“Who then to frail mortality shall trust
but limns on water, or but writes in dust”
( Lawyer and Philosopher. 1561-1626)
The flat golden land stretches out to every horizon, unbroken. The swells and hollows are smoothed out by coarse grasses that ripple and move like water. The sky goes on for ever.
You can see mountains in the distant north-west; bones pushing up out of the grasslands like the spine of something long-dead, dry and hard edged against all the softness of sun-bleached grass. They look like they're shoring up the sky, but when you turn your head to look, there's no matching set to hold the east. It looks unbalanced and your shoulders rise a little, protectively, just in case.
When you turn to look east and, coincidentally, towards your team, the sun is hot on the back of your neck. It's low in the sky, huge and fiery, and red as new gold, stretching out fingers to the mountains to tint them a pale salmon that's shadowed with the rich purple of a ripe plum. The peaks glint and glitter. Ice, most likely.
The eastern sky is still blue; a yallery-blue at the horizon with a softer saxe blue in the middle and darkening sapphire right above your head. There's not a cloud in it. To the west the sky is yellow and gold, streaked with orange and a deep tawny red. You know why. You know that it's because the light's being scattered. You know that because the sun's almost on the horizon, the light's taking the longest possible path to your eyes. All the short-wave light, the blue and violet, is being scattered out of your line of sight, leaving the oranges and reds untouched.
You like knowing how things work. You've always liked knowing how things work, but you don't say anything about it to the others. If you do, Sheppard will roll his eyes and Ronon will snort. But Teyla will give you that considering look, the one that always has you stopping to check, to think back over what you've said; the one that would tell you that beauty doesn't need explanation. She has a way of chastising all of you without words. It's very effective and incredibly powerful. There should be a way to harness it to put a stop to the Wraith. It could probably recharge ZPMs.
So all you do is calculate the angles of reflection and refraction in your head, and you keep your thinking to yourself. Hard though it is.
Although sometimes Telya can read your mind, maybe this evening's the exception. She just smiles at you, and with a nod she heads back to the tent city where the Beznos live. Ronon goes with her. A trade deal with the Beznos is within her grasp and really, she's better left to get on with it without the dubious help you and Sheppard offer. Ronon is more than enough to keep the Beznos honest. He has a way of hulking and smiling, toying with a knife in one hand and caressing the butt of his gun with the other. It's really far more comforting than you would ever admit to.
Sheppard lets them go. He has both his hands around the stock of his P90, and his fingers are stroking it gently. He probably doesn't know he's doing it. He's too busy watching the sunset. The sky looks like a bruise now: burgundy is shading off into a pale green at the edges, scythed through by gold. The light glances off his cheekbones as he turns his head, outlining the sides of his face. Where it touches his hair—that ridiculous, crazy hair—you see that the black is warmed with undertones of dark red and brown.
The light loves John Sheppard.
Behind you the sun drops to the horizon and everything goes a dark grape-purple in a dusk where the world is still and heavy and the air smells of warm hay. There are millions of insects, sounding like metal scraping on stone. The sun's going, going, gone... and taken the light with it.
Nothing lasts. Everything's mortal and comes to its end, and Sheppard's more foolhardy than most when it comes to self-preservation. You trust him more than you have ever trusted anyone else breathing, but one day it will be dusk for you, too and you'll have nothing to remember the sun by.
He pushes his sunglasses up into his hair and turns to ask you why you're staring at him like a demented chicken. "With the same beady little eyes, Rodney."
"I wish I could paint," you say, the words forced out. "I wish I could. I'd paint..." You stop and throw out an hand in a wide arc. "This." Your finger wavers, pointing between you. It says what you don't: paint this, paint us.
Sheppard frowns at you.
"I don't have the eye for it," you say. "No skill, no talent. I can't do it."
You take a step forward and put your hands on his shoulders. He tenses a fraction under them, but he doesn't pull away. Instead he lets his mouth curve into a smile.
"Tell me what you'd paint," he says.
So you do. And this is what you tell him.
Last night, when he tilted back his head so you could kiss his throat, the light slid its way across the side of his neck and shadows pooled in the hollows. There's a spot just under his chin that you like to kiss. It was half-hid in flickering shadow, and you laughed as you found it with your lips, and he was laughing with you. You were holding his face between your hands, a line of kisses following the light down the side of his jaw. Your fingers followed the kisses, pressing and stroking the pale skin, tracing the line of his neck and smoothing into the warm hollow at the base of his throat. The little bones that cradle it were hard under your fingertips, harder still under your tongue. The little hollow tasted of salt.
Last night all you had to see him by was the dim light from the candles beside his bed and the faint flicker of the laptop screen. The gold then wasn't so bright as the sunset, but what it did, how it lit his face and slipped shadows under his cheekbones, how it deepened the line running down from nose to the corner of his mouth, how it edged the line of his jaw... all that was the same.
The light truly loves John Sheppard.
That's what you want to paint. That, right there. That brief flash of brilliance before the dark.
He nods when you finish, maybe as surprised as you are by what you've said. He has his hands on your shoulders now too, your arms and his entwined. "You don't need a brush to paint," he says. He touches your mouth with a finger. "You only need words."
And he's leaning forward. There's the slow, delicious slide of his lips against yours, his mouth stealing your breath; his teeth nipping, gently, at your lower lip until you start to smile under his kiss, and something inside you warms and grows until it feels like you have a sun trapped beneath your ribs, bursting to get out. Because John leans in and kisses you and laughs that braying donkey laugh that comes from deep in his chest, and you can feel every little tremor of it vibrating through your bones.
It's not just the light that loves John Sheppard.