"It's Christmas," observed Sapphire, with a trace of wonder in her tone. Appearing beside her, Steel looked around at the human dwelling place that surrounded them. There was a roaring fire in a grate, and a display of flickering candles on a sideboard. A solid old trestle table bore a selection of cold meats, and a pile of dried fruits and nuts. He frowned a question at Sapphire, and she strode over to the fire, as though glad of its warmth. The world beyond the windows was white with thick snow, but neither agent was generally susceptible to cold – at least in the bodily sense, as a human would understand it.
"Christmas," she repeated. "Candles, dried fruit and nuts. A scent of... cloves, I think, perhaps in the fire. It's a common human celebration, adapted from a number of traditional winter festivals going back many generations."
"Old, then," commented Steel, with a note of disapproval. She nodded, but seemed unconcerned as she continued to look around the room.
"I don't think that's what has brought us here though. The furniture is old too of course. Humans in this period generally keep furniture for many years, as it's too expensive to replace. It's all solid wood though. Part of the natural world. And anyway, if it does look like a problem, we can easily burn it all."
"Then it's not the house or the celebration that concerns us." Steel paced up and down the length of the trestle table, oblivious to the temptations of its load. "Can you sense anything?"
"Many things. As I said, everything here is old. The house and the furniture. The table alone is over one hundred years old." Her head tilted slightly to one side, as she contemplated it. "One hundred and twenty-seven to be exact. It's nothing sinister though. All this wood feels..." She shrugged, almost dismissively. "Practically friendly."
"Hmm." Steel ceased his pacing long enough to make his own assessment of their surroundings, and found that he could not disagree. He could sense plenty that was of concern, however. "People," he observed. "Close by." Sapphire nodded.
"No surprise. The fire has recently been built up, and the food on the table is here for a reason. Probably a family is due to have a party. Christmas in this period is nothing like the lavish event that it's to become in later eras, but those who are rich enough still make some effort to mark the occasion."
"You seem very well informed," he told her. She smiled.
"It's a happy event. I find it... fascinating."
"If it's filled with people, I think we're more likely to find it frustrating." He turned from the table, only to barely miss colliding with another man, who had appeared out of thin air just beside him. "And what are you doing here?"
"Helping," said the new arrival, and offered a smile of greeting. It was not returned by Steel, and Sapphire gave a small laugh.
"Ignore him. I don't think he quite understands the Christmas spirit. Hello, Silver. It's good to see you."
"Likewise, of course. As always." He wrinkled his nose as he regarded the room, with what looked like a sort of regret. "Although if we're to be having a Christmas adventure, I'd much rather it was late Victorian. Possibly Edwardian."
"I like Georgian England." Sapphire gave a twirl, and instantly her plain blue dress had become much more grand. "They know how to dress in this period."
"Yes. Perhaps." Silver turned his attentions to the candles, and with a wave of a hand, set them all to burning with different coloured flames. "But I like a tree. A little festive flair."
"When you've both quite finished?" interrupted Steel, somewhat acidly. "We're in a house full of humans, who are apparently about to have some sort of party in our midst. We should get on with the issue at hand."
"Which is precisely why I'm here, my dear fellow. Three heads are better than two, are they not?"
"That very much depends on the heads," said Steel. Silver subsided into silence, although he did not look especially abashed. Hiding a smirk, Sapphire went over to join Steel.
"I like both your heads," she told them, and contrived to lean an arm comfortably upon one of each of their shoulders. Silver laid a hand atop one of hers, and smiled.
"Thank you. Now perhaps if we could all put our heads together?"
"If we must." A hiss of irritation in his voice, Steel nonetheless also placed one of his hands upon one of Sapphire's. Their fingers interlocked, and Sapphire's eyes flashed a brilliant, burning blue. Her mouth opened then, and although her lips and tongue did not move, still a voice spoke from her throat; a voice that was a curious amalgam of all of them.
"The wood is not a problem," she/they said. Both her companions nodded once, in tandem. "The building itself is no danger. However there is something here." Three heads cocked on one side, in a unity of contemplation. "Something made of... metal." Slowly the threesome turned in a circle, their movements showing no sign of independence of body or of mind. They were, to all intents and purposes, one. "Gold," they said then, and came to a standstill, staring at a corner of the room. Veiled in shadow, it was easily overlooked, but they saw it now, dark from old wooden panelling, dim from lack of light, and bearing a small, wooden construction. Sapphire's voice broke free from the rest as she took a step forward, her face showing surprise.
"A crib!" she exclaimed, and went to it instantly. Sure enough it was a crib, no doubt handed down over generations. Within it, fast asleep beneath a knitted blanket, was a human child. Beside Sapphire, Steel frowned at the peaceful sight.
"Presumably the child is not part of the anomaly?" he asked. Sapphire's brow creased as she checked, then she shook her head.
"Although he is a facet of it, after a fashion. Or rather he's within it."
"The crib isn't gold, and neither is it dangerous," said Silver. "A simple construction. A machine of a sort, if you consider the rockers. Far too simple to hide any threat."
"Yes and no," said Steel. Perhaps he had an affinity for metals. Perhaps he had sharper eyes, or less inclination to be distracted. He reached out, and lifted something that had been tucked beneath the blanket, beside the sleeping child – a ring, clearly fashioned from gold, and clearly very old. It was decorated with odd little markings, signs and symbols that meant nothing to the three agents. Sapphire passed her hand above the ring, and nodded gravely.
"Definitely the source of the disturbance. The ring itself is at least five hundred years old, and the gold was mined some significant time before that. I believe it's what is called a talisman ring. Supposedly the markings convey protection upon the owner, although its recent history suggests that it has been doing quite the opposite." She winced at the sensations that the little object sent coursing through her. "It's a part of an ancient custom and belief probably long outdated even in this period. Very dangerous."
"Far too dangerous to be left lying around here," said Steel, with evident disapproval. "Has it infected anything?"
"The child is no danger. We already know that the room is safe." Sapphire shook her head. "No. It's just the ring."
"Then we must deal with it." Steel's fist closed about the little trinket, but whatever he was hoping to do, he was interrupted when the door on the other side of the room swung suddenly open, and two people came in. A man and a woman, neither old nor very young, they were in the middle of an animated discussion, which it appeared that the woman was winning. They showed no awareness of the three agents, and did not appear to notice as Silver's many-coloured candle flames blinked abruptly back to yellow.
"Hush now, Tristram." Turning towards the crib, and still apparently oblivious to the agents, the woman lowered her voice to a stage whisper. "You'll wake the child."
"If that isn't a blatant attempt to win the argument by default, then I'm a—"
"I know exactly what you are, Tristram dear." She smiled at him, and he sighed.
"Yes, I know." She leaned over to give his cheek a quick kiss, then bent over the crib. "Hello, Sylvester. Such a shame that you're sleeping through your first Christmas."
"I think I shall join him," said Tristram, with some feeling. "The prospect of an afternoon listening to his mother getting ferociously overexcited about how romantic everything is..."
"Tristram..." His companion fixed him with an amused glare, and he sighed, clearly contrite.
"I am very fond of Eustacie," he conceded, if perhaps a trifle unwillingly. "It's just that she's so very... Eustacie."
"And if she weren't, how different would all our lives be?"
"You know, Sarah, you have a disturbing habit of mellowing my bite." He smiled fondly, and leaned over beside her, one arm falling very naturally around her shoulders as he too looked at the sleeping baby. "I suppose he is a fair child," he said, no longer sounding quite so short. "All the best bits of Ludovic and of Eustacie. Another Beau in the making, sure enough."
"A long family line," said Sapphire, her eyes gleaming faintly blue. "Can you see it?"
"Yes," said Steel. "A very long line, leading far back, and a long way forward. And this ring leading back with it. All that history, and with designs on the future. It should be destroyed."
"It's not just a piece of gold," said Silver. "It's a piece of Time. We can't just melt it. Here, give it to me."
"Are you strong enough to deal with it?" asked Steel. Silver eyed him with a sort of amused outrage.
"A dandy I might be," he said, with the surety that the word would be lost on Steel, "but I'm every bit as much a man of metal as you, Steel. Give me the ring."
"Here." Steel handed it over, and the little golden trinket flashed briefly in the light from the distant fire. Silver's hand closed around it, and his fist glowed with a pale, white fire of its own. His brow wrinkled in a frown of concentration and, beside the crib, Sarah paused, looking about as though she had heard something. She was soon distracted however, as the baby awoke with a start, and blinked up at its visiting kinfolk. Silver's hand glowed brighter, his eyes gleamed, and baby Sylvester looked past Tristram and Sarah, to gaze steadily at the labouring Element, and his bright, silver fires.
"They're starting to notice something," warned Sapphire, and Silver's frown deepened and deepened, his knuckles whitening until, with a sudden, brilliant smile of gratification, he unfurled his fingers, and revealed a scrumpled ball of paper. It was blackened and trembling, whether from the residues of Silver's powers, or from the frustrated furies of Time, he could not have said. Steel took the paper and, with a flick of his fingers, burned it to ash in the palm of his hand. He then strode to the fireplace, and tossed the powdered ashes into the flames. They roared up suddenly, glowing briefly white, then a furious red, before settling back to their accustomed orange. Sarah started at the disturbance, and lifted little Sylvester into her arms.
"The wind must be getting up," she said. "Come on, little Beau. There's no need to stay in the dark now you're awake. Let's enjoy that fire."
"And the food," said Tristram, with an amused look at the baby. "I'm sorry, but you shall have to miss out on that."
"Another time." Sarah settled Sylvester comfortably in her arms, and the three of them headed over to the hearth. "There'll be many more Christmases for all of us."
"Yes, there will," said Steel, his eyes easily seeing the long line of the family, as it stretched out before them. "Now there will." And his eyes drifted with an eloquent sharpness to the now quietened fire. Sapphire joined him, and linked her hand with his.
"Merry Christmas, Steel," she said, and he frowned, missing the point of the phrase. Silver laughed lightly at his confusion.
"And a Merry Christmas to both of you," he said, before vanishing back into nothingness. A second later, Sapphire followed him. Left alone, Steel contemplated the peaceful little scene in the room, aware suddenly of the baby's placid scrutiny. The pair regarded each other for a moment, before a small smile stole its way across Steel's usually impassive face. Then, with a wink at the child, he too vanished, leaving the family to enjoy their Christmas in safety and peace.