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It's All In The Eye Of The Beholder

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His stomach hurts, cramping like it's gnawing on itself from the inside out and Martin clutches at his middle protectively, biting his lip even as he feels his eyes water in desperation. He tries to keep the movements small, unnoticed, focusing on his breathing even as light-headedness makes the room spin.

"Are you alright?" Douglas asks. He sounds bored, magazine propped open on the table while he stares contemplatively at pictures of luxury cars.

Martin forces himself to nod, cold sweat prickling up his neck.

"Fine," he manages. "Just a bit- a bit dizzy, that's all."

"You're not going to pass out again, are you?" Douglas mutters. "We're not in Ipswich any more, I'm not carrying you out of any more fuselages even if there is smoke."

Martin doesn't bother responding. He feels sick, the free coffee he's tried to fill up on sitting like acid in his empty stomach. The caffeine has made him shaky, his heart fluttering like a trapped bird behind his ribs and he is so, so hungry he can't seem to think about anything else.

The summer is always hardest, the long stretch between July and October when the students leave for home until the start of the new academic year. The house is empty except for him and while he craves the privacy he actually needs his housemates more than he can bear to admit.

Most of them are decent enough kids, even if agriculture students do tend to leave mud everywhere, but they're all living on student loans they don't really expect to pay back. If they make big house dinners, sometimes they'll let him eat with them even if he hasn't contributed. It's never great culinary fare but he's not exactly picky, and mostly he's just grateful for the chance to grab whatever leftovers he can. It's humiliating to be couching food off kids over a decade younger than himself, but it fills the gaps when his own cupboard has nothing left in it except salt and a congealed bottle of Worcestershire sauce.

But it's September, and the students have been gone for a month and a half. The whole of Fitton is quiet, work in the van has been painfully, miserably slow, and Martin almost wants to cry at the unfairness of it all. His neighbours throw more food in their rubbish every day than he's eaten in a week.

Martin lets his head drop down onto the desk and closes his eyes, waiting for the dizziness to pass. His pulse is still jumping in his veins, too fast for comfort and he just wishes that the phone would finally ring. He doesn't care where they go, he needs something, anything, to distract him from the emptiness clawing at his insides.

They're on stand-by again. They're always on bloody stand-by lately and despite Carolyn's financial love-affair with the idea, Martin hates it. All the while he's waiting around he's neither flying nor earning. He could live with his stupidly parlous state if he was actually doing the one thing he really loves, but right now he's got nothing to show for it but stomach-ache and caffeine-induced palpitations. He's not even sitting in a plane while he has them.

Martin hears the rustle of Douglas turning another page in his magazine and then the flop of it being tossed aside dismissively. Martin winces. There's nothing else to do in the portacabin and any moment now Douglas is probably going to start talking at him. He really doesn't want to deal with it. His stomach feels utterly horrible and the only thing he really wants is to be left alone to wallow in his misery. That or a sandwich. He really wants a sandwich. Or maybe chips. Or a risotto, or- well... anything, actually.

"Are you sure you're alright?" Douglas says eventually. He actually sounds a little bit concerned and Martin almost wants to open his eyes and see what that looks like, but he's genuinely too tired to bother.

"God, Martin, you're white as a sheet..."

Douglas's voice is closer now, a broad dry hand wrapping around Martin's limp forearm, fingertips pressed into the hollow on the underside of his wrist.

"M'fine..." Martin slurs against the desk. "Jus' bit faint, s'all.."

"Hardly," Douglas mutters. "You've got a pulse like a hummingbird, how much coffee have you had?"

Martin wants to shrug, he hasn't really been keeping track, but Douglas doesn't seem to pause for an answer. He pulls Martin up until he's slumped back in the chair, unresisting as Douglas tilts his head up and gently tugs his eyelids open to peer at his pupils.

The hand on Martin's jaw searches out his pulse again, fingers light over the tendons that stick out in sharp relief when Martin's head is lifted.

"Wait there a moment," Douglas says and Martin sighs half-heartedly. As if he was really in any state to go anywhere.

Martin hears a zip pull, followed by the sound of Douglas rummaging around in a bag and Martin cracks open his eyes just enough to see Douglas tug a small plastic case out of the pocket of his travel kit. He snaps the case open and picks a couple of slightly blurry lumpy things out of it.

Martin feels dizziness roll through him again and he shuts his eyes once more, trying to focus on his breathing.

"Give me your finger," Douglas says. "Might sting a bit but if an eight year old girl can man-up, so can you."

Martin's eyebrows crease in confusion. "What?" he manages.

Douglas takes his hand before he can really argue, a sharp prick in the tip of his forefinger making Martin flinch and Douglas squeezes the digit gently, swiping something papery over the wound.

"Suck until it stops bleeding," Douglas orders, popping the fingertip in Martin's mouth. Martin cracks open his eyes again as something electronic beeps quietly and he hears Douglas hum in thought.

"What are you doing?" Martin manages. The words are muffled as he tries to talk around his own forefinger. He can't taste any more blood so he pulls it out from between his lips, squinting at the barely visible pin-prick.

"Blood sugar test," Douglas says. "I'm not diabetic, but my daughter is. Gets it from her mother. I tend to keep it on hand just in case." The machine beeps again and Douglas frowns. "Have you eaten today?" he asks.

Martin feels something in his chest lurch anxiously, hot and humiliated.

"Why?" he mumbles.

Douglas looks at him, one eyebrow raised. "Because you're either very hungry or about to get very ill, Martin, and if you're diabetic and haven't told me I'd quite like to know about it sooner rather than later. When did you last eat?"

Martin looks away, staring shamefacedly at the ugly office carpet. "Wednesday," he admits.

"Wed-" Douglas stumbles over it. "Wednesday? For God's sake, Martin, what do you think you're playing at?"

He quickly ejects the needle and the used testing strip into the kit's sharps pod and snaps the lid closed, heading back over to his bag to root through it again, angrily this time. Martin shies away, self-conscious and miserable, arms tightening around his ribs protectively.

Douglas pulls a couple of sandwiches and a banana out of his lunch pack and thrusts them emphatically in Martin's face, snapping his fingers when Martin doesn't immediately respond.

"For God's sake, Martin, eat something," he orders.

Martin isn't really aware of how badly his hands are shaking until he tries to reach for the food. The tremor worsens as he struggles to rip the cling-film from the sandwich, almost crushing it in his haste until Douglas intervenes and does it for him, pressing the triangles of bread into Martin's hand and hovering until he's sure it isn't going to be dropped.

Once he's started, Martin eats ravenously. He almost inhales the meagre portion in his hurry to consume, still abashed but desperate enough not to complain as Douglas peels the banana and lays it out ready. They sit in silence while Martin sucks down even the lingering stray crumbs, Douglas's chin propped up on his hand as he leans his elbow against the desk.

"Alright," Douglas says. "I'm assuming for now it's not some form of eating disorder. What's going on, Martin?"

Martin swallows the last of the banana and sighs miserably, his nose scrunching up as he picks restlessly at the discarded peel.

"It's stand-by," Martin admits quietly. "I don't get paid just for being here, Douglas, and we don't get catering unless we fly. I can't go out and earn any money when I'm sitting in a shed not-flying-a-plane for Carolyn."

He glances across at Douglas who's watching him thoughtfully and Martin averts his gaze again quickly. "I'm not ill, I just haven't got the money for food right now. Usually the students let me borrow things if I'm really desperate but they're all away until term starts, and what kind of airline captain spends his evenings queuing up at the Sally-Army soup kitchen? I'm not homeless, I'm not even unemployed, I'm just..."

Martin feels his bottom lip start to tremble, eyes burning and prickly as he blinks back sudden tears.

"I won't beg for it, Douglas. There's a time and a place for charity and I don't need-" he hesitates. "I don't want a hand-out. Things will pick up, just as soon as we stop sitting around here and I can actually bloody work."

"I see," says Douglas thoughtfully. "You have your pride, I understand that, misplaced though it may be. But instead of asking me or even Carolyn to lend a hand you were planning to... what? Not eat for the next fortnight?"

Martin twists his fingers together miserably.

"No. Maybe... Oh, I don't know..."

"Well I'm glad to see you thought it through at least," Douglas mutters.

"Please don't," Martin says miserably. He can feel the coffee starting to catch up with him, his head aching like someone's squeezing at his temples.

"Shame there's a dearth of jobs you can cram in before coming here. Or even last thing at night, really," Douglas muses. "Had you considered-" he pauses and frowns. "No, you wouldn't do that. What about a paper round?"

"That would actually require me to be at home to deliver things with any regularity," Martin grumbles. "Believe me, I've thought about it. What else were you going to say?"

Douglas purses his lips. "Well, it's a bit of an odd one," he admits. "But there's this beginners drawing class at the Sixth-Form college. One evening a week, friendly banter, nothing too serious. They're looking for a new life model."

He looks at Martin speculatively. "I was talking to the chap the other day. Just in passing, you know. Apparently it pays quite well, and they want a variety of different body types just to keep things challenging. Twenty-five quid an hour to get your kit off and sit on a box. I'd be tempted myself but apparently they already did a study of one majestic, Adonis-like male this year and I didn't want to show him up too badly."

Martin flushes, his cheeks turning scarlet as he stutters awkwardly.

"Y-you mean naked?" he manages and Douglas nods thoughtfully.

"Nothing salacious, of course. It's all very proper and educational. Nothing wrong with a little nudity, Captain, it's been a stalwart of the artist's muse for generations. You notice the statue of David is not carved with Y-fronts."

"I... well, I suppose..." Martin concedes. "But isn't it a bit- you know-" His voice drops down to a whisper. "Embarrassing?"

Douglas raises one eyebrow at him. "Martin, it's fifty quid cash just to sit still for two hours, I can think of many more embarrassing things which are substantially less profitable."

He fishes a card out of his wallet, a number scrawled on the back in blue biro.

"Just think about it, at least," Douglas says. "That's his number. It's a mixed class, nice people. Next session's on Monday night so if you want to give it a go, call him this evening and he'll probably leap at the chance."

Martin accepts the card gingerly just as the office door slams open.

"Greetings, peons," Carolyn barks. Behind her Arthur struggles uselessly with an enormous cardboard box, a box which Carolyn seems to be studiously ignoring.

"What on earth is that?" Douglas says, watching in bemusement as Arthur misjudges the entrance and slams his knuckles into the doorframe in his effort to actually get inside the office.

Carolyn sighs. "Idiot-features here entered a competition and just won a year's supply of Twiglets. Quite forgetting of course that he doesn't actually like them. For that matter neither do I. They're like twigs, covered in Marmite. Two things I don't consider worth eating."

"Hi chaps!" Arthur pants, straining a little under the weight of the box. He finally manoeuvres himself through the door and dumps his load down with a thump on the desk. "Anybody want a Twiglet? Or two? Or twelve?"

"No thank you," Douglas grimaces. "I'm afraid I'm firmly on the anti-Marmite bandwagon."

"Really?" Martin says, surprised. "I quite like them..."

"That's great, Skip!" Arthur exclaims. "You can have all of them if you want, there's another five boxes in the car! Wait here, I'll go fetch them-"

"Oh," Martin manages, a little alarmed. "Uh... th-thank you?"

"Quite welcome," Arthur says. "Can't eat any of them myself, they make me really sick! Don't know why I entered the competition really, but you could probably fill a whole bath with this many. Have a big Twigletty orgy."

"Mmm, savoury," adds Douglas, prying open the box and tossing a bag of Twiglets at Martin. "Though I would like to remind Sir that man cannot live on twigs alone. Do give the offer proper consideration, won't you?"

"I'll... think about it," Martin concedes, cheeks still hot pink as he opens the bag and stuffs a handful of Twiglets in his mouth.

---

By Sunday morning, Martin is heartily sick of eating Twiglets. He was fairly sick of them by Saturday night if he's completely honest, though that hasn't stopped him consuming an alarming amount of them. On the other hand every time he thinks about his other option, the battered little card with the phone number on, he blushes too hard to even think about taking it out of his wallet let alone trying to call the man.

The spectre of a quick fifty quid is a tempting one however. It might not be so bad, really, he thinks. After all, Douglas was right, nude models had been the subject of artistic studies for hundreds of years, and it was a proper night-school class with a proper teacher and everything. He'd Googled it just to make sure and yes, there it was on the college website, a genuine advertisement for models.

Fifty quid, he thinks. For two hours of work he can slide in after he's finished at the airfield? He could buy actual food with that and maybe, if he asks really nicely, they'll even let him keep his underpants on. He's not entirely comfortable with his body. He's not particularly ashamed of it either, but it's always struck him as clumsy and ungainly. He's certainly never had any real reason to believe he's in any measure attractive, but if he just has to sit still and hold a pose perhaps that won't even matter.

It's with some trepidation that he finally relents and dials the hastily-scribbled phone number, girding himself to at least try and act like he's not too much of a stuttering imbecile.

To Martin's surprise the man on the end of the phone turns out to be a fairly laid-back sounding bloke called Tom. He has a faint Lancashire accent and seems incredibly pleased that Martin would be willing to do at least a couple of sittings for them in the coming weeks. He makes quick arrangements for attending class the following night and that seems to be pretty much all it takes.

Considering how cripplingly nervous he is, Martin has to admit later that it actually goes surprisingly well. Tom turns out to be a generally affable grey-haired chap, casually dressed and un-phased by Martin's obvious anxiety. The class is small and congenial and Tom explains that since some of the students are absent this week Martin can just take his shirt off if that's more comfortable. It's fine enough for doing short studies and general poses and there's no point starting a whole new project with only half the group. It's a compromise Martin agrees to readily.

It is a bit weird, at least to start with, but people don't appear to be staring at him in any particularly critical fashion so there doesn't seem to be a lot of point in being overly self-conscious. The students seem too busy judging their own work to be judging him and it gets easier, as the lesson progresses, to ignore the knowledge that he's only half dressed.

Tom directs him into different poses from time to time and half way through there's a break for cups of tea. One of the older ladies has brought biscuits and the packet gets handed round to everyone, including Martin, so by the time the second hour is up Martin's actually feeling quite good about it all. The idea of getting fully naked next time is still a little daunting, but it's not quite the insurmountable horror it had felt like the day before.

When the students finally begin packing up, Tom hands Martin the promised cash and asks if he's available for the Thursday class as well. Martin agrees readily and Tom smiles, obviously pleased.

"You'll like the Thursday lot," he says. "Mondays are beginners but Thursdays are for the more advanced group. They do some good projects."

He points at one of the sketches on the wall. In contrast to the lumpy, inexpert attempts Martin had caught glimpses of during the break, this is a softly-rendered charcoal and chalk figure study of a rotund man with a bald head and bushy facial hair. The details are delicate and precise, the strokes on the beige paper carefully applied with a level of control Martin wouldn't have expected to see from a hobby group at a sixth-form college.

"That's one of Richie's," Tom adds. "He's quite annoyingly good. When he bothers to turn up, anyway."

Martin admires it politely and excuses himself shortly afterwards, the last of the stragglers bidding him farewell as he heads out to the van. He goes home via the all-night Tesco, tops up the tank with a little squeeze of petrol and buys actual real food for the first time in weeks.

---

"You look happy," Douglas comments the next day. "And is that a packed lunch I see clutched in your hot little paws? You took my suggestion on board then?"

"I did, actually," Martin admits. "And before you make fun of me it was all very professional and I didn't even take my trousers off."

Douglas raises one eyebrow eloquently. "Well, there you go. I was right, wasn't I? Money for nothing more or less. I take it you met Tom?" Douglas watches him contemplatively and Martin can't help but blush under the scrutiny.

"Yes... yes, actually. He seemed very... nice," Martin stammers. "Have you known him long?"

"What, old Tom?" Douglas says. "Oh, years now. My first wife introduced us. She took up trying to paint watercolours at one point and he ended up teaching her. In the settlement she got custody of the dog and I got to keep on friendly terms with the art tutor. Only fair, seeing as I was paying for him in the first place."

"Oh, right..." Martin says. "I had wondered. I didn't think drawing seemed much like your kind of thing."

"Well, I prefer opera, naturally, though it must be said drawing's quieter," Douglas muses. "Successful venture for you though, I assume?"

"I think so," Martin smiles shyly. "Well, he said I could come back Thursday for the advanced group if I wanted."

"Did he now?" Douglas says. "He must have taken quite a shine to you, he's forever complaining about models who can't hold still. Congratulations, I think you may have found yourself a lucrative little sideline. A happy outcome for all concerned."

---

Thursday evening turns out to be cold and rather dismal, rain hammering the roof of his van as Martin pulls up in the college car park. The art room is brightly lit and warm however and Martin brushes his wet hair back from his face distractedly, clothes dripping onto his sodden trainers as Tom lets him in.

"Pissing it down, isn't it?" says Tom cheerfully. "There's probably some paper towels if you want to dry up a bit, but I've had the space heater on so we don't freeze off anything important. Feel free to drape yourself over a radiator for a while."

He shows Martin into the tiny staff office at the back of the classroom and leaves him to get changed in private. Martin's soggy shoes get balanced over the heater as he strips them off, the rest of his rain-spattered clothing laid out flat across the desk. He squeezes the water from his socks silently, hoping that they'll dry out at least a little bit before he has to go home.

As Martin pulls on his threadbare dressing gown he hears the first of the students start to trickle in, the muted clatter of easels being shifted around merging with the low, friendly chatter of people setting up to work. He shivers under his robe, not from cold but from the sudden icy trickle of fear that shoots down his spine and Martin pokes his head round the door nervously, getting his first look at the class.

They look substantially more serious and prepared than the group he sat for on Monday, most of them armed with fat boxes of equipment and enormous sketch-pads of expensive-looking paper.

Naked, Martin thinks to himself stupidly. He's going to be naked in front of these people in a minute. Oh, God...

"Do we know if Richie's coming this evening?"

A portly middle-aged woman on the far side of the room asks the question and Tom shrugs indifferently.

"I have no idea," he says. "You would seem to be labouring under the misapprehension that he actually tells me things. You know he'll either turn up or he won't."

The woman pouts. "Bugger," she says. "He was supposed to be getting me some more of those French pastels. You know the ones with the green box?" She turns to the younger woman next to her "They're a sod to get, even online and I've got no bloody white left..."

The woman's conversation is quickly swallowed up by general noise and Martin bites his lip hard to quell his nerves as he slips out of the office and into the main classroom. He hovers uncertainly near the back, arms wrapped tensely around his chest as he waits for Tom to notice him.

"Ah, there you are," Tom says. He strides over and guides Martin towards the centre of the room, a gentle shove getting his reluctant feet moving. Tom winks conspiratorially. "Don't mind this lot," he whispers. "It's no different to Monday, you'll be fine."

Martin suspects he may be blushing a truly hideous colour but he receives friendly smiles from one or two people seated around the circle. The rest seem too engrossed in setting out their equipment to really pay him much attention.

"Everyone," Tom says, "This is Martin, he's kindly agreed to model for us this evening. Now, you may have already used your astonishing observational skills to realise that this is not Phillip." Tom shepherds Martin over to the set-up in the centre of the room, a dark green cloth draped simply over a cushioned bench, and he urges Martin to sit before continuing.

"Now, I know you've gotten familiar with drawing Phillip over the last few months, but that is precisely why we're drawing Martin instead. I need to keep you on your toes and Martin is, as you can see, very different from what you're used to." He turns and smiles reassuringly. "Martin, if you would-?"

He gestures at the robe and Martin takes a deep, fortifying breath before sliding it off his shoulders. Tom whisks it away, folding it as he goes before draping it neatly over one of the equipment racks. Martin braces himself to take a quick look round, but the lack of judgement in the faces surrounding him is thankfully reassuring. He's just starting to feel maybe OK about all this when the classroom door behind him slams open with a thud.

"Evening all!" says a voice. Martin pales at the sound of it, the blood rushing from his face in sudden, dawning horror.

He knows that voice. He knows it far, far too well.

"Sorry I'm late," says Douglas. "Haven't started yet have we? Oh- hello, Martin."

Martin can't move. He can't even seem to formulate a response, his mind blank with shock as Douglas saunters past and seats himself at one of the easels. He pulls paper and chalks out of his bag, setting up with smooth efficiency and Martin can only gape at him in dismay.

"Douglas?" Martin breathes weakly. "What... what are you doing here?"

"Drawing?" Douglas suggests. "At least I think so, I might do some painting later, haven't quite decided yet. Why, what does it look like?"

Martin makes an alarmed little squeaking noise, flailing slightly as Tom tactfully steps between them. He catches Martin's eye questioningly and Martin forces himself to shake his head. It's a silent insistence that he's fine even though he kind of isn't, and he acquiesces rather numbly when a soft hand on his shoulder guides him into position.

He winds up flat on his back, arranged loosely into a reclined sprawl over the bench seat. In some ways it's a blessing that he doesn't have to look at anybody.

"You two know each other then?" asks the portly woman from earlier.

"Only in passing," Douglas mutters.

"Oh thank God for that," comments the woman. "Breaks the ice at least, doesn't it? Hate that difficult silent bit at the beginning. Tom, can I move? I'm all foreshortened angles and feet over here..."

Martin can only stare blankly at the ceiling, utterly stupefied as people shuffle boards and equipment around him.

"Oh, I got your pastels, by the way," Douglas adds. "Had a jolly little poke around Brittany the other week."

"You're Richie..." Martin murmurs weakly.

"Nothing wrong with a nickname," comes the reply. "We had two Douglases for a while, it was confusing. And we can't all be 'Skip' now, can we?"

"Alright, alright," Tom claps his hands. "That's enough. Time to work. We've only got a couple of hours."

---

The session goes by disconcertingly fast, unbroken by tea-breaks this time, and when it's over Martin slides silently into the robe Tom hands him, ignoring Douglas completely as he dazedly closes himself in the little office. He leans against the back of the door for a moment, eyes squeezed shut in mortification.

He can't help but feel betrayed, and then right afterwards miserably, painfully humiliated. The least Douglas could have done was tell him beforehand. Give him an option to back out, but no... of course not. Douglas would have to have the last laugh on everything. Douglas would have to see Martin bare-ass naked, laid out for scrutiny, ready to pick at every flaw and insecurity like a circling vulture.

Martin doesn't even want to know what Douglas hoped to achieve. A look at his scrawny chest maybe, or the bent toe he'd broken when he was a kid? What about his lumpy knees or flat arse? Or was he just going to go straight to comparing the uninspiringly average size of Martin's cock? Was that the next thing?

It feels ludicrously like one of those nightmares where he winds up naked in school taking an exam he hasn't revised for. He can feel his heart in his throat and Martin swallows hard, battling down the sickening swell of hot, angry shame. He grits his teeth and yanks his clothes on, waiting despondently until he hears the last of the students filter out. He can't face Douglas right now, he really just can't.

When Martin finally emerges the room is empty except for Tom, still pottering about taking down the easels. He looks up in concern when Martin finally appears, a line of worry etched between his greying eyebrows.

"I take it you didn't know Douglas was in this group?" Tom says apologetically.

Martin shakes his head. "No," he says. "No, I really didn't."

Tom puffs out a slow, thoughtful breath. "OK," he says. "That's horrendously awkward." He pulls the envelope with Martin's cash out of his pocket and taps it pensively against his other palm for a second before handing it over. "Look, first off I need to say thank you. For doing this evening regardless. I really appreciate it, as did the rest of the class. We'd have been absolutely stuffed without a model. I'm just so very sorry it wasn't what you were expecting." Tom pauses, shaking his head regretfully. "If I'd known it was going to be upsetting I never would have asked, but when you told me Douglas suggested you volunteer I just rather assumed you knew he was going to be here."

Martin's lips press into a thin frown.

Tom sighs again. "Right. Well," he continues, "For what it's worth, you're one of the better models we've had. If I'm honest I don't want to lose you. I know you're not best pleased right now and I understand if you want to tell the lot of us to sod off, but do you think there's any chance we can still figure something out?"

"I don't know," Martin admits quietly. "For once I think that's rather up to Douglas."

"Ok," Tom says. He stuffs his hands in his pockets thoughtfully. "Would you perhaps still be willing to do Mondays? That's a Douglas-free class, I absolutely promise."

Martin looks down at the envelope in his hands, at the money he knows he so desperately needs, and remembers how easy that had felt. There had been biscuits and people good-naturedly cursing at their own inability, and he'd almost sort of enjoyed himself.

"Yeah," he says. "Monday... Monday should be fine."

---

When he gets home Martin really rather expects to find Douglas waiting for him. It seems too easy to have escaped without having to deal with him yet but the street is deserted, the automatic safety-light by the door flickering quietly to itself. There's an envelope sticking out of the letterbox though and Martin finds he is profoundly unsurprised by that. He doesn't even have to pick it up to know who it's from.

"You know I don't usually apologise but I really am very sorry for this evening," starts the note. Martin has to squint to decipher Douglas's horrendously spidery handwriting. "I honestly didn't think you'd mind. Obviously I was wrong." There's a scratchy doodle of Gertie underneath and a P.S. "Tom's right, by the way. I'd rather draw you than Phillip. He used to fidget and adjust himself. Constantly."

Martin sighs. It's an ass-backwards sort of compliment but he feels his shoulders slump in defeat none the less. He wants to be angry, he still kind of is, but despite the feeling of uncomfortable exposure there's money in his pocket and food in his belly and Douglas has actually apologised. It wasn't quite what he was expecting.

The other thing of course is the picture that Tom had shown him on Monday night. The one drawn by 'Richie' that had seemed so frightfully impressive before he'd known who 'Richie' actually was. Douglas was clearly as brilliant at drawing as he was at everything else and Martin couldn't help but wonder exactly what Douglas's picture this evening had looked like. What had Douglas actually seen?

The memory of every imperfect part of himself looms large in his imagination, a grotesque mockery captured forever in pastel and paint for Douglas's personal amusement and Martin shakes his head as if trying to physically dispel the thought.

Douglas wouldn't, would he?

Martin resists the temptation to think "Of course he would." He doesn't even know what he wants to think any more. Instead he stuffs the note back into its envelope and leaves it in his pigeon-hole with the rest of the post. He'll worry about it later. Right now he just wants a cup of tea and his bed.

---

Friday is grey and drizzly. It rather reflects his mood, Martin thinks sullenly.

He's the first person into the office, as usual, and he watches pensively out the window as Douglas's Lexus pulls up into the little car park behind the portacabin.

"Morning, Martin," Douglas greets as he nudges the door open.

"Douglas." Martin's reply is distinctly frosty and he sees Douglas hesitate for a moment before carefully sliding the office door shut behind himself. Neither Carolyn nor Arthur are around yet, but regardless there's a certain sense of privacy afforded by the gesture.

"Alright," Douglas says. "You're still upset. Any particular reason?"

"Who, me? No," Martin snaps. "I can't think of any reason at all why I should be absolutely furious that you tricked me into getting naked in front of a room full of strangers just so you could laugh about it behind my back."

"What?" Douglas stares at him in bemusement. "I didn't, Martin. I promise. It was a genuine life-drawing class. You made the arrangements with Tom, I had nothing to do with it."

"You were there, Douglas," Martin hisses. "You knew what I'd arranged and you never said a word. You turned up on purpose just so you could get a look at my wobbly bottom or my wonky toes, or whatever it is you wanted, and use them to embarrass me with later."

Douglas just stares at him. "What on earth are you talking about?" he says at last. "So you have a wonky toe, who cares? I've got a sticky-out bellybutton, what does it matter?"

"It matters to me," Martin says emphatically. "I don't even want to know what kind of horrible caricature you were drawing last night."

"I wasn't," Douglas insists. There's an edge of irritation creeping into his tone. "Come on, Martin, I know your opinion of me is pretty low but that really takes the cake."

"So are you going to prove me wrong?" Martin demands. "Are you going to show me what you drew? If it's not something horrible you won't mind sharing it."

"Absolutely not!" Douglas huffs.

"Why not?"

"Because it's not finished yet," he states. "I was rather hoping you'd be willing to come back next week so I could get the rest of it done."

"I'm not going back just to be humiliated by you!" Martin yells.

Douglas looks shocked. "Me? What did I do? Alright, I turned up without telling you first but I apologised for that. I didn't say a single untoward thing to you all night. I didn't even tell anyone that we work together, just that I knew you, what's so terrible about that?"

"It's not them I'm worried about, Douglas," Martin hisses. "It's you. Did you get what you wanted? Did you see whatever it was you wanted to see?" He curls his hands into angry fists, almost quivering with suppressed rage. "Why should I go back when I know that you're just going to use this against me to- ...to humiliate me the next time I annoy you."

"Martin..." Douglas looks momentarily horrified. "I would never-"

"What did you see?" Martin demands. "What was it? What did you want to know so badly that you had to lie to me, and trick me into looking like even more of a fool than usual?"

"Nothing, Martin," Douglas says. He sounds disconcertingly honest and Martin hesitates, just for a second. It's not much but it gives Douglas a moment to pull closer, his hand firm and heavy on Martin's shoulder.

"I absolutely swear," Douglas says seriously, "I only wanted to help you find a job. That's it. I hate seeing you starve yourself to death just because you won't ask for help, and at least if you were modelling for Tom then I knew you'd have a steady income to rely on."

Martin swallows thickly, his throat starting to burn a little as frustrated tears well behind his eyes.

"That's not it," he insists. "Don't lie to me, Douglas."

"I'm not lying," Douglas grinds out. "When I suggested it, I genuinely wasn't expecting to draw you. I thought Tom would keep you to the beginner's group because the advanced class already had a model." He squeezes Martin's shoulder emphatically. "So yes, fine, I would be a rotten liar if I said I didn't like the idea, and when you said you'd be there Thursday instead of the usual guy it was a happy side-effect, but it wasn't something I actually planned. I know I'm good but I'm not telepathic."

"But that still doesn't explain why you had to turn up yesterday," Martin manages.

"You mean 'Why did I want to draw you?'" Douglas asks. "How about, because I like drawing and I'm absolutely sick of looking at Phillip. I can't bloody stand the man."

Martin flinches and jerks his shoulder out of Douglas's grasp, twisting away so he can glare blindly out the window instead. Behind him Douglas rocks back on his heels, his hands curling into helpless fists that he shoves deeply into his pockets, out of sight.

"Alright," Douglas admits. "Not what you wanted to hear. Doesn't mean it's not true though. Not the complete truth, maybe, but still part of it."

"And what's the complete truth?" Martin asks bluntly.

"I have to go and get something from the car," Douglas answers. Martin blinks at that, staring in disbelief at his own reflection.

"What?" he says. The annoyance is clear in his voice and Douglas sighs.

"It's really hard to explain, Martin," Douglas says. "Just... wait here a moment."

Martin's expression tightens into a scowl and he looks away, silently weighing up the chances that Douglas is somehow going make his day even more hideously awful.

When Douglas finally returns he's carrying a large black portfolio and without saying a word he heaves it onto a table and flips it open. Douglas leafs past the accumulated sketches until he reaches the back and he pauses at a sheaf of pale brown textured paper, lifting the first few sheets away to reveal a page of incomplete sketches from the night before.

"Here you are," Douglas says. "You wanted to know so badly? Fine."

Martin steps closer warily, drawn towards the page by the force of his own suspicious curiosity, but when he actually sees what Douglas has drawn Martin can't stop the faint sound of surprise that escapes his lips.

It's him but it's... not him. There is something soft and idealised about the lines that make up his body; graceful arcs of chalk that caress the paper to form the curve of his thighs and the angular jut of his hips. He's made up of nothing but sweeping edges, elegant shapes that curl and dip before tapering out gradually to make the planes of his back. There are whorls of dark shadow and intricately detailed muscles and the hint of bones and taut sinew that form faint patterns beneath the sheen of his skin.

"That's not-" stammers Martin. "That's not what I look like."

Douglas shrugs. "Maybe not to you," he concedes. "But you asked me what I saw. And this is it."

Martin reaches out and lightly brushes trembling fingertips across the edge of the page. It's not what he was expecting. It's the very opposite of everything he's allowed himself to imagine. The pastels look so delicate he's genuinely afraid of smudging them and he feels Douglas shift behind him, leaning forward to turn the sheet.

There are more studies underneath, quick sketches of small details; the curl of his hand and the slope of his shoulders, intricate examinations of the way his toes just brush the floor. And in the centre, slashed through with an angry line, there is a half-worked drawing of his face.

Martin's head is tilted back in the portrait, staring at the ceiling, trapped in the pose of a tortured martyr and he recognises the look captured there. It's one he's seen in the mirror almost every morning for most of his adult life. It's the one thing he can never seem to escape and Douglas has reproduced it so perfectly it's almost terrifying.

He looks miserable, and hurt, his eyes fearful like he's waiting for the inevitable fall and Martin can't help but touch it, caressing the deep black line that scores through the centre. Charcoal dust darkens his fingers, dry and powdery and he has no idea how something so precise can be drawn out of something so malleable and easily damaged.

"You crossed this one out," he says.

"I did," Douglas admits. There's a pause before he continues. "I know that look, Martin," he says softly. "I know what it means and I hated that I was the one who put it there. I really did."

Martin shakes his head, disbelieving as he looks further into the portfolio. There are more pictures beneath, and then more, sheets upon sheets of them and they're all things Martin knows that he hasn't posed for.

He's in his uniform for most of them, and the shirt he tends to wear when he's on layover. They're mostly quick doodles and vague outlines, impressions of his face and mannerisms, things that have been sketched over and over with rough lines as if drawn from imperfect memory. There are dozens of them, a hundred things Douglas has noticed and captured all while Martin simply wasn't looking.

"These are me," he says uncertainly. "Douglas, why are these pictures of me?"

"I was rather hoping you could work that out for yourself," says Douglas uneasily.

Martin's eyebrows draw together, perplexed. There are only so many reasons Douglas would be sketching him quite as much as he has, and the most obvious one also seems like the most incredibly unlikely. "You-" he starts. "Do you- ...I mean, are you saying..." Martin trails off, lost, one hand gesturing vaguely in the space between them.

Douglas looks at him slightly askance and then groans.

"Oh for heaven's sake, Martin, yes. Fine. I'll say it. Would it be really rotten timing if I admitted that I want to kiss you utterly senseless?"

Martin's eyes widen, stunned. "I... uh..." he stumbles. "I've really... never... actually thought about it before..."

It's true, he really hasn't. He's never let himself, not even for a second, because nothing is ever that easy for him. Having it dangled within his grasp all of a sudden is possibly one of the most brilliantly terrifying things that has ever happened.

Douglas blows out a soft, gusting sigh. "Ah," he says. "Right. Of course not." There's a long pause before Douglas tactfully clears his throat. "Although on the plus side if there was a category for Olympic-level awkwardness right now we'd probably have just taken the Gold."

"That's not to say I'm against the idea though," Martin adds hastily. He winces even as the words come out, battling the urge to slap his hand over his traitorous mouth.

"Oh. Are you not?" Douglas says.

"No, I'm... ah-" Martin stammers, "I'm a little stunned that you'd be interested, actually."

"Yes, you're not the only one," admits Douglas. "Came as a bit of a surprise to me too if we're being totally honest."

Martin blinks at him. "Yes. Um... I somehow always thought you were straight."

"Funnily enough, so did I," Douglas agrees. "Can't admit it didn't come as a bit of a shock to find out otherwise. But then again your mouth has been distracting me for the better part of a year and a half. That probably should have been the first clue, really."

"My- wait, my mouth?" Martin asks incredulously.

"Sir's pulchritudinous pout is really quite spectacular," Douglas states.

"Is it?" Martin turns to glance at him suspiciously. Douglas's answering look is warm and a little hungry, focused almost immediately on Martin's slightly parted lips.

"Oh," murmurs Martin breathlessly.

"Yes, very indeed 'oh'," Douglas replies. "Would Sir mind if I perhaps... indulged a minor whim?"

"A minor wh-"

It's as far as Martin gets before Douglas is kissing him, a broad, hot palm cupping his jaw as Douglas's lips press firmly and searchingly, against his own. Martin's mouth falls open on a faintly startled gasp, the kiss deepening as Douglas pushes closer. The tip of his tongue flicks lightly against the parted seam of Martin's lips and it is glorious.

Douglas's hand is strong and warm against Martin's cheek, guiding the kiss as it ebbs and sweetens. He steals thirsty nips from Martin's unresisting mouth, his other arm wrapping around Martin's waist until they are close enough to feel heat even through the layers of uniform. Martin's own fingers end up curled against Douglas's shoulders, clinging to the collar of his blazer as he sighs in pleasure, reaching forward for more even as Douglas grudgingly pulls back.

"Alright?" asks Douglas. His voice is a little hoarse, thickened from desire and Martin clears his throat self-consciously, loosening his grip on Douglas's lapels.

"Yes," he gasps weakly. "Perfectly, ah... perfectly alright."

"Well, good. That's good, isn't it?"

Martin looks up at Douglas a little dazedly. They're still pressed together, Douglas's arm around Martin's waist, warm and connected and maybe a tiny bit awkward but that's ok. It's alright, being this close. It's new and wholly unexpected but kind of nice, and the more Martin thinks about it the more he likes it.

He's still a little annoyed about Thursday, but he suspects he'll get over that. Douglas wrote him a love ode in pastel and chalk, and even though the idea seems ridiculous that's what those drawings are. The tenderness laid out across the page is undeniable and it makes the centre of Martin's chest feel warm, the sensation swelling outwards until he knows that he is smiling.

"So, should I tell Tom I'll be back on Thursday so you can finish your picture?" Martin asks.

Douglas doesn't stop staring at Martin's mouth. He seems captivated by the way the pink darkens when his lips are flushed and slightly open and Douglas swipes a thumb slowly against the soft curve of Martin's lower lip, dragging gently on the warm, kiss-dampened skin.

"If you want to," Douglas says. "I certainly shan't complain. But I think I might need to start again. I don't like yesterday's pictures, Martin. I know artistic suffering is supposed to be good for the soul and all, but if given the option I'd much rather draw you when you're not quite so pointedly miserable."

"I could, maybe, do a private sitting for you?" Martin offers hesitantly. "For educational purposes, of course, I wouldn't want you falling behind in class..."

"Is that so?" Douglas purrs. "It's a generous offer. Will I have to be suitably grateful?"

Martin can't help the snort of laughter that suddenly bursts out of him, cheeks scarlet with embarrassment and Douglas grins, holding him a little bit closer. It feels strangely natural to be standing like this, a physical extension of the friendship they already have and Martin's fingers pick idly at the braid on Douglas's epaulets for a moment.

"You don't mind then, that I still want to model for Tom's classes?" he asks.

Douglas shrugs. "I'm not really the jealous type. If I minded it would have been silly of me to suggest it in the first place." He lets his palm stroke idly against the curve of Martin's back. "I don't think you're in much danger of being seduced away by Sue the French-pastel-obsessive. At least not unless you start offering private sittings to everybody. Then I might get a little sulky."

"Study-group of one," Martin smiles. "Promise."

A nudge against his chin tilts Martin's head up and Douglas can't resist kissing him again, softly, chastely, a lingering press of affectionate warmth.

"Although," Douglas murmurs a moment later, "I might ask you to stop eating those Twiglets. Marmite really does make you taste quite amazingly bad."