Steel forced his right leg forward and paused. The longer he remained human, the more difficult things became. It was not the snow and bitter wind that restricted his movements as much as the drifts he was wading through. They were nearly to his waist now and moving was getting more and more difficult.
His molecular weight prevented him from staying on the softer packed surface and forced him to deal with the more densely packed layer beneath. Sapphire had mentioned this.
An inadvertent breath escaped his lips and in the white cloud, he could very nearly see his partner.
"It's not, you know. Snow isn't just snow." Steel had been struggling with finding appropriate outerwear. Not inasmuch as the Element would feel the cold, but they did try to not alert any humans they came in contact with. He'd turned to Sapphire, who was much more clever in these things, for help. A hat with ear flaps appeared and she shook her head firmly. "I think not."
"Thank you and what do you mean, snow isn't snow?" The hat faded and for a moment his head was blissfully free of any sort of headwear.
Sapphire's eyes glowed a brilliant blue, just as they always did when she was retrieving information. "There are different sorts, of course. There is the crust and the fragmented particles. Rounded snow is usually the newest fallen and will represent the greatest danger to us. There is also something called cup shaped or sun crystals. These, too, represent a danger."
"Snow? A danger?" He slipped off the coat he'd somehow acquired and blew out a breath. This was just ridiculous in his opinion.
"Avalanches, blizzards, that sort of thing." A snug skull cap replaced the other hat and she nodded. "That's better."
"Hardly a danger to us."
"Not in our Element state, but when we are in these forms, we do share some of the same risks as humans. If we become cold enough, we will die."
"Then I shall do my best to avoid anything that might cause my death." He took off the hat and smoothed down his hair. Not that he was vain, of course. "What are you wearing?"
Sapphire's dress morphed into a pink fur trimmed snow suit, complete with heavy furry snow boots and equally bulky mittens. "How's this?"
"You look like a large, but more agreeable, pink Yeti. I certainly shan't lose you in the snow, at any rate."
"Thank you… I think." She laughed and resumed. "The dangers of avalanche are…"
She'd continued to talk, but Steel, as was often his way, shut her out, concentrating instead upon the information about the time leak they were after. Why Time would choose the middle of Earth's winter and some forsaken wasteland of snow and ice was beyond him. This was probably exactly why Time chose that spot, in the hopes that it wouldn't occur to any of Them until the damage was done. The problem was that the time break was short and it had taken Them a century to identify the cycle and the location as it seemed to shift slightly every season.
Nothing ever gets past Them, Steel thought as he struggled forward a step. Sapphire, can you hear me? He'd been calling out to her for the past hour. He could see nothing much further than his hand in the swirling snow.
He should have paid more attention, but that wouldn't have prevented the avalanche. They didn't even have time to register much more than momentary puzzlement at the sharp crack, the sudden roar, then the wall of snow was upon them.
Something hit him in the head and Steel blacked out, coming to within a tomb of snow. It had taken just a few moments to transport himself from the suffocating mass to the surface. Then he winced at the destruction around him. They had been carried miles from their original starting point and the land formations were alien here. The wind was sharp and cutting as it plucked at his torn jacket.
He touched a careful finger to his temple, not surprised to have it come away stained a gummy red, and there was an ache in his left arm. The problem with these forms is that they were susceptible to injury. Internal needs, such as food, drink, breathing - these were all easily dispensed with. The outer shell, however, remained fragile.
No matter, he'd have Sapphire take care of it. She was better at such things than he was. That's when he realized he was alone.
Help… The voice was so weak that panic struck him. She was right about one thing; they were very mortal while wearing these shapes.
Where are you? Sapphire! He tried to bully her into speech, but all that met him was silence.
After half an hour of walking along the edge of the avalanche, he spotted something. It was one of Sapphire's boots. He snatched it up and concentrated upon it, trying to reconstruct the past few hours. It was difficult as his skills were infantile compared to those of his partner's.
An image, dark and suffocating, filled his brain along with a sense of confusion and panic. She'd been buried like him, he supposed. Unlike him, she was too weak to help herself and instead called out to him. He'd been too late or had been still unconscious, except to hear her last cry.
He began to dig, ignoring the pain in his arm, the throbbing in his head and continued until even his prodigious strength began to fail him. There was no Sapphire here. She'd not transported for he'd have registered that. Taken by something? He wouldn't put it past Time to try and hedge its bets against the Elements by taking his partner. Time was just as crafty and unprincipled as… well, Steel was.
He didn't do well on his own; interfacing with humans was a bother and without Sapphire as his buffer, it was very frequently a failure. Still, they had been told there were life forms here. Perhaps they could help. At least it was a start. And he set off in what he believed to be the direction of the settlement.
That seemed like a hundred years ago. The cold was pressing down on him, making his chest ache with each breath. His body demanded oxygen now and it was like sucking ice crystals into his lungs. His nose and much of his face were numb, as were his hands and feet. He vaguely remembered something called frostbite, but it didn't matter. He had to find Sapphire and complete their assignment.
He took a step, stumbled and fell. The drifts did nothing to cushion his landing. Cold continued to bite at his skin even after he'd brushed the snow from his face with a frozen glove.
In spite of his best efforts, his core temperature was starting to drop. Soon he would be too cold to be of much good to anyone. Without Lead here to shield him and without adequate warmth, he'd freeze solid.
He pushed himself up and struggled back to his feet. He got another few yards before collapsing again, moaning as he landed upon his injured arm. Why that couldn't go numb like the rest of him was a mystery.
Sapphire? If he had the strength, he'd have laughed at how weak his voice sounded.
You're a funny little man. The voice floated into his head and Steel forced himself up into a sitting position, cradling his injured arm to his chest. He was quite alone.
Sapphire? He tried again. Where are you?"
Safe. His head was so muddled now, he couldn't even tell if it was Sapphire answering him. It would be just like Time to lead him on like this. Even so, he managed to get back to his feet and shuffle forward another step before dropping again to his knees.
Too weak and too cold, he sent one last message to Them to report his failure and request a second team be sent to finish what they hadn't even started. That accomplished, he began to shut down. With any luck, the second team would find Sapphire and take her back for reactivation as they would him. If they even bothered to look for him. He had enough of a reputation of being a maverick to be easily… lost.
I'm sorry, Sapphire. He wasn't even sure the thought got out of his head.
Wake up, young man.
Steel took an involuntary breath, but he could make nothing function. His arms and legs were beyond his command at the moment.
Can't. It was barely all he could do to think the word.
Nonsense! A warm laugh followed. You are a sturdy little fellow. What are you doing up here?
Time… time manipulation, must fix. Why he would tell his assignment to a stranger… to a human; he must be dying.
Up here? Another deep, soulful laugh, one that reminded him of Lead's, followed. I don't think that is very much of a problem. Why were you in the storm?
Sapphire… looking for Sapphire.
Sapphires, up here? It would be better to look for them in the Orient.
Not sapphires, my Sapphire. She's lost… He wanted to sleep now. This was odd as he never succumbed willingly to sleep.
Picture Sapphire for me.
The request made Steel smile, at least mentally. When did he not have an image of her in his mind? Her in that shimmering blue dress she favored, her golden hair shining… or as a redhead, sleek and seductive or a raven haired beauty…, but laughing, always laughing… always his lovely Sapphire.
So that's her name. If you could have anything in the world right now, what would that be, young man? Providing you've been good.
Relative to the requestor, Steel managed a small joke. Sapphire… safe. It was all he ever wanted. It was his duty, it was his passion.
We will assume that has come to pass, what else?
For you, my little friend, what do you want?
Me? Nothing… Sapphire safe… This time, his thoughts were strong. He forced one eye open, but it met with a solid wall of red. This must be what it feels like to die.
The laugh sounded again. You are far from dead, young man, but tell me, have you been naughty or nice?
Pardon? Then he was flying, held aloft, and, wrapped in that red cocoon, his mind grew very peaceful and content.
His eyes opened this time and he blinked to clear his vision. No more red obscured his sight. He was still cold and shivering, in spite of the warmth of the room and the thickness of the blankets.
"Good, you're warming up." Sapphire leaned close, so close he could feel her hair on his face, tickling his cheek. "You were nearly frozen solid when I found you."
"You found me?" He frowned. "I was looking for you."
"I woke up here some time ago." She hugged the thick red robe closer to herself. "In this. I tried to leave, but couldn't."
"Couldn't?" He tried to sit up and hissed in pain. His left arm was bound in something solid and heavy.
"No, none of my usual powers work here." She eased him back down. "I'm afraid your arm is broken. I called out to you and thought I got you just once."
"Yes, it was very weak. I thought you were hurt. What happened?" He wrapped the blankets closer and looked around. "Where are we?"
"No idea." Sapphire sat back and shrugged, a movement almost lost in the robe. "I woke up here. I fell asleep and when I woke up again, you were here. Since then, I received a message from Them telling me that the Time aberration had been approved and authorized."
Steel's mouth dropped. They never approved of time manipulation, even for their agents. It was also carefully monitored and reported.
"And that we were to report back once you were up to it."
"You said your powers weren't working."
"That's the odd thing. They aren't. I…" Her eyes glowed for a moment as Steel watched her. "Did you hear me? I asked if you were all right."
"No, I didn't, but I think that I am. I'm still very cold though." Steel reached up to touch his temple and winced. "I had a very odd dream, Sapphire, and I don't dream."
"What was it about?" She reached out and lowered his hand.
"A man, he kept asking me what I wanted and whether I was naughty or nice."
"I had the same one. I told him I only wanted to know that you were all right." She squeezed his hand and returned it to the bed. "And what did you ask for?"
Steel smiled sleepily. "I lost you and all I wanted was for you to be safe."
She laughed and leaned down to kiss his forehead. "You already have me, Steel. I would think you'd have asked to be taller."
"You told me, good things, small packages." He was starting to succumb to the warmth again, falling back into himself as the heat was redirected to tasks that needed it more than he needed to stay awake. There was a suddenly rush of cool air and then the feeling of a warm body pressing close to his.
"Very good things and for the record, I think you are very nice," Sapphire murmured as she snuggled close to him. Outside the wind howled, the snow blew as a red-suited man looked into a frosted window and smiled. Then, touching a finger to the side of his nose, he was gone.