The sun was snagged in the trees like a lost balloon. Bare branches clutched at it, stark and spindly against the orange. Rodney stood just inside the forest's shadows, sliced diagonally by bands of ruddy light and dark, his own shadow sprawling monstrously beside him on the grass, an abandoned marionette. When he raised a hand to shield his eyes, the shadow hand moved, too, rippling, giant, unlikely.
As he bowed his head to look at the scanner, the sun slid lower through the gaps in the branches.
"Ker-plunk," Sheppard murmured to himself as it disappeared completely, leaving only a faint orange stain fading upward into the too-delicate blue of the sky, thin cloud cover like cold skin tight over bone.
His head coming up again, Rodney took a step closer to the trees.
"I don't think so," Sheppard called softly.
"It's just the other side of the ridge," Rodney protested, pointing without looking back at him.
"It's dark, is what it is."
"No it's not. It's... gloaming."
He was right, it wasn't dark yet, but this kind of light was worse in some ways. In the gloaming everything seemed to float between inference and existence, flattened into monochrome without definite edges, clear contrasts. The woods were scrawled against a vague sky, charcoal smudges on smooth paper, depthless. Sheppard's eyes slid over the landscape, seeking purchase, settled on the slope of Rodney's shoulders, the angle of his head.
"Gloaming's worse," Sheppard said. "C'mon back. Teyla and Ford will be at the camp by now."
Rodney raised his arms and let them fall with a slap against his thighs, tilted his head up like there was a god up there to commiserate with him or to take the blame. Finding none, he muttered, "Fine," and his voice was flattened and colourless, too, by the time it came to Sheppard's ear, the edge of bitterness and complaint worn away by the indistinct light and the humid, heavy air.
Sheppard waited for Rodney to pass him before following, walking backward a few steps with his eyes on the shadowless woods. At the back of his mind, a memory stirred: a story where monsters unfolded from where they lurked in a magic book, impossibly three-dimensional and frightening in the flatness of the pages, real creatures in make-believe forests. The charcoal woods were darkening now as he backpedaled away from them.
With a last look, he turned around and picked up the pace a little to catch up to Rodney. He was a ghost above the long grass of the field, only the glow of his uniform visible, and the white, blurring motion of his hands. With his dark hair, he seemed strangely headless until he paused at the fork in the path and turned to look both ways--one branch leading straight down the hillside to the lake, the other wending up into the trees toward the jumper--so that his face was a featureless curve of white against the black of the water below them. Sheppard reached out and laid a hand in the middle of Rodney's back. He was solid.
Taking the touch as a preference for direction, Rodney turned left, downhill toward the wavering lights of torches and the faint sound of music: a steady thumping of drums and, lifted above it like an undulation of bright colour, the thin trill of a pipe. Over their heads, the sky was purpled now like a bruise.
"You're edgy," Rodney observed, turning his head slightly so that Sheppard could see the glint of torchlight in his eye.
"Not so much." When Rodney snorted, Sheppard conceded, "Maybe a little."
"No particular reason."
Rodney's hand blurred into motion again, and Sheppard could make out the fist closing, index finger pointing at nothing in particular as Rodney pinned down his own discomfort. "Well, can you find a reason? Because free-floating anxiety gives me heartburn."
Shaking his head, Sheppard turned again and swept the path behind them with an assessing gaze. The moons were rising over the lake, bulging half-full with watery light, and the world was resolving again into stark silvers and blacks, all the shadows leaning away from him now instead of creeping toward him from the woods. Letting his eyes lose focus for a moment, he concentrated on the more sensitive peripheral vision, attentive to any change in the light, any shifting forms. The woods and the field were still except for a small-voiced creature peeping in the grass somewhere near his feet.
It's my job to be edgy, Rodney," he answered finally, turning to follow him again. "Do I point it out when you're thinky?"
"I don't like it--"Rodney paused while the drumbeat swept up the hillside on the slight crescendo of a rising breeze and faded again, "--when I don't know whether to be scared or not." He angled his head and Sheppard could picture him blinking bemusedly. "It scares me."
Sheppard chuckled. "Scared isn't a bad thing. If you use it right."
Stopping, Rodney turned to him. "So you're scared now? Should I be scared? Just let me know one way or the other."
"No and no."
"Oh." He started walking again. "Good." After a moment, he asked, "What scares you, Major? Just so I can correlate things a little. And then I won't have to ask you."
Sheppard mulled that one over, hit on an answer, put it away. "What scares you?"
"Lemons," Rodney answered promptly.
"No, not like that. Everybody's scared of what can kill them. That's a cop-out answer."
The small-voiced creature seemed to have invited some friends over, because now the whole hillside was peeping. Down in the camp, the drums stopped abruptly and there was a cheer. A fire flared up brightly in the centre of the ring of tents and Sheppard could make out Teyla and Ford sitting next to the chief. He could smell some kind of roasting meat, and his growling stomach was echoed by a renewed rumble of drums.
"Things I can't understand," Rodney said. "No, scratch that. The very idea that I might not be able to understand. It feels like--"
"A black hole," Sheppard offered helpfully.
"No," Rodney contradicted, disdain edging his voice. "I understand black holes." He was silent for a long time until they were just on the edge of the firelight. "Like falling," he finished. "I hate that." He stopped and Sheppard could feel him looking at him, even though his eyes were pools of darkness, pricked in the right one with a tiny reflected flame. "You didn't answer the question."
Sheppard shrugged, wishing he'd just left it at lemons. The side of Rodney's face was lit orange, and the flickering light cast shadows that made him look alternately soft around the mouth and a little demonic around the eyes. "My aunt Darlene," Sheppard answered, evading. "She always had lipstick on her teeth. Freaked me out."
Cocking his head impatiently, Rodney folded his arms. Sheppard looked toward the party going on in the camp. All eyes were on a dancer in what looked like a bear skin stalking around the fire. Even from here he could see the drummers' skin glistening with sweat. Sitting on a mat on the ground, Ford was leaning forward, watching avidly, while Teyla bowed her head near his ear, probably translating the story for him.
Sheppard turned back to Rodney and sucked in a breath, releasing it slowly. "You," he said. Rodney shifted so that the angle of his head went from impatient to curious, and the shadows resolved, away from demonic and toward soft. "This," Sheppard said, and stepping forward, brushed his lips across Rodney's, a bare touch, dry, and fleeting.
He stepped back. Rodney stood silently, his head still tilted, arms still folded. The pipe started again. Sheppard felt a little sick like when he used to put his fighter into a tailspin so that he could prove to himself that he could pull out again. Like when he was in the spin and for that fraction of a second, he couldn't tell which was sky and which was ground.
Then, Rodney stepped toward him and, laying a hand on his shoulder, covered his mouth with his, opened his lips with his tongue, breathed into him, stole his breath back, leaned away again. Now, up close, his eyes were colourless but clear in the firelight, and even the uncertain shadows couldn't hide the grin that curved his lips.
"Okay, that's pretty scary," he said. "Not nearly as scary as lemons, though."
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