“You must be joking.”Copper managed to combine disdain and astonishment very well, for someone who was neither Steel nor Silver.</span>
“Not in the least,” Jet replied. “I do not joke.” They sat straight, with an almost military bearing their tall body emphasized. Their sharply tailored black suit might as well have had epaulets, and their shoes boasted the magnificence of a spit-shine.
In short, Lead thought, they were the Element he would have thought least apt to flights of fancy. He smiled. This might well prove interesting … particularly if the three in question were to appear earlier than expected.
“I’m struggling here, Jet,” he said, since Copper’s dismissive sniff apparently signaled her intention to ignore anything further Jet might say. “Tell us all why you think our top Operatives and their favorite Specialist” — Copper’s snort was quite audible, and Lead grinned even more widely — “resemble mysterious cetaceans who swim in the inky, icy darkness of Earth’s most inaccessible aquatic depths?”
He slowly advanced on Jet as he spoke, and now perched himself rather dangerously on one arm of their chair, forcing them to crane their head up and sideways to view him.
“You’re laughing at me.” They scowled.
Ruby waved one hand at Jet. “Of course he is; he wants to jerk your chain. Don’t let him. Lead, stop teasing them. By the way, your Silver imitation is ridiculous. Over the top, as humans say.”
Jet glared at Ruby’s initial words, but folded their hands as she continued speaking. Within the clean lines of the suit jacket, their shoulders relaxed slightly; it was obvious they thought Ruby had put an end to the conversation. Lead grinned and nodded at Ruby, acknowledging her admonishment before returning to where he’d originally stood and slouching against a wall that was apparently there only for that convenience.
Ruby raised an eyebrow at him. Then she glanced sideways at Jet. “But — purely to assuage my own curiosity, you understand — why not explain simply, for those of us who can neither imitate Silver nor want to, why you said what you did.”
Jet frowned. “It was a comment I made in passing, and I’ve already been japed at. Why should I risk continued mockery?”
“Because you’ve managed to intrigue everyone here,” she said in her most soothing tone. “I’ll wager that even Copper will listen.”
“I will not.” From the corner.
“You’re listening now,” Ruby pointed out.
The sound Copper made comprised equal amounts of embarrassment and annoyance. From the vantage of his comfortable sofa, Gold giggled.
Before Copper could start an argument, Lead decided to follow Ruby’s diplomatic lead. “I’m sorry I teased you, Jet. That was rude of me. Please tell us your story. I’m sure it will be worth hearing, and I know you’ll tell it well.”
“Hmph.” But Jet’s scowl lightened. “Where should I start?”
“Why not begin by telling us where you managed to see such creatures,” Ruby suggested.
Jet lifted their chin and adjusted the cravat around their neck. “It was an Assignment off Greenland’s west coast, in Baffin Bay. It was winter, and we needed to be down a little more than 1,700 meters below the surface —”
Jet nodded. “Iridium and I.”
Lead lost his grin, but said nothing. Ruby and Copper mirrored each other's surprised expressions.
“Iridium,” Ruby said. “Who else?”
“Radium.” Jet looked the tiniest bit belligerent. “There was very little life to be damaged where we were Assigned, certainly no human life, and probably no intelligent life. At least that was what we were told. We needed Radium in the darkness, and we needed Iridium to protect us from the salt water. The pressure was no problem, of course, but we had no idea how long we would be down there.”
Ruby knew better than to ask the particulars of the Assignment. Why, for instance, had it been deemed necessary to send Operators into an environment almost completely unsuited for earthly life instead of finding a land route to the problem? And why was one of those Operators herself almost equally unsuited for earthly life?
Truly, those who sent Elements on their missions frightened Ruby far more than most of her Assignments. She didn’t wish to draw their attention with too much curiosity, however, so she focused on Jet’s story. “And while you were down there, where there is no light, and where iron mountains can be flattened under the weight of a mile of water, you saw …?”
Jet surprised Ruby when their expression transmuted into something which, on a human, might have been awe.
“There were three of them. Radium couldn’t completely illuminate them, but you caught glimpses; a line here, a curve limned there … and all the lines, all the curves, were in motion. They were diving together, searching for food, but dancing around each other as they did so.
“Everything was curved, even the tusks that two of them bore; each tusk wound round itself like …” Jet stopped, looking for the right word. “Like the upward path of a pilgrimage. They were beautiful.”
Normally, this type of language from Jet would have elicited teasing or worse from Ruby or Copper. Today, it didn’t.
Jet continued. “We watched the three of them together for some time, and just as we completed our work, they began their journey back to the surface. Our Assignment was over, and Iridium wanted to leave, but Radium and I … we wanted to watch them just a little longer, and Iridium finally agreed.
“As they ascended, the darkness dissipated; by the time they reached the surface, the sun was rising in the east. Its first rays allowed us to see them clearly now as they rose above and sank below the ice-capped waves. The two males dipped their heads and crossed tusks; at first I thought they were fighting over the female, but when I watched more carefully, I saw that it was still part of their dance. So was the way they supported the female, taking turns with each other in who would be closest to her.
“And it was she who led the dance.”
Jet stopped speaking, their face still soft with remembrance. No one else spoke; no one needed to, Ruby thought.
“Thank you, Jet,” she finally managed.
“Yes, thank you,” Lead repeated, his normally jovial face transformed in the same way Jet’s was. The others were silent, but Copper nodded in appreciation.
“And what are we thanking Jet for?”
Silver sauntered in, followed by Sapphire. Steel brought up to the rear.
After a moment’s awkward silence, Steel frowned. “If you don’t want to explain, just say so.”
Ruby finally spoke, watching Sapphire as she did.
“Ballet. Balance. Dance. Trust.”
Sapphire tilted her head, considering. Her eyes shone cobalt blue as she turned them first on Ruby, then on her companions.
“All good things,” she said quietly, quelling what might have been further questioning from Silver and Steel.
“Very, very good,” Ruby agreed.
With that, the conversation moved on to other subjects, but those within that place never forgot the image of dancing in utter darkness, and rising toward the light.