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(i would rather look at you than) all the portraits in the world

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The cloud of Queller’s perfume soaks into the air of turpentine. Next to her, Katia yawns, pushing her glasses up with the end of a chubby pencil. Blair sets about her things—double-tying the knot of her smock, sweeping her hair off her shoulders, opening her monogrammed supplies case and taking out today’s materials: long, thin blocks of charcoal, a fresh kneaded eraser. 

Four weeks into the semester and Blair has wrestled with the perimeters of her patience more than ever. Prehistory to Renaissance had been cancelled last minute, opening a spot in her schedule, and Blair liked a full week, couldn’t stand the quiet of extra time on her hands, and so Intro to Drawing with Queller it was. 

Well, it didn’t have to be. There were other options. But this was something wholly unknown—daunting, and Blair didn’t like that. Serena was the artist, the innovator; she was always good with her hands. But Blair—Blair is an intellectual. She is doomed to the sidelines, the footnotes. She fears history will not remember her, but tries not to entertain the thought. The thing about Blair is that she can be good at anything, everything, because she has to be. It’s the only way to make up for only being her. So maybe that’s what this was really about: if Serena can do it then so can I, the mantra that has embedded itself behind her ribs since preschool—that had her try blonde at fifteen and give herself up to a boy sooner than she wanted to a short while after that. 

Well, that, and Chuck would hate it. The charcoal on her fingers made her messy, lines coloured over, and Chuck liked things neat, tidy, cleaned up and laid out for him. Chuck’s hatred of the things she loved was becoming more and more evident these days. She’s not sure which came first; what was influencing what. 

Not to say she loves this. At least, not yet; but she could, once she tackles it. Funny how that is. Art imitating life.

The studio hums faintly, the wide surrounding windows freckled with silent rain. In the last four weeks Blair feels as though she has learned more from flesh and fat than she has in three years of studying ancient limestone and aged layers of paint, lines and images, still-life and dead-eyed. She just doesn’t know about what, exactly. There is something that thrums in the canvas, in the clay, something blindingly bright, aching, searing, in the pith of a painting or the heart of a sculpture or the curve and twist of architecture, something that has always called out to Blair, has claimed her, has begged to tell her it’s story, it’s history, begged to be sought out and explained. History may not remember her but Blair remembers it. 

So things happen for a reason. So Blair is standing in front of a stool behind an easel because it is helping her understand, and because it is what Serena does, and because Chuck would hate it, will hate it. Tuesday, it was an elderly woman—the sags of her skin almost making Blair want to book a botox appointment immediately upon leaving—to everyone else, all these artists and innovators around her, she was a base, a practice, but to Blair, she was a real life Whistler’s Mother. La Giaconda in her old age, if she could age, if she wasn’t suspended in time. 

Today, Thursday, the model—a man, around her age, handsome—steps out in his robe.

And he is all Caravaggio. 

Queller introduces him—Blair catches his name but not much else—the contours of his face and the pale of his complexion the closest to sculpted alabaster she’s seen yet. His hair, lush, dark granite curls that he pushes out of his eyes—which, too, are dark, enticing, a contrast to his boyish grin. Amor Vincit Omnia in the flesh. Blair’s fingers itch to move. Saliva collects under her tongue like a pool of liquor. 

The first pose has his back to her, his face to the side so she can only see shadows of it. He’s lean, biceps curving subtly, dimples at the bottom of his back, shoulder blades dusted with light sporadic freckles. There’s a natural chiaroscuro to him, the sharp relief of his jaw and cheekbones curved with dark stubble—she smudges her thumb over her line of charcoal in an attempt to capture it, her palms prickling with dissatisfaction when it comes out inimitable.

The more she commits him to the page, the longer she wants to look at him, and the longer she looks at him, at the slate of his back, the curve of his ass, the meat of his thighs, the more her nerve endings racket with the need to be touched. From this angle, he recalls David, who she’s spent countless hours staring up at, but no—this man in front of her is imperfect. That isn’t supposed to make him better, not to Blair, at least—perfection is the thing she strives for, has always strived for—but somehow, in some way, it does. 

A break, then the second pose, which gives her a better view. Still not head-on, but enough to see the jut of his hipbone, the slope of his nose, the tip of it, his plush mouth—a mouth made to give. The flutter of his lashes like curtains in the wind. This isn’t right—someone like this needs to be seen in living colour, the way the dark shadows under his eyes fade away into the high pink of his cheekbones, the Adonis petals of his lips, parted slightly, to see the seething, fleshy red inside. 

There, then, as she uses the pad of her pinky to cast twin eclipses in the dips of his sockets, are when their eyes meet, and— Oh.

She was wrong. Charcoal is the right medium, the only medium, to capture this—him. There is something burgeoning behind his eyes, inside his chest, as it rises and falls oh so subtly with each breath—something dry and black and scraped up, like a mouthful of ash, like sadness incarnate, like—

Like the thing she sees when she looks in the mirror. Like the thing she used to try and throw up, pry out, fuck away, cry and cry and cry over. Something like vague recognition passes over his face. He sees it, too. He sees her, too. 

Again, that thrum. She hears it like blood rushing to her head, like Venus’ shell against the ear, her heart is caught in the hollow of her throat, pressure building, blinding. Something inside him is reaching out to her—there is a story here, she can feel it. She looks for it in the divots of his contracted muscles, the parts of him so slender they’re like thin skin over bone, the fine hairs in some places and the coarse, rough patches in others. But she’s drawn back to his eyes each time, and each time, they are still only on her. There’s more of an implication of a smile than the instance of one—he’s good at keeping still. Doing what’s told of him. Each time she blinks there is something new burning behind her lids, asking to be indulged.

Queller calls for another brief break between poses, and he covers himself and ducks out swiftly. She needs a gasp of un-stale breath, a mouthful of fresh, damp air, but she settles for a substantial drink of bitter tea from her thermos instead. This is why she can’t spend time alone—she starts to see things that aren’t there. It was uncouth—this was not the girl she was raised to be. But then again, Blair has become a lot of things as of late. 

No. She needs to get a hold of herself. 

But there was something. She’s sure of it. Blair has been wrong about so many things, but not this. Something happened here to her—she just has to figure out what. 

Moments later, he steps back onto the podium, slipping the robe off, facing her now, finally. Her eyes drop instinctively, and he’s—substantial, even while soft—pink and pretty like his lips are. She wonders, abstractly, at the velvet slide between her lips, the heft on her tongue. The model—Dan—quirks a brow in acknowledgment when she looks back up at him. Blair is far past feeling shame—she has done things that make her shudder to think about, has had things done to her that can’t even cross her mind—taking a look at a man who chooses to strip in front of a studio full of tired students hardly makes the cut of causing a blush. But still. There’s something in his crooked smile that heats her from the inside out. 

It’s a challenge, somehow. And if that isn’t Blair’s favourite thing.

He props a foot on the ring of his stool, twisting just so, abdomen rippling, his fingers spread over his knee—spanning wide enough that they would cover her breasts completely. It only strikes her as an odd unit of measurement a moment later. She copies them onto the page, connects them each to the ridge of his knuckle, wonders at this, too, as she does, how they would feel sliding into her mouth, curling up into her core. It’s been six weeks since Chuck was home, and even then it was only one night. When she’d asked why he couldn’t stay longer, the silence had given her all the answer she needed. There were more important things.

A glow of gentleness is alight in him. He could wrap his hands around her throat and only squeeze hard enough to make her come and nothing more. The thought sends a shiver all the way down to her tailbone, tightening her nipples against the lace of her bralette. It scritches at her sensitive skin, sending sparks lower, and she wants— needs a closer look. She needs the lines of his palms and the insides of his knuckles, the fawning of his lower lashes, the canals of his ears. She thinks the hairs on his arms, his legs, are standing on end—a twin shiver running over him. His smooth skin taut on his cut contours, the contrast to the parts of him that are plush, soft, pliable, lend to images of things Blair has never done but has dreamed of, has asked for but never received, never allowed to do. Around her materials scratch in quick succession, flow onto and over the page, these are only meant to be sketches to begin with, after all, but Blair is careful, methodical, she has gotten comfortable enough in her movements these last few weeks to not doubt herself but she still leaves little room for mistakes. Queller slows to a hover behind her and Blair has the urge to snap—she needs focus, needs privacy, needs to be alone with him. The studio lights hum like they, too, are considering, criticizing, she presses the charcoal to the paper too hard and it crumbles with conviction. She looks back up at him, watching her, rose blush dusting his cheeks, seeping down his neck like spilled paint, and it brings the room back into sharp focus, drowns out the noise and makes her unaware, once again, of their surroundings.

From behind her, Queller announces their fifteen. A wave of sighs breaks through the hushed room, followed by a rush of footfalls heading straight for the door. Blair holds back a scoff. Addicts.

She pulls out a wet-wipe from her supplies case, wiping off her hands and her station. She unties the knot of her smock, letting her hair down, rolling her shoulders, her neck, the notches cracking like branches in the wind. She takes down the rest of her tea until she reaches the autumnal pile of stray pulp at the bottom. The silence stretches long across the studio, ending only somewhat definitively in the rightmost corner where a guy she doesn’t know the name of taps away at his phone, oblivious to her. 

“You’re very clean.”

Blair doesn’t startle easily. She is aware of everything, everyone, at all times. But there is a small jump at the honey of his—Dan’s—voice from behind her. He wrings a hand on the back of his neck, tugging at the collar of his robe.

“Yes, well,” she starts, swallows, “just because the medium calls for getting your hands dirty doesn’t mean they need to stay that way.”

“I meant your lines,” he says, vague amusement lifting the corner of his lips. “Everyone else seems to have their own style, but you—you’re classic.”

She turns further towards him, chin jerking. “Is that an insult?”

“It’s an observation,” he says. “That’s not to say it’s not distinct. You’re intense, vivid, but—it’s—it’s too smooth to be—sorry. I’m rambling. You don’t want to hear this.”

“I do,” she says, steeling herself, shoulders tensing. “Tell me.”

He looks at her for a beat with an expression she can’t decipher, then back to the page. “There’s a lightness to it, uh, despite the material. It’s kind of—the naturalism of Gentileschi, um, Artemisia, not—yeah, you know, but gentler? Too gentle to really be Baroque. I don’t—that doesn’t make sense.”

“It does,” she says. “At least to me it does.”

“It’s beautiful,” he says, resigned, almost. 

“Well,” she says again. She’s finding it hard to speak around her heart in her throat. “That’s all you.”

This, he likes, teeth cutting an edge into the flesh of his smile like bone pried out for show, like an anatomy lesson. He takes a half-step closer, and she really wishes he wouldn’t. She likes her men untouchable. Or, they like her at a distance, and she has had to compromise. Too close and she’ll lose all footing. All direction. Now, when he speaks, it’s like fog on a window, all breath. “Is that a compliment?”

“It’s an observation,” she says back tightly. His eyes are the deep brown of the armagnac in her father’s study. Too close. The warmth in them settles low in her stomach all the same. “Are you…” she starts, then loses track for a brief moment when his tongue sweeps over his lip. The same scatter of light brown freckles dots around his face, pinpointing a map of places she’d like to taste. She tips her head to the side, gesturing vaguely to the easel. “I mean, do you—?”

“Oh, god no,” he laughs. There’s a pause, a quiet conviction that expands in her chest, a symphony-swell. “I just like looking.”

The warmth spreads, seeping between her hipbones and crashing up into her cheeks, red and molten. “I don’t normally do this,” she says. His brow quirks, the same shape of amusement as his lips had cast, and she waves again to the easel. He nods in understanding, if not a little skeptical. “I just thought I’d try something different this semester.”

“What do you normally do?”

“Only look,” she says. “I mean, I’m usually in the other buildings. In the library, the archives. I study art history here. But it’s…more than that. It’s not really studying. It’s…conversing with the past. I’m answering a call that was sent out a long time ago and is only reaching us now. It sounds stupid when I say it like that—“

“It doesn’t,” he says. “It sounds—you sound amazing.”

Her hands feel numb—her blood seems to have collected solely between her ears and her thighs, leaving little for everywhere else. “What about you?”

“I write,” he says. “Which is just a pretentious way to say I’m mostly unemployed. This goes towards paying off student loans. Well, this and cater-waitering. When the two cross paths things get very awkward.”

She bites at the inside of her cheek to stop a smile. He’s trying to make her laugh, and she likes that. It’s been a while since anyone has tried to do anything for her—let alone something just plainly nice. She wants to stretch it out a little longer, make him work for it a little more. His gaze seems to soften, zoning out over her shoulder, and she senses he’s looking for a set-up, which she allows: “What are you looking at?”

“Picasso over there is really doing me a favour with those proportions.”

Her laugh, then, takes her by surprise, but he smiles like he knew it would. His eyes flicker to the chain around her neck, the diamond catching and cutting through the light. Her hand raises to it self-consciously. “What’s that?” he says, quietly inquisitive.

She hasn’t known for a while now, really. It’s not a proposal, not while it remains off her finger; so not yet a promise, and not quite penance. It foresees the altar; not an offering but a sacrifice.

What is it? It is an anchor. 

“Something I’ve been meaning to get rid of,” she says finally. “But I haven’t been able to part with.”

He hums, eyes downcast. “Sentimental. Me too.”

“I’m not, really,” she says, and even she hears it ring untrue. She has a ruby ring on her right hand she’s worn since she was fourteen, a tattoo on the left side of her ribs that curls in handwritten cursive, and this—sat heavy against her sternum. Blair is a body begging to be loved. “I just like pretty things.”

He looks up again at that, a small questioning smile that she answers with the touch of her fingertips letting go of the silver band and dragging, lightly, slowly, down the centre of her sternum until they hit the barest bit of cleavage that peers out between the folds of her blouse, before coming off altogether and landing on the stool. His blush reappears, much less faint this time. 

“What was your name again?” she asks, not looking at him.

“Dan,” he says softly. 

“I’m Blair,” she says, a stilted half-beat before she sticks out her hand. He takes it. It’s just as warm as she thought it would be, his handshake is languid and lingering, and she feels a rush of something she’s never felt before—can only describe as the kind of thing that gets Serena in trouble. 

“I know,” he says, still holding her hand, the other coming up to tap on her monogrammed supplies case. “Says so right there.”

From the back of the studio, the door opens and crashes shut, once, twice, again and again as the rest of the students file back in, dull smell of smoke clinging to their coats, caffeine rimming red around their eyes. 

“Better get going,” he says, slipping his hand out from hers, reluctantly, she thinks. He moves to turn on his heel, then pauses. “Would you—uh, sorry if this is weird, but would you stick around after the class is over so I can see your finished work? Only—only if you want to.”

“I have somewhere to be,” she lies, just to see the way his face falters—but before it can fall, amends: “But I can make some time.”

Upon re-arrival, Katia gives her a look she ignores. She dons the smock once again as Dan rids himself of the robe. This, now, is the crucial one—to her, at least. Inexperienced, the quick sketching is always leading to this. He sits on the stool, turned towards her, not smiling but looking at her in a way that says if he could he would be. She sets off on working—there’s so much pent up in her: aggression, hopelessness, desire, and she’s known for some time now that it would all erupt eventually, would blow up in her face like it always does, so she channels it into the piece. While she studies him, copies him down, he watches her back with interest sparking in his dark eyes, a firecracker in the night, they are both burning the end of something here. 

If she were to touch herself now she’d be wet, she knows it—can feel herself slicking the satin center of her new La Perla’s. She doesn’t save them anymore, has learned the hard way they won’t get worn if she’s always waiting to make a debut, but she sends him pictures, sometimes, that at least earn her a phone call. A short phone call, but a phone call nonetheless. These, though, have been only for her. Dan blinks, slow, all thick, dark lashes, like the thick, dark hair that curls itself down his chest, down his stomach, a shift of his hips, ever so slight, drawing her attention—down, half-stiff. So he likes being watched. 

Her eyes flit back up to his, already on her, of course. There is no question who it’s for—who it’s because of. She bites down onto her lip hard enough to feel the jagged bottom line of her teeth meet the top through a layer of flesh—then, she releases it, licking her lips deliberately, still holding his gaze. His blush deepens. His cock twitches. Oh, he’s even more gorgeous like this—far removed from plaster of paris, sulfate of lime—reddening like ripened fruit she wants to sink her teeth into.

The drawing. She looks back at it, unfinished, her charcoal crumbling between her fingers like soot. She wipes a shaky hand onto her smock, reaching for a fresh piece and getting back to work, ignoring the throbbing heat in her cheeks, in her core. 

Still—his voice is fresh in her mind, there for the picking, put a little thought into it and she can make out the cadence and candour, the syrup, the deep thrum, curling around the words she so hates to say but loves to hear. She traces the jut of his kneecap, the lean muscle of his calf, it’s been so long since she’s had control over any situation and he’s giving it to her here, somehow—he’s letting her see him, really see him, he wants her to have him, she knows it, and she wants it too, wants to crack him open like marble ruins, wants to see the wired ribbing and feel the blood rise to the surface, she lets him know it with a smile as she draws out the curve of his hard cock. 

There’s a cough next to her, a snicker from somewhere in the back, and it boils a sharp and sudden anger in her—this is a moment for them, only them, no one else should be watching, no one else should be able to see him, only her. He should be hers.

Queller calls time, Blair’s breath leaving her all at once as she leans back and sees him, flat but full of life, looking back at her from the page. She feels lightheaded and starving, her hand and stomach cramping in unison, but mostly she feels—fulfilled. Free. 

There are whispers from around her, but when are there not. She watches the slick red of the back of Dan’s neck as he shrugs on his robe and retreats. 

Blair wants nothing more than to leave, to get home and find release, to call Serena and attempt to put whatever just happened into words. But he wants her to wait. And oh, isn’t Blair so good at that.

Queller throws her a long-suffering look before pointedly turning her attention back to her own work. Fully clothed, he rejoins her. She clasps her trembling hands behind her back. “Blair,” her name in his mouth sounds so different, he stretches it out like caramel between his teeth, soft-spoken and wonderstruck, it sounds— safe there. “Is this…” he laughs, light, all breath, “Is this how you think I look?”

She blinks. “That is how you look.”

“I really look that sad?”

“Yes,” she says simply. 

“It’s just…" he shakes his head, “It’s just so beautiful.”

“Dan,” she says, and she swears she sees his eyes darken—it’s like he’s looking into her, straight at the center of her being—at that thing that had unfurled in her earlier, it’s like—like she’s opened something in him, too. Her thighs clench, her breath catches. “No one likes a narcissist.”

His laugh, this time, is full, crackling like wildfire, spreading to her. She collects her things, smiling to herself.

“Hey,” he says, then pauses. She looks back at him.

“Hey?”

“Uh,” his head shakes again, this time dropping a curl over his forehead like a flowered branch, shading his eyes. “Sorry. I, uh, never do this. Ever. But, could I see you again some time?”

His coat, now that it’s on, smells mossy with old rain and smoke, and Blair has been searching for that metaphorical tunnel light she always hears about, and wonders if he’s standing in front of her.

“You could,” she says. “Since you know where to find me.”

 


 

Tuesday brings a bulk of a man, square shoulders and a strong jaw and an overhanging stomach, and another change in schedule. The forecast had called for a break in the rain, a clear sky, but Blair knows better than to have expectations. She steps out into the grey-fog of mid-afternoon and is met with a toothy grin. The ring is on her nightstand today, out of sight. Tomorrow, who knows.