Dana at her easel, hair pulled back, lining up crisp stalks of willow charcoal on the ledge.
She clipped up a fresh stack of flecked newsprint and kneaded a glob of gray rubber into submission, interlocked her fingers and eased a stretch into her palms. Rain slapped against the skylight in the basement studio, the silvery November light streaming softly in, illuminating the plaster and brick. All around her, the smell of coffee, sweat, and turpentine.
She was close to something. She could feel it.
She thought back to the book her father had recently sent her, a peace offering after months of tension. A leather-bound volume of 18th century anatomy etchings; macabre, dreamlike, deeply unsettling. Very much unlike anything she would have expected from him, especially after he’d made his views on her educational choices so abundantly clear. The pages were filled with women peeling back the layers of their abdominal muscles to reveal cramped and grinning fetuses, or slicing off fatty sheets of their own skin to wave in the wind. Men with their ribs cracked open and unfurled like the petals of a moonflower. Something about them excited her beyond reason. It was exactly the inspiration she hadn’t realized she needed.
No more sombre seascapes or finely-wrought traditional portraiture. Dana was, for the first time, producing work she could call interesting. Mangy rats with pomegranate seeds spilling from their mouths. A blue-shrouded woman with a strange, gray, unearthly babe at her breast. A couple locked in a passionate embrace, speckled with black boils, worms crawling from their ears. Her new work was a marriage of science and surrealism, rife with the poetics and mechanics of life, disease, and death.
Over the past few weeks, she’d spent countless hours studying rotting fruit and roadkill, and was moving into an obsessive meditation on the human form. She was captivated by the origami of how muscles folded themselves around bone, the topography of veins rivering through the body. Ideally, she’d have preferred to study cadavers, but that class was one of the most notoriously difficult to get into. So FIG-252 with Walter Skinner it was.
Walter ran a tight ship. It was always the same: two ten minute sketches, a quick break, and then a forty minute study. Dvořák on the portable stereo, no conversation permitted during draw time. He’d lock you out if you were late. His models were wonderfully varied. This semester alone, Dana had sat with an elderly ballerina, an obese stockbroker, a pregnant woman, an amputee, and a bodybuilder. Walter was commanding, old-fashioned, and took great pride in his own work as a sculptor. And if he walked a little too close as he passed behind Dana in his rounds, if he lingered a little too long at her easel… well, she couldn’t exactly say she minded it. She liked his attention. His interest in her. Being the object of someone’s restraint.
Dana looked for Walter over the heads of the students setting up around her. It was a small class today, probably because of the rain, maybe ten or eleven people instead of the usual 25. She recognized a few of them - Alex, a photography major, pale from all that time spent sloshing chemicals around in darkrooms. Monica in oversized headphones and paint-splattered overalls.
Walter was speaking in low tones to who she presumed was today’s model, a tall, good-looking guy in a carmine-coloured robe. She hadn’t seen him come in. His thick chestnut hair was pushed back, a few unruly strands falling over his forehead. His bare feet were long and brown against the pockmarked cement floor, and he had his hands planted on his hips, eyes darting around the room. He was nervous, Dana realized, and she found herself inexplicably charmed.
The model turned his head in her direction, as if he could feel the weight of her gaze. He scanned the half-empty row of easels, chewing his lip. And then his eyes fell into hers, and oh -
Something sweet and dangerous fluttered deep in her belly, but she shook it off and pressed her lips together in a polite smile. He blinked slowly at her, then tossed her a crooked, hesitant grin.
“Alright, everyone, settle in -” Walter’s powerful voice rang over the murmur of students, breaking the spell. Dana wrenched her eyes back to her paper. Her cheeks felt very warm.
“Our scheduled model for today couldn’t make it in, so we have a student volunteer from another one of my classes. This is Fox Mulder -” the model waved self-consciously, rocking on his heels. “- he’s a painting major, he’s 22, and he’s a competitive swimmer, so we have a good opportunity today to pay particular attention to the musculature of the shoulders, arms, and back, alright? Mr. Mulder, if you’re ready -”
He bobbed his head and padded over to the platform in the middle of the room, shrugging off his robe. Dana had the distinct impression of a sacrificial lamb approaching the altar. She swallowed, and busied herself with selecting a length of charcoal, determined to remain objective. She’d seen dozens of people naked. Why should this guy be any different?
Fox? What kind of a name was Fox?
“Alright guys, you know the drill. Ten minutes. No erasers for the first two exercises, please. Linework takes priority. Loose and free. Work from your shoulder, not your wrist.” She heard Walter click a button on the stereo, and a requiem swelled to life and filled the room. “And… go.”
Dana flicked her eyes upwards again. Fox was facing away from her, leaning one hand against the lone stool, slouching, slightly twisted. He was tanned and smooth, long and lean, the broad landscape of his shoulders tapering to a round, compact ass.
Her tongue darted out to draw her bottom lip between her teeth, and she forced herself into movement. She drew quickly, tracing the curve of his deltoid, the gentle arc of his tricep. The milky light from overhead seemed to illuminate his skin from within. If she could touch him, she thought, he would be as soft and solid and earthy as clay. There was a rustle of paper as someone started over, a distant roll of thunder.
Line and shadow, Dana, that’s all he is. A specimen. Light and form and mass.
Breath and heat and blood…
Jesus, what was wrong with her?
To her great relief, Walter called the time. She exhaled and dropped the charcoal into the ledge, flicking a leaf of paper over the top of the easel for the next exercise. In her peripheral vision, she could see Fox adjusting his position, so that he was standing at a three-quarter angle to her, his knee bent to conceal his crotch from her line of sight. She glanced up, and discovered him looking right back down at her, obvious interest alight in his eyes.
Heat crept up her neck, but she stared right back. If he thought he could intimidate her, he had another thing coming…
The corner of his mouth twitched upwards. Stretching one of his arms up, he clasped the back of his neck with a wide hand, skin and muscle shifting over his ribs, vibrant, alive, utterly provocative. Dana arched an eyebrow, silently appraising him, letting him watch her rake her eyes over his body.
That’s right. I’m the one in control here.
She thought she saw a flush ripen over his chest, and he broke contact, casting his face downwards, trying to hide a smile. A thrill of victory ran through her.
“Alright, second position, everyone,” Walter barked, strolling through the easels like a general. “Movement. That’s the key. Don’t get hung up on detail. Ten minutes. Three… two… one… and go.”
The class went silent. Dana picked up her charcoal to begin, but found herself distracted by the subtle rise and fall of Fox’s toned belly, the dark scrub of hair trailing down from his navel. With hands and feet like that… a girl had to wonder. If she leaned just a little bit to the right, she might be able…
Walter passed behind her, close enough that she could feel warmth radiating from him. “Miss Scully,” he grumbled, “the point of a drawing class is to draw.”
Thoroughly embarrassed, she went to work, and after a few tense moments, Walter continued on his way.
A figure began to emerge from the page. The blade of a clavicle anchoring a splendid trapezius, rounded pectorals. A small, simple tattoo of an eye over his heart. The tendons of his neck, his curved jaw, that captivating mole.
He really was quite beautiful. Physically, yes, but there was something else there, too. Something almost preternatural. Something untamed. She smudged her thumb over a line, creating a soft shadow, trying to replicate his glow.
Just as she was really beginning to sink into the exercise, Walter entered the inner sanctum and draped Fox’s red robe over his shoulders. “Alright guys, fifteen minute break.” The students around her leapt into action, some of them putting frantic finishing touches on their work, some of them making a beeline for the door for more coffee or a cigarette.
Dana sat back and studied the page in front of her. It was a surprisingly well-rendered image, especially considering she’d spent the first two minutes shamelessly ogling the subject. Images began to form in her head. This pose could be the start of her next piece. She could peel him back here… open his chest, or his skull. He’d be full of something hot, something lush, something vast.
Fox meandered around the perimeter of empty easels, his arms crossed, thoughtfully considering the various works. Dana was determined not to look at him, and picked up her white chalk to flesh out the highlights. Closer, closer. And then there was a presence over her shoulder, and a soft, gravelly monotone.
“Your, uh, command of light and shadow is really wonderful.”
She turned to find him looming over her, like he was sharing a secret, a conspiratorial intimacy that took her breath away. He reached over her and ghosted his fingers down a line. He smelled faintly of chlorine. “This is great. Lots of life.”
“Thank you,” she managed, blinking up at him. He returned her gaze, and they looked at each other quietly, boldly, something sumptuous rolling between them. Up close, his eyes were mellow and warm, juniper green.
“Um. It’s Fox, right? I’m Dana,” she said, dropping her chalk and wiping a blackened hand on her jeans before offering it to him.
He chuffed, his eyes wrinkling, and took it in his own. “I, uh, prefer my last name, actually. I, I… even made my parents call me Mulder. So… Mulder.”
She couldn’t help but smile. “Well. In that case, I guess you can call me Scully.”
“…Scully.” Her last name in his mouth was lyrical. He still had her hand, and was stroking it absentmindedly with the pad of his thumb. He realized what he was doing, and pulled away with a jerk, laughing sheepishly. “Um.”
A long, delicious moment of silence. Dana noticed Walter glowering from across the room.
“I like your tattoo,” she offered, hoping to prolong the conversation in any way possible. “What does it mean?”
He regarded her playfully. “Do tattoos always have to have a meaning?”
It didn’t feel as though he was trying to put her down, or assert his dominance. He wasn’t pulling her ponytail, although she would later fantasize about him doing that exact thing. He was issuing her a challenge, one he fully expected her to rise to and overcome. She stared him down, relishing the peculiar energy between them, the push and pull of it, the tug-of-war tension.
He broke first. “It’s um. A reminder. A promise.” A momentary wash of tragedy moved over his features, a rawness in his voice that took her off guard and touched her deeply. “To never stop looking.”
Students started to filter back into the classroom. Alex glared at them as he passed, hair plastered to his skull, stinking of smoke and wet leather.
She leaned in closer. “And… what is it, exactly, that you’re looking for?” she asked, just above a whisper.
“- Mr. Mulder? Time,” Walter interrupted from over by the stereo.
“Um. Gotta go drop trou again,” Fox - Mulder - said, chuckling. “Not that I’m, uh, wearing trou, exactly.” Dana tilted her chin up at him, and he mirrored her, walking backwards a few paces before turning and stepping back up onto the platform.
Oh, this was not good. She thought about Marcus back home, perfectly normal Marcus with his perfectly normal CFA degree and his perfectly normal face. Mulder didn’t have a perfectly normal face. He had the most interesting face she’d ever seen.
He was off-kilter, masculine, soft. A rocky nose that reminded her of an Easter Island mo’ai. He had an Adonis jawline, bedroom eyes, and plush, notched lips. And not only was his face aesthetically interesting, but it was animated by what was certainly a profoundly intelligent, sensitive inner life.
Dana took a deep breath and composed her thoughts. He was just some guy. There were plenty of attractive men in the world. She was just missing getting laid on a regular basis. That was all.
So why did it it feel as though the trajectory of her life was coming into focus?
Suddenly thirsty, she unearthed her water bottle from her knapsack and took a long swig. Walter was speaking quietly with Mulder on the platform, instructing him, going through a few positions. The bustle died down as students settled in for the longer session.
There was a swish of colour, like a bird’s wing in flight, as Mulder swept off his robe and handed it to Walter. And then there he was.
He eased himself back so that he was sitting on the stool, facing her full-frontal, extending one of his long legs down to the floor and bending the other at the knee to balance his toes on a rung. A hand spread wide on his thigh, the other hanging loose by his side. Before she could stop herself, her gaze was drawn magnetically downwards - and oh, he was lovely there too, even in the cool air of the studio. He shifted his hips a little, clearly for her benefit, and she glanced up at his face.
A wonderful, complicated look in his eyes. Provocateur, supplicant; completely at her mercy, but bold and dauntless as a god. A shiver ran across her back, down into her arms.
“Alright, class,” Walter barked. “Forty minutes. We’re gonna do a simple pose here, so really sink into the details. And I know you all have been dying to, so you can use your erasers for this one. Ready? Aaaand. Start.”
She took a deep breath. Put charcoal to paper.
She began at his shoulders, gently laying down the angles and lines and curves of his body. His muscular chest, the tattoo of the eye. His biceps, forearms, the knobs of his knuckles, his long fingers, square nails. She could still feel where his thumb had grazed her, as if he’d scalded the nerve endings there.
Heat swirling, ignored between her hipbones.
The soft crease of an oblique. The heavy, dark mass of his cock. The elegant slope of a calf. She tried again to reduce him to an object to be rendered, a collection of muscle and bone, but it was impossible. Something about him moved her. He seemed more alive, more real, more essential than anyone she’d ever met.
Back up, over the column of his neck, his pulse point thrumming, almost imperceptible. Her hands moved over the paper, trying to touch him by creating him, to own a bit of his soul. A small, sweet ache, a slow ferment…
“Twenty minutes,” Walter said. Violins keened. The sky groaned.
The lure of Mulder’s face was too much to bear, and she looked up to find him watching her. His eyes burned through her like wildfire. A question… an answer. Colour rising in his cheeks. Some old tide, some primitive pull. She knew him. Something in her knew him, damn it.
He blinked deliriously, as if in a trance, and she went to work on his face. This is bondage, she thought. Submission. Surrender. He was offering himself. Opening himself. Trusting her. The realization that she was getting wet took her by surprise. Oh, God. Drawing, Dana. Finish the drawing.
She looked him over, picking out little details to capture. The hair on his forearms, the mole on his stomach… his half-hard cock.
Oh. She ripped her eyes to his, but he made no indication of any intention to adjust himself, or hide it. Perhaps it was professionalism, perhaps it was embarrassment. But the way he was looking at her… there was nobody else in the room.
Mulder’s chest was heaving now, but slowly, controlled. His adam’s apple danced as he swallowed. He was fighting to keep his face neutral, and failing miserably. Dana, hot beneath her ears, barely contained, turned her attention to his tattoo, working to get it perfect.
“One minute, final touches, everyone… aaaand time. Take that last piece home, rework it, flesh it out. Thanks for braving the weather, guys. See you Thursday.”
Dana pressed the heels of her palms into her eye sockets, taking deep breaths. Alex, closest to her, practically ripped his pad of paper off the easel, threw his supplies into his bag, and stormed past. “What the fuck was that?” he spat at her, and Dana suppressed the urge to leap up and punch him in the face. God, she needed a release. Her next class was in half an hour, her dorm was a 10 minute walk… if she was quick….
She looked around the room, and Mulder was nowhere to be found. A stab of panic in her belly, and then a great surge of humiliation. God, she was foolish. What had she been thinking would happen? He probably had a girlfriend, or a boyfriend, and besides, she had a boyfriend too, even if he lived halfway across the country. Even if she hadn’t seen him in two months. You’re an asshole, Dana. One hot guy gets off on being watched, and you think it’s true love. Stupid, stupid…
She covered the drawing without looking at it, and tucked the pad into her portfolio bag. Tossed her charcoal carelessly into her knapsack, not caring that it would crumble and coat everything in soot. What a fucking idiot. I’m so stupid.
She was almost out the door when a hand gripped her by the elbow.
Mulder, in jeans and a rumpled, fraying t-shirt. She swallowed, biting back the flood of relief. Thank God. Thank fucking God.
“Um. I didn’t feel right doing this in my roommate’s bathrobe,” he laughed, running a hand through his hair. “But I, um. I really need to see you again.”
She ducked her chin, thinking of Marcus. And then she reached into her bag, tore off a scrap of newsprint, and jotted her number down. Folded it loosely, reached for the front of his jeans, and tucked it into his pocket.
“Don’t lose that,” she said.
“Oh. I won’t.”