Rain Over Blue Water
The sky glowed an eerie shade of green as Sideswipe neared the spot where the last marker was supposed to be. Above him, thunderheads roiled in a sullen mass, hammering him with rain, and not far from where he sat, hubcap deep in a flash-flood pool, he could see the circular rim of an inverted cone. Eyeing it, he silently willed it closer, thinking that dismemberment-by-tornado would not only be a fitting end to a perfectly wretched day, but that it would do him the dual service of putting him finally and mercifully out of his misery.
"Stop. Stop," came Red Alert's gnat-like voice over the comm link, and boring a hole directly into his cranial unit. "You should be there. Do you see it?"
"Negative," Sideswipe sent back, one optical sensor still firmly and hopefully on the would-be tornado.
"Well, it's there, Sideswipe," Red Alert insisted, sounding tinny and far away in the downpour. "You'll just have to go look for it on foot."
Idling, Sideswipe sat a moment, just watching the steam rise off his hood, and listening to the rain as it pelted him from headlights to spoiler. It hadn't been so bad at first – just a bit of hard rain – but five and a half hours of slogging over a twenty-mile radius around the Ark, and visually inspecting each and every one of Red Alert's two hundred and seventy-five security sensors, all for the purpose of a routine, quarterly security check, had turned an April shower into an exquisite kind of Chinese water torture. Worse, an hour into the search, (and about fifty-nine minutes after Sideswipe had been sure he would snap if he heard Red Alert's bossy, imperious voice nag at him just one more time), the hail had begun to fall. He had, at that point, suggested to Red Alert that a routine check might wait another twenty-four hours for better weather, when he could perform the checks without being beaten like a red-enameled stepchild, but of course this wasn't good enough for the Autobots' security chief. Routine checks were routine for a reason, he said, and there could be absolutely no deviation under any circumstances, so long as Sideswipe was able to perform his duties. And was Sideswipe able? Yes, he was, Red Alert pointed out, from the safety of his warm, dry, mudless, and hail-less observation center, and so Sideswipe would, in fact, be obliged to continue his progress on the scheduled inspection.
At which point Sideswipe of course told Red Alert what kind of inspection he could schedule, and exactly where he could conduct it. To which Red Alert responded with many sputterings and proclamations that Sideswipe was deliberately sabotaging his security efforts, and was in serious danger of being detained for questioning during his next available off-duty hours. At which point Sideswipe, without any shred of humor whatsoever, laughed and laughed until he overblew the communication link on Red Alert's end, and was rewarded with several minutes of silence until the security chief could restore it to working order.
Not that it did him any good, in the long run. Sideswipe was pretty sure his off-duty hours were in no jeopardy, since, due to current circumstances, he had none. But he was also left with the irrefutable fact that he was still stuck out in the slagging hailstorm checking Red Alert's stupid, pig-sucking security sensors. So tantrums didn't get him much, though they did at least upset Red Alert, so at least that was something.
Lightning forked overhead, and Sideswipe felt the air crackle around him. He would be next, he was sure of it, if the hail didn't finish him off first. Sunstreaker would have been howling by now, what with the millions of ice balls pinging off his paint job like so many bullets, and Sideswipe reflected that Red Alert should have been thanking Primus above that it was the red and not the yellow Lamborghini who had been assigned to helping security for the afternoon.
But no. There was no gratitude, and no reprieve either.
"Sideswipe," Red Alert prompted, apparently bored with sitting in his comfy, warm, dry observation deck, where he was not being tortured by the elements, "did you hear what I just said? Because I can see you just sitting there on monitor 179-B, and I know you have audio, because I fixed—"
"Yes, Red, I can hear you," Sideswipe mono-toned, before the security chief could really get rolling.
"I knew you were just being difficult," Red Alert noted sourly, voice barely audible under the thunderous downpour. "And don't think that I won't have a nice little chat with Optimus later about your insistent attempts to hinder my work. Now, please find my last sensor before I grow outdated and rust."
"Your work," Sideswipe muttered to himself, and with a great sigh of exasperation, transformed. Wincing, and squinting a little under the battering hail, he stood for another moment with his head bent against the rain, before heaving a little sigh and trudging off into the mud.
As he left the flooded road, his feet immediately sunk into a thick, sticky mud, and he could feel his recently-mended injuries straining a bit as he squelched through the muck. He knew Ratchet would flip a circuit board to see him out here, but there was really nothing anyone could do about it. Seventy percent the Autobots were in serious recovery, most of them too damaged to be out of stasis, while the other thirty percent were stretched thin covering all the duties neglected by the mass of injured. It wasn't an uncommon situation, and Sideswipe knew that Red Alert wasn't wrong to worry about the Autobots' vulnerability. But he also knew that the Decepticons had a few casualties themselves, so there wasn't likely to be much fighting any time soon.
Ducking between two sodden pines, and receiving a face full of pine needles, Sideswipe brought up his scanners and began sweeping for the final sensor. It wasn't so unusual for a good chunk of the Autobot forces to be down and out for a time, but what was unusual about this time was that Sideswipe wasn't one of them. He should have been. In fact, Ratchet had told Prime exactly that not a few days past, and hadn't bothered keeping his voice down while he did it, either. Not that it did a lick of good. Sideswipe still found himself unceremoniously ejected from the medical wing, given an official certificate of health by Optimus Prime himself, and immediately shackled into the role of Resident Autobot Workhorse, bum leg and all.
Not that he was complaining, really. Limping about never bothered him much, and if it did, he never said so. It wasn't even the sleepless nights, which he'd long been used to, despite his exhaustion. It was more a matter of his role as a stand-in, gopher, and general stop-gap that had begun slowly to grate on him, and by the time he had been shaken out of his corner of the C&C on this lovely April morning, where he'd been catching the better part of a twenty minute nap, he realized that for the first time in as long as he could really recall, good-natured, happy-go-lucky Sideswipe was in a pissy slagging mood.
His monitor blipped, and Sideswipe knelt down under the torrent, where he zeroed in on a patch of sodden, root-tangled dirt. Not even bothering to curse, he stared out of rain-streaked optics as he pushed his fingers into the mud, which oozed into the joints of his fingers and wrists, and searched between the twisting roots until he finally felt something metallic brush against his fingertip.
"Well?" Red Alert chose just that moment to speak up.
Sideswipe pushed his fingers forward, found the curvature of the device, and hauled back to slide it out of the slime, as though delivering some kind of robotic calf out of the sucking earth. Dripping dark rivulets of muddy rainwater, it dangled from his outstretched hand like some kind of grotesque little bug, and Sideswipe had the overwhelming urge to close his fist and squish it into little buggy parts.
"It got buried in a mud slide," Sideswipe sent back to Red Alert.
"But you have a visual?" Red Alert sent back.
"Well, it seems to be in working order," Red Alert confirmed, as the bug blinked a malevolent red optic up at the red warrior. "Now all you have to do is re-mount it, and we're done."
Sideswipe looked up at the sheer rockface looming over him, slick in the heavy rain. The wind battered waves of hail against its side, while the trees at the base lashed against the rock like dogs leaping at a treed cat. Halfway up, Sideswipe spotted the tiny ledge where the sensor had once been mounted, now filmed with a sheen of ice.
"That won't be a problem for you, will it, Sideswipe?" Red Alert piped up one last time, voice just shy of baiting him. "Because if it is, I can always get one of the Aerialbots—"
"No, it's no problem," Sideswipe cut him off, grimly pushing himself to his feet and igniting his jetpack systems. The son of a bitch knew just what to say. Balancing himself against the wind, and testing the ground for takeoff, Sideswipe transmitted one last time, "This'll just take a sec." Then with a grunt, and the hateful feeling of being manipulated, the warrior heaved himself up and into the lashing wind.
"Oh good, you're back. I have a job for you."
To Sideswipe's immeasurable delight, it was the mellifluous sound of Perceptor's brisk, caffeine-bright voice that greeted him upon re-entry into the Command Center, which, over the last several days, he had begun to refer to as the Black Throne of Unholy Wroth. He'd tried, on day two of his sleep-deprived incarceration as resident persecuted serf, that his involuntary enslavement was in violation of his basic, inalienable Autobot rights. Optimus Prime, for his part, actually listened to Sideswipe's oration at least for thirty seconds, before turning away in disgust and declaring that he was not amused. Funny thing was, Sideswipe wasn't trying to be funny.
So, he thought, maybe he should try to be funny. So for the next day or so, he took to limping around like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, which wasn't so hard really, since his leg was all shot to shit anyway, and was still undergoing internal repairs, not that anybody cared. Arm crooked in front of him, leg dragging like a limp fish behind him, he'd accepted his orders with a low, ingratiating bow, and a raspy, "Yes, massster, Igor obeys," before limping off again to go perform whatever mundane drudgery he'd been assigned. That, however, only had the effect of finally making Optimus Prime blow his stack, and throw a datapad at Sideswipe's head with quite a considerable bit of force, which had really sucked, since Prime had a damn good arm.
Unfortunately for Sideswipe, however, Prime's point did not immediately sink in, and before he could catch himself, Sideswipe found himself launching into a wildly enthusiastic rendition of a certain chapter of the Monty Python's Holy Grail. Maybe it was the lack of sleep. Or maybe it was just some weird sort of self-preservation mechanism, but for some reason, Sideswipe found he just couldn't shut it off, and before he knew it, he was throwing his arms about in grand theatrics, and carrying on about being oppressed by the theocracy. Prime lost it. Tired himself, and his patience worn to the snapping point, the Autobot commander had basically told Sideswipe in unmistakable terms to go to hell. In fact, by the time Prime got done yelling, a dead silence had fallen over the Ark, and everyone in the command center stood staring, a little aghast. Sideswipe didn't know what to say, or he would have said it. Ultimately, he just felt sort of small, but deserving all the same. He had been acting like a jackass, when Prime just needed him to shut up and do his part. So, feeling a little shocked, and maybe a little guilty, he'd just said in a small voice, "Yes, Prime." And that had been that.
So, with his humor squashed, and his helmet somewhat dented, Sideswipe had resigned himself to just doing whatever They wanted him to do. Sometimes it was Prime giving him orders, but more often it was one of the others who were healthy enough to work, and responsible enough to be in charge of something. Unfortunately, none of the available taskmasters were anybody Sideswipe routinely enjoyed being around, which basically meant that for the last several days, his life had been a living hell.
Not only that, since Prowl was down and out, there really wasn't much in the way of organization, which meant that no one really paid attention to who did what, so long as it got done. This meant, in plain terms, that if Sideswipe didn't get a chance to rest, nobody was really the wiser. When he'd been released from med bay, (read: Prime told Ratchet to go to hell, too), the Chief Medic had made Prime swear that he would rest Sideswipe every chance he could, since the warrior's internal systems were barely functioning at minimum levels. Prime had agreed, but so far, this just meant that if no one was using Sideswipe for five minutes, he got to sit on the floor and doze off.
It wasn't really that Sideswipe was feeling sorry for himself. He was just miserable. And with no one to laugh it off with, he was just starting to feel a little wretched.
"…I am talking to you. Sideswipe. Sideswipe!" Perceptor gave him a little shake, and Sideswipe staggered back half a step, blinking.
"What – what?" He shook himself, and looked at the scientist, bringing him into focus.
Perceptor frowned at him, and summoned a medi-scanner, which he swept mechanically up and down over Sideswipe's frame. "You are operating at sixty-point-nine percent," he pronounced airily, one metal brow cocked in a sort of reproach. "You shouldn't be acting like you're on your last legs. Really, Sideswipe," he chided, "do pay attention."
"I am," Sideswipe muttered, feeling a trickle of sludge fall down the back of his leg. He shivered now that he was back in the warmth of the bay.
"You know, you can't allow your mind to wander every time you're bored with a situation, Sideswipe," Perceptor was saying, and by the look on his face, Sideswipe reasoned that the scientist really thought he was being paternalistic. "War is not all violence, you know. In fact, it is more often fought in other ways: in the fields of logistics, intelligence, the sciences…"
By the tone of the scientist's voice, Sideswipe could tell he was about to really get into his lecture, but on cue the warrior found his mind wandering, and came to only when the scientist began snapping his fingers under Sideswipe's nose. He'd been thinking on the simplicity of the front lines, where two mechs could just beat each other with fists without the aid of intelligence, logic, or science. But at once his mental picture vanished, and was replaced with the tsk'ing face of the scientist.
Perceptor sighed, his expression conveying his opinion of Sideswipe more eloquently than words. "Are you listening? Prime," he said, drawing himself up and assuming an air of supremacy, as though preparing to declare himself Supreme Pope of the Known Universe, "has left me in charge while he's away, and has delegated that I should use my resources as best I may."
Slowly, Sideswipe closed his optics and then opened them again, and tried very hard not to say, "But I do not like green eggs and ham."
Obviously unaware of his unintentional rhyme, Perceptor was plowing on, his clipped, reedy voice projecting as though to an audience. "…are many areas of concern, but as Prime stressed to me, our low resources have left us no choice but to concentrate on supply. Now, am I to understand that you once made your living as a trader?"
It took Sideswipe a pained moment to realize he was supposed to respond. "Yes," he said dully, so pleased to be reminded of the life he'd once had, and might never have again.
"Were you any good?" Perceptor asked, unabashed.
Sideswipe felt his face clouding over, though he worked hard not to show it. He didn't like to talk about his past, and neither did Sunstreaker. "I got by."
"Good," Perceptor nodded, as though that settled it. "Then I'm assigning you to take over as supply officer, at least until Ironhide is back on his feet. Perhaps I can arrange matters with Ratchet to allow your brother to help you, as I assume he worked as a trader alongside you."
Despite himself, Sideswipe sighed. "Sunstreaker couldn't deal his ass out of a paper bag," Sideswipe said. "Just let him be." Better that way anyway, since Sunny had been semi-conscious and feebly moaning last time Sideswipe had caught sight of him.
"Well. Fine. Right then," Perceptor nodded, as though not quite sure to make of what Sideswipe had just said, but feeling he'd spent too much time talking to the warrior now anyway, and looking for a way to pat him on the head and send him on his way. "So, you'll find your list here," he handed him a datapad, "and your schedule there, on sheet three. Do pay special attention to the medical requests, and see me should you need any assistance." This last part was proclaimed with some air of importance, and if Sideswipe missed it, Perceptor punctuated the point by drawing himself up again, pivoting smartly, and striding off toward More Important Things.
Dripping mud, his leg aching in dull, persistent throbs, Sideswipe simply watched him go, and didn't have a thing to say.
The list was long, naturally, and resource short. But Sideswipe hadn't been wealthy once for no reason, and he had his ways. Besides, he figured Prime had put Perceptor onto this notion for the very purpose of using Sideswipe's unique "ways". Of course the Greatest Autobot would never do anything so ignoble as doing business on the humans' black market. But he might just look the other way while Sideswipe did it.
That was what Sideswipe was for, after all. And if Sunstreaker wore the crown for sheer brutality, Sideswipe was the King of Depravity. He even had the tiara.
By the time the warrior had organized his lists, arranged his meeting times, and grabbed a quick drink to refuel, afternoon had melded into dark. The rain had cleared, but the clouds remained in thick patches, and a chill wind had sprung up, leaden and wet.
Sideswipe tried several radio stations, and rifled through several CDs, before deciding on silence for his companion along the drive. He kept his headlights off, preferring to navigate by scanner, and by the faint scraps of starlight, which poked now and then between the heavy clouds. He was bothered by a list of things, but especially by a low feeling of dread. It was from having to hurry, he knew, and he didn't like it. He didn't mind speed, and honestly didn't mind keeping busy, since he was the kind of mech who always had energy to burn. It was more the need to hustle, to always be one step ahead of his own shadow, because of the urgency of the things he needed to do. It was, in a word, worry that hounded him, and it was something he wasn't used to. It was something that gnawed at him, and he didn't like it.
He didn't like it, and it wasn't like him. At all.
Hydroplaning through a deep puddle, he felt his back end slip and then jerk as it regained purchase on the wet pavement, where he pressed himself to even greater speeds. He needed to make the first meeting on time, if he didn't want to bump the rest into a snowball of late arrivals. His contacts were scud-swilling, low-bred hustlers, but they did have a thing for punctuality. It was like courtesy among thieves, and Sideswipe knew the etiquette well, no matter what the species.
"You're late," Air Raid greeted him with a grunt as Sideswipe skidded down at last into a narrow gully, and at once Sideswipe saw that the Aerialbot had lost his sense of humor, too.
Transforming, Sideswipe responded with a rude snort. "Someone beat the grins outta you, too, I see."
Air Raid smirked. "No one likes a clown these days."
"Tell me about it," the red warrior said flatly.
"Nice dents," the Aerialbot looked him frankly up and down.
"Want some?" Sideswipe retorted. "I can give 'em to you, cheap."
Air Raid rolled his optics and shifted his stance, all angles and angst to be flying again. He so sharply reminded the warrior of a seeker just then that Sideswipe felt himself twitch, and he had to force his fists to relax. "So whaddya want?" the Aerialbot asked. "And make it quick, cuz Silverbolt will have my ass if he finds out I'm not on my patrol pattern."
"Right," Sideswipe nodded, with an inadvertent glance skyward, "let's get to it. You wanna make a couple bucks?"
"Depends," Air Raid returned, head cocked to the side. "How much is a 'couple', and what do you want?"
Sideswipe crossed his arms. "Fast wings that don't ask too many questions. Know anyone who qualifies?"
Air Raid, no stranger thinking outside the proverbial box, slid Sideswipe a sly smirk. "I might."
"Ah ha," Sideswipe deadpanned. "He does have some humor left."
Immediately the smirk slid away, and Air Raid flicked a glance at the sky. "Not in vast supplies, my good pal. And I'll have even less if Silverbolt finds me here. Now lay it out."
"Well, here's the long and short of it," Sideswipe explained, and pulled a datachip out of a side pocket. "You fly, I buy. Pick up the goods, deliver them to the second set of coordinates, and I give you a little off the top."
Air Raid took the chip, and slid it into a port in his arm. His optics brightened slightly, but not overly much. Good. The Aerialbot had balls then. Whistling, he quirked another wry half-smile. "That's a far piece," he said.
"Well," Sideswipe returned the dry smirk, "they don't call you crazy for nothin'. You up for it?"
Again Air Raid shifted his hip in that annoyingly snarky Aerialbot way. "I suppose this is for world peace, or some shit like that."
"And puppies," Sideswipe affirmed. "Don't forget you'll be saving puppies."
Again, Air Raid glanced down at the chip, as if considering. But he didn't consider long. "Ah, I was bored with patrol anyway."
"My good mech," Sideswipe grinned, though the humor didn't really touch his optics. He was far too tired, and still cold, and extremely irritated with being muddy, not to mention irritated that he was irritated with being muddy. Dammit, he hated it when he came to the occasional startling realization that he and Sunstreaker really were related. "I'll see you in a few hours then."
"Roger that," Air Raid tossed him a salute, and backed away for some space to take off. "I'll radio you when I'm on my way."
Sideswipe backed up to give the other Autobot room, and watched as Air Raid hurtled himself skyward, transformed, and expertly lit his afterburners to catch himself aloft, where he hovered for one fine moment before accelerating upward and into the deep sky. Banking, he leveled at a few hundred feet, waggled his wings, and then shot up above the clouds, where he disappeared in a wink.
After the Aerialbot had gone, Sideswipe stared grimly into the night sky, pausing for just a moment in the lonely ravine. It weighed on him, watching Air Raid go where he couldn't go himself. It was one thing to do something dangerous on his own, but it was another thing to send someone like Air Raid, and suddenly it felt as though he'd lured his younger brother into a hellhole with the promise of a couple of lousy credits. He liked Air Raid a lot, and Air Raid liked him. Air Raid trusted him, too, and that thought made it seem worse. Because Sideswipe could rationalize keeping to himself information on the whereabouts of certain terrorist cells, and he could rationalize blackmailing the members of those organizations into giving him certain items on his supply list. But what he couldn't rationalize was sending Air Raid down there to do the deal, when he knew full well their anti-aircraft capabilities, and that they had twitchy fingers sometimes when unidentified military aircraft came ambling into their airspace.
Uneasy, Sideswipe turned back to the road, where he transformed and quickly picked up speed. He tried to tell himself that Air Raid could look out for himself, that the items he'd been sent to collect were vitally important, and they were. There were some things Ratchet had been running low on for a while, and now with so many Autobots in need of extensive repairs, the medic had finally reached the last of his supply. Sure, Sideswipe could have gone through the proper channels to get Ratchet and Wheeljack what they needed, but things like weaponizeable plutonium and uranium, among other sensitive substances, meant red tape. And red tape meant time. And time meant that the Decepticons made their repairs faster, and were combat-ready before the Autobots had a chance to revitalize and re-outfit half their force. In addition, getting what he needed through the proper channels meant paperwork, which meant that the Decepticons could conceivably track every micron of what Sideswipe appropriated and where, and that gave them intelligence not only on what the Autobots needed, but exactly how much they obtained.
In short, getting things the proper way set the Autobots behind the Decepticons in more ways than Sideswipe could accept. So, he'd been obliged to speed things up in the only way he knew how, and that meant playing dirty with dirty people. Of course that always meant that blackmail and backstabbing came back around one day, but he'd always been able to count on charm to get him out of a scrape. Charm, and wits. Not that either of those would help Air Raid if the flak started to fly.
He hit a bump, and imagined himself telling Silverbolt why Air Raid would never be coming home again. Worse, he imagined telling Optimus Prime. And he quickly remembered why, back on Cybertron, he'd had many 'buddies', but no real friends outside of Sunstreaker. Easier to play dirty that way, and no hard feelings when a deal went bad.
Slowing, he turned off the freeway and eased into a suburb, where he started counting addresses by lamplight. He'd better shake himself out of funk now, if he meant to make all his rounds by the end of the night. Besides, Air Raid was a big boy, and Sideswipe had work to do before the sun came up.
Miles to go, and all that.
The garage was a tight fit, and Sideswipe felt himself getting a little cranky already, just from being cramped between a snow blower and a set of hanging ten-speed bikes. Slunk low on his tires, his engine grumbling in a low thrum of discontent, he stared sullenly at the tetchy little human huddled in his bath robe on the back step, hands stuffed firmly inside his fluffy pockets.
"So, you're the Autobot…uh, Sideways?" the human asked, looking him over, his face slightly pinched with disapproval.
"Sideswipe," the warrior corrected him with a bit of a snarl, voice more than slightly resembling his brother's usual surly pitch.
The human snorted. "You Autobots don't put much stock in keeping yourselves up, do you?" he asked, taking in Sideswipe's Lamborghini form once more, and not bothering to hide his opinion of Sideswipe's lovely collection of mud, scratches, and dents.
"No. We're all slovenly pigs," Sideswipe retorted, and watched with exasperation as the human nodded sagely, not at all noting his sarcasm. "You're James Farrel?"
"Yes," Farrel crossed his arms against the chill, and shifted his feet on the concrete step. "Now, what's this about, you offering me an opportunity?"
"We'll get to that," Sideswipe replied. "But first, I noticed you cut back on the Autobots' allotted energy supply. Care to explain?"
Farrel snorted a laugh. "I don't think I have to explain myself to you. Do you know who I am?"
"Yes," Sideswipe replied shortly, cold himself and snarly from being crammed into this smothering garage. He had no idea how cars lived in these nasty little boxes without going stark, raving mad. "I know exactly who you are, which is exactly why I'm here. Now answer the question."
Farrel gave him a scathing look. "I don't think I have to explain myself to the likes of you, especially in the middle of the night, especially in my own garage. Now tell me what this 'opportunity' is, or I'm going back to bed."
"Ah, yes, your bed," Sideswipe offered a mock sigh, and a little look skyward (or rafter-ward) with his headlights. "Which they may repossess, along with your left leg, when Spot On the Money fails to edge out Rain Dancer for the win on Sunday."
Farrel stared, face slack, as though someone had suddenly let all the air out of him. Whatever he'd been expecting, it hadn't been this. "How did—"
"Oh, come on, Farrel. Or can I call you Jimmy?" Sideswipe dropped his engine lower, from a sullen rumble to a low moody idle. "You don't think you're really that good at covering your tracks, do you? I mean, your wife doesn't know you bet on the ponies, but when you start gypping some of the other bettors with your unsporting little race-fixing bribes, people start to take notice."
"Hey, I—I don't—"
"Oh, don't get your boxers in a bunch," Sideswipe grumbled, hoping to forestall the unnecessary stuttering and sweating, before it ate into his schedule. "Let me get to the point. You, being the slimy slink-weasel you are, diverted ten percent of the energy funds received into an account for your gambling habit. Now, being the almighty Director for the World United Coalition for Autobot Energy Supply, you figured no one would know what you were up to, since the buck stops with you. And, you figured the Autobots would be too nice to start asking questions when their energy supply gradually dipped to ninety percent of the original grant. So far so good, and everyone's happy.
"But then," the warrior continued, keeping things short so he didn't run late, "your diverted resources started to run short. And why did they run short? Because you're a crappy gambler, Jimmy. Addicts always are. You bet wild, without knowing your game, and that always puts you into hock with the bookies in the end, which is when you start to get desperate. And that is when you start to pay off the track vet to give a few injections, and to overlook a few other injections. Are we tracking so far, Jimmy?"
Mute, Farrel nodded, face waxy in the cold glow of Sideswipe's headlights.
"Good. Because I bet I know what happens next. Wanna know how I happen to know that?" Sideswipe idled a little higher now, flooding the garage in a rising tide of engine noise. "Because I know what crappy gamblers are like, and even though I know you've recently made back enough money to pay off your little loan shark friends and still live comfortably for the rest of your life, that still isn't good enough for you. And it won't be good enough for you until you've gambled away everything but your kidneys, and let's face it, you only need one of those.
"So here's what I'm gonna do for you," Sideswipe continued, not really bothering to make this a two-way conversation. "I'm gonna help you with this little problem of yours, Jimmy, and when we're done tonight, you won't ever have to worry about your destructive little habit again."
"Listen to me," Farrel interjected, shaking himself out of his stupor and straightening to his full height, which frankly wasn't very impressive. "I don't know who you think you are—"
"No, Jimmy," Sideswipe interrupted, feeling pressed for time, and irritated with his circumstances in general, "you listen to me now. Because this is what you're going to do. You are going to back out of your bet on Spot On the Money, and you're going to use those funds to make good on all your loans. You're also going to stop the transfer of funds to the track vet, who will now have no need to fix your race, and you're going to put all of the leftover money into an account, where it will begin to draw a healthy amount of interest. Finally, starting on the first of next month – which is in five days, so please pay attention, Jimmy – you will increase the Autobots' world energy supply to one hundred and one percent, and will continue to do so until all the energy you siphoned off the top for the last several months is paid back to the penny. Considering what you stole, at one percent a month, I figure it ought to take you seventy-two months, or five-point-eight years, to pay us back. Are we clear?"
"You son of a bitch," Farrel snapped. "I don't have that kind of money, and you—"
"Oh, but you do," Sideswipe replied smoothly. "You have quite a bit of money, in fact, and if you follow the investment plan I'm about to give you, you'll see that your repayment schedule will be perfectly manageable."
From subspace, he summoned a manila envelope, which materialized at the end of his hood, directly between his headlights. Hesitating, Farrel gave him an ugly, wary look, before stepping gingerly forward to pick it up between thumb and forefinger. Ripping open the envelope, the human snatched out its contents, glanced it over, and scowled heavily at Sideswipe.
"This will put me in the poor house," he spat.
"Oh, come on, Jimmy," Sideswipe sighed, more than a little weary. "So you'll have to move out of your nice little gated golf course community, and Primus forbid that you should have to sell that yacht. It's better end than the bookies would have given you, and we haven't even paused yet to consider what could happen if the world governments found out you've been stealing from them."
He let that last part dangle there for a minute, while Farrel breathed heavily in and out, eye shining shrewdly in the warrior's headlights. It wouldn't take him long to imagine how certain countries might choose to deal with this kind of theft, and Sideswipe watched as slow realization dawned on the human's face as to exactly how seriously Sideswipe was threatening him.
"You can't—" he breathed, "you can't do this. How did you—?"
"Oh, please," Sideswipe snorted. "Honestly, your encryption software is a joke, your firewall sucks, and 'IAMGOD' is not the premier in uncrackable passwords. Hell, I don't even think you've performed a Windows update since you bought your machine, and I'm surprised you haven't been hacked before now. Primus."
"The Autobots hacked my account information?" Farrel glared, scandalized. "If they mayor knew – if the President knew – "
"No, Jimmy," Sideswipe uttered another sharp sigh, "the Autobots didn't hack your accounts. I did."
Farrel's eyes took on a calculating look. "Only you know about this?" he asked.
But Sideswipe laughed at that, vocalizer cracking like a shot in the close confines of the garage, and making the human jump. "What, thinking of bumping me off? No, Jimmy, I'm not the only one who knows, and trust me, you don't want my associate to come sniffing around here to ask about my dead carcass, so don't get any spiffy ideas." Heh. As if the human could scratch his enamel. Even so, the thought of Sunstreaker popping by for a chat about his dead brother would have made Sideswipe laugh if it hadn't been such a morbid thought. Smoking ruins and charred bodies would be the most likely result of that kind of meeting.
Farrel's look shifted, his eyes glittering smaller as he slowly realized he was being backed into a corner. "You need a warrant – this information, the courts would find it inadmissible."
"But your wife won't," Sideswipe replied, and watched the last nail sink in.
The human turned his face away, and stared into the corner of the garage, where a shelf of tools sat gathering dust.
"Five days, Jimmy," Sideswipe said flatly, and rekindled his engine to life. He revved it a few times, anxious to be gone. "I'll expect to see a hundred and one percent in five days. Now, if you'll just open the garage door for me." The human blinked at him, and Sideswipe could see his frustration simmering. "Of course, I'm already dented to shit, so if you want a Lamborghini-sized hole…"
The garage door lurched and hummed to life.
It was well past two in the morning, and Sideswipe shot down the freeway at about two hundred and fifty miles per hour, trying like hell to shake off crawling feeling of being confined, but it was taking some time to pass. Sunstreaker hated small spaces, too, and would have understood. But Sunstreaker wasn't here just now. In fact, no one was, and as Sideswipe sped through the black, joyless world, he wondered if this was sometimes what it felt like to be Mirage.
At ten to three, he slowed, and coasted up the offramp leading to a secluded rest stop. Downshifting, he felt as though he were floating after all that speed, and tired as he was, he felt a little numb as the cool wind gentled to a quiet puff along his sides. Drifting, he slalomed a bit, splashing through puddles as he decelerated to a crawl, and finally a stop, just beside a dark little Ford.
Coffee in hand, a human got out, and Sideswipe lifted one of his gull-wing doors in invitation.
"You're late," the detective grunted as he dropped into Sideswipe's driver's seat, bobbling his coffee and swearing as a few drops fell onto Sideswipe's leather interior.
"Hey, watch that slag," Sideswipe muttered, but the detective only grinned, and sat back to make himself comfortable.
"I'm sorry," he replied, his tone dripping with that professional kind of jaded police sarcasm with which Sideswipe was all too familiar, "I didn't realize you'd painted yourself red, Sunstreaker."
"Slag off," Sideswipe grumbled, but not without a smirk of appreciation. Detective MacKenzie and he went back a long way, back to Mac's highway patrol days, when Mac, Sideswipe, and Sunstreaker had played many a high-speed game of cat and mouse. Almost invariably, the twins won that game, but there was something about the human's tenacity that made them admire him just a little, and eventually they started letting him pull them over, just so they could see what made him tick.
They weren't disappointed. Mac was a character, and as it turned out, a good pal. "You look like shit, too," the detective pointed out as he took a sip.
"Long day," Sideswipe explained.
"Looks that way."
"How are the kids?" the warrior asked.
"Making me grayer every day," Mac smiled ruefully. "How's your brother?"
"A great big asshole."
"The same, then," Mac grinned, and raised his Starbuck's cup in toast, before taking another sip. "So what's up?"
"Right. I hope you don't mind if I just get to the point," Sideswipe said, "since I got things to do."
"Me too," Mac said. "Shoot."
"You still angling for that promotion, right?"
Mac nodded. "That's right, though Sal's doing his best to edge me out of it."
"Bastard," Sideswipe snorted.
"Tell me about it."
"Well," Sideswipe said, "what if I could give you the whereabouts of a certain terrorist group's stateside contact? And," he added, as Mac raised his eyebrows, "the coordinates for the group's headquarters down in South America?"
Mac whistled, and Sideswipe watched as his friend's face stretched into an disbelieving smirk. "You got to be kidding me."
"Nope, I never kid," Sideswipe replied.
"Right," Mac winked, and drained the last of his coffee. Giving the empty cup a mournful look, he stuffed it into Sideswipe's cup holder, and sat back, fingers laced over his middle. "If I didn't know you so well, I'd say you were bullshitting me, but I do know you, so…go on."
"Well," Sideswipe explained, "there's really not much to it. I know the Feds will pounce all over this bust the second they get wind of it, but not before you got credit for making the initial arrest, which should put Sal out of the running, and you behind that nice, new desk."
Mac smiled, blue eyes twinkling in the soft light of Sideswipe's dashboard display. "And what exactly would I owe for this ever-so-helpful information?"
"What?" Sideswipe did his best to sound wounded. "Can't a guy just do his buddy a favor?"
"Heh," Mac chortled, and flashed his teeth in a grin. "Says the fox to the hound."
Inwardly, Sideswipe smirked. "Alright, well, if you must know…Remember that arms bust you made last week? Aboard the freighter."
"Well," Sideswipe said, "seems I recall the news saying something about a shipment of titanium being used as the cover for the arms."
"I want the titanium," Sideswipe stated plainly. "This morning."
Mac furrowed his brow, looking thoughtful. "Side, you know I can't just do that. There are legalities…"
"Oh, stop being such a good boy for once, Mac," Sideswipe grumbled. "How can there be legal rights for dead guys? The dealers went down in the fight, and the cargo belonged to them. Which basically means they don't need it any more."
The detective heaved a sigh. "Sideswipe—"
"Hey," the warrior cut in, "you want the terrorists or not?"
A moment passed, while Mac stared meditatively at Sideswipe's instrument display. Outside, a car pulled in, cut its engine, and sat dark and still while its owner peeled himself out of the driver's seat, stretched expansively, and shuffled over the curb toward the instant coffee vending machine. Mac watched his progress, and reached automatically for his empty Starbuck's cup, obviously thinking of a refill, while Sideswipe glanced moodily to his right, where the obedient Toyota waited in silence. What a life, Sideswipe found himself thinking. The poor thing probably even had to live in a garage.
With a shudder, Sideswipe tore his gaze away from the other car, and jostled himself a little, to prod Mac out of his thoughts. "Well?"
"Well, what?" Mac grumbled, and sighed again, this time in resignation. "This is a nice little headache you've laid on me; you know that, Sideswipe."
Inwardly, Sideswipe grinned. "You're the best, Mac. Six a.m. sharp? At the docks?"
"And when do I get my man?" the detective asked.
"Oh," Sideswipe said, and flipped open his glove box, which spilled forth another manila envelope. "here you go. You just can't bust him until after 6:00 a.m."
"And what happens at six?" Mac asked, as he thumbed through the contents of the file.
But Sideswipe only grinned to himself, and opened his driver's side door. "Say hi to the fam for me, hound dog."
"Oh, fine," Mac grunted, as he levered himself up from Sideswipe's low-slung seat. "Be that way." He rested a hand on Sideswipe's upraised door, and gave his roof a friendly pat. Humans always did seem to see an Autobot as more of an animal when he was transformed into auto-mode. "Say hi to your better half."
Sideswipe snorted. "If he's my better half, then we're all in trouble."
"Ain't that the truth," Mac grinned, and stepped back with a final pat for the warrior. "I'll send you the dock info before six."
"See ya around, slow poke." Sideswipe carefully backed out, mindful of small human feet.
"Stay out of trouble," the detective admonished, and Sideswipe gave him a quick salute with his headlights, before rolling out for the on ramp. Behind him, he saw Mac already over by the coffee machine, and he waited until the detective had filled his cup, and turned to saunter back toward his car. Briefly, the human looked up, and on cue, Sideswipe kicked it into gear, and hit two hundred miles per hour in ten seconds flat.
He was quite sure he'd be receiving his ticket in the mail.
The sky was just leaching to gray as Sideswipe neared his last stop before heading to the docks. Air Raid had radioed while he was on the road, transmitting that all had gone as planned, and the cargo was on its way. Sideswipe told him to meet up with him on the beach north of the docks, and he felt better now, knowing that Air Raid was alive and on his way.
Of course, his spirits had been squashed all over again at having to field an imperious call from Perceptor, who wanted a status report. Sideswipe hadn't been able to give him much, since technically, he hadn't acquired anything yet, and he'd been forced to listen to a scolding from Perceptor about the folly of wasting time.
"I'm not wasting time," Sideswipe had rumbled, exasperated. "I'm working on a schedule."
"Well, I find that difficult to accept," Perceptor had sent back, "considering your 'schedule' was neither approved, nor even perused by me or anyone else in command. I don't even know where you are right now."
"It doesn't matter where I am, Perceptor," Sideswipe replied, hearing the cranky tone in his own voice. "You set me a job, and I'm doing it. All I need now is for someone to meet me with cargo transport at 6:00 a.m., at these coordinates."
Perceptor paused for a moment, then sent, "That's all the way on the coast, Sideswipe. How do you propose I get someone there in under three hours?"
"I don't know," Sideswipe sent back. "Isn't Silverbolt around? Or Skyfire?"
Perceptor snorted audibly. "Oh, I hardly think your mystery cargo is sufficient excuse to redirect two of our only available air support."
"Well, there's got to be somebody," Sideswipe snapped, losing his cool just a little. "Because the alternative is that you locate a towing package for a Lamborghini Countach, and that I'd like to see."
All in a huff now, most likely because he wasn't really enjoying his temporary position as Autobot commander, Perceptor argued with him for a solid couple of minutes, before finally relenting and saying he would 'see what he could do.' Cursing to himself, Sideswipe signed off, and wished wholeheartedly for Prowl to come out of recovery before the last of his patience snapped, and he ventured back to the Ark to conduct the Great Piledriver Massacre.
Sideswipe turned off the lonely dirt path he'd been following for some time, and out onto a stretch of sand, which had taken on the pale cast of the sky. Silver as bone, it stretched away on either side into a crescent, before turning back on itself and disappearing behind the trees. He wasn't sure what the humans called it, but he and Sunstreaker had simply dubbed it Crescent Strip, and had often taken advantage of the secluded location as a rendezvous point for some of their extra-curricular activities. Back when they'd had time for extra-curricular activities. Somehow that seemed so long ago.
Anyway, he had better things to do now, and no time to think about screwing off. With an involuntary grunt of pain, he transformed, and quickly found that he would have been just as happy to stay in auto mode. Gingerly, he ran his fingers down his right leg, prodding to find the point of pain, but gave up quickly as he found it just plain hurt all over. And it was getting worse. Which was really too bad, since he was supposed to meet Swindle in a few minutes, and even though Swindle was a cream puff when it came to fighting, Sideswipe would have preferred to go into this next business meeting with all his available resources.
A deep rumble sounded through the trees, and Sideswipe jerked up and around, flinching as a bolt of pain shot through him at the movement. This was all wrong. His leg, his slow reflexes, and that sound…
He shook his head, cursing inwardly at how foggy his thinking was these last few days, when it occurred to him that Swindle's engine had never before made that sound. A flash of tan showed through the trees, and Sideswipe tilted his head, puzzling, knowing he should recognize that engine's noise, when at once there was the sound of someone transforming, and then the trees parted.
A second too late, Sideswipe summoned his weapons, staggering back into the sand. "Onslaught," he snarled. "Primus-slagging SWINDLE. Autobot one, code red," he sent, or tried, and cursed soundly and loudly when he found he was being jammed. "Son of a bitch!" he snapped, crouching into himself, and wondering just how the hell he was planning on getting out of this one.
"Wait," Onslaught held up his hands, his weapons safely cached. "Put your weapons away."
"My ass," Sideswipe growled, trying to think fast. The other Combaticons were likely hidden in the trees, so he couldn't escape on the road or by jetpack, and his leg was shooting fire through his systems like unholy hell, so running was out of the question, too. Hefting his rifle, he backed up a step, trying hard not to expose his limp. He'd have to fight, no choice there. Or swim.
"Please," Onslaught persisted, hands still raised. "Swindle said you might react this way, but you must trust me."
"And why in Primus' name would I do that?" Sideswipe bit back, mostly to buy himself time to think, or at least to buy a few minutes before his grisly death-by-Bruticus. Damn, Sunstreaker would be pissed.
"Because," Onslaught said, "I come bearing gifts."
Sideswipe snorted. "What, my head on a plate?"
To Sideswipe's surprise, Onslaught's faceplate took on a sort of longsuffering look, and he uttered a sort of disdainful little sigh. "Listen to me, Autobot, if I were here to do you harm, that would have been accomplished long before our little chat."
"Oh yeah?" Sideswipe shot back, mostly just for something to say, since he was pretty sure the Combaticon was spot on with his assessment.
"Yes," Onslaught confirmed, and stepped more fully out of the trees. "You're not even fully functional," he noted, with a once-over look at the Autobot, and though his face was masked, Sideswipe could easily detect the polite sneer. He added, obviously purely for the purpose of being a smartass, "And you have mud on your face. You do know that. On your left side," he pointed.
Despite himself, Sideswipe scrubbed his face with the back of his hand, and scowled as flakes of dried mud tumbled free. "Yeah? Well, it's been a long day." He wanted to say, 'And your mother dresses you funny,' but he had the inkling that in a contest of wits, this Decepticon would very likely win. Where was Prowl when he needed backup, anyway? Useless git.
The Combaticon looked down on him with a sort of aristocratic gleam. "I quite understand," he said, in a tone that indicated he in no way related to anything Sideswipe might feel. "Now I suppose you would like to inspect your merchandise, or shall we continue this discussion on into the afternoon?"
Merchandise. Sideswipe blinked a moment, wondering if his poor, bedraggled processor was playing tricks on him. "What?" he asked, ever-so-intelligently. Distantly, he mused that this must be how Mirage saw him, day in and day out: slow-witted and unwashed. Not that eight days without sleep, unfinished internal repairs, and a really slagging painful leg was his fault.
Onslaught's optic band dimmed in a slow blink. "I said…" he started, voice thick with a kind of well-bred patience.
"No, I heard you," Sideswipe interjected, and straightened a little, starting to relax. He supposed, after all, that the Combaticon was right, in that if he were planning to take Sideswipe down, he'd have done the job by now. "Just – what do you mean? Where's Swindle?"
"Swindle made an unfortunate decision," Onslaught informed him, though he did not deign to explain what that decision might have been, or what might have become of poor Swindle. "Sadly, he is not able to be with us today, so I took it upon myself to see to his affairs for him."
Before he could help it, Sideswipe snorted a derisive laugh. "You? Work for Swindle?"
"Not precisely, no," Onslaught corrected him. "But let us say…it is to my advantage that Swindle's business operations continue."
Lowering his rifle slightly, Sideswipe narrowed his optics, head tilting a bit. "Even if your contact is an Autobot?"
Onslaught sneered. "Swindle's business contacts all tend to be rather seedy."
"Try telling Mirage that," Sideswipe smirked, and waved away a puzzled look from the Combaticon. "Ok, fine, say I believe you. Where are the barrels?"
"Hmph," Onslaught made a noise at the back of his vocalizer, and turned back into the trees, arrogantly exposing his back. Sideswipe felt himself bristle slightly at the insult to his battle skills. "I thought you'd come around," the Decepticon said over his shoulder, and returned quickly with a barrel in each hand. These, he stacked neatly in the sand, and went to retrieve more, until he'd accumulated a tidy row. "You may have a look," he stated, and took a polite step back to wait.
Suppressing a smirk, Sideswipe gave the big Combaticon one last wary look, before caching his weapons and stepping forward to the barrel furthest from the Decepticon. Sideswipe was no coward, but he hadn't stayed alive all these years by being stupid, either. A big Combaticon team leader was about as trustworthy as a kick in the teeth, so far as Sideswipe was concerned, and in his present state, the warrior knew he couldn't take much more than a good, solid hit to the cranial unit. Onslaught could smear him all over the sand without too much effort, and he knew it. Worse, he knew Onslaught knew it, and that not only alarmed Sideswipe, it hurt his professional pride. Slagging arrogant team leaders, anyway.
Snorting, scowling, doing his best to look tough (and knowing Onslaught was just rolling his optics under that face mask), Sideswipe edged toward a random barrel, and pulled off the lid. He glanced once at Onslaught, who was standing patiently and politely by, then summoned a small scanner, which confirmed the contents. Silicon-rich, high-grade, special formula synthetic oil. The mixture was a specific recipe Ratchet required for his more delicate internal repairs, and it was hard to come by.
"This is it?" Sideswipe asked, taking in the rest of the barrels with a sweep of his optics. He closed the one, and spot-inspected two or three more, just to be sure.
"Swindle said to tell you that it was the best he could do on such short notice," Onslaught replied. "Be grateful he was able to assist you at all."
Sideswipe canted a glance toward the Combaticon. "I'm sure. Of course, you'll be sure to tell him that my information is worth a bit more than this lot."
"I will do that," Onslaught replied, with no hint from his tone whether he was being snide or not. A rotten haggler he was, that was sure. Sideswipe frowned, thinking that Swindle was just going to have to owe him. "And what is this information?" the Combaticon asked, point blank.
A really rotten haggler. He might be big, and he might give Prowl a run for his money in the area of tactics, but Onslaught wouldn't last a day on the Cybertronian underground. Sideswipe tried very hard not to shake his head. Swindle really would owe him, and he'd take it out of his hide if he had to after this. But he just didn't have time to give the Combaticon a lesson in the finer arts of bargaining.
With a sigh, he opened a side pocket, and took out a datachip. "Here," he said, and tossed it across the sand. Onslaught caught it with a graceful twist of his wrist. "This should tell him all he needs to know. Suffice it to say he shouldn't make his deliveries too soon."
"Meaning that if one of your rounds today includes delivery of weapons to a certain terrorist cell in South America, then I'd suggest waiting a few days," Sideswipe said.
To his satisfaction, Onslaught's optic band brightened slightly as the Decepticon widened his optics. "Why?"
"Because," Sideswipe explained, "my resources tell me that Swindle's clients might fall into unfortunate times over the next few days. If Swindle waits it out, he'll be able to keep the money without delivering the goods."
Slowly, Onslaught nodded, seeming to appreciate this plan. "But what of the other half of the funds? He was only paid half upfront."
At this, Sideswipe grinned a little, and nodded toward the datachip. "I've already hacked their primary accounts for you, and the passwords to the backdoors are all there. Of course, you have a choice: Drain the funds now, and Swindle will burn his bridges, since they'll find out it was him who took the money. Or, you could wait until circumstances become a little more shaky and then drain the funds, and they'll probably be too confused to know what happened. Of course, the survivors might drain their own funds first, but that way, at least he can keep them as clients down the road. It's up to Swindle if he wants to gamble."
For a moment, Onslaught stared at him. He glanced down at the chip in his hand, then back up at the red warrior. "But," he said, clearly perplexed, "you're an Autobot."
"Hey," Sideswipe shrugged, "I didn't steal a dime. And enabling Swindle to steal from swindling, lying, murdering scum is really something of a gray area, don't you think?"
Onslaught almost looked impressed.
"Anyway," Sideswipe continued, "he's bound to make a crapload of money off of this, so next time you see him, tell him happy birthday for me. And that I'll be expecting a thank you note. He'll know what you mean."
"Noted," Onslaught said, putting the chip safely away. He straightened, looking like he would have said more, but a sudden, deep roar of engines cut him off. Backing, he stared around and into the trees. "You brought backup," he accused.
Starting, Sideswipe whirled to stare down the road. "No I didn't," he protested, wincing at the sharp movement. "I thought you brought backup."
"I don't need backup," Onslaught sneered, though his expression changed rapidly at a flash of red and blue down the road.
"Oh, slag me," Sideswipe moaned.
"Optimus Prime?" Onslaught barked, and turned a blazing look on Sideswipe.
"Slag if I know!" Sideswipe threw his hands up. "He doesn't know I'm here! I swear!" he added, noting the increasingly frenzied look on the Combaticon's faceplate.
"Well, clearly, he's here now," Onslaught pointed out ever so helpfully, crouching a little, and darting glances around as though for the best routes of escape.
"How in slagging hell…" Sideswipe growled through a clenched jaw, staring up at the road, and wondering how in Primus' name Optimus had managed to find his rendezvous point, not to mention what in the Pit he was doing here. But before he could think of a story for why he and Onslaught might be chatting it up on the beach together, the Decepticon came up with the obvious conclusion.
"Well, I'll try to leave you conscious, at least," the Combaticon offered from beside him, and Sideswipe just had time enough to offer a dismal little groan, before Prime burst out of the trees, and Onslaught lunged.
Of course, Sideswipe recalled thinking, just before his world exploded into dazzling colors, the only sane reason an Autobot and a Decepticon would be caught together would be if they were fighting.
A thousand shards of light flared across Sideswipe's vision, and he felt, rather than heard, the ringing in his head as Onslaught's fist slammed home. "You can say I was attempting to steal your barrels of oil," the Combaticon hissed, as he landed another punch.
Dizzy, Sideswipe staggered back, arms waving in an attempt to get in a hit of his own, not that he was succeeding at much. I can't believe it, he thought, as he was thrown back on this backside in the sand, I'm being pretend-mugged.
"Sideswipe!" he heard the deep, familiar roar of the Autobot commander, and felt himself grin stupidly up at the silvering sky. The clouds had washed away in the night, and the morning sun was turning the sky a warm, fragile blue. A clang of metal sounded, and he sat up, or tried to. Twice, his elbows buckled, but on the third try, he was able to push himself upright, where he sat, legs splayed out before him, while he watched Optimus Prime give Onslaught a great, big ass-whooping. For the first few second at least, Onslaught gave back as good as he got, but ultimately the big Autobot was too much for him, and as soon as he was able to untangle himself from the brief melee, the Decepticon sprang up into the air, where he dodged a peppering of laser fire from Optimus. Dipping, he dropped into the trees, where he transformed to roar away by road, under cover of the trunks. Too busy to give chase, Optimus Prime let him, go, and turned back toward the red warrior.
The sounds of the surf washing in soothed the edges of Sideswipe's blooming headache, and for one peaceful moment, he and Optimus stared at one another, the commander puffing with exertion, the warrior leaning weakly back, near exhausted. But peace was short-lived.
"Are you ok?" Prime demanded, a little more harshly than Sideswipe would have liked. He was annoyed, that was clear, but that was sort of the norm of late, so Sideswipe didn't take it too much to heart.
"I'm fine," the warrior replied, dragging himself to his feet, or trying to. Something had jarred in his cranial unit, and he was having trouble with balance, not to mention suffering from a real hell of a headache now.
"Here," Prime offered a hand, and dragged Sideswipe into the world of the upright, where the warrior swayed a bit on his damaged leg.
Looking up with what he hoped was an innocent expression, Sideswipe offered a bit of a rueful smile and said, "Thanks, Prime."
Frowning, Prime stared down at him, as though wondering just where to start, and Sideswipe, tired as he was, simply stared back. He wished wholeheartedly that Prime would skip the questions just this once, pack it up, and let them both go home, preferably with Sideswipe laying in a heap inside his trailer. But, sadly, he knew that was not to be. Prime was still in a bad slagging mood, for whatever reason, and Sideswipe figured the big Autobot just might need an excuse to blow.
"So," Prime said at last, with a bit of a look up and down, to take in Sideswipe's less than pristine condition, "I got a call from Perceptor that you needed cargo transport."
Sideswipe waited to see if there was more, and when there was none, he simply said, "Yeah, I do."
"I was in the area," Prime continued.
"Convenient," Sideswipe replied evenly, in no way wanting to provoke an argument.
"Thought you might need a hand."
"Nice of you."
"Then I get a call from Air Raid," Prime explained further. "Telling me he'd spotted you and Onslaught here on this beach."
The commander let that dangle, and Sideswipe nodded thoughtfully, as he waited politely for Prime to continue. He knew the commander was testing the waters, as though wondering whether he should commit to this line of questioning or not. The two warriors locked optics, Sideswipe's slightly wary, Prime's nearly seething with the wish to find out exactly what in the slagging HELL Sideswipe had been doing with Onslaught, and looking for all the world as though he were brewing a brilliantly wrathful lecture. Prime peered at him, chin high as he looked down his nose at the slightly bedraggled warrior, his bulk taking on the rosy glow of the rising sun behind him. A little shorter and slighter, Sideswipe stood in his shadow, face uplifted and waiting, while he hoped that just this once Prime would let him be, so he could go home and collapse in his bunk, where he planned to sleep the sleep of the dead for at least a day or two.
At last, Prime snorted, as though wanting to blow and containing himself. He asked, "Just what in the blazes are you doing on this beach anyway?"
Sideswipe opened his mouth to reply, but on cue, and rather like an angel from the heavens, Air Raid landed with a thud and a spray of sand, and skidded to a halt just a few feet from the other two Autobots. Grinning widely, he jaunted over the last few feet, and stopped with his hip jutting out in that Aerialbot way. "Y'ok, Side?" he asked, face full of concern at Sideswipe's state, and the warrior had to admit he found it somewhat gratifying. "I saw Onslaught, and I figured you needed help. Was gonna dive down myself, but I saw Prime nearby, and thought he'd give old Ons' a surge in the old fuel pump better than me."
Of course, Sideswipe had failed to warn Air Raid about Swindle, but he supposed that even if he had, the Aerialbot – not knowing what was happening – still would have radioed Prime for help, and he didn't blame him. "Yeah, thanks," Sideswipe said with genuine enthusiasm, even if all the poor kid did was slag up his morning even more. "Just in time, too."
"Uh huh," Prime grunted, and Sideswipe noted with a small sigh that he wasn't out of the woods yet. Prime focused his attention on the warrior again. "So you were saying…?"
"Right, why I'm here," Sideswipe glanced at Air Raid, then back up at Prime, who was looking for all the world like a great, red-and-blue storm cloud. "Well, it wasn't time to meet my shipment yet at the docks, so I—"
"—came here to meet me," Air Raid interjected, and to his credit, he looked reasonably believable. Face smooth, and blithe as a new-built mech, the Aerialbot turned his wide blue optics on Prime. "I know I'm supposed to be on route, but we're all pulling double duty, so I hope you don't mind that I made a little stop on patrol. Here you go, Side."
The Aerialbot pulled several packages out of subspace, and even out of his cockpit, which the warrior saw was jammed to the canopy. "Barely fit," he said, "but it's all there."
"Thanks," Sideswipe grinned, happy despite the situation, because if nothing else, Ratchet and Wheeljack would be pleased.
Prime, however, was giving them both dark looks. "This is raw plutonium," he stated flatly. "And…Cybertonium? Where in the universe did you get this?"
Sideswipe almost laughed. Most of what he'd stolen – including various Cybertronian compounds that could only be obtained by use of the Decepticons' space bridge – had been sold to the terrorists in South America by none other than Swindle. Of course, he'd blackmailed the terrorist cell with the threat of exposure if they didn't hand over all of their sensitive compounds, so in essence, he had allowed Swindle to provide the cell with a nice supply of hard-to-get items, before taking the opportunity to steal it for himself. Naturally, he had then turned around to sell out the terrorist cell to the police for a shipload of titanium, but they would never know that, and besides, that wasn't really happening for another twenty minutes or so. Not that he cared, since Air Raid was safely back now, and he'd had time to tip off Swindle.
Really, in the end, they all won. Well, except for the terrorists, but that was just icing on Sideswipe's personal cake, as far as the warrior was concerned. He was an Autobot, after all.
But poor Air Raid couldn't know all of this, and as Sideswipe had no intention of telling him, the Aerialbot had no choice but to suffer Prime's black stare, while Sideswipe waited to see what he would say. However, to his surprise, the Aerialbot seemed to be able to shift feet nicely. "Oh, I met a contact of Sideswipe's along my route." If one considered South America to be along the Oregon sky patrol. "Dunno where he got the stuff. He didn't say."
And like that, the ball was back in Sideswipe's court, and the warrior shrugged when Prime's dark blue gaze turned back to him. "What can I say? Friend of mine just had the stuff laying around."
"A friend of yours," Prime repeated, in no way buying Sideswipe's crap, but looking sorely tempted to take him at his word anyway.
All sunshine and innocence, Sideswipe smiled.
"Laying around." Prime was scowling slightly, his inner Autobot obviously warring with the wish to just take what Sideswipe had dug up, and shut up about it.
Sideswipe blinked up at him, waiting, while Air Raid took the same stance, his happy-go-lucky Aerialbot face shining with the purity of youth under the newly-minted sun.
Prime shifted his gaze toward the barrels, sitting in two neat, innocent rows. "And these?" he asked.
"Synthetic oil mixture Ratchet likes so much," Sideswipe offered. "I knew a guy who knew a guy."
"And you paid for it with…?"
Sideswipe raised his metal brows, virtuous as the wool on a lamb's butt. "I did him a favor. He owed me." Which was true. He did Swindle a favor, and Swindle still slagging owed him, as far as Sideswipe was concerned.
"And what, exactly," Prime asked, optics flashing a little with hot temper, "was Onslaught doing here?"
"Trying to steal the oil, or so he said," Sideswipe answered neatly, with a little heat to his own voice, and a convincing look of exasperation on his face. Well, it was true; Onslaught did actually say the words, 'I was attempting to steal the oil.' "Slagging bastard Decepticon," the warrior added, not having to pretend to scowl. His head hurt like unholy fire.
Optics narrowing in thought, Prime considered him, face dragged into a frown as he looked from the barrels to Sideswipe and back. Chin raised, he regarded the red warrior with a shrewd look, and even before the question came, Sideswipe knew Prime finally had him. "And exactly how," he asked, his optics taking on the keen edge of a hunter nearing his prey, "did you manage to transport all these barrels to this location?"
And that was it. Sideswipe felt the tiredness in him snap like a twig, and meld through him like rainwater into soil. He would never lie to Optimus, and Primus save him, he was just too damn exhausted to tap dance any more. A kind of fatigue fell over his features; he could feel it, could feel his optics closing in a slow, weary blink, which he knew Prime could read clear as the daylight around him. Sideswipe was the grand master of keeping a straight face under questioning, but not now, not when he was just so plain worn out from the hail, from the battering rain, from sleeplessness, and from the general snappish mood of everyone from Perceptor to Jimmy Farrel to Optimus Prime himself. He'd been dogged out to every duty officer, scientist, medic, and scout that needed a hand, had pulled double shifts of guard duty at every turn, had suffered through the fine leadership of one after another wretched substitute, had been forgotten on the recharge lists, accidentally dropped off the sleep-cycle roster, and barked at for trying to have a sense of humor about it all. He'd been hailed on, rained on, up to his knees and elbows in mud, laughed at, snapped at, bellowed at by one certain Autobot commander, nagged, wheedled, coffee stained, sneered at, and now punched by one certain Decepticon. And for it all? It was not gratitude by any stretch that Sideswipe was offered, but suspicion, and exasperation, and the kind of treatment that said he wasn't worth Prime's respect. And that, more than anything, more than the pain in his body, more than the exhaustion he felt, made him want to throw his hands in the air and just give up.
Which was fine, because just now, he was too damn tired to care. But like hell if he was going to admit to a thing.
Face weary to the point of being serene, Sideswipe slowly waved a hand in front of Optimus' face. "There really aren't that many barrels," he said with a level look.
"There aren't," Prime repeated with a snort, but looking again at the stack, as if to make sure. He turned back to look Sideswipe up and down, and stated, "Your trunk is the size of a lunch box."
Again, Sideswipe waved his hand, in a slow, meaningful arc. "Sideswipe is resourceful."
If it were possible, Prime's optics narrowed even further, until they were nothing more than mistrustful slits. "You're telling me, that by some pure act of your magical resourcefulness, you somehow managed to drag all these barrels from Primus knows where, down that long and winding road, and to this remote location, all by yourself."
Sideswipe stared at the Autobot commander, Air Raid looking on, while the surf pounded in lulling waves, and the sun gained strength on the warrior's shoulders. Once more, he raised his hand, hesitating only briefly before looking Prime dead in the optic, and, with no other option, saying evenly, "These are not the droids you're looking for."
Prime blinked, and Air Raid stifled a snicker, as the Aerialbot shifted his gleeful gaze to Prime, waiting and most likely taking notes for his own unsaintly ventures. But it seemed at last that Prime had given up, and Sideswipe could see a bit of a wry smile creeping about his features. "Air Raid," the commander said, "go back to patrol."
"Aye, aye," Air Raid grinned and saluted sloppily, and backed away to give himself room for liftoff.
"And tell Silverbolt I detained you," Prime added, optics still on Sideswipe, who stared tiredly back.
"Will do, Prime," the Aerialbot promised still grinning, and Sideswipe caught the barest hint of a wink. "See you guys later." With a noticeable jaunt in his step, he covered the last few strides to a safe spot, bounced on the balls of his feet, and with a quick burst of flame from his afterburners, launched himself into the sky where he transformed and hovered for just a moment, backstanding on his burners for show. He steadied himself for a moment, kicked it in, and blasted off and upward with a whoop of glee. Which was, of course, the Aerialbot way.
For a moment, Sideswipe watched him go, a tired little smile on his face as he thought he'd have to thank Air Raid later for his part, on top of paying him his share. But the moment wasn't long, and at last he tore his gaze away from the blue skies, and looked back toward Optimus, who still stood looking bemusedly down at the warrior.
"You get on my last nerve," he said, but not without a hint of humor to his voice. "You know that, don't you?"
"Thanks," Sideswipe offered, "Ratchet."
"That hurts," Prime smirked behind the mask.
Sideswipe glanced at his chronometer. "Well," he said, "we better get this stuff loaded, if we want to make time at the docks to pick up the last of it."
"The last of what?" Prime furrowed his brow.
"The last of the list," Sideswipe explained with a little shake of his head. "Here," he pulled a datapad out of a pocket, and offered it to Prime. "Perceptor said you needed all this stuff, so I got ahold of it."
Briefly, Prime looked over the list, and then looked back up, optics wide. "You got…all this stuff?"
"The titanium…the energy?"
"Titanium's at the docks, and energy will be increased on the first of the month," Sideswipe explained.
Prime looked nonplussed. "You're kidding."
"I never kid."
For some reason, Prime looked taken aback. "Sideswipe," he said, face etched with something between concern and appreciation, "I'm impressed."
"Well," Sideswipe shrugged, and turned away to the barrels and boxes from South America, "it's no problem. Just…can we go now? Because I don't like to be late for these kinds of things, and I'd hate to lose out on that shipment."
He looked at Prime expectantly, and though the other Autobot looked like he had more he'd like to say, he kept it to himself, and un-subspaced his trailer instead. Working quickly, the pair of them loaded the supplies, and had Prime back up on the road in under five minutes. Coordinates in hand, Prime pulled out in front, while Sideswipe, with a last look at the vast blue water behind him, transformed with a sigh of relief, and followed Prime down the long, sandy road through the trees.
The pickup with smoothly, and reasonably quickly, to Sideswipe's relief. He couldn't get off his bad leg fast enough, and transforming back into auto mode and pointing his nose toward home lifted something of a weight off his shoulders. He felt responsibility slipping away again, as he settled into his stride down the highway, a simple warrior again, without the responsibility for supplying an entire unit. He was exhausted not just in body, but with the whole business of making his rounds the night before. He'd made his life as a trader once, and could do so again. But a part of him had come to love the uncomplicated life of a warrior, and if he never had to be accountable for providing for this entire faction of Autobots again, it would be too soon.
Reveling quietly, shifting once in a while to skim through a puddle, Sideswipe let his wheels take him into the sunrise almost of their own accord. He felt very light, which he guessed was a result of his physical state, but just now it felt rather nice, and he hoped it would last until he could coast up through the Ark's front doors, down to his quarters, and right on into his bunk, where he planned to remain until someone pried him out at gunpoint.
"Sideswipe," Prime spoke up, interrupting his sleepy thoughts.
Checking himself, Sideswipe eased off the gas, and slowed to drift alongside his leader's cab. "Yes, Prime?"
For a minute, the big Autobot didn't answer him, but only drifted there, speeding along through the wet, shining morning. The sun glinted off the rain-washed roads before them, paving them to bright, pale gold. They were lonely roads out here, for they'd cleared the cities, and it was only the two of them now, racing through the cool April breeze as the sun shone pink and gold through the shredded wisps of cloud.
"Prime?" Sideswipe prodded, when the other had been silent too long.
"I'm just," Prime blurted, stopped himself, then started again, slower. "I just wanted to say…I'm sorry for yelling at you the other day."
"Oh," Sideswipe replied, and slalomed slightly to catch another puddle, which went up in a bright mist. "That's ok."
"No," Prime corrected him, barreling straight on, "it's not. I have no excuse for losing my temper like that…or for saying the things I said. I am sorry."
"Forget about it," Sideswipe said quietly, holding himself still in his lane.
Prime mused silently to himself for a moment, while Sideswipe waited patiently alongside him, letting the cool air keep his headache at bay. "You know," Prime spoke up after a few miles, "when I had Perceptor give you this assignment, I didn't mean you had to get it all done in one night."
"Well," Sideswipe replied, when the other paused, "I managed it."
"So you did," Prime said, and was silent again. This lasted another few moments, and when Prime didn't speak up again, Sideswipe began to wonder what was on his mind. It wasn't usually so hard for the Autobot commander to pay a compliment, and Sideswipe was just wondering if there might be more when he realized with a start that Optimus was actually feeling guilty.
It surprised him, not because he didn't think the commander capable of such a thing, but because he honestly didn't think Prime usually took that much notice of him. They bickered, sure, when Sideswipe had annoyed him sufficiently, but mostly Sideswipe and Sunstreaker both just bled their lifeblood out for him, and at the end of the day, they knew he appreciated them, whether he said so personally or not. And most times he didn't. Most times, when Prime was talking to Sideswipe directly, it was either to give an order, or to bark at him for some wrongdoing or another. Unlike Prowl, or Jazz, or Ironhide, Sideswipe didn't get much one-on-one time with Prime, so while he very much liked and admired his leader, he still found himself surprised to find that Prime would bother to feel guilty about how he treated someone he hardly knew.
"You know, Prime," Sideswipe said offhandedly, hoping he could forestall whatever the other Autobot might be about to say, "it's ok."
But to his surprise, Prime sighed heavily, at once sounding as tired as Sideswipe felt. "No, Sideswipe," he said once more, "it's not ok. I lean on you too much sometimes, and expect things from you that you're not able to give. Yet you jump through hoops for me anyway, and do things I wouldn't have thought possible. It's like that on the battlefield, and it's like that now."
"No, I'd appreciate it if you'd listen," Prime said, voice even and low under the rushing wind of the highway. "It's because you're strong, you and your brother. You both seem to bounce back from everything, and I take that for granted. Worse, I tend to vent my frustrations on you both, because I know you can handle it. You, above most of the other Autobots, seem resilient to almost anything life throws at you, and I take advantage of that."
He paused, letting his words sink in, weighing what he wanted to say next. It was coming out almost in a low rush, not at all like the speeches Prime usually gave, but like something the real Optimus would say, maybe to Prowl, maybe to himself. It was like a weight he needed to get off his chestplate, and Sideswipe, adaptable as ever, kept silent and let him.
"But you don't really bounce back," he said after a pause, sounding thoughtful, even remorseful. "You do your job, and you don't let much bother you. But there's a rift between us that grows continually, between you and me – between Sunstreaker and me. And I cause that. I cause that between myself and two of my Autobots." He paused there, thoughtful, sad. He was an idealist bogged down by the troubles of daily life, hampered in his purity by his very need to struggle through the frustrations his world threw at him, and surprised to find that he threw the same frustrations back. He said, as though he were thinking out loud, "I'm not fair to you or your brother, Sideswipe. I lean on you by not treating you with the same carefulness I treat the others. In a way, I treat you that way because I trust you not to break. I treat you that way because, in many ways, you and Sunstreaker are as strong as I am. Perhaps stronger."
"Prime –" Sideswipe started, feeling a little uncomfortable, but the other Autobot interrupted him.
"Let me finish," Prime commanded quietly, and Sideswipe silenced himself, and sat low over his wheels, while the other Autobot spoke on. "It's frustrating," he said softly, "being all the things a leader has to be. But I can't talk about it, because the Autobots need to see me as unwavering, and I understand that. I also can't show my frustration, because Autobots like Bumblebee would take it so much to heart. Hound would retreat into the back woods; Mirage would resign. Prowl, I think, would try to solve my problems one by one. Bluestreak would just be hurt.
"But you," he continued, engine humming low in the bright wind, "you and Sunstreaker – maybe Ratchet, too – you, out of all of them, I can trust not to fold. I guess I…trust you…not to turn on me…so it's with you that I end up losing my temper. And it's not right."
With that, he fell silent again, thoughts churning almost visibly, as the wind wrapped around them both like a shield, keeping away the world around them. In his lane, Sideswipe held himself very still, the wind curling over him like water as he waited.
He did not have to wait long, and Prime's voice, when he spoke up, had taken on the kind of steady, straightforward pace of someone who just wanted to get the last of it off his mind, and suffer whatever consequences his outburst might have earned him. "I want you to know, I don't feel sorry for myself," he said, "and I don't want you or anyone to feel sorry for me either. I'm honored to be trusted as your leader. I don't want you to think I can't carry this responsibility, and I don't want you to worry about me. I probably shouldn't even have told you all of this, but…I just…I think I owed you an explanation at least. You're a wiser mech than I give you credit for. Prowl has said as much, and I should have listened to him long ago.
"So, I guess what I'd like to say to you is that I'm sorry," he said with a note of finality. "I often take you for granted. And I often let you bear my frustrations. And I'm sorry."
He was silent at that, and though Sideswipe waited, there was no more. The road curved up and around a stand of pines, taking them over rocky ground, and onward toward home. It both surprised him, and didn't surprise him, to hear Prime say all of this. He hadn't expected to hear Prime say it. But at the same time he'd always known this, and like everything else, had figured his only task was to take it all in stride.
"Well," he said, with a vehicular shrug over his wheels, "I am really irritating sometimes."
"Sideswipe—" Prime started, as though to press the issue, but Sideswipe cut him off before he could make it into something more than it was.
"Prime, it's ok," Sideswipe said gently, and meant it. He'd known this, known that his task wasn't just as a warrior, but as a silent confidant to pain. He knew that Ratchet knew it, too. Sunstreaker was another matter, but as for himself and the medic, the red warrior had known all along that some days Prime just needed to vent, and that he was just resilient enough to listen. And oddly enough, he found he didn't mind.
Prime was quiet then, and Sideswipe could tell he was still troubled, but that he'd said what he needed to say, and heard what he needed to hear. Sideswipe did many things, but he never lied, and when he said it was ok, he knew Prime believed him. Which was good, because the warrior knew that his leader suffered enough from plagues of guilt and frustration and all the sorts of things that come of being responsible for the survival of the entire Autobot race. It eased Prime somewhat, Sideswipe knew, to hear that the warrior forgave him. But he also knew that Prime tended to chew on his own guilt for a long time, no matter if he was absolved or not, and that this would only add to the long list of things that kept the Autobot commander awake at night and working overtime to bring this war to a close, so he could go home, and at last make his peace with life.
But that was Ironhide's job, or maybe Prowl's, to talk him through those kinds of troubles, and to counsel him as friends would. Even Ratchet seldom failed to offer up some counsel of his own in his straightforward way. But for Sideswipe, his only task was to listen when Prime had had enough, and for better or worse, to know that Prime respected him for it.
They were nearing home now, and in the distance, he could see the dusky shape of the Ark across the stony plain. Eager, he nosed himself out front a half a length, kicking up another puddle to spray Prime's hubcap with mud.
"Race you home," he offered, voice light despite his exhaustion.
"In your state?" Prime asked, amused in spite of himself. He sounded better, sounded tired himself, and Sideswipe felt a surge of camaraderie, knowing they'd both suffered a hard week, and had come out of it together.
Inwardly, the warrior grinned, and gunned his engine just a bit. "I could beat you with two blown out wheels and a busted axle."
"You little punk," Prime grumbled good naturedly, sounding for all the world like Ironhide.
"Is that all you got?" Sideswipe bantered back. "Punk?"
"I'll show you what I've got," Prime growled, his own engine roaring to life as he shot himself forward, heavy load and all.
Sideswipe laughed, and dug in, sending great clouds of dust all around as his back tires gained purchase and propelled him forward with a rush. "Come on, lead butt!" he yelled, whooped, and fishtailed in front of Prime's nose, before he raced away across the plain, Optimus Prime roaring behind him, and belting out good-natured insults all the way home.
Ratchet was furious. After years of making constant, agonizing repairs of the red warrior, the Chief Medical Officer tended to look on Sideswipe's good health as his own personal property, and when Prime brought the warrior home looking like rickety death on wheels, Ratchet went simply apoplectic. The good part was that for once, Sideswipe wasn't the recipient of the grand lecture, and got to stand weakly by while the medic ranted himself into an impressive froth for a good ten minutes, and then put the icing on the cake by ejecting Prime brutally and unceremoniously from his presence. Even better, Sideswipe found himself ordered to lay down on an exam table, where he was lulled to sleep by the cursing, snarling ministrations of the medic, whose fingers slowly began to re-patch his injuries with far more gentleness than his tone would have indicated. And that was the last Sideswipe knew of things for a while.
He woke sometime on a Sunday evening, with the rain pounding down outside his window, and his leg suffering the low kind of throb that told of recent repairs. The lights were low, except for a lamp in the corner, and for a pale gray patch of late sun dimmed by glass and rain.
"Bedrest," Sunstreaker spoke up without looking at him. "Ratchet will have my head on a pike if you get out of that bed, so stay put."
"Yes, your majesty," Sideswipe croaked, and wondered what the medic had done to him. He turned his head, shifting slightly despite a warning throb from his leg, and found Sunstreaker sitting in the corner, feet up on a box, head bent over a pad of paper. For the first time in a long while, he did not wear a scowl, and the pleasant lines of his face actually showed that he was happy. Sideswipe knew that face well, though he hadn't seen it in a long, long time. "Whatcha doing?" he asked.
Sunstreaker canted him a glance over his work, face for once without a sneer. He held up a hand, showing him a small bit of black, which had stained his golden fingers at the tips. "Charcoal," he said simply, and half-smiled, almost shyly, if a mech would believe it, before bending back to his work.
"Mm," Sideswipe nodded sagely, and resettled his leg a bit, so it didn't hurt so much. He let his brother work in silence, wondering at him. Sunstreaker hadn't picked up a paintbrush since the fall of Iacon. Now he pushed the charcoal over his paper in sure, swift strokes, mouth set with that kind of concentration that Sideswipe had not seen on his face in many long years, and he sat in his chair with a kind of liquid relaxation that had long been absent from his troubled frame. "What's the subject?" Sideswipe asked, after a few moments of watching his brother work.
Hesitating, Sunstreaker dug through a sheaf of papers on the table beside him, and after finding one that suited him, held it up for Sideswipe to see. It was a charcoal study of storm clouds with light pouring through in patches, and there was something hopeful about it, some emotion that hung in the depths of the sketch, which somehow defined elements of light and dark more eloquently than a color photograph. "Wow, that's nice," Sideswipe said quietly, and Sunstreaker put the sketch away, requiring no more than a soft word of affirmation.
"There's more," Sunstreaker shrugged, bending over his work again, his finger speeding over the paper, stroke by sure stroke. He must have been drawing for a while now, and Sideswipe could see that he was happy.
He didn't know why. Nothing had changed, and nothing was better. But Sideswipe supposed that Sunstreaker didn't need a reason. Sometimes a mech was just ready to hope again, sometimes for no reason. Sometimes even after a long and miserable stretch of ongoing war.
Sideswipe guessed they all had their ways of coping, and maybe they all had breaks when they stopped trying to cope, and started picking up their lives again. Maybe Prime would never get that chance, being the leader and all, being the one guy who had to stick things to the end, and keep the Autobot race alive. Then again, maybe he would. Maybe he would find a way to live with himself, to pick up his life again, and hope. Because if Sunstreaker could, then Prime sure had a chance. Maybe Sideswipe had a chance, too.
In the meantime, it sure was nice to see Sunstreaker picking up his sketching again. Most likely, he wouldn't show a soul outside of Sideswipe, but he was drawing, and that meant he was starting to hope things could go back to the way they were someday. And Sideswipe supposed that wasn't such a bad end to a really Primus-awful day.
"Hey," he said, shifting again to make himself as comfortable as he could, "do me a favor. Tell Smokescreen, Spot on the Money is no longer a sure thing. Tell him to switch to Rain Dancer."
Distractedly, Sunstreaker nodded. "Sure, bro." His movements were fluid, sure.
"And tell Air Raid…" he said, drifting himself, optics closed already, "…tell him good job."
But if Sunstreaker answered, he didn't hear it, and as he dropped into the sleep of the dead, he dreamed of rain over blue water, and of storm clouds, and of the high walls of Iacon standing once more.