Sapphire laughed at something Silver was saying. She couldn't remember exactly what it was, but it had been droll and just a bit naughty. Then she'd seen Steel walk from the Debriefing Room, his shoulders drooped and his step wooden. He looked at her and hardness immediately cloaked the weariness in his eyes from her. He deliberately moved in the opposite direction, away from her and Silver.
"What's wrong?" Silver asked, sipping his tea. They were just back from a mission and enjoying a bit of refreshment. It was one of the human traits he enjoyed. He followed her stare and smirked. "Oh, Steel is once again with us. I should have guessed by your sudden somberness."
"Steel. He looked… well, I suppose, exhausted would work." The room in which they sat was open to a main corridor. No one could come or go without passing through that corridor. It kept them connected and working as a single unit.
It was Sapphire's habit to take the chair facing it, if only to watch her fellow Elements come and go from the Assignment Room. She'd learned much by merely observing their emotional state upon their exit from within. She'd never been next door to the Debriefing Room. Only a very few agents were allowed inside.
"Except he is never exhausted. Remember? I never sleep," Silver said, offering up a fair impression of Steel with a laugh. Then he sobered at Sapphire's lack of reaction. "I'm sorry. You are really troubled by this, aren't you?"
"Yes. Steel has been acting differently as of late and I'm attempting to understand it."
"Debriefings are tough from what I understand. I've never been through one myself."
"Why?" Her voice became clipped as she slipped into information-gathering mode.
"Not senior or strong enough, I suppose." He brushed a strand of hair back from her face and smiled as she startled. She sat back in her chair, the corridor, her tea, everything forgotten as she locked eyes with Silver. "He's tough. He can take it."
"Why would you say that?"
"Hello, Sapphire! He's an alloy. He's not a pure element like you or me. His function is very carefully detailed within our group."
"I don't understand…"
"He's been forged, Sapphire. He was forged to be hard, unrelenting, and impregnable. He is the leader and we, the followers. We are soft and malleable. If we were confronted with debriefing, we would shatter and be of no use to them. Steel is strong enough to withstand the process without breaking. Besides, he'd be the first to tell you that he has no feelings or insecurities."
"And yet we both were reassuring him of quite the opposite not very long ago. It is this incongruity that baffles me."
"Well, I suspect even an old bird like Steel has a moment or two of doubt," Silver muttered into his cup. Sapphire stood, the movement so fluid, it was as if she had no bones. "Where are you going?"
"I think he needs additional reassurance."
"Then I'll –"
"No, Silver, this is my mission, not yours." She patted his hand. "Finish your tea."
It took her several minutes to find him. Usually she could sense him long before actually seeing him. Not today; he was shut up off to her and, she imagined, everyone else. Was it a defense or was it a way of protecting her from what was currently in the forefront of his thoughts?
She found him standing and looking out into the void. It stretched before them in all directions, as occasional flashes of electrical current sparked and flared. At times, it was merely a response to excessive energy. Other times it signaled trouble. It was up to Them to decide which was which and whom to assign.
She watched Steel, stiff and unmoving, as he stared into that mass of energy. "I've been looking for you," she murmured after a moment.
"Forgive me, I wasn't paying attention and didn't hear you call." Steel's head turned towards her, his profile sharp against the bursts of blue, but he didn't see her. His voice was uncharacteristically quiet as he turned back to the void. "It never stops; it never tires; it never deals with concerns for its victims. It merely is."
"You, on the other hand, are just as persistent and tireless, yet I detect something troubling you." She came to stand beside him, close, but not too close. She was one of the few who could even venture this close to him without provoking him.
"I am fine." The statement was dry and without energy.
"Perhaps others might believe that, but I don't." She rested a hand on his arm. "Talk to me, Steel. Tell me what is troubling you."
"Oh, that I could, Sapphire, but this is my burden to bear, not yours."
"No burden is meant to be carried alone, Steel. Let me help."
"You do in so many ways and frequently without realizing it. You are my one assurance in a universe of improbability and chaos." This time he smiled slightly and the old Steel once again returned. "For you are my friend."