by Shuua (シューア)
The first time Alex saw one of Julian Keys’ paintings, he felt his heart skip a beat.
It was oil on canvas, 16 x 25 inches. The painting was of a young woman sitting by a window, the sunlight creating a soft halo around her silhouette. She was reclining casually against a pillow, her right leg up on the ledge, the other hanging down, as if she was swinging it to and fro. She was resting her chin on her right hand, her left holding a book in her lap, a finger stuck between the pages to keep her place. Her clothes were baggy and far too large for her – flannel pajama bottoms that reached almost down past her toes and an oversized T-shirt that seemed to swallow her whole. Despite that, she had slender, well-toned arms; a curved, graceful neck; long, delicate fingers; and a face that seemed to have been carved out of marble. Her short auburn hair, cut just above the ears, was slightly curled at the ends. It gleamed like gold in certain places where the sun hit it just right.
She was beautiful. There was no denying that.
Admittedly, it was a common and unremarkable scene – just another pretty girl by a window. But the stark, almost unreal lighting… the smooth, confident brush strokes… the angle… the way the image faded away at the edges… All of it added together to make the painting something you’d stop to take a second look at.
But most of all, it was the eyes.
She was not gazing outside the window, even though her face was turned that way. Instead, her eyes were looking directly at… you. Or, rather, at the painter. There was something so captivating about those large, glassy, sky-blue eyes. Even though it was just paints on canvas, those eyes, that single glance… There was a soulful look in them, a yearning. Her expression at first seemed one of ease – her lips were slightly parted, a soft, gentle smile tugging slightly at the corners of her mouth. Yet in her eyes there was something more, something hidden, something brooding…
The title of the painting was Ashley, and the moment Alex saw it, he knew… He knew that Julian had painted his lover. There was something tender about the way the colors blended, something gentle in the brushstrokes that Alex felt touch his heart the way a soft kiss or warm embrace would. But there was something painful about it, too… It was like a splinter or a papercut – a sharp, unexpected pain that lasted for just a second, but lingered long afterwards like the fragments of a dream.
He didn’t complain, though. Alex wasn’t the type to complain. Few people ever talked to him, and those who did thought him to be rather shy. But he wasn’t really shy, exactly… He just didn’t like to stand out. In his opinion, there was nothing especially great about him. He was a good writer, but then again, so were a lot of other people. He was attractive enough, but certainly not (in his eyes) handsome. He had longish black hair that never stayed the way it was combed and dark brown eyes. He wasn’t sickly pale, but he always looked as though he was in good need of a tan. He wasn’t funny, or witty, or charming, either. In fact, he thought himself rather boring as a person.
(What Alex didn’t know, of course, was that people – mostly women – found his unruly hair sexy, his dark eyes mysterious, and his quiet demeanor captivating. There were also rumors flying around about his private life, including some speculation that he worked at clubs, but Alex never heard them.)
Alex had grown up rather quickly, being the only child of a single mother who really didn’t think much more of him than as a burden. From an early age, he was taught to be as quiet and invisible as possible. His presence was tolerated, but never welcome. He was used to doing things on his own, and for himself. He always worked hard in everything he was assigned to do, but he never expected (or received) praise for his efforts. Even his name – Alex, not Alexander, just Alex; and no middle name – seemed evidence that no one cared enough about him to think of something original. It had become an established fact in his life that he was, quite frankly, insignificant. Most people, when told such a thing, would slip into depression and become hopelessly unbalanced. Alex simply accepted it and moved on with his life, making the best of it.
So yes… Alex was not the type to complain. He also wasn’t the type to get excited over his assignments, and definitely not the type to volunteer for one.
Which was why everyone at Modern Muse – including perhaps Alex himself – received such a shock that Thursday morning.
It was a sticky, sweaty August day during the monthly meeting at Modern Muse, where possible topics for articles were discussed and, eventually, assigned. Alex was, as usual, sitting quietly at the back of the room, waiting to be given the article no one else wanted. Ellis, the chief editor, yelled over the din of the writers, assistant editors, and other staff members while writing frantically on the whiteboard in a language that could have been English (if one squinted hard enough), but might have just as well been Swahili.
“…Okay, so Sharon is going to cover the ceramics article – Chris, could you do a few reviews? There’s a couple new shows in town. You can take Yasmine to the Vagina Monologues, she’s a big fan of that feminist shit – oh, be quiet, ladies! …Quincy’s still over in Berlin, doing her thing… And could someone please get an interview out of Julian Keys! No one’s seen hide or hair of this guy in a year, let’s try and have a talk with him, shall we? Who wants–”
Alex leapt out of his chair a good two feet.
“Me! Me, let me do it!” he all but screamed, waving his arms frantically.
Every person in the room suddenly fell dead silent. Ellis stared at him blankly.
“You?” he finally managed to say, incredulously. “Look, Alex, this is Julian Keys we’re talking about. I’m sure someone more experienced would–”
“If I can’t get him to talk, no one can!” Alex blurted out before he could stop himself. His face burned red, but he didn’t dare quit talking, now, not when he had already said too much and every eye and ear in the room was turned to him. “Please, Ellis. Please… I can do it! I swear, you won’t be disappointed! No one knows his work like I do!”
It was true. It had been six months since Alex had first seen Julian’s paintings, at the opening of his newest gallery. Ever since, he had become engrossed entirely in all of the artist’s work. Any time he had left over from his writing would be devoted to it. He had gone to just about every gallery in the state and memorized every inch of every piece. He had never seen a picture of Julian, or read a biography or interview of him, or for that matter knew anything at all about him. Yet Alex still found himself feeling as though he had come to know him somehow. With each painting, each scene, Julian was revealing a piece of himself. And as time passed, Alex realized it was his paintings that soothed him when he was frightened, that comforted him when he was sad, that calmed him on those rare occasions he was angry. Alex didn’t – couldn’t – voice his own sorrow, fears, or dreams. It just wasn’t in him to do so. But through Julian’s paintings, he could see all of those emotions captured and framed, just for him.
Which was why there was no chance in a thousand hells that anyone was going to take this story away from him.
“Ellis! Let me do it. Please, I’ve never asked you for anything, and I’ll never ask again. Just let me take this story!” Alex begged.
Ellis stared at him with amazement, too shocked to say anything for a while. Finally he nodded slowly.
“All right, kid. If you want it so bad, I’ll let you take a crack at it. You have one mon–”
“Oh, thank you!” Alex gasped, running across the room to take Ellis’ hand and shake it firmly. “Thank you so much! I won’t let you down, I promise!”
Before Ellis could say another word, Alex was gone. After a brief moment of silence, everyone started talking at once.
“What the hell was that?” “Can you believe him?” “Who the hell does he think he is?” “Aww, isn’t he cute?”
Ellis shook his head and laughed quietly to himself. He’d always thought Alex was a little strange, but it was witnessing his reaction after being given the story that surprised him more than his initial outburst. He hadn’t smiled – in fact, Ellis couldn’t remember ever seeing him smile. Instead, he had shook Ellis’ hand formally, his eyes beaming but his face solemn, like a child trying so hard to be grown-up.
It took an entire morning for Alex to calm his nerves enough to dial the number. As the phone began to ring, he looked over the notes he had written for himself. He had rehearsed a dozen times beforehand what he would say – a formal introduction, an eloquent proposal, a charming request…
Suddenly, his smooth, prepared speech flew out the window.
“Hello? This… this is Alex Graham… Modern Muse… I… um… Interview! For November!” Alex stammered, his voice sounding way higher than he remembered it.
Alex took a deep breath. “I’m sorry for bothering you at your private number. This is Alex Graham, and I’m a journalist for Modern Muse. I was hoping I’d be able to meet with you, Mr. Keys, and interview you for our upcoming November issue?”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t do interviews. I never have. Thanks anyways, good–”
“No, wait! Please!” Alex broke in. He wracked his brains for something – anything to say. “I… I love your work…”
Anything but that! Alex smacked himself in the forehead.
“I’m flattered,” Julian said sincerely and without any sarcasm, to Alex’s surprise. “But I really don’t do interviews. If you knew anything about me, you’d know that.”
“It’s true that I don’t know anything about you,” Alex said, his words coming faster now, breathless. “But I know your work. I’ve seen all of it, and I… I know them all! I know your work, sir, we all do – it’s all you’ve ever shown us. But I– Modern Muse would like to know more!”
“And what exactly would you like to know?” Julian asked, his voice surprisingly quiet now.
“When… when I look at your paintings,” Alex started, stumbling over his words, desperate to win Julian over. “I know there is a story there, in each one. I just want you to tell me one of them, that’s all… Like in Ashley–”
“You like that painting?” Julian asked suddenly.
“I… I love it,” Alex stammered. “It’s my favorite. I know it got sort of mixed reviews, since it’s so different from your other work, but that’s why I love it so much.”
Another long pause. Alex felt his heartbeat fluttering against his chest.
“There’s a wonderful café downtown, in Tristan Avenue, called River’s End. I’ll meet you there tomorrow at around 10 AM, ‘kay? How’s that sound?”
“Th… that’s fine! I’ll see you then!” Alex all but yelled into the phone.
Without saying good-bye, Julian hung up. Alex held the phone for a long time afterwards, stunned. He could hardly believe his luck. Not only had he just spoken with Julian Keys – a man who was harder to talk to than most celebrities – but he had been able to convince him to do an interview! Alex felt himself grow light-headed from the excitement.
Tomorrow… I’m going to meet him tomorrow!
He scanned the spacious, brightly-lit room. There were quite a few people in the café, but none of them seemed to be waiting for anyone. Alex realized then that he didn’t have a clue as to what Julian looked like. For some reason, he had imagined that he’d be able to recognize Julian anywhere, as if the man had a huge, neon sign plastered on him declaring “NOTICE: FAMOUS ARTIST.”
In the end, Alex was saved from any huge embarrassment. A waitress approached him and asked if he was a Mr. Graham. When Alex answered in the affirmative, she smiled brightly and led him to a corner table near the back of the café, beside a large window.
“I’ll come by and take your order when you’re ready,” she said, leaving Alex to gaze at Julian for the first time.
It was a little shocking.
Julian didn’t look at all like an artist to Alex – much less a famous artist, and certainly not one hailed as one of the greatest geniuses to put paint on canvas. Weren’t artists supposed to look, well, artistic? Weren’t they the ones to set the new fashion trends, to come up with a perfect coordination of colors? Admittedly, Julian wasn’t out overseeing the grand opening of his newest gallery or anything, but still… You’d expect him to have some sort of fashion sense, even if for just a small appointment.
For starters, the concept of “grooming” seemed completely foreign to Julian. Bits of his wispy, dirty blonde hair hung down in limp tangles from a loose ponytail, framing a face that hadn’t seen a razor in at least five days and held up in random places by pins of various shapes and colors. (Alex wasn’t sure if a bright bubblegum-pink barrette was considered an artistic statement, but he wasn’t quite ready to give Julian the benefit of doubt yet.) His hair seemed dull and lifeless, and Alex had the sneaking suspicion that “shampoo” wasn’t listed among Julian’s vocabulary, either.
Julian’s clothes, too, were far from stylish. He had on khaki pants, baggy and worn almost tissue-thin at the knees. He wore a wrinkled button-down shirt with faded pinstripes, open to reveal an off-white tank top arrayed with a variety of stains. His sleeves were rolled up to the elbows, and the shirt looked as though it, like the rest of him, hadn’t touched soap or water in a long time. He wore loafers that had dried mud caked onto the bottom, falling apart and held together haphazardly with duct tape.
The only hints that Julian was, in fact, a filthy rich painter and not a homeless bum that happened to wander in from the street were the splatters and streaks of technicolor paint on his clothes.
To top it all off, a pair of glasses with bottle-thick lenses and black plastic frames balanced crookedly on his nose. The heavy lenses caused it to slide down the bridge of his nose every minute or two, and he seemed to push it back up unconsciously, like a reflex, with his right forefinger. Alex would eventually have an ongoing bet with himself that Julian would be able to say at least three sentences without pushing his glasses up. He continually lost this bet.
“Well, it certainly is nice to meet you, too,” Julian said, leaning back against his chair and crossing his legs in one smooth movement. His voice – deep and slow, with a totally unexpected soft British accent that Alex hadn’t noticed over the phone – snapped him back to reality. He felt the blood rush to his face with embarrassment, realizing that he had been all but gaping at Julian with (no doubt) a blank, stupid look on his face.
“Oh! I’m sorry! I got lost, and… um… My name is Alex Graham, and I’m a journalist for Modern–”
“Yeah, I know. You told me over the phone. That’s why I’m waiting for you here,” Julian said casually.
“Um… Right…” Alex said, smacking himself in the forehead mentally as he did so. That’s great, Alex. Way to be coherent. He started to take a seat across the table from Julian, reaching into his shoulder bag to pull out a tape recorder.
“Now that you’re here, I guess I should tell you that I won’t be agreeing to an interview,” Julian said simply.
Alex nearly slipped out of his chair.
“Ex… Excuse me?” he sputtered. “But…! But you said…!”
“I said I’d meet you here,” Julian pointed out. “I never said I’d do an interview.”
“But why?” Alex managed to ask.
“They make bloody good tea here,” Julian said in response. “You should try some.” He took a sip out of his mug, then offered some to Alex, who could only stare at him, dumbfounded. He shrugged and put the mug back down on the table, reaching into his shirt pocket and pulling out a pack of cigarettes.
“Why would you agree to meet me if you don’t plan on doing an interview?” Alex asked, finally managing to string together a decent sentence.
Julian took a cigarette and tossed the packet onto the table. “Because I wanted to see you.”
“See me?” Alex echoed, confused. “But… Why? You’ve never met me before.”
“Well, you said a number of things that caught my interest.” He fished out a lighter from his back pocket and lit his cigarette, taking a deep drag. His hands looked surprisingly delicate, holding that slender white stick between his fingers with what could almost be described as grace. After a long moment of silence, in which Alex fidgeted and looked around the café, wondering several times whether he should just leave, Julian finally spoke.
“…You said you loved my painting. Of Ashley.”
Alex’s snapped his head up to look at Julian again, his eyes wide with… Was it shock? Excitement? Fear, even? Julian looked back at Alex with his steady gaze, his eyes hidden behind his glasses and hair.
“I do,” Alex suddenly heard himself whisper. He flushed with embarrassment again. “I… I’m not an artist or anything… I mean, I write for an art magazine and all but I’m not an expert. Half the time I don’t know what I’m talking about…” Genius, Alex. That’s exactly what you want to tell an artist you’re about to interview. Way to impress him. “…But that painting… I really love it. Ah! I love all your paintings, of course! But that one… I don’t know, it just… It really touched me somehow.”
Julian smiled. It was the first time Alex saw him smile – or see anything other than indifference in his face – but somehow it looked like the most natural thing in the world for him to do. He felt his face grow just a shade redder.
“I’m glad,” Julian said simply. “Tell me more, would you? About my painting…” He tapped his cigarette against the ashtray.
“Um… I don’t know what else to say…” Alex mumbled.
“Well, why do you like it so much, for starters?” Julian asked curiously, resting his chin in his free hand.
How did I end up being the one interviewed? Alex wondered fleetingly.
“Because… Of all your paintings, I felt like it was the one that revealed the most about you,” he said quietly.
Julian didn’t say anything.
“…She’s really beautiful,” Alex went on, after an uncomfortable period of silence. “Ashley, I mean…”
“You think so?” Julian said, smiling again.
Alex nodded earnestly. “That’s what I thought first, as soon as I saw the painting.”
“And then? What was your second thought?”
“That… that you… loved her,” Alex said, blushing furiously.
There was a slight pause. “And after that? Your third thought?” Julian asked softly.
“That she was sad… And that you were sad, too,” Alex offered apprehensively.
Julian took a deep breath and let it out slowly, smoke curling from his nostrils like a dragon. After a long moment, he remarked, “For someone who claims not to be an expert, you seem awfully good at interpreting my paintings.”
Alex wasn’t sure what to say to that. ‘Thank you’ seemed inadequate, somehow.
“Please… Won’t you let me interview you?” Alex heard himself asking timidly.
Julian smiled again. “I think we’ve gone over this before.”
“Yes, but… I mean, you wouldn’t have to say anything horribly private… It’s just, no one knows anything about you, and–”
“Funny, that. You’d think I’ve been keeping it that way on purpose or something, wouldn’t you?” Julian said wryly, raising an eyebrow.
Alex suddenly leapt to his feet, his chair scraping back with a loud protest and nearly toppling over. “Why?! Why do you have to be so goddamn secretive?!” Just like at the staff meeting, the words were out of his mouth before he could stop himself.
“It’s not fair!” he went on. Everyone in the café was staring at him now but for some reason he didn’t care – they didn’t matter. “It’s not fair that you can show the world all these pieces of your soul and then refuse to tell us any more!”
“First of all, sit down, you’re making a scene,” Julian said calmly. “And second of all, nothing in this world is fair. If you’re going to use that as an argument, I suggest you quit now, because it’s the last thing that’s going to convince me of anything.”
Alex sat down slowly, his head bowed, unable to look Julian in the eye. He didn’t know what the hell had just happened. This was different from when he had asked to be given the assignment. Back then, he had felt conviction. He had thought: I need to take this story, because no one else can do it better. He knew it and accepted it as a fact, completely and without a doubt. Because he was so sure of himself, he could justify his brashness.
But now, what he felt was different. It was frustration. Helplessness.
He felt angry at Julian. How dare he! How dare he call him out like this, giving him false hopes of an interview! How dare he have the gall to refuse an interview, to hold fast to his ridiculous “mystery man” routine, when he was nothing more than an unhygienic, lazy, arrogant son of a–
“Let me paint you.”
Alex looked up sharply, his eyes wide with shock. “…What?”
“Let me paint you,” Julian repeated, evenly. “And I’ll let you interview me.”
He was seated cautiously on the edge of a sofa in Julian’s living room. Or what Julian called a living room, anyway. It was more of a storage area for random things. An ancient, dust-covered piano took up a large portion of one corner. A mysterious unicycle leaned against a stack of boxes labeled “FOR GOODWILL.” Clothes, books, magazines, and mail were scattered across the room (Alex had to look hard to find a visible piece of the actual floor). The furniture in the room (and, as he would later discover, the rest of the house) was all mismatched and in varying degrees of decay. On the other hand, they were quite comfortable, if you could ignore the vaguely disturbing stains and occasional loose springs.
“Well, I’m not just going to do the one painting… I need to make some sketches, first, to get a feel for you,” Julian replied. He was reclining in a large easy chair right across from the sofa, his long legs stretched out and his feet resting beside where Alex was sitting. “How about I let you ask me one question for every day you model for me?”
“For every day?” Alex echoed, bewildered. “Exactly how many days are we talking, here?”
“At the very least, two or three weeks,” Julian stated simply.
“W… What? That long?”
“Well, I don’t find that a particularly long time. Some painters take up to a year,” Julian pointed out. “In any case, if I’m going to do this right – which I intend to – I need to take my time.”
“Can’t you just work from a photograph?” Alex offered hopefully.
“Why the hell would anyone want a painting of a bloody photograph?” Julian asked, slightly irritated. “If you want a photo, then you can just take one with a damn camera.”
Alex ran out of arguments. He didn’t say anything for a long time. Then:
“Why me?” he asked softly.
“I already told you. You interest me.”
“But why? There’s nothing about me that’s special at all! I go out of my way not to stand out, for crying out loud!” Alex exclaimed.
“Exactly,” Julian said, smiling. “That’s why I want to paint you so much.”
Alex sighed, rubbing his forehead. Finally, he asked, “One question per day? That’s it?”
“That’s twenty-one questions!” Julian argued.
“Twenty-one is nothing! Plus, you said it might take you less than three weeks,” Alex shot back. “Two questions per day. Or I’m not doing this.” He glared hard at Julian, refusing to back down this time.
Julian raised an eyebrow, looking highly amused. “All right, two per day. I suppose I owe it to you.”
Alex gave a little inner cheer. “When do we start?” he asked smoothly.
“How about now?”
“N… now?” Alex stammered, his confidence quickly falling apart.
Julian shrugged. “Why not? Are you doing anything?”
“No, but… It’s just… I’m not prepared or anything…”
“What’s to prepare? You’re just going to be sitting still for a bit.”
“I mean, I’m not wearing anything special…”
Julian laughed. “Wearing? Oh, don’t worry about that – you’re not going to be wearing anything.”
That took a moment to sink in.
“Ex… excuse me?” Alex asked slowly.
“I’d like you to pose without clothes. As in, naked,” Julian answered calmly.
Alex felt his face grow hot. “What? N… no! Absolutely not! I can’t! Th… that’s ridiculous!”
“What’s the problem?” Julian asked, sounding genuinely surprised.
“What’s the problem?” Alex repeated, growing almost hysterical. “The problem is, you never said a word about me having to take my clothes off, and I’ve never done that before for anyone and I won’t do it for you! Besides, didn’t you paint Ashley with clothes?!”
There was a sudden, unexpected silence. After several agonizing seconds, Julian broke it.
“Just because there’s only one painting of Ashley that you’ve seen – despite your impressive knowledge of my work – does not mean that there aren’t others,” he said flatly, a touch of sarcasm in his voice. He sighed, then continued, his voice softer. “In any case, my desire to paint you nude has nothing to do whatsoever with sexual attraction. Believe me, I actually do have my reasons. But I have the feeling that, if I were to explain them, you’d be a little uncomfortable.”
“I think I’m more than a little uncomfortable already, so you might as well explain yourself,” Alex replied.
“Fine, then.” Julian leaned forward, his face suddenly mere inches away from Alex’s. His voice dropped to a whisper. “I want to see you naked because I want to see you stripped away of every pretense, every mask, every barrier that you wrap yourself in.” He leaned even closer, his lips almost brushing against Alex’s ear, his breath warm against the latter’s skin. “I want to paint you. Not what you want others to see in you, but what you are. To begin to see that, I need to see you in your purest form – in other words, naked.”
It took a while for Alex to find his voice.
“That’s funny,” he finally managed to say, shakily. “Isn’t that exactly what I’m trying to find out about you?”
Julian smiled, leaning back into his easy chair. “How convenient, then, that we both want to get to know each other so much.”
“You… you have to promise me you’ll answer all of my questions, no matter what,” Alex found himself saying. Shit, I can’t believe I’m actually…!
“I promise,” Julian said softly. “It’ll be a fair trade.”
Well, what now, genius?
Alex took a deep breath. Then took the plunge.
As they stepped inside, Alex saw that there were paintings everywhere, most of them stacked carefully against the wall, all in varying sizes and stages of completion. For a moment, he forgot everything and rushed over to look at them, whispering a silent “oh” as he saw each one for the first time. His hands hovered over them, but he didn’t dare touch. He walked past many of the paintings, but stopped at one that stood alone. It was of a young man – completely naked – lying sprawled out on a bed, blissfully asleep. Alex stared at it for a long time, his eyes growing wider with realization…
“That’s another one of Ash,” Julian said, confirming Alex’s thoughts.
“Ashley’s… a man?” he sputtered.
“Now, are you really going to waste one of your questions on something that redundant?” Julian asked, seemingly unaffected by Alex’s great shock.
Alex shook his head, too stunned to speak.
“Let’s get started then. You can just toss your clothes over there,” Julian said, gesturing vaguely toward a random corner of the room. “I’m going to go get ready, myself. I’ll be back in a few. Make yourself comfortable.”
Before Alex could say anything (not that he had anything specific in mind to say), Julian was gone.
Alex undressed quickly, for fear that if he had time to think about it, he’d lose his nerve. He folded his clothes neatly and placed it on a chair along with his shoulder bag, then looked for a place to sit himself. In the center of the room was a large, slightly elevated platform. There were assorted things on it – a box, several cushions, a sheet, and a small stool. Alex realized that this was where he would be expected to pose.
On a freaking platform.
Swallowing a lump in his throat, he carefully stepped up onto it, his toes greeted by a thick, soft carpet. Instinctively he grabbed the sheet and wrapped himself in it, even though in the back of his mind he knew he’d have to get rid of it, too. Still, he found comfort in the covering. He felt positively frightened, being exposed like this. He had half a mind to just run away, to give up and tell Ellis he couldn’t do it after all. But the other half – the half that won – refused to back down, not when he had come this far. Alex prayed that his determination wouldn’t fail him now.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” Julian apologized, entering the room.
“It’s oka–” Alex started, but his words died in his throat.
Up until now, Alex had never gotten a clear look at Julian’s face, since most of it had been obscured by his hair and glasses. Now, he felt as though he was looking at Julian for the first time.
For starters, Julian had taken off his glasses, revealing sea-green eyes framed by impossibly long, dark blonde eyelashes. His hair, which had before been a mass of limp tangles, was now tied back neatly in a loose bun. He had also pinned all his hair up and away from his face, so that it stuck out at random here and there. It would have looked downright funny if Julian weren’t so goddamn handsome that Alex had trouble breathing.
“Um… You all right, there?” Julian asked.
“Yes! Of course!” Alex replied, a little too quickly and a little too loudly. He realized he had been gaping like a fish at Julian for the second time since that morning.
“It’s so the hair and glasses don’t get in the way,” Julian explained a little huffily, looking almost embarrassed. “I can’t paint and be pushing up my glasses or brushing back my hair at the same time. I hate wearing contacts, though… They take me forever to put on.”
He pushed a chair up to the platform, grabbed a large sketchbook and seated himself. He leaned forward and looked at Alex curiously, who was clutching the sheet rather desperately, at this point. “You can leave that on for now, if you’d like,” he said gently. “Until you get used to it.”
Alex nodded, incredibly grateful. “Yes, that would be nice,” he said softly.
“Okay. Just… Hmm, let’s see… You can lean against the box, there – put some cushions on there so you don’t hurt yourself – and sort of lie on it. Like this,” Julian demonstrated by putting his head on his arm. “You can lay your head on the box like this. Yes, like that, thank you.”
Alex felt, to be blunt, kind of stupid posing like this. The sheet had slipped off his shoulders and was now draped around his lap. He laid his head on the box as told, wondering what he looked like now. He couldn’t help but feel just a little silly.
“Look at me.”
Obediently, Alex looked up to meet Julian’s eyes.
And suddenly he didn’t feel so silly anymore.
Julian was looking at him with an intensity that Alex had never seen before, on anybody. They didn’t just look at him – they burned into him. For a few seconds that seemed to stretch into eternity, Julian just… looked. There was a thick and heavy silence, and everything was motionless. Suddenly, Julian’s hands came to life and started moving across the sketchbook, quick, fleeting, impatient. He looked down at the paper, then up at Alex, then down at his sketchbook again. Each time their eyes met, Alex felt his breath catch in his throat.
For the next two hours, there was complete silence, broken only by the scraping of Julian’s pencil against paper, and the occasional request for Alex to change poses. Alex started to ache – he would never have dreamed it’d be so hard to stay still! But he dared not say a word.
Alex started to realize what Julian had said, earlier… When Julian had asked him to pose nude – or rather, had simply expected it, as if it was totally obvious that he should do so – he had felt embarrassed. Offended, even. But as he grew used to Julian’s gaze, and started to understand those eyes, he realized that Julian did not see him as a person anymore. Just shapes, lines, shadows and highlights… An object, almost, completely removed and detached from anything else. When Julian looked at him, he saw the intense concentration in those eyes, as if memorizing Alex by heart. As if nothing else in the world existed at that moment.
And Alex wondered, Do my eyes look like that, too, when I’m looking at his paintings?
“I’m sorry, I lost track of time,” Julian apologized. “Are you all right?”
“Oh, yeah… I’m fine, don’t worry. I sort of lost track of time, too,” Alex replied.
Julian started to put away his sketchbook, then paused. “Do you want to see them?”
Alex hesitated, though he knew not why, exactly. “I don’t know,” he answered honestly.
“Well, if you ever want to, tell me and I’ll show you,” Julian said. “You can get dressed now.”
He didn’t leave the room, nor did he make an effort to politely avoid his eyes. Alex blushed slightly, but told himself he would have to get used to this. Resolutely, he stood up and walked over to where he had put his clothes, leaving behind the sheet. He turned his back to Julian while dressing, but he could still feel him watching him, he could still – dear God – feel his eyes on him, touching his skin with their intensity. He suppressed a shudder and dressed hurriedly.
“So. Do I get to ask you my questions now?” he asked, trying to sound as casual as possible.
“Sure,” Julian said, smiling as he leaned back into his chair. “Fire away.”
Alex took out a notepad and pen from his shoulder bag and took a seat on the edge of the platform. It didn’t take long for him to think of his first question – he had wondered about it long before he had ever met Julian. Wondered about it for over six months, in fact.
“Is Ashley… your lover?”
“Was,” Julian corrected. “He was my lover, yes.”
“I guess you could say we broke up. We went our separate ways.”
“Who knows? Some people just aren’t meant to be together, I suppose,” Julian shrugged.
“Do you… still love him?” Alex asked quietly.
Julian’s smile was painful. “I don’t think it’s possible for me not to,” he said softly.
“You just asked me about, what, five questions?” Julian interrupted, pretending to be cross.
“Oh, come on. You can’t count all of those as separate questions – they were all on the same topic! They should all be counted as one general question!” Alex insisted.
“All right, all right…” Julian sighed. “You can ask me just one more, and then we’re done for today.”
Alex hesitated. “Are… are you…” His voice dropped to a whisper. “…gay?”
Julian was silent for a moment, then burst out laughing. “Uh, no, I just fancy fucking boys, I suppose.” He glanced sideways at Alex, who was burning bright red and avoiding his eyes. “I’m kidding, Alex. Yes, I’m gay. And no, I won’t try to rape you, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“I wasn’t worried about that,” Alex said, sounding rather irritated. “I wouldn’t let you do something like that anyway.”
“‘Let me?’ Oh, please… Like you could intimidate anybody…”
“Hey, I can take care of myself!” Alex yelled suddenly. “Nobody’s ever looked out for me before, so I know how to look after myself, okay?” he snapped.
“I was just fooling around, Alex…” Julian said gently, taken aback by the sudden outburst. “I’m sorry… Didn’t mean to offend.”
Alex looked just as shocked as Julian. “N… no, it’s okay, I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over me…” There was an uncomfortable silence, which Julian made no effort to break. Alex realized the duty had been entrusted to him. “I guess I’m just a little over-defensive today,” he said lamely.
“Sure,” Julian said simply. He didn’t sound sarcastic at all, but reassuring. He stood up and offered a hand to Alex, which he took, and helped him to his feet. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then?”
“Tomorrow?” Alex echoed.
“Do you have other plans?”
“Brilliant. Do you think you can find your way to my house by noon?”
“I guess so…”
“Great, I’ll see you then.”
Alex posed completely nude for the first time a few days later. It was, in short, a disaster. Julian asked Alex to “get comfortable,” and he had unwisely decided to lie down amongst the pillows. It wouldn’t have been so bad if it had ended at just that – Alex was flustered enough as it was – but Julian always insisted that he look at him while he was being drawn. And so he watched Julian watch him, looked into those sea-green eyes that were so intense they sometimes scared him, feeling so utterly exposed and vulnerable that he was having trouble breathing.
But it didn’t end there.
With a sinking horror, Alex realized that he was getting aroused. The seconds ticked by, each one more agonizing than the one before, and Alex knew this was not something that would go away by itself. He was turned on, more than he had ever been in his life, and he could do nothing but lie there and let it happen. God knows he wasn’t going to say anything… To say something would be to admit that it was happening, and Alex couldn’t do that. He bit his lip and felt his body grow hot, felt Julian’s eyes on him, felt Julian glance over his erection, felt his heart slam against his chest.
Obviously, his… excitement did not escape Julian’s notice. For a moment there was absolute silence in the air as Julian pondered on the best course of action. In the end, his only response was to point down the hall and comment, “Bathroom’s second door on the right.”
Alex fled the room, near tears, and locked himself in the bathroom. Julian waited a respectable amount of time, but after about thirty minutes he decided to check up on him. It took quite a bit of convincing and reassurance on Julian’s part and a lot of emotional outbursts on Alex’s part before he was able to come back out.
This incident occurred almost on a daily basis.
The first few times were, understandably, excruciatingly embarrassing for Alex, and each time it ended with him locking himself up in the bathroom again. Yet as the days passed, somehow, he was able to get over it. After the second week, he was able to smile and brush it off, even joke about it.
This is crazy, he kept telling himself. And maybe it was. But regardless, it was happening. Alex was getting used to it – being naked, being watched, being completely and totally exposed. And to his astonishment, he found it… refreshing. Liberating, even.
So that was how it was, for three weeks. Every morning he would show up at Julian’s door, and until evening he would let Julian strip away all of his masks, one by one. And then, over dinner and sometimes well into the night, he’d do the same to Julian.
Their “two questions per day” rule had become pretty much obsolete. Julian, true to his word, answered all of Alex’s questions honestly. By the end of the second week, he had told Alex almost all of his life story – where he was born (Boston), raised (London), where he went to college (he didn’t), when he started drawing (from birth), etc.
Alex never asked about Ashley after that first day.
A part of him was dying to know more about this mystery lover, but for some reason, Alex couldn’t bring himself to ask about him again. He told himself that it was because it was still a touchy subject for Julian, but deep down, he was afraid.
Afraid of what?
He wasn’t sure if he wanted to find out.
Alex looked up, surprised. “Oh?”
Julian nodded. “Tomorrow will be our last day, I think.”
“…Oh?” Alex said again, amazed at his sudden burst of eloquence.
The two were having dinner together in Julian’s “dining room” (see note on Julian’s living room). The small table was crowded with cartons of take-out Chinese food – something Alex had started eating a lot more since working with Julian. The kitchen, as far as Alex could tell, was used only to store beer and ice cream.
“You sound a little disappointed,” Julian remarked, a touch of amusement in his voice. “Are you going to miss me?”
“It’s not that,” Alex said quickly, pretending to be fascinated with his low mein. “I was just a little surprised… That it’s been three weeks already.”
A heavy silence hung over the room, broken only by the sounds of chewing and chopsticks.
“Did you know,” Julian said suddenly, “that this will be my first painting in over a year?”
“Really?” Alex asked. “I noticed you hadn’t released any new paintings since Ashley, but I thought you were working on newer art at home…”
Julian shook his head. “Nope. In fact, I didn’t even touch my sketchbook until you showed up.”
“But… why? Why didn’t you draw for so long?”
“After Ashley left, I told myself I wouldn’t paint again,” Julian said simply.
Alex couldn’t think of anything to say.
“Anyways, I hope you’ll like this one. It’s always a little awkward for me to show my finished paintings to their models,” Julian laughed.
“…Why me?” Alex whispered.
“You’ve asked me this before,” Julian said, smiling wryly.
“I still don’t get it. What’s so special about me that I could make you paint again?” Alex blurted out. He blushed furiously. “I’m not fishing for compliments, here, I just want to know…” he mumbled.
“Hmm… I guess you could call it love at first sight, or something like that,” Julian mused.
It took a moment for that to register.
“Your noodles are getting cold,” Julian pointed out.
“Who cares about the damned noodles! What did you just say?”
“Nothing, it doesn’t matter,” Julian said, waving his hand dismissively.
“It matters to me!” Alex yelled, standing up suddenly and knocking over his carton. The noodles were strewn across the table. “…It matters…”
Julian stood up slowly and, without a word, wrapped Alex in his arms.
It was the first time Julian had ever reached out for Alex. Despite seeing him completely naked every day for three weeks, Julian hadn’t once intentionally touched him.
Alex didn’t even realize he had been aching for his touch until now.
“I said it was love at first sight,” Julian whispered. “I just didn’t want to repeat myself because it sounds so bloody cliché I can’t bear it.”
“I don’t believe you,” Alex said softly, clutching at Julian with desperate hands.
“I haven’t lied once since you met me, and I’m not about to start now,” Julian replied, caressing Alex’s back with soothing hands.
“How could you possibly…! I was a stuttering, nervous wreck when you first met me!” Alex cried.
“That wasn’t the first time I saw you,” Julian answered.
Alex pulled back and stared at Julian with wide eyes. “…What?”
Julian smiled and touched Alex’s cheek affectionately. “Care for some tea? It’s a long story.”
Alex cupped his mug. “For someone who hates clichés, you’re awfully fond of tea,” he said out of the blue.
“I’m not British, remember? I was only raised there,” Julian shot back. “And I hate coffee. I don’t know how anyone could drink that sludge.”
“I’m sure,” Alex snorted, taking a sip of his chamomile. After a suitably long moment of awkward silence, Alex asked, “When did you first meet me, then?”
“Well actually, I didn’t exactly meet you. I did see you, though. Over seven months ago, now. It was at the opening of my newest gallery.”
“You were there?” Alex gasped.
“Obviously. It is my gallery, after all…” Julian replied.
“How could I have missed you?”
“Most people do. There’s a reason why I’ve never been photographed or interviewed. I don’t like being recognized,” Julian explained rather smugly. “It relieves me of a lot of unnecessary pressure.”
“Did you talk to me?” Alex asked, wracking his brains to try and remember if he talked to anyone that day.
“No. You were a little preoccupied,” Julian said, smiling softly. “You were looking at my painting of Ashley. For about twenty minutes.”
“I was just mingling with the crowd, bashing my own work as I am prone to do, when someone pointed you out. Said you had been standing there for the last ten minutes. So I excused myself and walked over beside you, but you didn’t notice me. Or anybody else, for that matter.” Julian paused. “I wanted to talk to you, but you were in another world. It touched me… That something I painted could capture anybody for so long.”
“And then I left. I never expected to see you again, but I never forgot about you, either. And then, somehow or another, you tracked me down,” Julian said. “It was fate.”
Alex had never believed in fate. He grouped it with all the other things he felt were phony (religion, love, etc.). But when Julian said it was fate, for some reason, Alex almost believed him. Just like how he almost believed that Julian really…
“How could you love me just from that?” Alex whispered. “You didn’t even talk to me…”
“I didn’t need to,” Julian said firmly. “Some things you don’t need words to confirm. When I saw you that day, I knew that there was something inside you that I had inadvertently touched. I saw your eyes come to life, I saw your fingers tremble. And I wanted so badly to hold you, right at that moment.”
“Why didn’t you?” Alex breathed. He looked up at Julian, his eyes brimming with tears. Julian felt his heart break and all but threw his arms around Alex, embracing him tightly. There was a clattering sound as their mugs fell to the floor, rolling out of sight. They held each other for a long time, not saying anything.
“Maybe he sent you to me,” Julian finally whispered. “Maybe he saw the emptiness in you and me and brought us together.”
Alex froze. What…?
“He died, Alex. He died a month after I painted that,” Julian said, so quietly Alex could barely hear him.
Alex didn’t know what to say. There was nothing to say. He lay still in Julian’s arms, silent, hardly daring to breathe.
“He died of cancer, which is ironic because I’m the one who smokes and drinks. Ash never did. He made me quit, actually. I started smoking again after he left.” Julian spoke in a low voice, as if he was talking to himself. Maybe he was. “I had half a mind to burn his painting, you know, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It hung in my studio for almost six months before I finally decided to exhibit it, for the opening of my new gallery. But I told myself I’d never paint again. I had no reason to.”
He pulled back and tilted Alex’s face towards him. “Until I saw you,” he said simply. “As soon as I saw you, I wanted to paint you. I wanted to see what it was that made you stand there and look at Ashley for so long.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Alex asked, his voice pained.
“What difference would it have made?” Julian asked back.
Alex couldn’t think of anything.
“Tomorrow…” Alex started. “After tomorrow, will we ever…”
Without warning, Julian pressed his lips to Alex’s forehead. “I’ve just confessed my love for you. Do you really think I’ll let you walk away twice?” he asked.
Alex started to cry.
He couldn’t remember the last time he cried. He had learned as a child that crying got you nothing more than a slap on the face. But he couldn’t stop himself. Julian had told him he loved him. Julian was holding him… kissing him, now… And his touch was so warm and so gentle it hurt.
“Shh… It’s all right,” Julian crooned, kissing Alex all over his face, kissing away his tears. He didn’t tell him to stop crying – somehow he knew better.
“I… Since the moment I saw your painting… I’ve loved you all along,” Alex managed to say between sobs. Julian smiled and squeezed Alex gently.
“You were the only one who could see me in that gallery,” Julian said quietly. “You’re the only one who can see me now…” He was still kissing Alex’s face – his forehead, his cheeks, his nose, his eyelids… Gently he kissed the corner of Alex’s mouth then paused, waiting. Alex didn’t protest, however, and Julian finally let himself do what he had wanted to since the moment they met at the café. He kissed those perfect lips, that perfect mouth that was always a little tense and turned down at the corners. Kissed away the hurt, the anxiety, the fear. He kissed them over and over, chaste, tender kisses, each one leaving Alex more breathless than the last.
“Julian…” Alex whispered.
“You’ve never called me that before,” Julian mused, pausing his attack on Alex’s lips.
“I… I haven’t?”
“No… Say it again,” he commanded, leaning down to kiss the curve of Alex’s jaw.
“Julian,” Alex said. “Julian… Julian…”
“My name is a spell,” Julian whispered into Alex’s ear, his warm breath spreading shivers throughout his body. “Each time you say it, you’ll fall in love with me more and more.” He smiled a smile full of mischief and secrecy.
Three weeks ago, Alex would have scoffed at the idea of magic or spells. They joined the ranks with fate and all the others. Now, though, he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that they existed. What else could make his heart beat so wildly? What else could bring tears back to his eyes? And if it wasn’t magic that gave Julian the power to hold him captive with his eyes, what was it?
Alex pulled Julian’s face towards him – his lips felt numb when they weren’t being kissed. Julian complied willingly, slowly parting Alex’s lips with his tongue. A soft sigh escaped from Alex when he felt Julian’s tongue inside his mouth. He wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do, but it didn’t take long for him to figure it out.
For long, delicious minutes, the two simply lay there, kissing. Alex would never have dreamed it could feel so good. Every sense in his body was aware only of Julian. He smelled of paints and paper. He tasted like cigarettes and sugar. And he felt so, so warm…
Julian’s kisses grew deeper, heavier. Alex responded eagerly and did something with his tongue that made a low groan escape from deep within Julian’s throat.
“Alex… I think maybe… we should stop,” Julian said, slightly out of breath and in a voice that didn’t sound at all convincing.
“Why?” Alex asked innocently.
“Because…” Julian growled, capturing Alex’s bottom lip between his teeth.
“Because…?” Alex echoed, with a little difficulty.
Julian released his hold and looked at Alex beseechingly. “Do you have any idea how hard it was for me to paint you? To see you naked every day and hold myself back from just taking you, right there?” he breathed. He buried his face in Alex’s neck. “If we don’t stop now, we’re not going to stop. Period,” he murmured.
Alex measured the weight of Julian’s words. He felt a sliver of fear, hesitating for just a second, but he pushed it away. He wrapped his arms around Julian tightly.
“Stupid… We should have done this sooner, then,” Alex mumbled.
Julian looked up and grinned. “I’d never get any painting done,” he said deviously.
Alex blushed, but before he could think of a witty retort, Julian was kissing him again, and suddenly it really didn’t matter anymore.
True to his word, Julian didn’t have any intentions of stopping the second time around. To his credit, he did his best to keep himself in check, but he was only human, after all. Having to endure three weeks of looking at Alex naked (“artistic purposes” be damned) had tested his self-control to its limit. He reminded himself over and over that he had to take it slow, that he couldn’t risk scaring Alex away.
But then Alex slipped a hand under Julian’s shirt ever so timidly, and such thoughts were promptly forgotten.
“Christ…” Julian cursed.
He quickly slid off Alex’s shirt and tossed it aside, his own following shortly thereafter. He pushed Alex onto his back and knelt between his legs, hovering over him. Alex looked up at Julian’s eyes, and saw the familiar burning look in them. He shivered, his body aching for Julian’s touch.
Julian slowly lay over him, supporting himself partly on one elbow. The weight of his body felt warm and reassuring to Alex. Julian started to kiss him again, his free hand brushing up Alex’s side. The hand began its exploration, skimming across the surface of his skin, his fingers caressing his shoulders, tracing his collarbone, counting each rib. Julian’s lips left Alex’s and joined his hand in its quest. He planted a row of kisses down the curve of his neck, licked a trail from his throat to his chest, then moved up again to nibble on an earlobe.
Alex could do nothing but shiver beneath him, biting back his cries. His heart was beating so hard now, it was almost painful. He felt a terrible ache in the pit of his stomach, the tips of his fingers, his chest… An emptiness so deep, he felt as though he were dying. But it was a sweet pain. He ran his hands down Julian’s back, tracing his spine from his neck down to the rim of his jeans. His touch, tentative and delicate, nearly pushed Julian over the edge.
“You really have no idea what you do to me,” Julian whispered against his ear, his voice strained. As if in revenge, he smoothly reached up to caress Alex’s nipple with the pad of his thumb, his palm spreading over his chest.
“Ah…!” Alex gasped, his back arching involuntarily as he felt a jolt spread through his body, like fire in his veins. Julian teased him expertly, pinching and rubbing his nipple without mercy. It felt so strange… But before Alex could gather his thoughts enough to form a protest, Julian bent down and took his other nipple into his mouth, and Alex’s thoughts were scattered to the winds once again. Julian’s tongue, so hot now against his skin, nearly drove Alex mad.
Impossible… It’s impossible to feel this good… Alex thought fleetingly.
Then Julian suddenly shifted his weight, their crotches grinding against each other, and yet again proved Alex wrong. The sounds that escaped Alex’s lips could testify to that.
Slowly, slowly… Julian started rotating his hips against Alex’s, the friction feeling almost as painful as it was amazingly good. Neither of them could take it for very long, though.
“Julian… Julian, wait…” Alex panted.
“Can’t…” Julian groaned, his hips moving faster.
“Dammit, wait!” Alex whined. “I’m… I’m going to…! Not like this…”
“Then how?” Julian whispered, slowing down but not exactly stopping, either. “Tell me…”
Alex tried to talk, but the only word he could manage to say was, “Please.” He said it several times, his voice desperate, so desperate…
With difficulty, Julian pulled away from Alex and took a few deep breaths, trying to calm himself. His fingers shook with need as he helped Alex out of his pants, slipping out of his own in a heartbeat. They were completely naked now – both of them. And it was Alex’s turn to look.
Oh, my God…
Julian’s hands came to life again, pulling Alex out of his reverie. This time, they moved up from his ankle, brushing up against his knee, his inner thigh…
Alex held his breath.
Julian paused, his hand hovering over Alex’s straining erection. Then, with one finger, he traced its outline, from base to tip. Alex’s breath exploded into a strangled cry. Julian bent over him again, kissing his lips and swallowing his screams as he wrapped his hand around Alex’s cock.
“Look at me.”
Alex obeyed those familiar words, his breathing fast and shallow as his eyes locked onto Julian’s.
“Julian…” he whimpered.
In reply Julian’s hand began to move, up and down, stroking Alex’s length relentlessly. He paused to rub the tip with his forefinger, feeling the slick wetness that had already formed. He teased the opening, stopping quickly when Alex nearly hyperventilated.
“Don’t… do that…” Alex managed to spit out between gasps.
“Are you sure?” Julian asked, smiling despite himself.
“Jerk,” Alex muttered. Two can play this game.
With trembling hands, Alex reached up between them to search out Julian’s erection, hot and hard against his thigh. Julian, much to Alex’s satisfaction, shuddered and moaned softly. Gaining confidence, he started to stroke Julian the way he had done to him. It felt strange and shameful, but so incredibly good that it didn’t matter.
Alex had momentarily forgotten that Julian was still gripping him, but Julian had not. His hand started moving again, faster now. Both were making soft, indecent noises, whispering each other’s names over and over. Their heat grew, the sweat on their skin glistening in the moonlight. They stroked each other, their movements desperate and awkward in their impatience, moving faster as they felt their climax building. It happened all too soon, but they had waited so long, so long, and as they came together – jerking and twitching in each other’s hands, shudders wracking their bodies – they screamed each other’s names and fell deeper and deeper in love.
“Love what?” Alex murmured. The two were lying in each other’s arms in Julian’s bed, Alex’s head lying on the other’s chest.
“That painting,” Julian said. He ran his fingers through Alex’s hair, playing with it idly. “It’s not because you could feel my love for Ashley. It’s because you’ve never felt it yourself, have you?”
Alex lay still and perfectly silent.
“You’ve never been loved… And that’s what you want most,” Julian went on, his voice low and quiet. “You want to be held close, just like this. You want someone to lay your head on, just like this. You want to be loved…”
Julian pulled Alex up towards him and kissed him gently, brushing away his tears.
“…Just like this.”
But the blood that spilled from it flowed down his sides and turned into petals, then flowers in full bloom, all scattered around him. And deep within the hole where his heart used to be, a tiny blossom was starting to grow.
The title of the painting was The Spell.
Ellis stared at it for a long time. He brushed away any attempts at conversation, completely engrossed. He looked at it for almost half an hour, deep in thought.
Finally, he looked away and laughed to himself, shaking his head.
You’re really something else, kid.
In the painting, the young man’s lips were curved into a gentle smile.