The thought kept coming back to him though as the day wore on. The mental image of that dreadful shoulder injury was bad enough, but almost worst was the snow gently falling onto an unresponsive body.
How long had Knuckles been on this Island alone? How many times had he had to tend such injuries without help or sat beneath the Master Emerald fully expecting to die there?
Sonic frowned. He didn't consider himself squeamish, and goodness knew he'd been injured enough times himself fighting Robotnik, and often enough been far from help at the time. Nevertheless if what he'd seen was indicative of the scale of what Knuckles had been through in his determination to defend the Master Emerald it was impressive. And went more than a little way towards explaining his withdrawn personality. He'd clearly never had much reason to welcome visitors from the planet's surface.
As he had done that morning -- as he always did when he was disturbed -- Sonic ran and let his feet carry him without thinking about the destination. He ran until even he started to tire, then fell into a swift walk. If the infuriation he'd felt earlier was unfamiliar, then this new emotion was even more so, and it took him a while to realise that he actually felt guilty about the argument this morning in light of what he'd seen.
It didn't stop him thinking Knuckles was an antisocial, self important grouch most of the time, or being angry that Knuckles seemed determined to hold him personally responsible for Robotnik's incursion onto the Island. But he did feel that belittling his guarding of the Emerald had been something of a misstep.
"A real foot in the mouth," Sonic corrected himself more bluntly out loud.
"Would that stop you opening it so often?" a dry voice asked from off to his left.
Sonic spun round, belatedly realising he was back at the remains of Knuckles drying-fire. Knuckles rose to his feet from behind a flat toped boulder.
Sonic shrugged. "Nothing else ever has." He was only half joking. Knuckles watched him, then his face twisted for a moment, the expression unreadable.
When he spoke again it was stiffly formal. Sonic had learned quickly that this was usually a sign of some stronger than average emotion in the echidna which he did not want to display.
"That was not a courteous thing for me to say." He grimaced again. "I had intended to seek you out, not to insult you."
Sonic shrugged again. "Don't worry. Can't say I'm always Mr Manners myself."
It was interesting to know, Sonic reflected, that Knuckles found his own presence as much of an irritant as Sonic did his.
"You were looking for me?" he went on. "I've saved you a trip then. What can I do you for?"
Again that strange little twist of the face. Reluctance? Annoyance?
"I spoke in anger when I found you in the Hidden Palace. And in anger I was not truthful."
"You?" Sonic almost smirked, and bit it back. Knuckles clearly was already finding this conversation a challenge to his self control. Aggravating him further would definitely not improve matters.
Fortunately Knuckles was too focussed on what he wanted to say to notice Sonic's reaction.
"I said I did not care what you had seen in the Master Emerald's reflections. That is untrue. I would like very much to know." He paused then added, "if you are willing to tell me."
Sonic was startled but rallied quickly.
"I'll swap you," he said. "I get to ask a question first."
Knuckles winced again at that, but nodded slowly. "Ask. Though I may not find the answer worth the trade."
"How long have you been here? Here's on the Island doing the 'guarding the Master Emerald' thing I mean," Sonic hastily added the clarification in case Knuckles decided to take him literally and call that his answer.
Sonic had expected a quick retort, and was surprised when Knuckles' expression shadowed and the answer was slow in coming. Sonic wondered if he had indeed decided that wasn't a question he was willing to answer in trade.
Eventually he spoke. The formality was still in his words, but it seemed that self control was finally faltering and the was an odd tone in his voice.
"I do not know. As you observed this morning, the seasons do not generally change here. It is difficult to measure the passing of time. I tried keeping tally sticks for a few years, but it did not seem to serve much of purpose so I stopped."
"You don't know?" Sonic stared, unable to quite take this in. "How can you not know?"
"It's very easy, Sonic! I just don't."
"But you must be able to guess -- I mean, how old were you?"
"I don't remember. I don't remember coming here, or the others leaving. I don't even know which way round it was."
"So who told you'd got this got this guarding the Emerald deal then?" Sonic asked logically.
Knuckles rolled his eyes, all formality abruptly lost. "What part of 'I don't remember' is not sinking in here, hedgehog?" His speech was fast and full of anger and frustration and something Sonic couldn't identify. I woke up one day in the Emerald chamber, and I knew my name, and that I was there to protect it and nothing else. As far as I know the Island might always have been empty. I might always have been here."
"But was there an accident or something? I mean did you whack your head or..."
"I don't remember!" Knuckles outright shouted this time. "Why d'you think I want to know what you saw in the Master? It echoes things that have happened there. I came to myself in that room. It must have seen what happened beforehand but it's never shown me."
"Oh," Sonic said, feeling uncomfortable with what he'd witnessed again. "Well I don't know if what I saw will be any use. I don't know how long ago it was but you didn't look that much younger."
Sonic perched himself on the boulder. "I thought it was really you, the first--" he waved a hand uncertain of the right description before settling on Knuckles' word for it. "--'echo'. You were injured--your shoulder."
Knuckles hand moved unconsciously to his left shoulder. "I remember. You're right, it wasn't long ago. Recent enough that it still twinges in the damp.
"What happened?" Sonic asked before thinking.
"One question you said you wanted in trade," Knuckles pointed out, but the anger seemed to have drained from his voice and he answered anyway. "Treasure hunters following rumours of bounty. One of them was a hawk. He caught me gliding."
"Oh," since Knuckles didn't seem inclined to elaborate Sonic suppressed his curiosity. "Well all I saw was you. I didn't see much. It kept changing."
"What to?" Knuckles was still standing.
"Snow," Sonic said slowly. "It was snowing."
"Part of the roof had come in with the weight of it." Knuckles continued unprompted and shook his head. That seems a long time ago, but I remember it."
Knuckles shrugged dismissively. "You've had your question. And I haven't had all of my answer yet."
"Well you were just sitting there in the next one, then there was a fight." Sonic described some of the attackers before Knuckles recognised the incident and stopped him.
"Then the last thing was me. Just before Robotnik tried to take it."
"Did take it," Knuckles corrected, darkly.
This time Sonic shrugged. "Not for long."
"No," Knuckles allowed. "Not for long. Thank you."
Sonic was startled for a moment, uncertain of whether Knuckles was referring to his part in returning the Emerald, or his retelling of what he'd seen in it.
He shrugged, "You're welcome, I suppose." That seemed to cover both possibilities. Then he added, "Sorry I didn't see anything more useful to you."
"I suppose I didn't really expect it." Knuckles looked resigned. "Sometimes I wonder..." He trailed off and shook his head. "Fanciful idea."
"What?" Sonic asked, and to his surprise this time wasn't dismissed.
Knuckles sighed and looked at him. Sonic was reminded of the searching stare the first 'echo' had seemed to give him.
"Sometimes I wonder if it chooses what to show."
Sonic didn't have a reply for that, but fortunately Knuckles didn't appear to expect one. He jerked his head in a curt goodbye and disappeared down a narrow trace through the bushes.
Sonic returned slowly to Mushroom Hill. Was it such a fanciful notion? The Emerald had shown him things which had tempered his attitude towards its Guardian. Could that have been deliberate? He wished he'd thought to ask Knuckles what he'd seen in it.
But then, he probably wouldn't have answered anyway.