He sensed her presence long before smelling her perfume, felt her cool hand on his hot forehead. Steel forced his eyes open to look at her attractive face, although he knew that Sapphire could not really be there.

But the voice that spoke in his mind was unmistakable.

It's me, Steel. I'm here with you.

Of course he died, didn't he? And he had reached her wherever it was that the elements went when they passed away. It could not be that bad, if Sapphire was with him. In fact, he couldn't ask for more. Now he knew why the earthlings called it Paradise.

When he finally managed to open his eyes, he noticed that he was lying on a bed. Sapphire was seated beside him, looking at him with a smile on her nicely shaped lips and a glimmer in her beautiful blue eyes. Seeing her again was so mind-boggling, he had to blink a few times before believing his own eyes. When Steel took in the entire picture, he could see Jet, Radium and Lead behind Sapphire, all of them smiling at him.

Lead's voice boomed out a greeting.

"Welcome back, Steel!"

The blond element forced his uncooperative voice to utter a question.

"Back where?"

Sapphire answered him.

"Back to life. You destroyed Viper, and all the consequences of her actions have been erased. Time is flowing in the right direction once more, and all the people that she has killed during her time travels are alive again. Including you."

Steel touched his heart to check, but he could feel no deadly wound. It was beating reassuringly with its usual rhythmical pace.

Jet smiled warmly as she added her comments.

"You were wrong after all. It wasn't the lute that had to be destroyed to restore the time continuum, it was its owner."

Steel was confused.

"How do you know?"

Radium answered, raising his hand and showing the instrument he was holding.

"Because the lute is right here, safe and sound. Although not for long."

Jet added, "You were lucky you forced Viper to kill you: had you done it yourself, you would still be dead."

Sapphire spoke in his mind, shielding her thoughts from all the other fellow operators.

I know what you're thinking, that it would have been worth it; but I wouldn't have agreed. And I suspect I would not be the only one!

Her eyes were sparkling as Steel answered.

I never realized Jet suffered that much when our team was broken up.

Now Sapphire looked pensive.

I can sympathize with her. Losing you would be too painful to bear.

Steel commented.

At least you have an idea of what I went through when you were taken from me.

Sapphire's expression brightened again.

I think we will never be broken up: neither of us would allow that to happen.

He smiled warmly at her.


Jet's expression saddened a little when she saw that affectionate smile on Steel's face, knowing that it was meant only for Sapphire. She forced her voice to sound cheerful when she asked the question.

"So, who gets the honor of destroying this blasted instrument? Sapphire has already disrupted its force field, so it's completely vulnerable, now."

Radium quickly proposed an answer.

"I think you should do it, Jet: you deserve it."

All the other operators nodded their agreement, so Jet took the lute and, holding it in her hands, concentrated hard. After a few seconds, the temperature of its molecules rose dramatically, and the instrument started burning from the inside. One minute later, it was but a wretched pile of smoking embers on the floor.

Lead commented happily: "Well, one less time device to worry about. I will never cease to be amazed by the human beings' talents in creating new, dangerous systems to mess around with time. See you around, guys, I'm being called."

And one second later, he disappeared, leaving a big empty space in the room.

Radium added: "We should be going now, too. Are you coming, Jet?"

She replied: "In a minute. You go ahead."

When Radium also disappeared, Sapphire moved away from Steel, leaving Jet the privacy she knew was needed to say goodbye.

Jet sat down on the side of Steel's bed.

"Thank you for saving our lives."

He surprised Jet by taking her hand.

"You are very welcome. I enjoyed working with you again, except for the part where you died!"

She smiled at Steel affectionately.

"I could tell you that it was worth dying to see you cry for me, but it wouldn't be the truth. I prefer to be alive and go back to work. Radium is a very good partner, you know."

"I'm sure he is. The authority would never have teamed you with a lesser element."

He kissed her hand, and she teleported away. Sapphire took her place at Steel's side.

"Maybe this assignment helped Jet to finally accept her partnership with Radium."

Steel shook his head.

"I think she accepted it long ago. Working with me again probably just brought back old memories, but they are a great team."

"Just like us."

"We are something more than a great team."

She nodded.

"Yes. What we feel for each other runs deeper than just our partnership, although I wouldn't know how to call it."

Steel placed his hands on Sapphire's shoulders and pulled her closer, until their faces were only inches away.

"You have this peculiar human preoccupation with names. I prefer facts."

When his lips touched hers, he knew he had come home at last.


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