The rain was easing off, but they were so wet already that it hardly mattered.
"Stop jumping," Shelley urged, her words clipped because she was short of breath from running. "I don't think they even saw us."
"If they did," Amy replied with grim humor, "we're goners."
Shelley slowed and turned to jog backwards for a few steps. The warehouse was already out of sight, obscured by trees and darkness. What she could see of the road behind them was quiet and still -- no voices or metallic footsteps, no glowing eyes, and no sword. "They didn't, so why worry? They can't possibly..."
Shelley trailed off.
"Know why their doo-hickey stopped working? Of course they can, knothead. It's got my pick stuck in its control panel!" Amy glanced back too, then came to a stop and squatted on the side of the road. One hand went to her ribs and a developing charlie horse.
Shelley halted nearby, bending down to rest her hands on her knees. Her hair shifted with the movement, a darker cascade against the dark sky. "It wasn't my idea," she grumbled, "to get involved."
The roar of an approaching engine made them both start. As one, they raced for the roadside ditch and scrambled down the bank, beyond caring about the mud. Amy had the presence of mind to grab at a clump of vetch, but Shelley slid all the way down to the water, soaking herself to the knees. She started to pull herself out, then changed her mind when a pair of powerful headlight beams swept through the air overhead. She crouched where she was instead.
Anyways, she thought wryly, cold water might dampen her infrared signature, in which case she was invisible from the knees down. Wonderful.
She could see Amy farther up the bank, almost hidden by vetch and mustard weeds. They held their breaths until the vehicle rumbled past, for the sense of danger was strong.
Amy moved first, long after the sound of its engine had faded.
"It was just a big tanker truck," she called down softly.
Shelley climbed out of the water. Liquid squished out of her boots every time she took a step and her feet were absolutely numb.
"Semis come through here all the time," she acknowledged.
Nonetheless, both of them knew that it had been wise to hide.
Amy waited for Shelley to reach her, and they both climbed out of the ditch.
"We're turning into a couple of chickens," the blonde girl grumbled. Shelley started to say something before she missed her footing on the slippery grass and tripped.
"You okay?" Amy gave her a hand up.
"Yeah, but the world is a blur. Where are my glasses?"
"They must have come off in the weeds." Amy dropped to her knees and felt gingerly about in the star thistles and wet grass. After a fruitless search she remembered the keychain light and swept the area with it. "I can't find them," she said despairingly.
Then she looked at Shelley more closely and laughed. "Shelley, they're around your neck."
"Oh." Sheepishly, Shelley wiped them and put them back on, glad of the eyewear cord. "Thanks. You're a true friend."
"And will be until tomorrow." Amy flicked off the light and pocketed it glumly. She started walking, her steps slow and reluctant. "Wait until Dad finds out I left his pick at the warehouse. He'll have a fit, even if I manage to clean up before he comes home."
"It may still be there in the morning," Shelley ventured. She picked three foxtails out of her soggy laces and caught up with Amy in one long-legged bound.
Amy snorted. "Even if it is, that won't save my skin tonight."
Neither of them suggested going back to the warehouse in the dark.
Scourge barreled along the muddy country backroad at twice the posted speed limit, scattering jackrabbits and upsetting buzzards roosting in the eucalyptus groves. He would not have swerved an inch to avoid running the girls down had he caught them on the road, but the implement in his cab troubled him. Aside from all the sliding around it did every time he winged a corner, it reminded him of his close call and the fact that he had been, in a way, rescued from it. He resented help in any guise; it implied weakness and a need for assistance, and was an affront to his strength.
Yet beneath his resentment was a faint puzzlement. He had never aided anyone unless he expected a return for his efforts. If the device had been sabotaged for his benefit, what had motivated the saboteur?
After some consideration, he pulled over in a spray of gravel and hailed Megatron.
"Scourge! Where have you been? Your comrades reported your disappearance an hour ago."
Scourge chose his words carefully. "I found evidence of enemy activity, and thought it best to maintain radio silence until I knew the area was clear."
"Indeed? A wise decision. What sort of Autobot activity?"
Behind his faceplate, Scourge smiled. Letting Megatron jump to his own conclusions required more finesse than actually lying to him, but he enjoyed the challenge. It made his success that much more satisfying.
"I am uncertain as of yet. I request your permission to investigate this area more thoroughly."
"Permission granted. I am pleased with your alertness. Megatron out."
The tanker snorted. Megatron would have been wise to heed Sky-Byte's jealous warnings; plagued with bad luck as the Predacon was, his loyalty to Megatron was real, and his intelligence made him as dangerous as his misfortunes made him amusing.
Scourge, though, wasn't about to enlighten his superior. He radioed the convoy and told them to return to base without him, then pulled a U-turn and headed back the way he had come.
"You sure they won't mind?" Amy asked. Again.
Shelley had been pulling up wild oat stalks on the way down her driveway, for the fun of stripping off the seeds; now she smacked her friend with a handful of them.
Amy grumbled, then shrugged. "Sorry. I guess I'm not used to the way your parents handle uninvited guests. You could probably bring half my dormitory home and they'd be just fine with it."
"Worry about phoning your Dad," Shelley advised. "He may still say no."
"No, he'll let me sleep over," Amy assured her sourly. "Then I won't be underfoot."
She didn't add that she also wouldn't have to tell him about the pick until she went home, but Shelley knew what was going through Amy's mind.
"It might still be there in the morning," Shelley told her again.
"If not, it's my own fault," Amy sighed.
They clomped up the wooden deck stairs and paused under the porch light, an unplanned but synchronous reaction to the state of their clothes.
Amy knew that as country folk, Shelley's parents expected kids to come home dirty as a matter of course. But between the two of them, the girls had accumulated enough mud to start a garden.
"Are you sure ..." she began.
Shelley brandished the wild oats warningly. Amy half smiled, and sat down to take off her muddy shoes.
She was watching Shelley wring out her socks when the sound of a diesel engine reached their ears.
Shelley reached up to slap off the porch light. They flattened against the damp redwood deck to watch the vehicle rip by on the main road, while reflections from its headlights made railing shadows crawl across the porch.
"It's the same tanker," Amy whispered, after silence had once again descended.
"But he's going the other way."
"And fast, too." After a minute, she added, "I think we're getting paranoid."
She hesitated. "Hey, Shelley."
Amy's voice was that of someone who had had just about enough weirdness for one day.
"Can we watch Peter Pan?"
Scourge found the warehouse just as he'd left it; in shreds. To his disappointment, it was also deserted. He had been hoping the fight would have drawn Autobot attention and maybe given him a chance to ambush the investigators, if there weren't too many of them, but the location was likely too remote for more than random surveillance.
Still, maybe they just needed time to arrive. He was not naturally a patient being, but the prospect of another good fight was enough to keep him parked behind the warehouse all night, watching and waiting.
The beauty of sunrise found him disgusted. He didn't really see the fantastic colors of dawn flush across the now clear, storm-washed sky. An entire night's vigilance wasted, with nothing to show for it!
Well, no need to throw good time after bad. He pulled up to one side of the gaping roll door, intending to take off down the main road, but the sight of Sky-Byte's flattened machine made him pause. Maybe he'd go stomp on it one more time, just for good measure. It would make him feel a little better.
He was on the verge of transforming when a small, faint voice floated up the street.
"You're just lucky I didn't get some ice!"
They walked up the main road at an even pace, enjoying the loveliness of the morning and arguing good-naturedly.
"It's not my fault if I sleep like a log," Shelley insisted cheerfully. "Anyways, your shaking would wake up the comatose."
"You're definitely one of them," Amy groused. "If you like Peter Pan so much, why'd you fall asleep in the middle of it?"
"It's relaxing. What can I say?"
Amy rubbed at her eyes tiredly. She hadn't slept so well. Images of her frowning father, the big black robot and a speeding tanker truck had troubled her dreams all night, mixed with annoying cartoon soundtracks. She'd even caught herself humming We Can Fly while brushing her teeth the next morning. "Couch hog."
Shelley grinned, annoying Amy further. "Only when I'm snoring."
"Talk about a double whammy."
"Aw, quit fussing. You got the guest room, didn't you?"
Shelley took a few more steps before realizing that Amy had stopped.
Amy, eyes focused on something farther up the street, didn't answer. Raising a hand to shield her glasses from the rays of the morning sun, Shelley followed her gaze and felt the bottom drop out of her cheeriness.
The tanker truck was parked hard by the demolished warehouse roll door, almost blocking it. They would have to walk right past to get inside.
Shelley took a half step back. "We better get out of here."
"I'll do no such thing," Amy snapped, a combination of irritation and weariness catalyzing the burst of stubbornness. "I have been paranoid about commercial vehicles as many times as I intend to be."
She marched straight past the truck, not checking to see whether Shelley came too. A little amused by her bravado, Scourge let her pass, unmoving. Shelley trailed behind, her flaring danger sense competing with loyalty to her friend. Loyalty won out, and she reluctantly followed Amy inside.
As before, their eyes took a minute to adjust, though thanks to Dark Scream's choice of exit route it wasn't as dark inside as it should have been. But when they could see...
"Aw, criminy," Amy muttered, the semi forgotten.
Shelley's mouth quirked sympathetically. The device, whatever it had been, was scrap now. She poked gingerly at the contorted mess with a boot toe, but the pick was either gone or so hopelessly twisted into the rest of the metal that it was impossible to spot. "It looks like it got stepped on."
Amy remembered the burning red eyes of the biggest robot. "That's probably what happened." She shoved her hands into her pockets. "Guess that means I have to face the music."
"I'll go with you," Shelley offered, though Amy knew she was scared of Mr. Vandaveer.
"Thanks," Amy sighed. She kicked at the mess resignedly and squashed an urge to dawdle as long as possible. "Well, let's go and get it over with."
They turned towards the door, but Amy paused and looked back. The marks of weapon fire were plainly visible on the far wall, where Scourge had been pinned and helpless.
"You know, I'm not sorry I did it," she said.
Shelley groaned in mock despair. "When are you ever sorry?"
"Hey, I was sorry about the electric fence." She started for the doorway, walking as slowly as possible.
Shelley smirked and fell in step with her. "For a whole thirty seconds. I don't think that counts." She shook her head, dark hair fanning with the movement. "Was it really worth it?"
The faintest of smiles flickered across Amy's face. "Sure it was. We got home twenty minutes sooner, didn't we?"
Shelley poked her in the ribs. "No, I mean losing your Dad's pick to give that robot a 'fighting chance'!"
A fighting chance. Scourge considered that. He understood the concept; a victory gained underhandedly was one he would take no pride in, himself.
"Oh." Amy smacked Shelley's hand away and shrugged. "Sure it was. If Dad knew the whole story, I think he'd understand." She kicked at a sliver of shattered pallet; it bounced across the concrete and out the door, into the sunlight. "That was all he really wanted from Mom. But," and she lifted her head a little, "there is no way he'd buy the rampaging robot part, so let's just tell him we lost it and leave it at that."
Shelley cut her reply short when Scourge's shadow fell across them; he had quietly rolled forward and now blocked the mangled doorway completely. The girls froze, exchanging frightened glances. Shelley swept up a pipe from the jumble of scrap and Amy found a length of ragged casing. Scared but defiant, they backed towards the side door and watched as the driver's door swung open to reveal --
An empty cab.
They stopped backing up, confused.
"A haunted truck," Amy murmured.
"That does it."
"I'm never watching Ghostbusters again."
Shelley pointed. Amy's pick lay on the seat.
Silence fell. The girls looked longingly at the pick, and Scourge sensed the fear in their hesitation.
"I'm not going to hurt you," he said impatiently. There was no honor in fighting children. "Take your implement."
The deep metallic voice was startling, but the words themselves were reassuring. After another moment of stunned silence, Amy held up a hand and started ticking off fingers with one end of the casing.
"One. The truck said we could take the pick. Two, if he was going to hurt us, he could have done it already. And three, I really need to get it back."
She dropped the length of casing back on the scrap heap, squared her shoulders and stepped forward to lift the pick from the seat.
"Thank you," she said sincerely.
There was no reply. The cab door closed, Scourge's engine turned over, and he rumbled off, leaving Amy standing in a square of sunlight and fanning ruefully at the lingering cloud of exhaust.
Shelley tossed her pipe back on the scrap heap, bemused. "I'm going to tell your dad you talk to strange trucks."
Amy snorted and turned the pick over in her hands. The rightmost corner of the broad blade had bubbled away, leaving the new edge to cool unevenly -- no telling how she was going to explain that -- but otherwise it was just as she remembered it. "Can things possibly get any weirder?" she asked, mostly of herself. But her voice was full of relief.
"Don't even start," Shelley warned, a bit absently. "Just in case."
She was watching the disappearing tanker, trying to shake the chilly feeling that death had just passed them by. "How did... why did it... I mean he..."
She waved her hands and trailed off, leaving the question unfinished. "Ah, no way. Hey, who's complaining? We've got the pick back. Want to go work on the foxhole?"
Amy let the tool swing in an arc, tracing a smile in the air. She felt as if a forty-pound weight had been lifted off her shoulders.
"Sure. But." With her free hand she waved a finger in Shelley's face. "Afterwards, rain or no rain, we're going straight home."
The Transformers: Robots in Disguise cartoons were produced by Hasbro/Takara and all relevant trademarks and characters belong to them. Fighting Chance itself is transfan domain and may be freely recopied or archived.
Special thanks to Shadowshock for letting me hog the computer, and for getting me hooked on RiD in the first place!