The whispers were nothing new. Sapphire knew some of her fellow agents thrived on gossip. She preferred the facts and they were tenuous enough some days. Why anyone would conjecture and speculate was beyond her. Sapphire was glad that she'd been permanently assigned Steel as a partner. He didn't delve into such things and that was fine with her.
She walked into the assignment room, not surprised to see Steel already there, pacing the length of the room and in his usual patient way. Steel acted as if everything fought against him to keep him on some self-appointed yet unvoiced schedule.
"You're late," he muttered as she was close enough to hear him.
"I was finishing up on a briefing and came as soon as I was summoned." She knew he was aware of all of this. He was as much in residence in her mind as she was his, although at the moment, his seemed a mass of whirling confusion. That was not Steel. What is it?
Steel, you can hide from everyone else, but not me.
This assignment, it's a retrieval.
A what? Sapphire caught flashes of images of two men yelling and a woman crying. There were threats made, then begging and more crying. Suddenly it was as if a door slammed on the memory.
"You don't know?" Steel glanced around, but they were obviously alone. "I forget that you are still learning."
"I don't understand."
"There have been a few incidents when the unbelievable happens and an Elemental falls in love with a human."
"Why is that unbelievable? Assuming this shape comes with certain benefits—"
"And short comings," Steel snapped. "We are not supposed to… connect emotionally with humans."
"You connected with Tully. I felt your regret and loss from your decision."
"That was… different. Tully was a victim. The incidents I speak of are more rare. Occasionally an Elemental will fall completely in love with a human and wants to leave."
"We can leave?"
"No, hence the need for retrieval."
"What will happen to the agent?"
"Mandatory wiping of memory and reassignment to another sector."
"Who?" Sapphire remembered the whispers and they made sense now.
"Gold." A sharp snap of sadness from Steel's mind took Sapphire by surprise and she gasped. Steel looked at her and immediately the barriers went up. "Forgive me, I keeping forgetting that we have a link established. It's been a long time for me."
Sapphire knew that Steel had been assigned to Jet in the distant past and there was still something between them. Neither spoke of it, yet Jet liked to hint, especially around Sapphire, that it was something more than a work connection. Sapphire understood that. Steel's human form was handsome to her way of thinking.
A smile appeared on Steel's lips and Sapphire abruptly remembered that the link was two way and Sapphire blushed prettily. Although she couldn't read his mind, he could still read hers.
"I'm sorry. That was not very professional"
"It wasn't, but I am nevertheless still flattered. Thank you, although I had little say in this shape."
DO YOU KNOW WHY YOU ARE HERE? The voices blasted into their heads, pushing everything else aside.
"Retrieval." Steel had taken on a glassy-eyed expression and Sapphire knew They were here all around them inside and out. As the senior agent, They tended to focus upon Steel and trust him to relay their wishes. Sapphire was permitted just the barest of information about their assignment.
Sapphire was careful to keep her mind blank of questions. They didn't like to have their motives or their methods questioned. She'd learned that the hard way. Accept the assignment and then seek clarification from her senior agent, should clarification be necessary. Only once had she attempted to connect with them fully and the result had left her in a near coma. It would take her more time and training before she was prepared to fully allow them into her conscience the way Steel did.
"We understand." Steel spoke for both of them. "It will be done."
It was as if the air had suddenly been sucked from the room, an indication that They were gone. Steel staggered back a step as he was suddenly released, then shook his head and straightened.
"What do we do?"
"As we were assigned. We retrieve." Steel placed a hand on her back and guided her to the door. "We need to go."
As they exited the room, Chrome and Pyrite entered. Pyrite's smile was bright, but Sapphire knew it was merely a glittering façade. The being inside was very different from the outside shell.
The small town was the picture of bucolic peace. Sheep dotted the green rolling hills, looking like earth-bound clouds. The air was soft against her face and scented with the perfume of freshly-cut grass and flowers. There was a sense of quiet contentment here.
She followed Steel as he moved quickly down the sidewalk, avoiding or ignoring the stares of the people they passed. Sapphire could tell that the remoteness of the village didn't lend to welcoming many strangers into their midst. Steel appeared ignorant of the attention.
He led the way to the edge of town, veering down a path. Sapphire took one look at the uneven and rocky dirt and wished herself a more acceptable manner of footwear. She'd already been taught that lesson. Steel obviously didn't care as the dirt marred the shine of his shoes. He was totally focused, allowing Sapphire the luxury of watching a butterfly flit from one blossom to another and smile at the song of a bird.
She was aware that Steel's mind was shut to hers. It wasn't the first time, but it was unusual. Sapphire wanted to catch his arm and demand entrance, but surely that wasn't her privilege yet. Or was it? No one would tell her such things.
"We are here," Steel said, pausing before a narrow path leading off from the main one. "Do you wish to remain here?"
"Your advice?" She tried to make her words fit his style of delivery. There was the hint of a smile at the corners of him mouth.
"Stay behind. This could be unpleasant."
Her answer pleased him and he nodded, obviously thankful that he would not be doing this alone.
A man and woman were tending a garden as they drew closer. The man looked up and turned, pointing to a small rock and slate house. After a moment, the woman nodded and withdrew. He watched her for a moment and then tossed aside the hoe he'd been using.
"I was expecting this if not you," the man said. He took on a golden hue, his hair glistened in the sun and his skin practically reflected light.
"You know why I am here." Steel's voice was hard, so much like his name now. For a moment, Sapphire didn't even recognize him. There was not a hint of warmth or compassion in his face.
"I'm not leaving." Gold crossed his arms.
"You have no choice."
"I do have a choice. She's in that house. I choose her."
Steel's voice softened. "Think about this. What can she give you?"
"Is that it?"
"That's enough. Some day you will understand, Steel. Some day you both will." Gold acknowledged Sapphire for the first time. "One day you will understand the strength and power of love."
"I don't think so." Steel shook his head and the sunlight caught his hair and Sapphire smiled. It shimmered and danced. She looked away and realized that Gold was watching her, a strange look in his eyes.
"I think you will."
"Sapphire, leave us." Steel's voice had grown hard again.
There was a hard edge to Steel's voice that she dared not disobey. She turned and made her way back to the main path.
Behind her, she heard voices being raised, then suddenly cries and pleas for mercy. She knew Steel was without such a weakness.
She watched the butterflies dance and the birds fly, but it all seemed dull and harsh now. The whole day was covered with a gray cloth, weighing down her heart.
Abruptly she spotted Steel walking towards her. She was relieved that he seemed all right, if a little tired looking.
"It is done. Do not ask any questions. Do not think of this incident again."
"But… what happened to Gold?"
"He refused retrieval. There is no alternative."
Sapphire fell to her knees, her breath gone. Gold had been her first partner after training. He had been soft and very kind to her. Now he was no more. Tears started to trickle down her cheeks and after a moment, a thumb, large but infinitely gentle, brushed them away.
"It is the way of our kind. Elements and humans cannot mix."
"I… I know."
With a curt nod, Steel vanished and she started to follow. Then a flash of an image, of a man with golden hair holding a young woman close, flicked across her mind. He was… alive? Steel lied?
A thought drifted back to her.
Not a lie. He is no longer an Element. His powers are gone. To Them and us, Gold is dead.
Sapphire smiled as her respect and love for her partner bloomed.