(Disclaimers in the prologue)


Sapphire sat alone in her retreat.

Her immediate needs had been addressed. Physically, she looked much better than the crumpled, ragged figure who had faced down Transient beings and lived to tell the tale. She had slept for a long time. Her neck no longer hurt her.

The aftermath of this traumatic assignment had been quickly resolved. She had made her report and checked that Topaz and Mercury were securely incarcerated. When she had left the central chamber, Silver had tried to follow her. Sapphire had refused his company as gently as possible. She'd needed to be alone.

Steel hadn't tried to follow. She hadn't been sure whether to feel grateful or hurt, but gratitude had won in the end.

Now she had recovered sufficiently to begin to think. All the events, the images of recent days returned to haunt her. She wondered about her partner's experiences and realised that she already had a good idea of the false images he had been shown: that stab of hurt as Silver had spoken with his customary casual flirtation had been, in retrospect, utterly revealing.

Sapphire formed questions in her mind and tried to answer them, mostly unsuccessfully. In particular, she asked herself whether she could possibly continue to work alongside a man she feared.

Each time the question appeared, Sapphire tried to dismiss it. Fear Steel? They had been together for more than a hundred years! Why now, after all that time, should their partnership become coloured by apprehension? Yet each time she attempted to discard the matter, the nightmare returned to taunt her. She was forced to admit that the images she had seen were the direct product of her own mind. The Transient had planted the memories, but the seed of fear had already existed, for him to exploit.

She mused on the questions and the nightmare for hours. She slept again, but this time was not sufficiently exhausted for the sleep to be dreamless. Trapped by her own treacherous thoughts, she wondered who to turn to for help. It didn't take long to realise that the only individual she had ever trusted enough to share such intimacies, was the one individual to whom she could not possibly speak about them.

In desperate need of a distraction, Sapphire finally removed the defences she had placed over her retreat, in order to check on Diamond's progress. The report which came back lifted her spirits, as her fellow empath was healing quickly.

Immediately after she had received this news, her partner reached her.


Even his mental voice sounded shaken and uncertain. Sapphire swallowed in nervousness and cursed his sense of timing. A moment longer and she would have been unreachable again. She had to respond, though. And if she were honest with herself, the caress of his voice in her head was like welcoming an old friend home after too long spent apart.

[Steel,] she acknowledged, her own guarded tone sounding overly defensive to her senses.

[Are you all right? I've been trying to contact you.]

[I'm all right. I needed some time.]


Communications went silent and Sapphire sensed Steel's helplessness through their link. Finally, his voice came through again.

[You have me at a disadvantage.]

[Disadvantage?] For a moment, Sapphire's confusion out-weighed her apprehension, but her partner soon explained.

[You know what they made me see. Or you must have a vague idea, at least. But the reverse is not true. Not even vaguely.]

What could she say to that? He was quite right. Her partner was asking her to trust him.

Sapphire panicked.

[Not now, Steel. Please.]

She severed the communication and replaced the protections around her retreat. Then she sank to her knees and hid her face.


When, two days later, the authority bypassed her defences and asked her how she fared, Sapphire knew her self-imposed isolation was drawing attention. Taking a metaphoric deep breath, she left the confines of her retreat and began to socialise again.

Silver invited her to a small bridge party, and she accepted. Sapphire found that, for a short time at least, her dark mood was lightened in frivolity and familiar jests. She found herself watching the flirtatious interaction between Jet and her host closely, and was visited by another twinge of envy, though this time her feelings dwelt less on the way Silver lavished his charismatic attention on another and more on the way that some could find such things so easy. So natural. It didn't seem fair, somehow.

Later in the evening, she stepped aside from the table for a while, enjoying a glass of the sparkling wine Silver had acquired especially for the occasion. Her dashing host joined her and led her out to the back of his retreat, where the refracted colours of their dimension shifted like a kaleidoscope.

"It's a lovely view, isn't it?" he observed.

Sapphire turned sharply to look at Silver. She had stood here, alongside him, on numerous occasions previously. Never before had he made such a banal comment.

"Lovely view?" she repeated, first incredulous and then derisive. Silver looked suitably abashed. "All right. Out with it!" she demanded, playfully stern.

His question was gently voiced, but immediate and to the point. "Sapphire, why won't you see Steel?" he asked, frowning into the distance.

"What do you mean?" she returned, annoyance masking her disconcertion. "I'm right here! I'm not exactly in hiding!"

"I realise that, but it counts for nothing with Steel!" her friend pressed. "He's been shut in his retreat for days, nobody has seen him -"

"Well that's hardly unusual for Steel!"

"- and the only communications we've had are desperately neutral enquiries regarding your welfare!" Silver took Sapphire's hand and peered worriedly into her eyes. "He's waiting for you to go to him, for some reason, and I think it's time you saw him."

"Silver, you have no idea," she began, hating the way all the confusing feelings welled up within. Then Sapphire found she couldn't continue, and made her excuses, handing Silver the crystal flute still half filled with wine. She almost ran all the way back to her home.

This unsatisfactory state of affairs remained unresolved when the next briefing came through. Confusion or no, it was time to go back to work.


She left the hotel, following the tensely held posture of her partner. Steel paced into the cool evening air, the sea breeze ruffling his hair, until he reached a break in the promenade railings and walked down some steps to the rocky beach.

"Destroy the music," came his swift instruction as Sapphire joined him. She nodded agreement, tearing the paper into small pieces to let the wind take them seaward. She was about to make some bland observation about wishing all assignments could be so readily resolved, when Steel exploded.

"What the hell do you think you were doing?" he demanded. "Anything could have been the trigger in a place like that - anything! A room full of ticking time bombs and you chose to dither about on the organ, as though you were at one of your wretched parties rather than on assignment!"

Sapphire swallowed her immediate rebuffal and frowned. Steel was right. She had let her dark mood distract her from the job in hand.

"You could have been killed! You could have got me killed! It was completely irresponsible!"

"It was a mistake," she admitted. "But a fortunate one. We could have spent hours looking for the trigger!"

"Hours don't matter!" Steel shouted back at her. "Better to work for hours with due regard to safety, than to go steaming in and forget that the forces we are fighting have the power to destroy both of us and all the life on this planet!" He stepped closer, ready to continue his tirade, his eyes full of fury which, Sapphire sensed, was not wholly provoked by her admittedly reckless actions in the hotel.

Steel looked almost mindless with rage. Sapphire took an involuntary step backwards, wary of nightmare images and memories of madness and violence. Something in her expression, or perhaps through their link, made Steel stop short, but it was too late. Sapphire slipped on a patch of seaweed and fell heavily to the rocks, landing awkwardly. The wind was knocked out of her and she shouted in surprised pain, before remembering the danger she was in and attempting to scrabble further away.

Steel did not move. Against the darkened sky, his figure was imposing. His face had changed, though. Replacing his anger was a look of shock which verged on horror. They held that pose for long, drawn out seconds, both seemingly afraid to move, or to look elsewhere. Then Steel stepped closer, cautiously, holding out a hand to help her up. Sapphire knew she had been found out, but even as her mind screamed at her to take the proffered hand and shrug the incident off, her reflexes betrayed her. Resounding in her brain came the sound of Steel's anger and the fury in his eyes.

"No!" she gasped as the hand drew nearer, and pushed back further still. Her vulnerability and physical weakness seemed so clear now, and the pain where she had landed was throbbing, and she wanted to think sufficiently clearly that she could form a port back to the Hub, only her mind was swamped with horrors and fears and frustration. Although she hated herself for it, tears formed in her eyes.

Steel straightened up again and stumbled back. His expression of shock had turned to a desperate disbelief.

"You're frightened of me," he observed quietly, in a flat tone. When she couldn't answer, he looked away, turning to the barely visible shoreline. "How can you be ...?" He tailed off, then tried again. His voice was quavering. "Sapphire, you must know that I ..." Once again he couldn't complete the sentence. Finally, he returned to where she still lay, watching him warily, and said gruffly, "I'm sorry I lost my temper." Then her partner turned and walked away, along the beach, his dark clothing soon rendering him invisible.

Slowly, Sapphire pulled herself into a sitting position. She fussed with her hair, to little avail, and glanced down at her attire. Her stockings were laddered. It seemed that laddering nylons was part and parcel of the job, these days. Her arm was sore and she examined it, noting the bruised grazing. Gathering herself, she tried to concentrate enough to draw power to heal this injury.

But she couldn't. She couldn't think straight. Giving up, she sat with her head in her hands and began to cry.


Later, when the tears had dried and the grazing healed, Sapphire stood and straightened her dress. Steel was still nearby. She could sense his presence, though the link between them was narrowed with their mutual withdrawal.

It was a beautiful night. The distant sound of the continuing party at the hotel was carried on gusts of wind scented with brine. The sky was cloudless and the moon almost full. Sapphire sighed with tired unhappiness and began to pick her way along the beach in Steel's direction.

She could have turned her back. She could have returned to the Hub and asked for a different partner. It had been done before and would no doubt happen again. But this was Steel. And she and Steel were good together. They made a difference. Sapphire couldn't simply walk away.

When she caught up with him, he was staring out across the bay, his hands buried in the pockets of his overcoat. He didn't turn to acknowledge her presence, though Sapphire sensed he was aware of it. His shoulders stiffened and tension blossomed in his profile. She knew she should speak but didn't know how to start. Her partner surprised her by doing so himself. She felt the effort he expended, to make his voice as tender and gentle as possible.

"Back there, in that godforsaken old complex, I thought I'd lost you. Completely."

Their link was swelling again with emotion, Sapphire noted. Her companion was such a very intense man. She made a conscious attempt to dampen the explosion of nerves erupting inside her.

"I know," she whispered in return.

"But in the last days," he continued, huddling further into his coat, "I've been thinking that I found you again there, only to lose you anyway."

Sapphire looked away, shaking her head. There was too much to say and she couldn't speak.

"You know what I saw," Steel finally stated. He turned to look at her and there was a strange self-disgust in his expression. "You know what they used to hurt me."

Sapphire found her voice. "I have an idea, yes," she replied awkwardly.

"It's too late to hold back," Steel mused, apparently to himself.

The link they shared then exploded with imagery, taking Sapphire quite by surprise. Too startled to turn away from the pictures being sent, she was drawn into Steel's memories. And once she started to watch them, she found she couldn't look away. In the space of less than a minute, she experienced her partner's worst nightmare and participated in his attempted suicide.

When the memories left her and she returned to the dark, windy beach, tears of empathy cascaded down her cheeks. She remembered her uncertainty when leaving the Transient base, and recognised that her instinct had been correct. Whatever happened now and in the future, it would be coloured by this. It didn't matter about Silver; Silver's part in this was meaningless. What mattered was Steel. What mattered was this confession; this heady cocktail of desire and dependence.

She had always known, of course. Right from the start, when those disconcerting emotions had first been pushed aside, initially with irritation then later with real fear. Sapphire couldn't have shared a link so intimate with her partner without their most intense feelings spilling over on occasion. She almost laughed at herself when she finally understood how hard they had always worked to avoid the issue.

And now it was out in the open. They couldn't pretend any more. Sapphire felt a momentary stab of anger, that Steel had needed her to taste his longing, that he couldn't have kept it to himself. Knowing how Steel felt made it that much more difficult to evade the feelings she had in return, and Sapphire wasn't sure that she would ever be ready to face them. However it was viewed, the matter appeared insurmountable, and that was without even beginning to consider Sapphire's own recent nightmare and its legacy.

She looked to Steel, whose face was angled away from her in shame. Seeing this, her anger vanished.

When he spoke, he spoke to the stars.

"I didn't think I could ever hurt more than when I watched you and Silver in that wretched café." His voice raised in volume and pitch as he choked back emotion. "To know that you hated me, that you would happily betray me to be free." He dropped his head. "But the last few days have taught me otherwise."

He raised his gaze to meet her eyes and poured everything of himself into the look he gave her. Sapphire felt quite overwhelmed.

"Sapphire, it hurts."

Steel fell silent. He had trusted her with his most intimate fear. The implications of this nightmare would have to wait for later. What mattered at the moment was trust, because without it, they had absolutely nothing.

With resignation, Sapphire stepped closer and allowed herself a lingering look into her partner's troubled eyes. The fury was long gone, of course. It always disappeared as quickly as it arrived. She chewed at her lip, so acutely afraid in that instant, that to turn her back and walk away seemed an attractive proposition. Only the patient acceptance in Steel's expression gave her the strength to focus her thoughts.

The images returned with unsurprising ease. They gathered momentum as they gained in clarity, and Sapphire shared the whole of her nightmare with Steel. External to the memories, she felt the sharp tang of her partner's reaction and trembled with ambiguous feelings.

When the sequence climaxed with dream-Steel's final, murderous act, her partner spun away from her and staggered a few steps, shouting in denial. Sapphire let the memories go and bent over, recovering her breath as though she had been running. When she looked up again, Steel stood aside, his hands held accusingly before his face. He stared at them in unseeing horror.

Feeling oddly timid, she stepped closer. When she closed the distance between them, Steel forced his wide eyes away from his hands and met her eyes. There was such horror in his expression that suddenly nothing was quite so urgent as the need to offer comfort to her partner. Sapphire reached to touch his hands, letting their fingers clasp as they had done so many times before, and felt strangely victorious as Steel's expression drained of its abhorrence until only an exhausted despair remained.

She felt the same way.

In the end, it was easy to drop her head to Steel's shoulder and put her arms around him. They held each other for a long time, on the darkened, rocky beach. And when they eventually pulled apart and turned for home, Sapphire still held her partner's hand.


On the Hub, a specialist meandered through passages and chambers. Those he passed hailed him heartily and he smiled and nodded in return.

He was a hero. Everybody told him so.

He still felt like a traitor.

His wanderings took him to a place most shunned. Nitro stood before the cell door for long minutes before turning around and almost nonchalantly leaning against it. Slowly he let his legs buckle until he had slid all the way to the floor. His head fell back to rest against the door and he could sense, just barely, the dull and numbing shroud within.

Mercury was inside. Lucky, lucky Mercury.

Distractedly, Nitro gazed at his long, talented fingers. With just one single digit, he had made Mercury forget.

He wished he could give himself the same absolution.


The End

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