The tiny flick of paint was bright against the sketchbook’s heavy page. Retracting the brush, Mike tilted his head critically, first to one side, then the other. He narrowed his left eye. This new perspective alerted him to a pressing issue; glancing down to the small palette lying on the grass nearby, he dabbed a little more sunshine yellow onto the brush, before carefully re-outlining a petal which was a little scruffy. Finished, he allowed himself a pleased grin. The painting showed a bright green field rolling out beneath a clear blue sky, dotted with vividly bright buttercups.
Mike looked up to see the exact same tableau spread out before him - except this was real, and he could hear the soft drone of bees and the rustling of the trees behind him, and smell summer on the gentle wind, which set the buttercups nodding.
And then there was Stan.
Stan sat hunched beneath the lacy shade of a nearby basswood tree. His knees were drawn up almost to his chest; one arm was curled around them, while the other held his book - which, unsurprisingly, featured a small bird on the cover. Nothing moved around his pale face aside for his dark eyes and his curls, which the breeze twisted with gentle fingers.
‘You better not be painting me,’ Stan said without stirring at all.
‘I said I wouldn’t,’ Mike replied. His voice wasn’t without some fond exasperation - Stan had been pretty damn insistent on that point, to his chagrin. Mike would love to paint him, to try to capture the essence of Stanley Uris, even if he would probably fail. ‘Actually, I’m painting the buttercups.’
This merited a slight, absent nod, Stan’s attention clearly having returned in force to his book. Mike’s mouth curved and he lay the sketchbook aside. For a warm, serene couple of minutes, he merely sat cross-legged and watched the world hum with life, soaking in the sunlight and the peace. High up in the sky, two birds performed a soaring dance. He watched them, entranced.
‘What are they?’ Mike asked, finally. Stan’s curly head came up and he directed him with a point. Stan laid the book aside and rose to his feet, shading his eyes. He’d know what they were; he always knew. The store of knowledge which he possessed on the subject of birds was almost encyclopaedic.
'Red-tailed hawks, I think.’
They watched the birds.
'Hey, Stan, I just realised something,’ Mike said suddenly. He kept his eyes on the pale sky, but from the corner of his eye he saw Stan move to watch him. 'When you laid out the painting rules…you banned me from painting you, but you didn’t ban me from painting on you.’
Here he unleashed a cheeky grin. The likelihood that Stan would actually let him do it was extremely low, and really, Mike was just expecting a denial accompanied by a roll of tired brown eyes. As such, he was taken aback when, after the expected roll of tired brown eyes, Stan moved over and sat before him with a huff.
'What were you thinking of?’
Stan met his eyes, stubbornly determined, but unless Mike was very mistaken there was a small tick at the corner of his mouth which betrayed embarrassment.
'Um,’ Mike replied, still thrown. Collecting himself, he busied himself with picking up his brush and palette, so he wouldn’t have to wonder whether or not that was a tiny blush he saw on Stan’s cheeks. 'Maybe the buttercups?’
Stan gave a slightly jerky shrug. 'Okay.’ He sat there, shoulders stiff, looking on edge. Mike didn’t like that so he smiled at him as he reached out and took his hand.
'No need to look like you’re walking to the gallows,’ he said, gently turning Stan’s hand over and trying to ignore the urge to trace his palm with his fingers. 'It’s just some acrylic paint. It’ll wash off.’
Without waiting for a reply, Mike dipped his brush in the pale green and got to work. Stan was an unsurprisingly good canvas, staying absolutely still and allowing Mike to angle his hand however he needed to. The only thing was, Mike was uncomfortably aware of Stan’s eyes on him. After a few slightly self-conscious minutes he lost himself in the slow, careful strokes and small dots, the round petals and curving leaves. Stan’s hand was warm in his as the sunlight began to take on a syrupy cast and dusky pink seeped up the sky.
Mike brushed on one last circle of brown and straightened his back, suppressing a wince at the complaint of his spine. 'Done. Was that so bad?’
Realised that he should probably let go of Stan’s hand, Mike quickly did so, immediately missed it, and twined his own hands together in his lap to stop himself from taking it back. His eyes critically surveyed his own work for a moment before darting up to survey Stan’s reaction, which was more important than his own anyway.
Unfortunately, Stan’s face was unreadable as he stared down at his brightly painted skin. Slowly, he tilted his hand, bent his fingers a little.
It wasn’t Mike’s best work, he’d admit - but hell, he was proud of it. For him, art was always more about expressing emotion than photo-realism, and looking at the pastel colours, Mike thought that it perfectly expressed the soft quiet of their moment, all alone in a field of buttercups and sunshine.
As he watched, a smile slowly crept across Stan’s face. His right hand moved to cradle the painted one, and Mike didn’t miss the way his thumb stroked carefully down the dry paint on his wrist.
‘It’s nice,’ he said quietly. ‘I like it.’
Mike beamed. ‘Good.’
Stan finally looked up. His small smile didn’t waver. The falling sun’s Midas touch haloed his hair with gold and smoothed out the tired circles beneath his eyes.
Mike looked at him, and saw sunshine.