a glass of it for Barnabas, who he leaves sleeping, and sets it gently down on the table. Jonah rubs his eyes and splashes more water on his face to rouse himself. It's unconscionably, inappropriately bright, and he loathes it.
So as not to greet Barnabas with a sour mood first thing in the morning, Jonah seeks to cheer himself by shuffling over to the painter's stool and getting his first look at Giovanni's work.
The background is unfinished, just blocks of colour that loosely match up to the real tones of the room. The chaise and the table, though, are much further along—could be finished, even, to Jonah's novice eye. But these are not the things which draw Jonah's attention.
The first of those, funnily enough, is the glittering nipple piercing. Giovanni did end up taking some liberties with that, seeing as it is not just the gold barbell but a piece more suited to a proper earring, all curving filigree and tiny emerald dots. Jonah's gaze is drawn up towards where that same colour appears in his eyes, dark-lashed and intense. His hair itself is that wondrous mix of arranged and deliberately dishevelled, highlighted warm in the lamp-glow. His skin is luminous under it as well, bright and fair and accentuated with sprays of freckles across his cheeks; his thighs. Stained with wine-purple and wearing quite the enticing flush.
Jonah's eye follows along the curve of his side and his hip down to where his legs join—and he scoffs out a hoarse laugh at what he sees. Giovanni, apparently, has repositioned the table's crystal decanter just far enough to blur and preserve the mystery of his sex. Even so, it's a near-indecent thing. Now curious, he looks back towards his chest visible through his open shirt and sees that yes, his breasts are kept similarly ambiguous. There's so little of a curve there that they could conceivably be passed off as some rather well-defined pectorals. He can't remember asking Giovanni to do that for him. Jonah is amused, and though he doesn't exactly despise his natural form, he understands the practicality in displaying a portrait depicting him as an androgynous, lovely figure.
Jonah stays there, looking, even when Barnabas begins to stir. Jonah tells him to drink some water and remains seated, staring. He still is, when Barnabas comes over to join him, counterpose-leaning against his side and resting a hand upon Jonah's narrow-shouldered back. They share a long moment, there in silence, looking upon the painting.
"He did a good job, didn't he," Barnabas says.
Jonah simply nods. He hasn't looked away. "He did," he croaks out, and he hates the way his voice breaks.
Barnabas sets his glass down to get more on Jonah's level, getting a good look at Jonah's face and the misty quality to his eyes. "Oh Jonah," he breathes, and pulls him close to his chest in an embrace, to spare Jonah the indignity of being seen crying over a painting, of all things. Barnabas pets his back and his unruly hair, and tells him that he's beautiful, and that he's perfect, and he pulls a shaky laugh from Jonah when he calls him a mark of the Divine here on Earth.
Jonah mouths his response against Barnabas' clothing, the silent, "You don't know how correct you are," shielded from his view to keep him ignorant.
There are some parts to him that Barnabas never needs to know.