Pri'c'tt is on her 7th Return when he appears. The sun is warm and large and bright again in the sky, no longer the dim and distant star of winter, and she is stirring her wings in the meadow, the breeze tickling her membranes. And suddenly, with an explosion of blue light, there he is: a wingless man wearing a heavy blue coat and an empty face, falling out of the Lethe Gate, the way people do, five or six times every Turn.
He says nothing to her, uninterested in the brightness of summer, the smell of the blooming blue grass, the girl chatting to him as she leads him to the village. He follows readily enough.
Her father tries to help, of course - it's the duty of the village, as they've always had it. He casts the cards for the stranger, to find the path he is meant to follow. The stranger only looks away.
Pri'c'tt sits with him for a little while, poking her fingers at the blue coat as she talks to him, but the man doesn't seem to listen. Sometimes she wonders if he understands. He looks at her, but she doesn't think he really sees her, either. There's such a sadness in his eyes, it's hard to believe this is only an echo, that there is no memory in him. He does not follow the path of the cards.
Some take their time, of course. The villagers know that. Pri'c'tt knows that, though she's still a child.
And true enough, one day, he's simply gone. The adults nod. It was to be expected, sooner or later. He was always one of those who'd seek oblivion.
But Pri'c'tt always wonders what happened. If it's truly oblivion he found, or if the path of the cards has called him after all.
This time, when the blue light dies, she sees a familiar face. It's him, looking not a day older, though who knows how age might show with his kind. And this time, there's another with him, another wingless male.
Both are wearing long coats. Blue and brown.
And one more thing is different. Their faces don't remain empty for long. The man in the blue coat stretches his body, then gives his companion a very thorough once-over. A smile breaks free from his face. It's stunning, even with his alien features, and Pri'c'tt nearly gasps.
The other man grimaces and pinches his own cheeks, pulls at his head-hair as if trying to draw it in front of his eyes. (It's much too short for that.)
"It's brown," says the man in the blue coat, sounding amused. His eyes - blue as well - sparkle.
"Not ginger?" The other man - brown coat, brown eyes; she'll call him Brown for now - sounds disappointed.
Blue is openly laughing now. "Don't worry, you're cute anyway. Sorry, don't carry a mirror these days or I'd prove it to you." Then all his movement and animation just stops for a second as he realises he's just referred to something he can't remember.
"Stop it," Brown snaps. A moment later, they're both doing the same kind of double-take again. They end up grinning at each other.
"All right," says Blue, agreeably, and turns toward her. The intensity of his gaze is overwhelming, particularly since her memory is still burdened with the blank, unseeing look he'd had. "Hello," Blue says brightly. "I can't seem to remember just now what name I should be using, or I'd introduce myself. Good to meet you! And who are you?"
"Oh, stop it," Brown grumbles, talking over Pri'c'tt as she offers her name. "Typical, we're on some strange planet with no memory, and you're busy flirting. Did it occur to you that there might be something we should be doing, huh?"
"I can think of any number of things we should be doing," says Blue, wiggling his eyebrows outrageously. "Anyway, I was just saying hello."
"Yes. Yes, you were," says Brown with a grimace. Then he turns to her. "Hello, by the way! I'm -" He interrupts himself, looks between her and Blue, confusion plain on his expressive face. "You're not there the way he is." He turns to Blue. "You feel ..." He leans forward a little, staring.
Blue takes a step closer. "Yeah? Feeling something, are you?" His smile is warm, and entirely focused on Brown.
"Real," Brown finally settles on. "You feel more real than anything. All of this," he gestures around him, "it's fleeting, but you're not. You're a fact." A wide grin erupts on his face. "Brilliant!"
"Is it," Blue breathes, and closes the last of the distance between them. "You say the sweetest things." Then he's leaning forward, his lips brushing against Brown's, and their arms go around each other, holding on.
Pri'c'tt feels like she's witnessing something many times practiced. They know each other, though they don't. She's never seen this before. But then, people fall through the Lethe Gate on their own, nine times out of ten.
They remain that way for a long moment. Then Brown jerks away. "Ahem! Well. Right. Yeah. That was -" When Blue laughs at him, Brown scowls, then continues, "Sorry - where were we?" He tilts his head, then turns back towards Pri'c'tt. "Yes, I was saying - sorry, I don't quite know who I am. Which is strange, let me tell you. And not right, definitely not right at all. I don't suppose you'd know anything about that?"
Pri'c'tt can't help it; she giggles at him. Not the dignified behaviour expected from a Guardian. "There," she says, pulling herself together, pointing behind the two men. As one, they turn, see nothing, and look back toward her. She flutters her wings, amused. "Look," she says, and tosses a handful of grains into the air. They swirl for a moment in the disruption; then the Lethe Gate opens.
"Well, if that isn't an actual stable worm-space connector," says Blue, reverently, fiddling with something at his wrist. "And one we survived without shielding, too. Wonder how they did that."
"Couldn't have put it better myself," Brown agrees, holding up a device that makes a strange whining noise. They both keep peering carefully between the Gate and their devices before it closes again.
"It's called the Lethe Gate," Pri'c'tt supplies. "When people are lost, it brings them here, stripped of the memories that burden them. We help them find their way again."
"You're sure we lost our way? I don't feel lost; do you?" says Brown, rubbing the back of his neck as he turns toward Blue, lips pursed.
"Nope," agrees Blue, incongruously cheerful. "Can't say I do."
They're confusing. "It's how it's meant to be," she says carefully. But she remembers Blue's face, from so many Returns ago, weighed with sadness, the loss of memory no easing of his burden. She has never quite known how to reconcile that.
"Well, that clears things up." Blue's voice is all sarcasm, but he's still smiling. He jerks his head toward the Gate, then looks at his companion. "You think that's a natural phenomenon?"
"What, the wormhole or the amnesia?" Brown grimaces again, shoves his device back into a pocket, and bounces on the balls of his feet. "Could be yes, could be no, wouldn't bet on either."
"I can cast the cards for you," Pri'c'tt offers, hesitantly. It's her duty, she knows. But she's not at all sure it's what they need, these two confusing strangers. Still, the cards will point them on their path, won't they?
Though Brown is right. They may not remember, but they don't look lost at all. They look, bizarrely, like they're having fun.
They look at each other. "Don't think so," says Brown, and, "Thanks, not today," says Blue, and they nod at each other. Blue taps at the device on his wrist again, then shrugs.
She realises almost too late what they're going to do. "Don't!" she cries, her wings beating hectically. "That way lies oblivion!"
Blue and Brown look at each other, matching frowns on their brows. Brown's lips pull back from his teeth. "You think?"
"I think you're thinking what I'm thinking," says Blue. He's smirking again. Then he turns slightly to look at Pri'c'tt . "Sorry, sweetheart, but we're not buying."
And they're turning toward the Gate. They step forward, holding hands, and the Lethe Gate erupts once more, swallowing them.
Pri'c'tt stares after them for a long time. She doesn't mention their visit when she returns to the village at the end of her shift.
She's seen many fall from the Gate over the course of many Turns, has seen the cards cast for them all. Some follow the cards right away; some take their time. Many simply turn around, and she's no longer sure they found oblivion.
She's asked, and argued, but the others won't listen. They're sure going back into the Lethe Gate will only bring oblivion. As she was, once.
But the men in the coats didn't. And one of them was here twice.
Finally, Pri'c'tt grows tired of arguing. Her people might be right. But what if they aren't? What, then, lies beyond the Gate no one has entered, even in the memories of the eldest, and the memories they collected from those who came before them? Did Blue and Brown find their memories again, or did the Gate take the memory of Pri'c'tt and her world from them as well?
Only one way to be sure, Pri'c'tt thinks, and it sounds like Blue's cheerful voice in her head, daring her, cheering her on.
The next time she goes on duty to guard the Lethe Gate, she brings a satchel with her, carefully packed.
And she jumps.