When Sapphire saw the healing chamber slowly and solemnly rise from the ground and open up to allow Lead access with his precious load, she exhaled the breath she didn't realize was holding. She lay her forehead against the glass wall, closed her eyes and stopped fighting back the tears that wanted to burst out.
So much for her resolve to be strong for Steel. Now she was sobbing so hard her whole body shook.
She faintly heard the authority inform Lead of their verdict: Steel had not drowned and his brain was not damaged. It just shut itself out in self-preservation, for his lungs had indeed inhaled a dangerous quantity of water.
The low temperature allowed it to instinctively reach a state of cryogenic suspension that effectively protected it from the lack of oxygen. Steel needed to stay in the healing chamber long enough to allow his lungs to get rid of the water.
Sapphire couldn't help appreciating once again what a perfect machine Steel's brain was.
Through the tears she saw the blurred image of Lead ever so gently lay Steel in the middle of the healing chamber, which she knew would hold his body without the help of any physical support. The chamber enfolded his body and wrapped it in a cocoon of healing energy. As soon as Lead left the chamber, it sealed off from the outside world. Steel was sprawled in mid air, surrounded by a soft halo of diffuse light. He was safe, now.
She was so relieved, she didn't notice that Lead had left the room and was now standing behind her, until she felt his huge hand gently squeeze her shoulder. She didn't feel like looking away from Steel, so she just put her own hand over Lead's and said, in a shaky voice: "Thank you, Lead."
Lead's voice was stentorian even when he was whispering. "I did nothing. He actually saved himself."
She shook her head. "No, he didn't. He was ready to die. His body reacted on its own, but his mind had already accepted death."
Lead's answer was skeptical. "That doesn't sound like him."
But Sapphire insisted. "I know it's hard to believe, but I sensed him give up. Don't you understand, Lead? I took his resolve away when I broke our partnership. How ironic: I parted from him because I was scared of jeopardizing his life again, and all I did was actually doom him."
The large operator tried to comfort the woman. "Don't be too harsh with yourself, Sapphire. You had no way of knowing how much he really relies on you. He always looks so strong and dependable, who would even remotely imagine that he takes half of that strength from you?"
But the blonde operator wasn't easily convinced. "I'm his partner, Lead. I'm supposed to know him deeply. And I thought I did. Until now."
Lead smiled for the first time since the beginning of this unfortunate mission. "Well, I guess you just have to think again. And you should really talk to him, Sapphire. Don't let him in the dark. He deserves to know what you feel for him."
"Feel? The only thing I feel right now is utter confusion. I don't know what to do, Lead."
The giant managed a small laugh and, squeezing Sapphire's shoulder again, said: "Then take my advice: make sure you're at his side when he's healed, explain your reasons for leaving, then let him make the decision. Steel is a very wise man, you know? And he cares deeply for you. But I'm sure you know that."
Sapphire nodded disconsolately, but at least Lead's words helped her stop crying.
Lead started to walk away, but could not resist expressing a final thought: "And, judging by the amount of tears you just shed, I would say his feelings are wholeheartedly reciprocated."
His loud laughter managed to tug a small smile at Sapphire's lips, and she said, sotto voce: "I know that, too."
Because of their alien nature, elements cannot take advantage of Earth's medical equipments, so it took Steel a whole week to force his lungs to eliminate all the water they had inhaled.
Sapphire never left his side. She didn't need food or sleep, but the passive wait almost drove her crazy. She disconnected from the outside world from time to time, effectively resting both her body and her mind. She also took solace from watching Steel's face slowly regain colour and, when he began moving his limbs ever so slightly, she knew that the healing process was almost complete.
When she sensed that the chamber was about to shut down because it had completed its task, she kneeled and prepared to receive her parter into her arms, to spare him from waking up on the floor.
The light around Steel slowly began to dim, and his body was gently deposited on her lap. The healing chamber quietly disappeared, leaving the two partners alone.
Sapphire softly called his name, lightly stroking his hair. She realized that she had never seen him quite so motionless. His body was just like his mind: always on the move. Seeing him laying on her lap, unmoving and with his eyes closed, was both appalling and touching.
Seeing his chest slowly rise and fall and feeling his body's warmth was so soothing that she almost burst into tears again, but she pushed them back. She knew that such a display of strong emotions would only disconcert her restrained partner.
So she just kept softly calling his name, until she noticed his eyes flutter.
When they finally opened, they immediately zeroed in on her face, as if he knew she was there.
'How strange,' Sapphire thought. 'I never noticed how blue his eyes are when he wakes up. Maybe because I have never watched him wake up before.'
But their blue shade was slowly replaced by their customary grey colour whilst Steel gradually became aware of his surroundings.
The first thing he did was to test their mental link, also because he knew he wasn't able to speak aloud yet. 'Sapphire. You're back.'
He couldn't hold back a sigh of relief when he heard her answer in his mind. 'Yes. I'm sorry, Steel.'
His mental voice sounded surprised. 'Why? What happened was not your fault.'
She was dumbfounded. 'How can you remember what happened? You were in cryogenic suspension the whole time since your fall in the water.'
The shadow of a smile tugged at the corners of his lips. 'I had one week time to reconstruct the events that led me into the healing chamber. Time flows very slowly in there, and I was never completely cut off from my surroundings. I knew you were there, Sapphire, all the time. I actually took from you some of the strength I needed to heal. So you shouldn't be sorry. As a matter of fact, you helped me come back. You always do.'
Sapphire looked away to hide the tears that his last words brought back to her eyes once again.
Switching to verbal communication in an attempt at concealing her emotions, she said disconsolately: "No, not always. Last time we worked together I actually almost killed you. Right after you just saved my life."
Steel tested his voice. It was a bit hoarse, but otherwise acceptable. "Is that why you left?"
She nodded, closing her eyes.
He weakly lifted his hand until it rested on her soft cheek, and said: "Look at me, Sapphire."
She complied, and he noticed that her eyes were glistening. He said, softly: "You did nothing wrong. It was the entity that took hold of your body. You didn't try to kill me, it did. You are so sensitive to time, that you always end up taking the brunt of its assaults. That's why I must protect you. It's actually one of my duties, you know? So, don't you think I'd rather die than let you get hurt?"
She raised her voice. "But I don't want you to die! Don't you understand?"
His voice was, by contrast, soothing. "I do understand. That's why you must stay by my side: you're my reason to be."
Sapphire looked at him openmouthed. He had never spoken quite so openly to her before. Maybe his mask of emotionlessness wasn't back in place yet. She had to grab the chance. She put her hand over his, still cupping her cheek, and said: "I'm sure that protecting me is not one of your duties, Steel."
He averted his eyes and withdrew his hand. "Morally, it is, as you partner."
But Sapphire reclaimed his hand and laced it with hers. She asked: "Is that it? You protect me just because you feel morally bound?"
"You're being very ambiguous, Steel. Yes or no?"
He still wasn't looking at her.
"Yes, I feel morally bound. No, that's not just it."
Sapphire was beginning to feel exasperated. With the sheer strength of her will she forced him to look at her again.
"Steel, now I'm confused. What are you trying to say?"
At her question, he did the one thing she saw him do ever so rarely, which never failed to melt something inside her: he blinked slowly and beamed the softest smile at her.
Then he said, in a very gentle voice: "I'm trying to say that I want to protect you because I feel very deeply for you, and seeing you hurt breaks my heart. Because losing you would be unbearable. Because you're my partner, Sapphire, in more ways that I can explain."
The woman was speechless, so she let her instict respond to his words. She slowly leaned forward and lightly kissed his lips, amazed by how soft they were. Her hand went to his nape and buried itself in his silken hair. Steel closed his eyes, and the soft moan of pleasure that escaped his throat sent shivers up Sapphire's body. When he lightly nibbled at her lower lip, she opened her mouth to allow him access. Their tongues met and danced together, causing their heartbeats to quicken and their minds to reel.
They had never kissed like that before, and both were marveling at how good it felt. How right it felt. When their lips finally parted, Steel smiled sweetly at his beautiful partner, taking note of her flushed cheeks, and said, huskily: "If this is what I get for drowning, can I do it more often?"