Desole looks up from her monitor and slides one headphone from her ear. She heard something. She could swear it. But there is nothing there; nothing but her quiet apartment; the slow pan of headlights from the street, the hum of the fridge, and the Tape Five song in her headphones. She looks back to her screen, where a colorful chatroom scrolls at a good clip—another popular livestream, and all her strange internet acquaintances are in attendance. Desole smiles—she has such a good time in these late-night art parties. The drawing in the window is perhaps halfway finished; another sun-dappled Spy, bending to fasten one sock garter. Desole is particularly pleased with the appealing swell of his bare calf; the way the edge of the silk sock seems to show it off, like lingerie.
“Is that supposed to be me?”
Desole jumps, banging her knee on the edge of her desk, desk chair spinning away, crashing into the wall. She may have shrieked, she cannot tell, but the warm muffle of a leather glove is suddenly pressing her mouth, the other hand finding her upraised fists and gripping them both, easily. She smells him before she can focus on him—leather, gun oil, tobacco, and the warm, sweet tones of a shockingly expensive cologne. She hears a hissing sound and can’t make sense of it until she sees his mouth—he shushes her, gently, and the exhalation wafts the smoke from his lit cigarette over her head.
“Mon dieu. I am terribly sorry—”
Desole scowls into his face, the blue eyes burning in the black mask. His grip slackens, and she slides away from him, recovering herself.
“Black?” Her hands shake as she tucks her hair behind her ears, but it is not fear that shakes them.
“Of course. I am off duty. This is an…unofficial visit.”
“So which one are you?”
The spy laughs. “Does it matter?”
Desole smiles at this. “No. I never was able to choose.”
“I know, cheri.” She watches him form these words, watches the detail in his mobile mouth, the way the fabric clings to his jaw. It is fascinating, and she almost forgets to reply.
“Does it bother you?”
“Not in the slightest.”
She raises an eyebrow, and both of them are smirking. She wonders if his pulse would match hers, if she put her fingers to his wrist. If she could feel it through the warm leather. “Tea?” It’s only polite, and she’s just made a fresh pot. “Absolument.”
In five minutes they return with steaming mugs and an extra chair, and he disposes of his cigarette in order to drink. The spy’s eyes keep flicking to the screen, then back to her. She types a perfunctory “brb” into the chatroom, unwilling to elaborate on her absence. A user named “sweatshop” types “hehehehheehehehhehehe” several times, but otherwise there is no commentary. She watches him, watching her, watching her painting on the screen.
“It is…remarkable.” She watches him pick through his first, tentative sentences. He is more unsure of himself than she imagined him, more…human. He goes on, “The painting, I mean. All of the paintings. When I was shown, I had nothing to say. No reparteé, you understand—I simply looked at them. They look incredible, printed on cream matte paper, by the way. You simply must print some for yourself.” He sips his tea to cover his embarrassment. It is dim in the apartment, and his mask covers much of his face, but Desole thinks she can make out the borders of a blush, creeping around the edges of the balaclava.
“You’re just saying that because they’re pictures of you.”
He laughs, and she catches the glint of a gold filling at the corner of his grin. “No. I would say it even if they were paintings the bruiser, or the child.”
“Or the gunman,” Desole prompts. He looks at his cup, the smile suddenly subdued.
“Mais oui. Or the gunman.”
“But you would not be here, if it were a painting of them.” Desole sets her mug on her desk, standing. He looks up at her. “Non. I would not.” She takes one step forward, and has his chin in her hand before he can dodge. She feels him tense—instinct, she assumes—then relax, the tendons in his neck working under the mask, under the skin. She turns his face first to the left, then the right, studying him with all the subtlety of an appraiser with a doubtful diamond.
“It’s all wrong,” she says.
“Your face. I’ve been fucking up the angle of your mandible, and the ocular orbit is much more pronounced than I’ve been painting it. You have an incredibly strange skull.” She frowns, and he goes completely still, submitting to her touch.
“I suppose the docteur has said as much…once or twice.”
“Stay here, I’ll be right back.” Desole drops his chin and leaves the room. He sits still, not daring to bring his cup to his lips. In a moment she is back with a table lamp, which she plugs in under the desk and switches on. He squints in the sudden brightness. “No—relax your face. Good. Now look over there. A hair more. Now back just a touch. Stop. Good. Hold that pose.” Desole waves the lamp back and forth, finding the strange angles on the aquiline face. Bathing his planes in lampglow, painting him with it. She can’t help but smile, and he flicks his eyes to the side, catching her. She doesn’t care. She sets the lamp down, finally, adjusting the shade, stepping away. “Hold…yes. It’s perfect. Now don’t move. Eyes front. Yes, the irises are catching the lamp perfectly. Like you’re a cat in headlights.”
“That is, more or less, how I feel.” He speaks from the corner of his mouth, holding his face as still as possible.
Desole considers him, perched on the chair, his black tie perfectly knotted, snug against his slender neck. The clothes occlude his anatomy, and it irritates her. She reaches towards him again, and his eyes flicker to the side, suspiciously. But he does not flinch, as she loosens his tie. He does not waver, when she slips one button of his collar, then the other. His eyelids flutter as her fingertips brush the tiny, naked gap between the hem of his mask and the top of his white undershirt, stroking the silky hair.
“I am not—”
“Shh.” She cuts him off. “Maybe I should have painted the gunman, after all. At least he knows how to sit still.” She watches as this comment satisfactorily tightens the corners of his mouth, and admires the flex of his facial muscles. No one, she muses, had ever seen him the way she saw him now, she was sure of it. Saw his shapes, his planes, his angles and forms. The volume of him. The mass. The way he inhabited space, here, in the dark, quiet room. Too quiet. She unplugs her headphones, letting the music spill into the room. Better.
She stands back to admire her handiwork. The clothes still conceal him somewhat more than she would like, but there will be time for that. For now, all she wants is his face, his head, the shape of his graceful neck. Still, something’s missing.
“Ah,” she says, and leans towards him again. His eyes find her, but he holds his pose, only his lips parting slightly. She feels him inhale her scent as she bends over him, her hair brushing his face. Her hands slide under his jacket, searching, brushing his chest as she pilfers his breast pockets. A pounding heart, a radiating heat, and once, thrillingly, accidentally, an erect nipple. She withdraws with his cigarette case and lighter, and stands straight as she clicks it open and fingers one out from under the clip. They are brown-papered, neither the white, nor the black paper present to signal the man’s allegiance.
“Clever,” she says. He smiles and clears his throat; she does not have to explain. His eyes follow every gesture as she lights the cigarette herself, letting him linger on her hands, her mouth, the way she shapes the single smoky exhalation. Then, when he looks hungry, when he looks lost, she reaches down, and places it between his lips, letting her thumb brush the soft, blushing skin of his mouth. Perspiration glimmers on his upper lip. He inhales shakily, seeming to draw strength from it.
Desole stands back again, mentally framing her little tableaux. Yes. Now he is ready.
She sits down at her desk and scoots up to the keyboard. “back” she types, opening a new document. “gonna start something new,” she types, “something different.” The chatroom lights up as her audience welcomes her back, and begins to speculate on the fresh painting.
In the slender, leathered hands, the tea steams, forgotten.
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