Title: shall the water not remember (my hand's slow gesture)
Character/s: Merlin, Arthur
Summary: Arthur travels through Avalon with a boy he can't quite remember, searching for someone he can't quite forget.
Word Count: 995 words.
Prompt: #243 Looking Back
Author's Notes: I watched Alice Through the Looking Glass a few nights ago. That has nothing much to do with this fic, but I blame it anyway. Title is from Fred Chappell's Narcissus and Echo.
They travel in fits and starts. Time is strange here, seemingly different from one day to the next; sometimes Arthur will wake when the sun is low on the horizon, and will travel far before it sets. Other times, it seems that he has barely found his feet before the sun is setting again, fading into bands of deep orange and red on the Eastern horizon. Actual seconds are asynchronous. He is laying the fire; banking the fire; the fire is blazing. He learns not to let it bother him. Trying to impose order on the universe used to be important to him, he knows that much, but here it is like trying to hold onto water: it slips away before you even know you have it, and in any case, it is of no importance. It cannot be pinned down.
The boy beside him is also strange, moving from childhood to old age to indeterminate adulthood at unpredictable intervals. Arthur is grateful for his presence; he would not wish to be alone in these woods, although what help he imagines the other will be he cannot think. He watches him sometimes — as boy, as man, by the side of a stream or in the deep woods or when he is sleeping. Although he gives the impression of incompetence at first glance, his hands are always unerringly steady, and Arthur knows with a bone-deep certainty that he will be safe as long as he keeps the guide in sight.
He does not remember why they are here, but he knows it will be dangerous.
He does not remember where they are going, but he does remember those hands.
On this side of the lake, there are no reflections. It’s the first thing that Arthur notices, after; how everything seems almost superimposed on the natural landscape, with no foundation to hold it in place. The trees have no roots, but they do not fall. The water has no depth. He sits at the side of the lake and stares into it, but cannot see his face. His guide does not seem too surprised by this. Later, Arthur thinks that this is because he, too, has no real substance.
“What's your name?” Arthur asks him, as if it matters.
“You'll know,” says the boy, as if it doesn’t.
At some point, Arthur becomes aware that something is following them. At first it is merely shapes in the night, a prickle on the back of his neck. It is hard to be certain of anything in this place, but Arthur is not given to indulging his imagination, and in any case there would be no purpose. He has already discovered that there is no such thing as impossibility in a world where time flows backwards. Or is it that he will discover it? No matter. The guide has noticed too, and Arthur can see the deliberation with which he does not glance over his shoulder into the woods, the way his gaze stays fixed within the pool of light by the fire, as though afraid to look at what lies beyond.
“What are they?” Arthur asks, keeping his voice low as they bend over the rabbit that will be their evening meal. “Are we in danger?”
The man does not look up. “You are always in danger, my lord. That’s why I’m here.”
“In danger of what?” Arthur demands, impatient. “At least speak sense, if you’re trying to warn me.”
A glance, then, of blue eyes almost hidden by dark lashes. There is a familiarity to the gesture that he should not feel, a quiet recognition that he cannot name. He holds tightly to the knife in his hand, and for the first time it occurs to him to wonder where he got it.
“The same thing we are all in danger of, my lord,” the child says. “Forgetting.”
There are shapes in the water, and in the low scudding clouds. Arthur is not sure where they came from, or how long they have been there, but he remembers the moment he first spotted them: the clear, unaccustomed clarity of it, cutting through his vision like a clean blade. He catches a glimpse of red, the ripple of rich cloth against stone; the silver gleam of light on a polished surface as though catching on sharp edges. His hand goes to his belt, but there is nothing. Did he think he had a weapon? He remembers the heft and weight of steel, and leans closer to the water to look, but the guide clutches at his arm with sudden urgency and the knowledge splinters.
“Sire." A well-known voice in his ear. "What do you see?"
"Nothing," Arthur says in disappointment. "Nothing at all."
They arrive at the lake in the early morning, chased by a dawn that's full of shadows. It is the same lake they have recently long ago abandoned, as if the water were a diamond full of hidden facets, and only by leaving it could they be certain to come back again.
“Why are we here?” Arthur asks the man beside him.
“To make you well.”
It seems clear enough. Arthur kneels in silence at the edge of the lake and drinks, aware of something shifting as the surface shatters. This is familiar too, a sudden inversion, the awareness of somehow holding his breath. Water pours from the divots of his armour as he gets to his feet. How long has he been wearing armour? He has a vague recollection of being dressed with careful tenderness; of the absolute heaviness of loss, and something fragile extinguished. His memory after all this time seems full of cobwebs, and yet — it is a memory.
Everything here is very bright. A bird is singing. A man puts both hands on his shoulders, eager now, drawing him closer with a sudden intake of breath.
Arthur looks down, peering into the water, and at long last sees Merlin looking back.