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Echoes

Title: Echoes (also on AO3)
Fandoms, Characters: Sapphire & Steel - Sapphire, Steel; Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell - Maria Absalom (plus certain cameos)
Word Count: About 2800
Summary: Sapphire and Steel investigate curious happenings in a ruinous house.
Notes: Of the two fandoms, this fic is almost certainly more accessible from the direction of Sapphire & Steel, even if only because expectations from that side are so much more likely to encompass the unclear or unexplained. A fan of S&S alone would probably be able to appreciate a case fic of the more bizarre sort; a JS&MN fan would predominately find an outside perspective on a familiar world and a trace character given more significant focus

Late afternoon on the grounds of a once-fine manor. A woman in a blue dress—pretty, though by no means unduly elegant—stands on a gravel drive, her body inclined to examine a pink rose whose vines have taken over a weathered stone bench. Farther down the hill, a man in a grey business suit opens a large, rusting iron gate and enters the property; he shuts the gate behind him and climbs the gentle hill. 'Sapphire,' he says in a level voice that could convey greeting, or merely acknowledgement.

The woman looks up from the flower. 'Steel,' she answers, the ghost of a smile in her voice. Less than the shadow of that ghost appears upon her face, yet even so she wears a warmer expression than any the man has yet shown.

'Where are we?' the man asks.

'An abandoned estate—quite old,' she replies; the man winces at this assessment. 'Uninhabited for . . . about fourteen years, at this time.'

The man catches the slight emphasis she places on the last phrase. 'When are we?'

'Early 1700s. Midsummer's day.' She pauses, then adds with a real smile, 'Which calls, I think, for a change of clothes.' And now she wears another blue dress—a monstrously elaborate gown, full of ruffles and pleats, and all constructed of so much fabric that Steel does not entirely understand how Sapphire remains unconsumed by it. She wears this costume, however, as she does all others: as if she lived in it, day in and day out, like a human would. She looks at her companion. 'How about you?'

Steel disregards the suggestion that he don some garb more appropriate to this period. Instead, he demands, 'Why us? Why now?'

'I don't know,' Sapphire answers.

'Is the time break in the grounds or the house?'

'I'm not sure. The house, I think.'

'Then we'll start there,' Steel says.

----

In an instant, they stand inside the hall without having walked there. 'Inside' means only 'having four walls': nothing remains of the roof. Saplings have begun to populate a space once meant to awe humans. The remains of weathered canvases hang upon some of the walls or lie at their base upon the floor. Clusters of jagged brightness, surrounded by unexpected flashes of light, mark where mirrors have fallen from their places and shattered upon the ground. Fragments of blue and grey flicker through them as the two who wear these colours move about the room.

'The entire house is a possible trigger,' the man says. 'A time break waiting to happen.'

The woman makes no reply.

'We ought to level the place,' the man continues.

'You know what we were told,' the woman says at last. 'There is a power with an interest in ruined buildings, and we are not to interfere with it.'

'His territory is supposed to be elsewhere, isn't it? Further north? This can't be his.'

'This is his,' Sapphire says.

We should not be making alliances with such powers, the man says, and the words do not travel through the air, but directly from mind to mind. Even alone, between trusted colleagues, certain words should never receive voice, lest

No, the woman agrees.

'Can you tell where the break is?' Steel asks again.

'It's inside the house. I'm sure of that.'

'And?'

'I can't be more specific,' Sapphire says. 'I don't think it's quite happened yet.'

'Alright. I'll take upstairs, you search downstairs. Unless you'd prefer—'

'No. Downstairs is fine.' The two part: he up the broad stairs that sweep their way to the next floor; she through a door across the hall.

----

Downstairs, the rooms contain jungles of ivy. Tendrils twine about the remains of tables and chairs, prop open cabinet doors and weave through the frames of empty windows. In a fireplace in one room, a cat has littered her kittens. On a tapestry in another, something shifts—something more than just the dappled light through the crumbled wall—half-stone and half-lilac—but it has nothing to do with Time and Sapphire ignores it.

A second hall has nearly become a terrace: one wall of stone remains, while the rest have become trees and shrubs and flowers. Broken crockery litters the ground; most shards lie where they fell, though some have gathered into small heaps about the edges of the room—for room still describes this place, though living wood now stands for walls and green boughs for the ceiling. Rooms from upstairs look down into the green hall, and one arm of floor ventures out, clinging to the solitary stone wall. Two arms, rather, for a second, little more than a fringe, crosses beneath the gable window, which surely once belonged to a third level.

----

Upstairs, many of the rooms have no more roof than the heavens themselves, though others still remain fully enclosed. Steel looks into dressing rooms and bedrooms and a forlorn library, empty unless the very hawthorn leaves of the previous autumn bear words that some eye could read.

One chamber at the front of the house still has glass in its window and possesses most of a ceiling, though the center has fallen in. Steel picks his way through the detritus on the floor—shattered plaster, old fashioned clothes stained and faded, a tarnished ewer, a warped metal basin—towards the window. A broken string of pearls in a dark corner pick up the light and glow like miniature moons. Outside the window, a solitary man climbs the hill up to the house. He has reddish-brown hair and an expression of some particular character that Steel cannot quite identify; even in repose, it looks as though its master has reacted to some absurdity before him.

Sapphire! Steel calls, and she appears, the diamonds on her dress (Steel does not remember those) shining like stars. Diamond stars and pearl moons. Someone is coming. Sapphire looks out the window, and together they watch the man approach the house and enter it. They do not hear a sound from the great front door downstairs.

'He isn't here,' says Sapphire.

'What do you mean, he isn't here?'

'Not in this time. He's in the future.'

'Not our future.' Steel might not know a decade by its fashion, nor care to, but even he can generalize across broad swaths. He recalls, too, that the human costume he wore once looked something like that man's clothes.

'No. I'd say he's only about a century after this time. It's the summer solstice for him as well.'

'Oh, really!' The extreme absurdity makes Steel acutely sarcastic. 'It isn't all about quarter days.'

'And cross-quarter days,' Sapphire reminds him, amused rather than irritated. 'They do make it easier, though. Especially for amateurs.'

'Can you stop him?'

'It's too late: he's already begun.'

'He just arrived!'

'No, his time is the same as ours: evening. Outside that window is early afternoon.'

Steel looks again and observes the shortened shadows whose importance had previously escaped him. 'An echo, then. A backwards one but an echo all the same.' He glances to Sapphire for confirmation.

'Something like that,' she agrees.

'An echo of a man in the future trying to use the summer solstice to interfere with Time. How?'

Sapphire says nothing.

'We're in his past, so he must be reaching backwards rather than forwards. Why? Is the evening significant?'

'Perhaps.'

'For what?'

'Change; death.'

'Death itself? A certain incident of death in the past?'

'No . . . . No, I don't think so. It's something more concrete.'

'Still dangerous?'

'Of course.'

'Well so are we,' Steel says. Sapphire smiles. 'He's in the front hall?'

'Yes.'

'Then come on.'

Within two steps they stand back in the entrance hall themselves—their own hall, not the one with the strange man tampering with Time and Death. The setting sun shines through the remains of a window that has started to take over its wall and Sapphire's golden hair appears coppery—bronze, even—in the russet light.

'Steel!' Sapphire cries. 'There's—' but she breaks off. Steel turns to discover what has interrupted her, but sees only Sapphire standing calmly before him, her hands folded circumspectly in front of her. Steel waits for her to finish whatever warning she had started to give, but after an expectant silence she says only, 'Well?'

Steel does not appreciate this sudden detachment. 'What were you about to say just now?'

'I was not speaking,' she answers. 'I have only just arrived.' Something sounds wrong about her voice. Steel knows Sapphire's voice very well—both aloud and in his mind; whatever has just spoken sounds like neither. The pitch seems slightly off, Steel thinks, and certainly the cadence falls nothing like it ought to.

'Sapphire. What's wrong?'

Her features arrange themselves into a frown of puzzlement, but she only says, 'There is nothing wrong. I am here.' Now that he listens for it, Steel can recognize a little of Sapphire in that voice, but he still hears more of the unknown speaker.

'Who are you? Where is Sapphire?'

'Is Sapphire a person, then? I do not know where Sapphire is. I am Maria Absalom.' The name means nothing to Steel.

'You are also Sapphire. You are sharing that place with her.'

The woman looks about her, as if expecting to see someone standing just next to her, but of course the hall contains no one but for her and Steel. She looks at herself, perhaps thinking to discover something incorrect there—something to prove Steel's statement—but apparently she finds nothing to surprise her.

'I am myself,' she says. 'This is my favourite gown. I had it specially made, and I myself added the last of my father's diamonds to it.'

Steel does not know what make of this. He tries a different tactic. Sapphire. Can you hear me?

He receives no answer.

'Why are you here?' he asks.

'I was summoned. Forward; to the front hall of Shadow House; to meet a gentleman on the summer solstice. Here I am, and here you are. Was it you who summoned me?'

'No.'

'Was it Sapphire?' If the new woman truly does not know Sapphire, Steel thinks, she can deliberately and readily attempt to account for her. Steel seldom encounters such adaptability; he reserves judgement on whether it will prove helpful or obstructive.

'No.'

'How very curious,' she—Maria—says, 'for I was summoned.'

'Sapphire said that there was a man doing something with Time and Death. Do you know who he is?'

'I don't know him, no, but perhaps it was he who summoned me. To judge by the condition of the house, this is sometime in my future—perhaps twenty or thirty years? No, less, of course. The ruination would have proceeded quicker now that no-one lives here at all. Since I am dead now.'

'And why have you come to this place and this time?'

'I told you: I was summoned. Forward; to the front hall of Shadow House; to meet a gentleman on the summer solstice. Here you are, and here I am.' She does not appear concerned to find herself with a gentleman—or an entity who could pass for such—other than the one who summoned her, and Steel has no intention of pointing this out to her. Potentially too adaptable, he notes. Clearly her meeting with the summoner must not come to pass, and Steel will have a better chance of returning her to her proper time if she remains in his.

A trigger, Steel had assessed the house. An armoury of triggers ready to collect all the disasters of Time and unleash them. It may help to make his task easier, though he approves no more than he had when he first set foot in the building. He hears again what he had said to Sapphire then: 'We ought to level the place.'

'No!' Maria cries out—she too has heard his words. 'That you will not. Everything that I made this house, that I let it become, is for the Northern King! This is his.' Her last three words sound oddly doubled, as if she speaks in not-quite-unison with herself, and Steel remembers that Sapphire had said the same to him. Her words have come forward to support Maria, as his have to anger her.

'I should,' Steel says now, for himself, 'but I will not.' No need to explain why.

'Who are you?' Maria demands, still wary of him.

Steel loathes this question; he prefers to let Sapphire answer it. 'I keep things in order. My name is Steel.'

'Houses, you mean, so that they don't fall apart?'

'No. Time.'

'You keep Time in order?'

'She would explain it better.'

'Sapphire?'

'Sapphire,' says Steel's voice. The tone could convey greeting, or merely acknowledgement, but Steel has not spoken.

'Steel,' Sapphire's voice answers with the ghost of a smile.

'Steel!' Sapphire cries—Sapphire herself, not an echo of her from earlier that afternoon, nor the dead woman who has taken up partial residence in her body.

'Oh!' says the woman—one of them at least; Steel suspects Maria. Then, 'I beg your pardon, I thought you were merely a conduit; I did not realize you were a person as well.'

'Why did you come here?' asks Sapphire—unmistakably Steel's colleague when she speaks.

'I was summoned,' Maria answers.

'No one in this place and time summoned you,' Steel says. 'Why did you come here?'

'I would conclude that some clearer path was provided here and now than even by the summoner.'

'Sapphire?' Steel suggests.

'Evidently,' Maria agrees. I believe so, Sapphire says at the same time in Steel's mind. 'Do you also keep Time in order?'

'Yes.'

'How?'

'Time . . . is like a plate. Drop it one way, and it will crack, and one set of shards will form. Drop it another way and it will splinter differently. The whole plate contains every possible pattern of fragments; once it has broken, the nature of its pieces is set. Glue the plate together again, and it will always break first as it did before. The pieces can never alter in shape, except to grow smaller, until they are all ground to dust, which again contains all possibilities.'

'You—Maria—must return to where you came from,' Steel says.

'I would be happy to; however, I was summoned under certain conditions, and I am not free to go anywhere until those conditions have been fulfilled.'

'What are those conditions?'

'To come to the hall of Shadow House, to meet a gentleman, and to discuss magic with him,' Maria recites.

'This is the hall of Shadow House, and you are here,' Steel says.

'Indeed.'

'You have met me,' Steel continues. 'Will that suffice for the second condition?'

Sapphire's laugh sounds for Steel alone.

Maria nods. 'It will.'

'The summoning that brought you here,' Sapphire says, 'would you consider that magic?'

'Yes, certainly.'

'Then answering Steel's questions will satisfy discussing magic.'

Maria does not immediately respond, but after a moment she finally assents. 'Yes, it does.'

'Then you are free to go,' Sapphire says.

'It seems I am.'

'Wait,' Steel commands. 'If you do so, will you leave Sapphire as she was?'

'I will not take her with me,' Maria tells him. After some thought, she adds, 'I suppose that if she is adequately grounded here, there is no reason for her to follow me.'

'Then leave,' says Steel.

Maria disappears.

Sapphire disappears.

Sapphire! Steel calls.

I'm outside, she answers.

Steel exits the house and finds Sapphire standing outside on the gravel drive. She wears again the modern dress from earlier in the day—contemporary to Steel's own suit.

'Maria Absalom?' he asks.

'She is gone.'

'And the man from the future?'

'Nothing: his work is broken. We're done here.'

'Good,' Steel says, and he leaves.

Sapphire stays long enough to cup another rose bloom in her hand and inhale its fragrance, and then she too goes.

----

About a century later, a man standing in the middle of the ruinous entrance hall lets out a howl of frustration. 'So close! I almost had it.' He pulls a piece of paper out of a pocket and smoothes it out to read. 'I think.' He extricates another leaf from up the sleeve of his jacket. 'She must have answered of course . . . and been satisfied. I need to fix that . . . be more specific, perhaps? Ormskirk is terribly imprecise, to be sure . . . .'

Though he does not know it, a man with raven-dark hair and raven-dark clothes watches him through a basin of water. The meeting that the muttering man had sought should never have happened, and now it never will. But let him try again in a month or so, when the other players will attend and fulfill their roles.

The man with raven-dark hair smiles and dispels the vision in the water.