He'd been looking for her for a long time. Steel had tried all her usual spots and when that was for naught, he started on the unusual. Even those stymied him and he grew more and more perplexed. He'd mentally called out to her and she ignored him. That shifted his perplexity to annoyance. Still, he knew she was here – somewhere.
He was walking down a corridor, brow furrowed, when he was conscious of someone keeping pace with him. Steel stopped and glared at the man beside him.
"Copper, what are you doing?" he asked when it became apparent that the red-haired agent wasn't going to speak.
"Nothing, what are you doing?" Copper glared back.
"I am looking for my partner."
"Oh… you mean Sapphire?" The glare was replaced by confusion.
"Who else would I be referring to?" The man wasn't bad to work with, but he was easily led, malleable; this was not a good thing to Steel's way of thinking. Thankfully, he'd not been teamed with him recently.
"I don't… Jet?"
"Not likely." He started to walk again. "Have you seen her?"
"The Powers that Be save me from the likes of you, Copper. Sapphire, have you seen Sapphire?"
"Oh, she's in the Observatory."
That actually made Steel blink. Why would Sapphire be there? It was a place for new agents, not a seasoned one.
The Observatory mimicked Earth; it could be one of a hundred different landscapes, climates, situations. It was meant to help the new agents learn to adapt to the various situations they might find themselves in, teaching them to move among the humans without detection.
He found her in a field of flowers, sitting on a blanket, her feet tucked neatly beneath her.
"Yes, Steel?" Her voice was weary. An odd thing in itself; perhaps even odder than finding her sitting there.
Why didn't you answer me?
I suppose I didn't hear you.
That was a lie and they both knew it – they were more connected than the others, more in tune, although that was mostly Sapphire's doing. Steel was a loner before her; now he couldn't imagine going into a situation without her at his side. That was why this bothered him so much.
He sat, a bit awkwardly, as he wasn't used to sitting on the ground… or really of sitting at all. He did, of course, but it wasn't as easy as standing. Still, he sat because he sensed she needed him at her level.
A sad smile and her comment was slightly wistful. "Nothing. Why do you ask?"
"You've seemed … I suppose, distant would work as well as anything else. Ever since returning from our last mission, you've been somewhere else." He looked out into the grass as it danced back and forth in an artificial breeze. "I know I might not seem sympathetic, but you can talk to me."
"Tully. I know his death… bothered you."
She drew up her knees and rested her chin on them. "It didn't bother you?"
"He was just something to be used?"
"Go away, Steel." She turned her face from him, her mind closed.
Steel. It wasn't her; it was their boss, one of them at any rate.
Report to me.
No, just you, Steel.
So that was it. What had been so promising was now over. He sighed. He would miss Sapphire; he had enjoyed working with her.
Standing, he walked from her, ignoring the grass at his feet, the smell of flowers in the air. She never called after him, never inquired as to where he was going. She simply remained staring into the distance.
It felt strange walking into the assignment room alone. He'd only worked with Sapphire for a short time, Jet even briefer. He supposed he'd be back to solitary assignment now, or brought in when his talents were required.
He sat in the straight back chair, his fingers curling around the metal of the arm rests, and waited.
Your last assignment.
There was a death of a human.
It was necessary.
Agreed, but there was an incident. You nearly 'died.'
He moved uneasily in the seat, unsure of where this was going. It was in our report.
What was it like?
He would have rather not, but it wasn't as if he had an option. They would take what they wanted with or without his permission and it was easier with. They were like that. Already he could feel the tendrils of their thoughts tickle at his memory, anxious to 'see' what he'd experienced.
He took a breath, closed his eyes and shuddered as his brain seemingly imploded with colors and images. He could taste the fear and panic in the pilot as the bombs exploded outside the thin glass of the cockpit. He could hear the wail of the engines as they took a hit and started to fail. He could feel his body growing light as the plane began to plunge earthward, the searing heat of the resulting flames licking at his skin, blackening it. His body started growing cold in an attempt at self preservation, but it was stopped and held. His greatest defense and it was ripped from him as easily as a human would tear a sheet of paper.
Steel knew he was shaking, and was fairly sure he was screaming or pleading, he couldn't tell which. He fought the plunge to death, he fought Them, and he suddenly knew the terror that Tully much have felt and the resentment and he fought that as well. He hated Them for what They were doing to him, manipulating, taking what should be solely his and claiming it as theirs. It wasn't right, it wasn't fair and there was nothing he could do about it.
Then They were gone, leaving him abandoned. It was a long moment before he could regulate his breathing, and uncurl his fingers from the grooves they had cut in the metal of the chair arms. His body slowly began to respond to his commands, but it didn't take away the clenching fear in his stomach or explain the wetness at the corners of his eyes.
Steel wanted to move and knew he needed to, but he lacked the strength and the ability to shift from the chair. It was as if this chair was his sole sanctuary. He felt weak and very tired, neither condition something he was used to dealing with.
He nearly jumped at the soft fingers that stroked his cheek. His eyes opened and Sapphire was standing there, her face gentle and compassionate.
That's what it was like to die?
In part. You didn't terminate, but you came as close as you could. Another moment and you would have reverted.
I was trying to; I wanted to, but They wouldn't let me. Now I understand what Tully must have experienced.
Taking human form means more than just assuming their shape. They wanted you to know this, but it's not all unpleasant. Sapphire's hand found his. "Can you stand?"
He found that he could, although his legs still felt as if they had a mind of their own. He managed a half-hearted smile and she brushed the wetness away from one eye with her fingers. He caught and kissed them, frowning at the salty taste of the moisture.
"They're called tears, Steel, and by shedding them you've taken a first step towards empathy with our charges."
"I don't want empathy. I want to be left alone to do my job."
"This will make you better at it."
Steel permitted her to lead him from the room, as a mother would lead a child. They went back to the grassy field and simply sat. He understood her quietness now, her desire to reflect. Gradually, the sensation of broken glass went away, the need to internalize became less intense and he found himself now watching the grass shift in the wind and, for the first time, he could smell the flowers and hear soft bird calls.
It helped to have Sapphire beside him and he didn't protest as she held his hand and eventually rested her head upon his shoulder. He just knew, for once, Time bent to his wishes, not the other way around.
A few days passed and Steel found himself slipping back into his old ways, cold and brusque with his co-workers. It was how they expected him to be. His mouth tweaked up into a small smile when he saw Sapphire now. They'd shared something, something nearly as intimate as sex.
She was scanning some items that Gold and Radium had brought back from their most recent mission. Her back was to him, but he knew she was aware of him even as he stepped into the room.
Steel walked rapidly to her side, as was his habit, then he reached around her to offer her the item he held, smiling as she gasped in pleasure.
"Flowers, Steel?" She took them and held them to her face, her nose inhaling their scent. He didn't understand her pleasure entirely, but it made her happy and, in turn, that made him content.
"For services rendered, I should think."
"I didn't do anything," she protested, still holding the flowers to her face, brushing them against her cheek.
"To the contrary." He paused, suddenly awkward with his words, a first for him. "They made me experience death, you've taught me to live."
"You found that on your own, I should think. With or without me, you live, you breath, you exist." She lowered the flowers now, watching him, studying his face carefully.
He smiled, allowing his head to drop a little. He sighed and looked back up at her. "Perhaps, but the journey, I think, is more pleasant with a companion." A tickle at the back of his neck stopped him. They want us.
Shall we? He offered her his arm and she linked her arm with it.
And, once again in sync, they walked from the room and into the corridors of Time.