On Being Reduced to Instinct, and the Indignities Thereof
Author's note: When I wrote this, I thought that a grand total of two people would read it, and that both of them would chuck it back at my head as the dumbest bit of Transformers fiction ever scribbled. To my utter amazement, however, people didn't seem to mind it, and for reasons only known to my own subconscious, I have taken up entertaining myself by creating no end of sketches to go with this story. So, for me, this story has taken on sort of a life of its own, and even though it truly is one of the dumbest pieces of fanfiction I've ever written, it's also up there as one of my favorites. :) So, thanks to everyone who has encouraged me in my silliness. :)
Journal Entry 03D1147-0509/EARTH:
As if things couldn't be any weirder. But then I forget; I am an Autobot, and there is no end to the indignity that has become my life. I sigh; I move on. But still there lingers that inscrutable feeling that I've somehow been tainted by the continuing phenomenon that is the Autobots' weird little way of life. It's simply a matter of weirdness by association, and a bit shameful every time I am forced to avow that I am, in fact, one of them. But there it is, and there is little to be done about it.
So this time it was solar flares. It would seem that such things should be the stuff of myth and science fiction, but in fact I have long ago become aware that the most devastatingly oddball little things always seem to seek the Autobots out, so when I learned of the latest, I took it not with surprise, but with a dark little feeling of chagrin, and the sure knowledge that my subsequent humiliation would soon be at hand.
Hound was naturally elated when he learned that the electromagnetic waves would render our robotic forms inert. Of course the answer was to transfer our minds temporarily into biological bodies for the duration of the two-week flares, and of course Hound could think of nothing more lovely than being human for two weeks. Research on cloning and cell generation, plus Wheeljack's work in transferring Spike's mind to Autobot-X had given Optimus enough confidence to commit to the plan. Staying in our robot forms was simply too dangerous, and this was our best plan for survival. Besides, there was the hope that the Decepticons wouldn't have such an alternative, and would be summarily wiped out, so the Autobots went ahead with the plan.
But did I mention my comrades' penchant for attracting weirdness? And let's not even mention Wheeljack's track record, or his way of leaving out at least one very important detail…
"Don't worry, Mirage," Hound had said to me, his optics all alight at the prospect of a vacation as flesh and blood. "Teletran will pick appropriate body structures for us, and we'll put 'em on for a few weeks. No problem."
No problem indeed. When I get my hands on Wheeljack…
Mirage lay half asleep in the sun. He could feel it beating down on his sides, pushing into him like some kind of warm, glorious massage. The wind ruffled at his shoulders, pushing a fragrant, feathery something at his face and he remembered thinking, somewhere between sleep and the waking world, that he had not felt so at ease in many, many years.
He did not want to wake. He remembered something about a procedure he was supposed to go through, and he was sure he was supposed to be somewhere; or maybe the procedure was done, and he was supposed to get up now. They'd said it would be hard to wake, or was still hard to wake…
A buzzing sounded around his audios, and he gave his head a little shake, irritated. Beside him, he could hear the others stirring, someone snorting softly, someone rolling over with a muttered groan. He wasn't sure why they were all out here on the grass, since it seemed that the procedure had begun their transfers back in the…place. Again he shook his head a little, nose pressed against the soil as he tried to remember, but too much sleep clouded his mind, and he couldn't quite recall the name of their home. Ar…something? It was a difficult sound, one that had an even more difficult consonant on the end, and he was quite sure that whatever the name of their home had been, it had been nearly impossible to say.
Again, something made a deep sound somewhere to his left, and he finally summoned the effort to get up. It was like peeling himself away from the most blissful place, but at last he forced himself to wake, and rolled over on his belly, where he threw his front legs out in front of him.
Nearby, a whicker sounded, a question. He looked over to see an equine, a – a horse – staring at him, its dark neck half-lowered, nose extended in nervous appraisal, its ears flicking every which way.
For a good long minute, Mirage stared at this newcomer, wondering why it was here, and then as if in afterthought, he stared again at the silvery-grey forelegs outstretched before him. He could not fathom what was happening, and for many minutes, simply lay there, body tense as a bowstring, as if he might just get up and run away from himself.
Again, the whicker; again, the question. He looked over to find that the dark bay had inched closer, nose still extended, nostrils wide, and almost before he knew what he was doing, Mirage had launched himself to his feet, where he gave himself an involuntary shake. Tentatively, he stuck his own nose out, sucking in air as though he'd been doing it all his life, and finding that he could read things in the wind around him that he had never known were there before.
Nervous. Confused. Tense. Curious. Friend? He drew in, stepping closer, his silvery nose to the dark bay's nose, blowing, drawing air. He stood very still, neck arched, tail high behind him for very sensible reasons that made positively no sense to him at all. Hound?
Hound! Mirage tossed his head and snorted, astonished. Hound? Really? Hound?
The dark bay tossed his own head, nervous and excited and almost…happy. It was Hound, Mirage was sure of it; he remembered Hound's name better than the name of their home, though maybe it was because he could smell Hound right there in front of him. But it was so hard to say, and when he tried to ask, all that came out was an odd sort of whuff, and he stamped his hoof in frustration.
Hound dipped his head; an equine shrug. No matter, he seemed to be saying.
Mirage boggled, trying to understand what had happened, and wondering what it was that should have happened. It was so hazy, like a dream he'd once had of being larger and stronger, and now the dream was fading like smoke before the more real senses of taste and smell and touch and sight.
But before he could consider what he had become, (or perhaps had always been, though that was impossible), Mirage was faced with the sudden realization that he and Hound were not alone. Alarmed, he looked around him, ears pricked, tail high, at the mass of stirring bundles.
Like a colorful tide, they began to rise. A chestnut here, a roan there, a paint or two near the fringe, and all were stallions. Mirage was not quite sure why this was important to him, but he was sure that it was – even more important than who he had been yesterday, if that made any sense at all.
Stepping back, he took in the confusion before him, and felt Hound press up against his side, black tail swishing. He wasn't sure why they should be so nervous, or why he should feel a bizarre, underlying twinge of hostility at the group of stallions, but there it was.
Nearby, he saw a gigantic blue roan give himself a shake, and immediately Mirage felt too small. He wasn't sure why that should matter, but it did somehow, and he made a mental note to be respectful of this one. Slowly, the roan gave himself another shake, as though he were coming out of a deep sleep as well, and when the large draft seemed sufficiently awake, he made his way slowly to where Mirage stood.
Necks stretched; noses touched, silver against deep, blue-gray. Bigger. Smaller. Dominant. Number one. Not number one. Despite himself, Mirage gave a sudden squeal and tossed his head, foreleg pawing at the air. I give. OK. Optimus?
The other gave a glad, triumphant snort. Yes, it was Optimus, and the herd leader had recognized Mirage. The process was repeated with Hound, and then again with a graceful white newcomer. Long neck extended calmly, delicate ears upright, the pale gray exchanged scents with each of them in turn, and before Mirage had even touched noses with him, he could sense the quiet, unassuming air of Prowl.
An ugly snort broke the peace, and a stout chestnut-and-white paint shouldered grumpily through the throng. Optimus pinned his ears, and the newcomer froze and seemed almost to ball into himself. Annoyed, it was almost as if he humored the leader with a greeting, and when they'd gotten done squealing a bit at one another, the paint stomped a hoof as if to say, WHAT the SLAG?
Nobody knew. Fuming, the paint blew, nostrils round and angry, ears pinned in the kind of holy wrath of which only Ratchet could be capable. Mirage tried to chuckle, though all that came out was a chortling whicker, which earned him a blazing glare from the medic-turned-paint. The big horse leaned in, ominous and by all appearances very close to making a physical demonstration of his point, when a piercing scream tore through the air.
Heads and ears swiveled to look at the far end of the group, where two big, long-legged sport horses stood with their noses together. One blood bay, the other a golden dun, and each the other's conformational mirror, they stood with impressively arched necks and tails, ears pointed at one anther like darts. Slowly, the bay raised a foreleg, then stomped it down with all his might; the dun ignored him. Again, the bay stomped and uttered a short, sharp squeal, and almost peevishly, the dun turn casually away.
Which of course was far too much for the bay to accept. With a glint of teeth he slashed out and caught the dun along the neck, which made the golden horse bolt to the side with a squeal of rage. Whirling, eyes wide, he squared off against the bay for one tense moment, sides heaving, face positively scandalized, before he lunged with a roar.
Like pistons the bay's legs shot him to the side and into a gallop, and the dun had to check and pivot to keep up with him. Hindquarters bunching, both horses hurtled themselves forward until they were running with their bellies stretched out across the plain, tails fanned out as the enraged dun chased down the gleeful bay.
Well. Mirage's group all exchanged glances, and they didn't need words to all know what the others were thinking: no further need to identify the twins.
More introductions were made. Everyone was sorted and identified, and as their scents mingled with his, Mirage regained the memory of their names. The glossy yellow Fjord pony was Bumblebee; the great, black Belgian was Trailbreaker. The chocolate, flaxen-maned mountain horse was Tracks, the black-and-white paint was Jazz, and the big, sorrel quarter horse was Ironhide. There was the rangy appaloosa, Wheeljack, who Mirage was quite sure he'd need to have words with later, though he wasn't immediately sure why, and there was a pushy little brick-red chestnut pony that Mirage knew at once was Cliffjumper. A round, sheepish little dapple gray pushed his nose forward and was identified as Bluestreak, and a snappish, mottled little red pony introduced himself as Gears. Behind him and looking simply sour about the whole thing was a dusty palomino pony with two white socks and a bald face, and it took Mirage some maneuvering to coax a greeting out of the little thing, who turned out to be Huffer.
It took a long time to identify everyone, and even longer to corral everyone together, as the twins had taken it upon themselves to chase each other halfway across the county and back. When they returned, they were both lathered and blowing, but their heads were up, ears pricked, and they were looking as though they were making the best of a very strange situation. In fact, Mirage felt that the bay looked very clearly pleased with himself, and when he finally got the chance to sniff noses with the tall horse, he understood why: Sideswipe. There was something about that name, impossible as it was to say, that typified all things joyfully bad. Even harder to say was Sunstreaker, though the pronunciation of the dun's name was the furthest thing from Mirage's mind, as he was more concerned with the ugly look on the tall, golden horse's face, not to mention the flattened ears and irritably swishing tail.
At last the herd stood together in a bunch, and though all had been introduced, there was no less amount of confusion to go around. Well. Everyone looked around, and most heads and ears swiveled toward Optimus and Prowl. Now what?
The tall blood bay chortled to Mirage's left, and leaned into the dun's shoulder, looking for all the world as if he were doing an equine impression of ridiculous laughter. The golden horse shook him off with an ill-tempered grimace.
Mirage looked again at the command, and watched as Prowl looked pensively at the grass before him. White mane falling past his shoulder, forelock falling over his eyes, he looked pale as a scrap of moon next to the dark blue-gray of their leader. If any time was, now was the time for encouraging speech, or a set of directions, or even an explanation for what had happened to them all, but the truth was that nobody knew. And further, had there been anything brilliant to say, there was not a one of them who could have said it.
It was a little frightening, being without words. So much of Mirage's life had been built on the kingdom of verbs and nouns and modifiers that had so eloquently and safely defined and contained his thinking. If a thing could not be said, it was not a thought entertained in his processor, because what was a thought worth unless it could be solidified? He shook his head, silvery forelock falling into his eyes, and he wondered how he was to think and consider if he could not make his thoughts real.
A rude squeal sounded from one side of the ring, and Mirage looked over to see a short, round, pewter-gray Shetland pony take a nip at Wheeljack's spotted rump. Ears wilting, Wheeljack gave the pony a woeful look, but nobody stepped in to intervene, and the message from the pony to the appaloosa was quite clear: This is all your fault.
Wheeljack dipped his head, short mane bobbing over his spotted neck as he offered an apologetic look, but the Shetland – who was Brawn, if Mirage remembered correctly – didn't seem to care, and gave the appaloosa a grouchy snort before looking away. Wheeljack cast a pleading look around the ring, liquid eyes all but begging for understanding, but it didn't seem to Mirage that anyone was feeling too charitable, and even Ratchet gave a cranky swish of his red-and-chestnut tail.
A soft snort brought everyone's attention back to Prowl, who stood quietly next to the massive Prime. The elegant white tactician raised his muzzle and looked to the northwest, in clear indication that he wanted everyone to go that way. Mirage looked to where Prowl had pointed, wondering what had given him the idea, when he realized at once that their home was that way. He also realized that it was where they had been before the procedure, and it came to Mirage through a haze of jumbled logic that it made no sense at all that they should have woken up to find themselves miles away from where they'd gone to sleep. He hadn't noticed that fact before, though it was mostly because the grass growing to his knees smelled so good, and there was something right about being where they were, out under the open sky.
But Prowl seemed to have better ideas, and Optimus, having obviously agreed, began nipping everyone toward home. The ring began to mill, chestnuts shouldering into paints, and nearly everyone taking the opportunity to lay their ears back at Wheeljack, who trotted after the lot with his head low and his ears drooping. Sunstreaker even went so far as to feint a kick in Wheeljack's face, and the golden horse's hind hooves only barely missed poor Wheeljack's spotted nose, but Mirage wasn't in the mood to feel too sorry for the inventor. He was sure, somewhere, that waking up and finding one's self turned into a horse was not at all what was supposed to have happened.
But there was another part of him – the part that knew just how to stretch out into a ground-eating trot, the part that felt very strongly that the grass all around his knees was swaying with the most wonderful smell he'd ever scented – that gave him the notion that being a horse was not so far from the right thing at all. There was something calming about it, something that took away the rushing that came from living his life as a robot at war, and a robot accountable not only to be at his duty station on time, but to chatter and socialize and…bustle. Primus, the very notion of dashing about in a mad scramble to live life, simply because there was some unwritten idea that life should be lived at the fastest pace possible, was anathema to Mirage. He loathed rushing, loathed babbling aimlessly about nothing simply to hear the air around him filled with words, and though being wordless now made him nervous, it also left him with a strangely detached sense of relief.
Beside him, little gray legs churning to keep up, Bluestreak plugged silently along, and Mirage felt a wry twist inside of him. He did not understand what had happened to him, but what he did understand was that there was a fringe benefit that he liked very much indeed.
The day stretched blue as the deep overhead, fathomless and electric. Clouds scudded in meandering herds of their own, casting patchy shadows over the plain, and Mirage couldn't help but feel a plunge of delight every time he trotted through one. The shadowy air would instantly cool his skin, and when the wind pushed over him, he thought it was the most pleasant sensation he'd ever felt in his life. He shook his head, his silky mane tossing about his withers, and though he was sure that existing as a beast of burden should have been mortifying, he couldn't help but think that there was something admittedly enjoyable about it.
And it seemed he wasn't the only one who thought so. After they'd trotted a few miles, their herd strung out in a jumble of colors, Hound sidled up to Mirage, and gave him a happy snort. Head high, ears pricked, the dark bay jigged a little, side-passing and swinging his neck so that Mirage almost got the impression he was showing off. It was almost as if he was saying, Look at me! Isn't this fun?
Amused, Mirage dipped his neck and swung it a bit to the side in a little playful gesture. Part of him knew he should have been ashamed of himself, but part of him had to agree with the dark bay tracker that there was something soothing about the wind in his fur, and about the bunching, rippling muscles under his coat.
Another squeal sounded up ahead, and both horses looked up to see that the twins were at it again. Sideswipe ducked behind the big, black Trailbreaker, while Sunstreaker galloped around behind and tried to oust his brother. Bright bay swirled around bright golden dun, and it almost looked as if Trailbreaker were caught in some bizarre, colorful cyclone before Sunstreaker finally got a solid bite of Sideswipe's rump, and the two sprinted off in tandem to the head of the herd.
Hound whickered, a chuckle, and Mirage gave a few hearty tosses of his head with an answering whicker of a laugh. Another angry squeal sounded from the front of the column, this one deep and annoyed, and both Hound and Mirage understood at once that Prime was telling the miscreants to knock it off. The dark bay tossed Mirage an amused look, and they trotted on, shoulder to shoulder.
The morning passed, and as the sun grew strong, Mirage noticed that the others began to lag a little. Their bright, energetic trot had slowed to a determined jog, and their home was still nowhere in sight. To the northwest, Mirage could just make out the line of the hills, and he knew it might be some time before they reached the mountains where their home lay, but he hadn't counted on it taking this long. It shouldn't have. He should have been able to move much faster, he was sure, even though trotting over the miles felt more and more natural as he went. It didn't seem to bother him as much as the others, either; in fact, though this type of organic tiredness was new to him, he only felt its effects to a small degree, and was trotting out with the same energy as he'd had that morning.
The others, however, weren't faring so well. Trailbreaker looked the worst, being lathered at the shoulders, and Prime didn't look much better than that. Prowl still seemed relatively cool, and hadn't flagged noticeably, but he was one of the only ones. As for the twins, they were looking downright irritable, having galloped and played all their energy away hours ago, and they'd been reduced to trudging along at a swinging shuffle, their long legs more than making up for their weariness, while Tracks jogged behind them with an I-told-you-so look.
Near mid-afternoon, Prowl veered to the north, and everyone looked at each other appraisingly. Prime even tried to nudge him back to the northwest, his big, blue roan body pushing into Prowl's, but the elegant white horse pressed on, and seemed to give the roan no notice. Puzzled, Prime gave Prowl a searching look, but seemed to decide at length to trust him, and the herd followed the tactician off-course.
Another hour passed, with the blue roan staring darkly down at the white tactician, but at no time did Prowl divert his gaze from his direction of choice, and after another half hour had gone by, Mirage suddenly understood. His tail lifting a little, he swiveled his ears forward, nostrils distended, and he even gave a little, eager whicker at what he smelled.
He didn't know how Prowl had sensed it so early, or how it had eluded his own senses until a particularly strong gust of wind had blown the smell of it into his face, but one by one the rest of the herd seemed to understand. Low, rumbling whickers sounded all around him, and the pace quickened a bit. Beside him, Hound had brightened considerably, and up ahead, even Sunstreaker's ears had tipped forward in anticipation.
Water. They could smell it drifting to them in waves now, inviting, almost tantalizing. It didn't seem to enthrall Mirage as much as it did the others, and for a moment he paused to wonder why, but then they came over a final rise, and saw the river shining down below them.
Eagerly the herd began to make their descent, the bigger horses jostling greedily at the smaller ponies, and distantly Mirage knew he should have registered this as wrong. But the reality was that instinct was too strong, and the need for water far outstretched any notion of being polite, which left them all with the single, clear rule of Might over Midget. Squealing in indignation, the ponies pinned their ears at being pushed aside, but no one gave them the slightest thought as they dived en masse for the water.
But a sudden, piercing whistle brought them all up, and they stood frozen at the warning. Someone snorted and pawed, ready to bolt. Mirage looked over, saw with a bit of surprise that it had been Prowl who had whistled, and then he saw what Prowl had seen.
There on the bank, shoulder half-turned from drinking out of the river, was a great, silver wolf. The blue roan, head high, face almost insulted, uttered a deep, angry snort.
And the wolf, inconceivably, pulled his mouth into a glittering grin. Food.
Predator. The roan snorted again, and swung his head, angry. Predator between me and water.
The wolf turned more fully, and the herd bunched back into itself, haunches pressed back into the chests of others. The wolf ran its gaze over the whole of the herd, sizing, sniffing. It shifted its weight, face shrewd as it took the lot of them in, and uttered a low, rolling growl.
The roan snorted and stamped a hoof. But even as he did, the white horse beside him offered a warning snort of his own, and the herd shifted its gaze en masse to see five more wolves come slinking out of the brush. Smaller, and gunmetal gray, they crept up about their leader, tongues lolling in concentration. They, too, took in the scents of the herd, and Mirage knew without a doubt what they were saying. Food.
Prime took a step back, wavering now. One wolf was a risk, but six meant death for at least one of them. The herd was tired and thirsty, but they had no choice. They had to run.
At an angry squeal from Prime, the herd turned like a wave and shot away over the plain. Behind them, Mirage could hear the panting, gleeful sounds of wolves in chase, and he felt a snarl of bitterness that they'd had a rest and a drink, while the herd was already weary. But with the new sensation of adrenaline pumping through them, the herd suddenly found that they had vaster reserves than they had thought, and they thundered out over the grass at blazing speeds. Behind him, Mirage heard someone stumble, but he didn't look back, and only hoped the absence of a squeal of pain meant the other horse hadn't been caught.
All around them, the wolves milled and raced, instinctively taking turns pushing the herd on, while the others loped back to rest. The runners tried to push the herd in an arc, keeping them on a circle so the resting wolves could catch up again and take over for the leaders, but Prowl had other ideas. Every time they tried to push the herd, the white horse would dodge and twist until he ended up outside the wolf ring, the rest of the herd thundering after him, and soon the wolves were panting with the labor of trying to outfox the tactician.
At length, the grinning silver beasts began to drop back, and Mirage almost felt a slowing in his own stride as relief crept over him. But the feeling came too soon, and when he heard a squeal of fright, he looked back to see the shiny yellow Fjord barely dodge a lunge from the big, silver wolf. Flagging with the other ponies, the Fjord tried to take refuge in the thick of the herd, but the wolf kept cutting him out, obviously in hopes of culling the fat little pony.
Mirage knew he should drop back. Edging, he threw his head up, knowing he needed to decelerate, but he couldn't make himself slow; the fear was too strong. Eyes rolling, he looked back again, saw the pony battling valiantly to increase speed, and saw the wolf gaining nonetheless.
But just as the wolf snapped his jaws, there was a flash of red, and two sets of black, flying legs, and the wolf yelped as Sideswipe shouldered in. Snarling, the wolf snapped at the blood bay's hocks, but Sunstreaker, running shoulder-to-shoulder with his brother, lanced out with a vicious kick, and the wolf uttered a piercing yelp, and fell back at last.
For another mile, the herd loped on, and then came to a straggling halt on the side of a long slope. Heaving, heads down, they all stood looking at each other in a kind of shock while sweat rolled down their sides. It was an odd sensation, adrenaline, and Mirage almost felt he could have run another hundred miles, except for the hollow feeling that told him he'd spent a considerable amount of his energy reserves. Head low, and still blowing hard, he looked around to see if anyone was injured.
The big red and white paint was busy checking Bumblebee over, but the Fjord seemed to have sustained no injuries, and he pushed Ratchet away with a snort and a shove of his head. The twins seemed to have suffered no harm, either, and they turned imperiously away when Ratchet tried to check them over. With an ugly snort, Ratchet told them in wordless terms where they could shove their imperious attitudes, before marching away to check over the rest of the herd.
Prime looked disgruntled, not just with the wolves, but with himself, and Mirage was sure he was blaming himself for not having foreseen such a thing. If anything, it should have been Prowl to think of possible predators, but if the tactician had ever spared a moment to indulge in a bit of self-loathing, he certainly wasn't doing it now. Head high, nostrils still wide and blowing, he looked back in the direction they'd come from, considering.
At last, the commander and his tactician seemed to have reached some kind of wordless agreement, and at once Prowl lowered his nose to the ground, where he began to tear up mouthfuls of grass. A little surprised, the rest of the herd stared at him, and then realized that with a lack of verbal direction, the only instruction they had was to follow Prowl's example and do the same.
Tentatively, and still a little nervous, the herd began to nibble at the grass. But if any of them wanted to quibble, instinct was too strong, and before they knew themselves, the lot of them were tearing up mouthfuls and chewing contentedly. Mirage even found that the juice from the leaves slaked his thirst somewhat, and for the rest of the afternoon, he lost himself in the bliss of eating.
It seemed they would move no further that day, and in fact Mirage found that he was so hungry, he imagined it would take him the rest of the day to eat enough grass to make himself happy. As he grazed, he saw Prime move among the herd, checking everyone, and pausing to lower his head in front of Bumblebee in an obvious gesture of apology. But the sunny little Fjord merely butted the big roan with his head, and went contentedly back to grazing. Prime next went to offer the twins a whicker of thanks, but all it earned him was a cranky swish of Sunstreaker's tail, and a cheerful attempt on Sideswipe's part to bite him. A little taken aback, Prime pinned his ears at the blood bay's flash of teeth, but the leggy red horse only chortled, and went back to enthusiastically tearing up mouthfuls of grass. With a shrug and a gleam of mirth in his eye, Prime went back to graze near Prowl.
They decided to stay there that night. Though they were thirsty, Mirage figured Prowl wanted to wait for the wolves to move on before making another attempt at the river. Through a kind of sign language, (two stamps for second shift, three for third, and so on), they worked out a watch schedule, and four at a time, sentries stationed themselves at the corners of the herd.
The sky deepening to vibrant rose, night crawled slowly down over the plain. Lightprick by lightprick, the stars peered down from deep heaven, and the wind rose with a dark shush. Mirage's herdmates began to gather in clusters of twos, threes and fours, and he soon found himself peering out of a comfortable circle with Hound and Trailbreaker. The big black was warm to stand against, now that a cool wind was blowing from the mountains, and Mirage found himself to be grateful for his friend's bulk. On his other side, Hound lowered himself to the ground to sleep for a bit, and almost instinctively, Mirage knew that he should stand and protect the tracker until he got up.
On the rise above, Mirage could just pick out Jazz's black and white patches, and despite himself, he felt safe. The warmth of Trailbreaker next to him, the weariness of the day, and the grass in his belly combined to make him drowsy, and the silvery spy soon found himself dozing lightly on his feet, while the wind blew strands of his forelock against his face.
Morning came quickly, but not abruptly. Instead of dashing out of his bunk to present himself for duty, Mirage drifted awake with the sun, and got up to give himself a good shake before lowering his head to graze again.
Beside him, Trailbreaker was indulging in a good roll, legs flailing comically, and Mirage gave a bit of a derisive snort. But as Trailbreaker got up, he gave himself a thorough, pleasurable shake, and gave Mirage a look as if to say, Try it before you knock it.
Nose up, eyes skeptical on the big black, Mirage would have refrained from such nonsense, if there hadn't been that nagging thought at the back of his mind that informed him that such things as grass and sun and a nice roll were too gratifying not to try at least once. After a moment of consideration, he relented, and lowered himself to rub his shoulders on the ground.
And found that it was delightful. Above him, he heard a chortle of mirth, and knew that he would have to bite Hound soundly when he was back on his feet, but for now, this was…nice.
But before he could enjoy himself too thoroughly, he heard an angry shriek to his left, and he rolled over with a sigh. Forelegs flung out in front of him, (and noticing that their silver had turned a little green from rolling in the grass), Mirage looked up to see the red and white paint giving the sporthorse twins a serious dressing-down.
Ears pinned, and puffing himself magnificently, Ratchet bore down on the red and golden pair, teeth flashing, and Sideswipe had to scramble to escape a snap of teeth. Again the big paint squealed, feet stomping and eyes shut tight as though he were doing nothing more than throwing a fantastic tantrum. The twins eyed him nervously, both prancing just out of range of the medic's teeth, though if Mirage wasn't mistaken, he thought he detected a hitch to the dun's step.
After a good minute of hysterics, the paint finally slowed to a sulk, and stood glaring at the bright pair. Cautiously, the blood bay extended a nose, and though the paint's ears flattened increasingly with every inch the bay neared, he didn't lash out again. The bay took a step, angling to dash away if necessary. The paint gave him a beady stare. Then, as if sensing that the coast was as clear as it was going to get, Sunstreaker edged forward again, angled himself so that his hind end was toward the medic, and pathetically raised his right hind hoof.
Still the medic stared, and Sunstreaker's leg wilted a little as he turned his face around in a pitifully hopeful expression. Please? It hurts.
The medic gave off another cantankerous snort. Oh, FINE.
Ears lifting a little, the dun crooked his leg a bit higher, so the medic could peer down at it. The paint pressed his nose against the hoof wall, presumably to feel for heat, while Mirage launched himself to his feet to give himself a thorough shake.
Seeming to find nothing, the medic nudged Sunstreaker to hold his foot higher, while the paint lowered himself to peer at the bottom of the hoof. Sunstreaker watched with apprehension, but his expression was nothing compared with the constant twitching of Sideswipe's ears. Head lowering with the medic's, the tall bay edged in to look – as though his second set of eyes could lend some expertise – but all it earned him was a nip on his ear.
The bay squealed and half-reared, forelegs flung out in a half-hearted gesture, but the medic paid him no mind, and instead leaned in with a sour expression. Head tilted so that one eyeball was mere inches from the bottom of Sunstreaker's hind hoof, the big paint gave a satisfactory grunt, and began rooting around on the ground.
Again Sunstreaker's ears came forward, this time in confusion, though a look toward his brother only earned him a shrug. Lowering his hoof, he half-turned to watch, but the medic stamped a hoof in clear indication that the golden horse should stay still, and Sunstreaker did as he was told. For a good few minutes, the medic wandered about the slope, nose inches from the ground, and Mirage was just beginning to think he'd lost his grip on reality when he raised his head at last with a triumphant snort, and trotted back to where Sunstreaker stood with his hind hoof cocked.
Both twins watched with some trepidation as Ratchet leaned down again, and Sunstreaker obligingly raised his hoof. Head swung around as far as he could hold it, the golden horse watched the medic start to chew, but it was only after careful observation that Mirage noted that the big paint had a stick in his mouth. Expertly, he maneuvered it around and managed to get one end of it stuck between his teeth; with the other end, he closed in on Sunstreaker's foot.
And argument ensued at first, between Sunstreaker's sharp winces of pain, and Ratchet's grunts of frustration, but when at last the medic jabbed the end of the stick right into the fleshy part of Sunstreaker's flank, the golden horse seemed to get the point, and held still, even if he did flatten his ears. Grudgingly, he raised his hoof up again, and this time when the medic bent close, he held it perfectly still. Grumbling and clenching at the stick, the medic worked for a minute, then with a pop dislodged something white, which went flying onto the turf, while Sunstreaker let out a blissful sigh. Sideswipe looked relieved.
Not that Ratchet gave either of them time to feel pleased. He gave them both a scolding nip and sent them on their way, though not without eyeing their retreating backs with what Mirage suspected was a glint of fondness.
Edging closer, Mirage inspected the ground where the white thing had fallen, and Ratchet pointed it out with his hoof: wolf's tooth. Each looked at the other, and it was all Mirage could do not to laugh at the twins for believing that Ratchet could still cure them of any ail, whether or not he'd been turned into a horse. Ratchet, however, looked a little daunted, and Mirage imagined he was thinking exactly the same thing, though without a feeling of amusement.
But Prime was gathering the herd, and before Mirage could think more on the medic's plight, he found himself being nipped and corralled back into the northwest. Like a gathering tide, the herd gained momentum, though instead of bounding forth like they had the day before, they now trotted out resolutely, ears trained to the north toward water and danger both.
Half the day found them trotting again, and the hills grew steadily closer, if only by inches. Much subdued, the twins trotted close together, Sunstreaker limping a little and leaning into Sideswipe for support every few strides. Some of the bigger horses were flagging easily again, though Mirage felt fine, and surprisingly, the ponies were trotting out doggedly, their stiff, shiny manes bouncing with every stride. Ahead, Prime kept a steady pace and didn't seem to be showing wear, but it was Prowl who looked as though he truly traveled without effort, as he floated almost noiselessly up and down the grassy slopes. It began to occur to Mirage that perhaps they'd been made not only into different shapes and sizes, but into different sorts of breeds, and that some breeds were hardier than others, and took to well to long, hard travel. He figured that Prowl was one such, and he another, and he presumed by the end of the afternoon that ponies of all shapes and sizes were as tough as steel.
Near late afternoon, when the sun was just turning the tips of the grass to gold, Prowl diverged again, but this time more carefully. Neither he nor Prime would let anyone pass them, and after a mile or so, they slowed to a walk. Sunstreaker, more tired than he was letting on, dropped his head immediately as he fell into a tired stumble, and Sideswipe pressed up against him as a crutch. Mirage sidled up on the golden horse's other side, but if he'd thought to make himself useful, an ugly ear-pin from Sunstreaker made him think otherwise. He moved on.
Now Prowl stopped at a crest, and gave them all a look that clearly told them to stay back. Alone, Prime moved carefully onward, and disappeared over the hill.
Several minutes passed while they waited, the scent of water drifting on the breeze, and making them unable to think of anything else. Several stamped their hooves; nobody grazed. Everyone stood with their heads up, and bodies tense, while they waited for their leader to return.
At length, the blue roan appeared over the hill again, and he nodded to Prowl, who began to let the rest of the herd by. Mirage noted as he passed that the leader's muzzle was not wet, and he logged the fact in his mind among his list of reasons to trust Optimus Prime: the big blue roan was letting his herd drink first.
By groups they went down and drank their fill as quickly as they could. At a whistle from Prowl, each group was expected to return and change places with the other group, who had stood guard on the crest. It wasn't the best way of doing things, but it was better than just charging in, and Mirage had to admit he'd be hard pressed to come up with a better plan.
After they'd all drunk, the herd loped away westward, and back on course, and for the rest of the afternoon, they made their way back toward the hills. Mirage had no idea what they were going to do when they got there, but as his hooves came down over and over against the soft loam, he knew with surety that their home was where they needed to be. Someone there would know how to change them back; he knew it. There was someone there who knew them, someone whose name he was sure he would remember by smell, and someone who he was sure would recognize them and put them back the way they were supposed to be.
They traveled into the night, and paused to rest only after the sun had sunk down past the horizon. Only then did Prime call for a halt, and let them all bury their heads once more in the sweet grass. Watch was set up, this time with Mirage pulling third watch, and the herd settled down for the night.
Mirage awoke at a nip on his flank, and he rolled to his feet with a loud whuff. Someone chortled, and in the dark, he could just make out Jazz's white patches, along with the gleam in the saboteur's eyes that suggested he'd been wanting to give that nipping thing a try.
Pleased with himself, the black and white paint swung away, and Mirage made his tired way up to the hilltop, where he took his place on watch. Across from him, a black warmblood gazed thickly over the plain, seemingly as tired as Mirage felt, and it took Mirage a moment to deduce that it was Air Raid. On the east corner Ironhide stood with one rusty hind leg cocked, while on the south end, Tracks gazed boredly out over the grass. Above them, a quarter moon had risen, and washed the herd in an eerie sort of glow, and outlining everything in pale light. Prowl seemed to glow especially bright against the dark grass, and Mirage felt himself drowse, transfixed by the tactician's coat.
He did not think, however, that his own silvery coat glowed just as bright, and if he'd been just a little bit more awake, he would have realized that he should have stood a little below the top of the hillside, instead of at its peak. With a start, he awoke to realize he'd been dozing, and what he smelled on the wind sent shoots of fear all through him. Snorting, his head shot up, tail high.
Ironhide had smelled it too. The red quarter horse called to Air Raid with a soft whinny, and the black warmblood raised his head, suddenly alert. Even Tracks, on the other end of the herd, had picked up the alarm, and had begun to pace, his white tail swishing against his chocolate sides.
Mirage looked out over the plain, ears flicking, but he saw nothing. He wanted to run, wanted to send the alarm and bolt down the hillside, but the small, rational part of him knew that he had to find the source first, so the whole herd didn't go thundering into a trap.
Ironhide gave off a nervous whinny. The herd began to wake, the few lying down rolling to their feet. Groggy, they looked around, unsure.
A sudden squeal sounded from Air Raid's quarter, and Mirage had time to see the rangy black horse plunge into the grass, teeth bared and hooves slashing, before the entire herd was up and running madly into the dark.
Someone squealed to his right, stumbled and crashed to the ground, but Mirage just kept on running. He'd been swept into a panic-run, and as one, the group of horses thundered blindly over the terrain, heedless of where they were going, or who fell behind. Distantly, Mirage knew he should have turned around, should have taken stock of who might have fallen, and who might have been brought down by the wolves, but he couldn't make his legs stop moving, and he kept on charging into the night. The screams of his terrified companions rang all around him, and he wondered foggily why they didn't simply turn around and fight, but he had not reckoned with instinct, or the kind of panic that went along with it. His one and only thought was to run away, and no matter how he tried, he could not deny his powerful, animal wish to live.
Scattered, the herd dashed across the plain, some skidding to a stop and whinnying for friends, others rushing along in tight bunches, with no thought as to where they were going, or why. Once, Mirage imagined he saw Prowl, skimming over the ground into the northwest, and Mirage checked his course and galloped after the tactician, sure the white horse would lead him to safety.
But at last Prowl disappeared over a ridge, his white form suddenly gone in a dark blink, and when Mirage crested the hilltop, the tactician was nowhere to be seen. Winded, nervous at being alone, Mirage whinnied despite himself, and then took off running again, sure his foolishness had drawn attack from the wolves. But at length he couldn't run anymore, and drifted to a halt, where he stood listening.
For a long time, nothing but the wind met his ears, and though he wanted to whinny again, he made himself resist the urge. Twice, he thought he heard a low rustling in the grass, and shied, legs carrying him in a sharp turn, but the wolves weren't there, and he found himself alone.
Slowly, and without any other idea of what to do, Mirage began to walk. Behind him, the sky was beginning to gray toward morning, and he realized to his surprise that they had run for most of the night. Little sounds of worry bubbled at the back of his throat, and though he made himself be quiet, he did pick up his pace a little, his hooves all but muffled in the damp grass.
For about ten minutes, he traveled, moving steadily uphill and through stands of trees. He looked left and right, wondering if he'd come too far south, if the rest of the herd had followed Prowl correctly, and if it was possible that he was the only one alone. Fretting, he flicked his ears everywhere, tail high with anxiety. He wanted so badly to call out, wanted so badly to have the use of words, to shout out names; and at the same time, he knew such things as words would make no difference, since his scared cries would bring wolf and horse alike. Tired, muscles sore from two days' travel in a new body, and a night's interrupted sleep, he wondered in a flash of thought if this was what it was like to be organic: fragile and sensitive and short-lived. How could these organics even begin to know life, when they lived in bursts of terror, and died before they'd seen a hundred years?
Laboring, he had just reached a plateau, when the sounds of struggle cut through his thoughts. Ears pricked, he froze where he was, and the thrashing stopped, as each sensed the other at the same time. For a long, silent minute, Mirage heard nothing but the wind, and then he risked a quiet whinny.
A soft, grateful neigh was his answer, and he eagerly made his way through the sparse trees. Whicker?
Here, the other whickered back, and in the dark, Mirage picked up the scent of the other, and followed it down into a shallow ravine. At the bottom, he could barely make out the pale, round shape of another horse, and he let himself carefully down the side of the gully.
Another whicker greeted him, thick with gratitude, and as he neared, he smelled the welcome scent of Bluestreak. Despite himself, Mirage tolerated a relieved nuzzle from the round, dappled horse, and pushed back slightly on the other's neck in a friendly gesture, before trying to discern the problem.
Bluestreak pulled, making the leaves rustle again, and Mirage quickly realized he'd caught a hind leg in the crook of two saplings. How the gunner got himself into these kinds of situations, Mirage would never know, but it was almost as if he had a gift for the ridiculous. He looked back up at Bluestreak's worried face, and at the sight of Mirage's wry look, Bluestreak cocked one ear in a lop-eared sort of grin. Heh.
Heh, indeed. Shouldering in, Mirage tried to lever his body between the trees, so he could push to dislodge the gunner's foot, but it did no good. He wasn't big enough.
Bluestreak nodded, bracing. Try again.
Once more, Mirage put his shoulder into it, but he was a small horse, and these trees were stronger than they looked, which of course begged the question of how the dappled horse had gotten his hind hoof stuck in there in the first place.
As if he could read Mirage's mind, Bluestreak again offered the lop-ear.
One last time, Mirage tried, hooves digging furrows in the soft earth as he shoved himself hard against the trunks, but still they didn't move, and he backed off with a sigh.
Bluestreak lowered his silvered head. He didn't look at all apprehensive, and instead gave Mirage such a defeated look that he was sure the dapple expected the spy to leave him.
But that was nonsense. Almost hurt that Bluestreak would think that, Mirage regarded the dapple for a moment, head cocked. But all that did was reassure the round little horse that his fears were true, and in the end, Mirage did the unthinkable and gave the other horse a quick, reassuring touch of his muzzle. It was just a touch against Bluestreak's neck, but immediately the dapple perked up, and he pricked his ears.
Not that Mirage had an answer for him. Casting about in the growing light, he searched for something he could use as a lever, but there was nothing, and he'd had no idea how he would accomplish such a thing anyway. He looked back at Bluestreak, just beginning to think they might just chew Bluestreak's leg off at the pastern, when a crunching sounded at the top of the hill, and made them both jump.
Mirage stood ready to bolt, but instead of wolves, it was a horse's form silhouetted against the rising sun, and as the third horse let himself down the side of the ravine, his spots melding out of the shadow, Mirage saw that it was Wheeljack.
Which, naturally, gave them the choice of either rejoicing, or running desperately away. Of course, Bluestreak didn't have that second choice, so they were left with no choice but to offer a hopeful whicker.
And Wheeljack, who had been rather ostracized since they'd all woken up as horses two mornings ago, eagerly accepted their greeting with a whicker of his own. His ears swiveled forward, and let himself down the last of the slope with such an eager, placating look that Mirage almost felt sorry for him.
In a flurry of chocolate spots, Wheeljack was at Mirage's side, nosing about for the problem. It didn't take him long to understand that Bluestreak was caught, and he looked hopefully at the round dapple gray, to ask if he wanted help. Ears askew, Bluestreak almost looked as though he were going to consider the wisdom of accepting this offer, but after only the briefest hesitation, he nodded, and Wheeljack turned happily to the task.
Mirage stepped back to let him get his shoulder in, figuring he'd have better luck at it, since he was quite a bit bigger than Mirage was. But the appaloosa had a better idea, and by pointing with his nose, indicated that he wanted Mirage to lever his own nose under Bluestreak's hoof. Then he moved to the tree, wedged himself between the trunks, and with Mirage pushing on the hoof, and Wheeljack's heavier body leaning against the trees, the dapple's foot came free, and he fell in a sudden heap on the leaf-strewn ground.
Face chagrinned, leaves sticking all through his mane, Bluestreak looked up at the other two for a grateful, slightly embarrassed moment before gathering his legs underneath him and launching himself up to his feet. Automatically, he gave himself a thorough, nose-to-tail shake, and stood looking happily at the others as if to say, That was cool! Sort of embarrassing, but cool, when you popped my foot out like that, and what do we do now, because I'm sort of scared about what might have happened to the others, and maybe we should get a move on…
And so on. Amused, Mirage turned away from Bluestreak to glance at Wheeljack, but far from looking happy, the appaloosa was merely standing with his head lowered a little, ears bent forward in the rueful expression of someone who's been asking for forgiveness for two days. It was a bit pitiful the way the inventor stood with his feet gathered under him, neck held low, tail drooping, and Mirage couldn't help but take pity on him. With a resigned whicker, he reached out a nose to cuff the appaloosa along the neck. It's ok.
Immediately the other's head snapped up, tail arched as he puffed himself up. Eyes hopeful, he shifted his gaze to Bluestreak, but naturally the little dapple gray forgave him, since Bluestreak forgives everybody, and Wheeljack looked at them both with renewed enthusiasm. He tossed a glance up the side of the ravine. Shall we?
Together, they picked their way up to the top, and when they came out, Mirage saw that the sun had come fully up, and showed that they had come at last to the foothills. Groves of trees stood conversing in patches, the wind ruffling their crowns and giving Mirage the impression that the trees were whispering among themselves. Behind them, they could see the plain laid out like a long sea, and though they stood and stared out over the grass for a good several minutes, none of them saw anything but endless green. A bit worried, they each cast each other a look in turn, and then with no other choice, turned to make their way into the mountains.
Mirage had no idea where they were going. He had a vague sense that their home was this way, but whether this or that valley would lead to a dead end, he didn't know, and neither did he know where they might find water. Once, they thought they smelled some to the north, but a series of barks from that direction made them shy away, though later Mirage suspected they'd only been hearing coyotes.
For a few hours, they struggled uphill. Once, Bluestreak whinnied, but Mirage rounded on him with such an ugly look that he doubted the dapple would do such a stupid thing again, especially after seeing the wounded look on his face. Only trying to help.
Mirage snorted, head high as he climbed on.
Fortunately for them, the mountains weren't as high as they were to the south, and passage wasn't impossible. But it was hard, and by midmorning, they were tiring rapidly. None of them seemed to fare as badly as the bigger horses had, but the climb was still difficult, and it made them all thirsty, which meant that when they smelled water again, this time they couldn't resist.
It was near noon, or a few degrees before, with the sun glaring fiercely down from the sky, when they caught scent of a stream. Eagerly, they cut across the slope, and had just begun to let themselves down into a gully when they heard a sound. For a brief, wild moment, they thought it was a growl, but then the rumble turned into a whicker, and they caught scent of three other horses.
With a soft, joyful whinny, Bluestreak launched himself forward into a lope, Mirage and Wheeljack trailing after, and as they rounded a curve and came within sight of the river, they saw standing midstream the welcome forms of Ratchet, Sideswipe and Sunstreaker.
The twins whinnied a greeting, but it was Ratchet who flung himself out of the shallow river and onto Wheeljack's shoulder. Chivvying, he half-reared, so obviously glad to see his friend alive, and so sorry he'd held this whole mess against him that Wheeljack all but shook for joy. The both of them snorted and tossed their heads, pushing playfully at each other, so glad to see one another alive that it nearly made Mirage begin to jig. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Mirage was sure he was witnessing such a ridiculous sight that they would all make fun of each other later for acting so silly, but another, stronger part of him knew that they were all merely existing as the stripped-down, unbridled versions of themselves, unbound by inhibition, and able to show happiness or affection or sadness without having to worry about how they would look on the social scene. They were animals, with the kind of animal instinct that clouded such reasonable things as 'should' and 'should not', and for once in their lives, they were free to simply be as they were.
So it did not seem strange to Mirage that for a moment, Wheeljack and Ratchet raced around one another, red and white paint flashing around chocolate spots. Once more, they reared happily, pawing playfully at one another with their forehooves, before coming back to the ground to have a look around. Ratchet greeted both Mirage and Bluestreak with a headtoss, and then everyone looked to the middle of the river, noticing that neither Sideswipe nor Sunstreaker had bothered to come out.
Hock-deep in the cold, fast-moving water, both the blood bay and the golden dun regarded everyone with a slightly guarded look. Ratchet snorted, angry, and stamped. Injured, Mirage knew he was saying, and knew without having to ask that the medic's frustration was not just with the twins' constant talent for sustaining damage, but with his inability to help them. He was doing the best he could, Mirage was sure, but it was obvious that he was aggravated at being so ill-equipped.
But neither Sideswipe nor Sunstreaker seemed especially bothered, and in fact, as Mirage bent to drink, he thought the pair of them looked positively trusting. Ratchet will fix.
Such faith was difficult for the medic to endure, Mirage was sure. It would have been better if they'd doubted him, or even given him reproachful looks at his inability, but they didn't. They merely stood side by side, patient, Sunstreaker holding his weight on three legs while he soaked the fourth, Sideswipe looking on.
The paint lowered his head a bit as the lot of them drew away from the twins in the water. It seemed he wasn't sure what to do. Sunstreaker was obviously injured, and from what Mirage could see, it was from the wolf's tooth that Ratchet had extracted from his hoof the previous morning. Ears back a little, Ratchet cast the golden horse a disgruntled look, and Mirage had the suspicion that had Sunstreaker told Ratchet about the lodged tooth the night he'd gotten it stuck in his hoof, he wouldn't have been so badly off now. Stupid, prideful beast after all.
But Ratchet only heaved a sigh and looked around. Wheeljack looked up at the sun, then turned a quizzical look back at Ratchet. How long?
Ratchet pawed the ground once. Hour.
Then they could go. That was fine with Mirage, who felt they probably needed to conserve their strength, and would benefit from a rest anyway. Agreed on the time, they drifted away to graze on the scattered clumps of grass while golden horse continued to soak his hoof. At first, the twins watched them all longingly. Mirage, sure they were hungry, too, felt a little twinge of guilt at eating in front of them, but not enough to stop filling his own belly. Sideswipe soon fixed things anyway, by wading out of the water and climbing the side of the bank to where the grass clustered. A little dismayed at being left on his own, Sunstreaker gave off a resentful whinny, but Sideswipe swished his tail, offended. He crammed as much grass as he could into his mouth, but instead of chewing, he made his way back out to the middle of the river, and passed it over to Sunstreaker, who took the food with a grateful whicker. Sideswipe, flicking his tail in his brother's face as if to say, I wouldn't ditch you, you idiot, waded out of the water to repeat the process.
An hour passed quickly, but they all felt better for it, even Sideswipe, who had managed to steal a mouthful of grass for every mouthful he carried to his brother. Again, they all drank, then forded the stream to continue on their way into the hills.
Sunstreaker seemed to feel a little better, and though he leaned on his brother's shoulder once in a while, when the climb became too steep, he didn't seem to be favoring his right hind as much as the last time Mirage had seen him. It was also a happier group, now six strong instead of three, and Mirage now began to have the feeling that it was possible that the others had made it too, and that somehow everything might turn out all right.
Tired but hopeful, they stopped to rest that night in a small thicket, where there was grass enough for all of them, and where they could be safely hidden in the trees. The each pulled watch one at a time, though Mirage noticed that the brothers pulled theirs together and stayed awake the full two shifts, though whether it was because Sideswipe was concerned about Sunstreaker's leg, or whether they simply wanted to stick close, Mirage wasn't sure.
They'd pulled the fifth and sixth watches, and Mirage the fourth, so he remembered seeing them climb through the trees to stand quietly side by side and nose to tail, each watching in a different direction. They didn't look tired so much as resolute, and Mirage felt safe in dozing off within a stand of pines, while the night air ruffled through the soft needles.
The alarm cry sent him bolting from a dead sleep, and he narrowly missed running into the trunk of a pine, and had to duck and shake away the snatching branches before tumbling out into the clear. Bluestreak, eyes rolling, galloped into him, dappled shoulder crashing into his, and the two pushed off one another to scramble toward Wheeljack and Ratchet, where they skidded to a halt, breathing hard. Mirage nearly bolted again, wanting only to run, when he heard the piercing, angry scream.
They all looked up to see Sideswipe and Sunstreaker both rearing and striking, their forms just discernible against the night sky. A snarl sounded, enraged, and Mirage felt his blood run like ice as he registered not the voice of wolf, but a large cat. He backpedaled, haunches bunching with a yearning to run, but he could not see the cat, and did not know if there were more.
Again one of the brothers reared – Mirage couldn't tell which one in the dark – and came back down with hooves and flashing teeth. A squeal sounded, this time pained and indignant, and it jarred through Mirage, reminding him that he should go and help. He half-reared, wanting to run so badly that he could barely think of anything else, but he knew he could not turn his back on his friends. It was important somehow, more important than the instinct that lanced through him like an alarm, and when he looked at the others beside him, he saw that they were thinking the same thing. While the brothers fought the cat at the top of the slope, Mirage, Wheeljack, Ratchet and Bluestreak all shared a momentary glance; then, solidified, they put their heads down and charged.
It was a moment of sheer, stumbling madness. Wheeljack let out a roar of fright, and the brothers backed to get out of their way, while Bluestreak staggered over something and shouted a frightened whinny. Something snarled and flung itself against Mirage's shoulder, but Mirage crashed to the ground, instinctively rolling and thrashing, and the cat scrambled out from under him as quickly as he'd pounced.
But not before Mirage could breathe in his scent, and when the cat had gone, they all stood staring at each other, astonished.
Mirage was sure of it. He looked around, took in the others shocked faces, positive they knew it, too.
Bluestreak uttered a kind of confused, grunting squeal and stomped the ground. How in the name of Primus had Ravage…?
Mind whirling, Mirage cast a look around again, but nobody seemed any wiser than he. In fact, the only ones who didn't look dumbfounded were the twins, who had chosen instead to look particularly peeved, and had been occupying themselves with stalking about the hilltop, ears pinned and tails swishing, as if they might just flush the panther out of hiding and finish the job.
Bluestreak gave another nervous whinny, stamping and tossing his head toward the northwest. The others.
That was true. The others didn't know. Or did they? Had they run across other members of the Decepticons? Or…now Mirage thought hard…had they already? The big, silver wolf had stared at them with such intelligent, glittering eyes, and then it had grinned…
It didn't make sense. How had the Decepticons performed the same procedure on themselves? How had they become organic, and why were they, too, animals and not human? Or had they somehow stolen Wheeljack's program, and suffered the same glitch that had made the Autobots four-footed instead of two? That seemed the most likely, though it still made Mirage's head spin, and it put a new dimension on their task now.
Their task. A sudden stab of fear shot through him as he realized what that meant. If the Decepticons got back to their home first, and killed the people who knew how to change them back…He snorted, body tense, tossing his head toward the northeast, but all he earned were nods from the others, and resigned sighs. Yes. They knew. Everyone had to get home. But they didn't understand. They weren't considering what could happen if the Decepticons got there first. It was a race, and one they couldn't afford to lose.
But Ratchet at least didn't seem concerned with dashing off just yet, and as the morning sky slowly grew pale, he grimly inspected the brothers' wounds. A little surprised, Mirage stepped closer to see. He hadn't thought of this. In fact, he hadn't even considered it, because the brothers simply hadn't complained.
The two of them stood covered in claw marks, while blood ran freely over their sides and down their legs. Ratchet looked positively defeated as he regarded them with his head low. They gazed back at him, confident in his abilities, but that only seemed to make the red and white paint feel worse. He shook his head. You can't fight like you used to. Should have run away.
But the brothers would never be persuaded to run, and Mirage knew now that Ratchet had no choice but to do the best he could, and hope they lived to see home. A little dispirited, he nosed at their cuts, but there was nothing he could do, really, and at length the medic heaved a sigh, and urged them all into motion.
It was hard going that day. The hills had grown steeper and rockier, and though they tested the wind constantly for water, they found none. At the rear of their band, and so covered in dried blood it was hard to tell them apart at first glance, Sideswipe and Sunstreaker limped up the hills without a noise of complaint, but with such stiff, pained steps that Mirage knew it would only be a matter of time before they couldn't go any further. But they couldn't stop, because now there was the very real fear that not only had the Decepticons been turned into predators, they had been deposited in the same area as the Autobots. Had those wolves and cats figured out who this herd of horses was? Was that why they'd attacked the night before? And when would they attack again?
It was humbling, being in these bodies of flesh, without weapons, without claws. Every now and again, Mirage would tip a glance back at the twins, struggling up the hill, and he felt a little thrill of fear, knowing that in these bodies, there was no second chance. The medic couldn't build the brothers new legs, or reconstruct their bodies, or even keep the dirt and sweat from settling into their cuts. Mirage knew how Ratchet yowled and carried on when there was so much of a mite of dust in his repair bay, and he could only imagine that dirt in an organic wound was no better. He wondered how much the medic knew about organic wounds, or whether it even mattered, given the circumstances. And what happened if one of them died out here in these hills? Would they be truly gone?
A little fearful, the band packed itself together, ears flicking for any sound of attack, all of them making sure to keep slow enough that the brothers could keep up. They also listened for sounds of other horses, but they heard nothing that day, not that it surprised Mirage, as there seemed to be hundreds of valleys, and hundreds of ways through the hills. The others could have taken any direction, and Mirage's group never would have known about it. The only good thing about that thought was the hope that the Decepticons were equally scattered and disorganized, and that they had not thought of beating the Autobots back to their home. But it was too much to hope that the Decepticons would not try to kill the people who knew how to change the Autobots back, and Mirage pressed on with the dark feeling that this journey was very much a race, indeed.
Of course, it begged the question of how the Decepticons had undergone the procedure, and Mirage found himself wondering if they would need the same people to change them back, as well. But before his spirits could rise, he reasoned that they had managed to change themselves into organic form without anyone's help in the first place, and they probably didn't need help changing back. How they did it was something Mirage certainly couldn't figure out, but he at least knew they would not have planned to rely on the Autobots' human technicians. He only hoped that if there were any Autobots ahead of his group, they would have figured this out, and would be running as hard as they could for home.
But they saw no one that day, either friend or enemy, and their only comfort was that they had found at last a river. Shallow and swift, it was deep enough to cover the twins up to their chests, and they both stood in the current with a look of pure relief. The cool water must have been soothing, and as Mirage watched the eddy of dark red water washing downstream, he reasoned that it must have felt good to have their cuts cleaned. Part of Mirage knew it wasn't wise to stop for a whole night, but he knew the brothers needed it, and despite his instinct, he knew they were racing for all or none. They couldn't leave behind two of their ranks, even to save the Autobots as a whole. It just wouldn't have been their way.
So they dozed and grazed for the night, while the brothers stood sleeping feverishly in the water. They ate nothing, since there was nothing for them to reach, and Sideswipe was not able this time to dash back and forth to the bank. Just after sundown, Bluestreak plucked up the courage to go out and offer them a mouthful of grass, but far from being irritable, the brothers merely ducked their heads away, too ill to eat. Motionless, they stood with their muzzles just out of the current, where they spent the night in misery. Mirage only hoped that Ravage was doing the same.
The night passed without incident, though everyone was tired from having to pull extra watch, since neither Sideswipe nor Sunstreaker were able. Stiff and sore, their heads low, they climbed out of the river when morning came, and again took up a position at the rear. The rest of the band, exchanging worried glances, had no alternative but to push on.
Now the hills had become almost impossible, and they were forced to divert into canyons and winding valleys, hoping that each passage would lead them to the other side, and not force them to turn back and re-route. It also began to rain, which made the footing treacherous, and made the brothers shiver and steam alternately in the downpour. Mirage glanced back at them, unsure whether the rain was good or bad for their condition, but as there was nothing he could do about it, he pressed on with the rest.
The one good thing that day was that as they picked their way into the mouth of a canyon, the rain let up, and they saw a group of colorful fur, just picking their way out at the other end. Bluestreak, unable to help himself, let out a cheerful whinny, and Mirage saw heads shoot up in the air as the other group pivoted to have a look at who was calling. For a moment, they paused, and then in a happy wave, they bounded back to Mirage's end of the canyon.
At once, Mirage was caught in a whirlwind of short, glossy ponies, who all tossed their heads and kicked up their heels in such a showing of silliness that Mirage couldn't help but join in. He jigged as they jigged, and tossed his head as they chivvied up against him and the others, and even snapped out a few playful nips as they went by. It raised his spirits to see them, all bunched together, and he immediately thought that if these little ponies could make it through, the bigger horses definitely had a good chance of being a live.
Happily, he sniffed noses with each of them, and found Brawn, Windcharger, Bumblebee, Cliffjumper, Huffer, Gears, Beachcomber, Warpath, Powerglide, Outback, Tailgate, Cosmos, Seaspray, Pipes, Swerve – all of them. There was not one single minibot missing, and Mirage felt himself positively elated. If the ponies had made it, they were all going to make it, he was sure of it.
The only sad part, of course, was that neither Sideswipe nor Sunstreaker were in any shape to join in on the festivities, and when the ponies saw what condition the tall warriors were in, it disheartened them a little. Mirage wished he could tell them what had happened, that their injuries weren't just the result of some foolishness on the warriors' part – that the brothers had saved their little band from Ravage. But he couldn't, and could only watch while they stood together, too tired to be happy, as the ponies touched noses with them one by one.
So it was with reserved gladness that they joined forces and moved on. More than ever, Mirage wished he could have told the others why they needed to make haste, and what they had seen. But he couldn't say a word, and the ponies' short strides would have grated on him if there hadn't been the need to go slow anyway for the brothers' sake. He even thought of loping on by himself, perhaps racing through the night and into the next day, but he didn't know how far away they were, and he knew if he were attacked, he would never survive alone. In fact, had he been the one Ravage had attacked two nights past, he didn't know if he would have lived through the fight. Abandoning the thought, Mirage stuck with the herd and soldiered on.
The rain started up again almost immediately, and continued on into the night. They at least got better, though, despite the rain, since the ponies took it upon themselves to pull watch and let Mirage's small, bedraggled band get some rest. Past midnight, when the rain finally let up, Mirage fell into a deep sleep, and did not wake till dawn.
There had been no attacks for the second night running, but when they woke up on that sixth morning, there was a charge to the air, and a bleakness to the gray eastern sky. In the distance, a flock of birds circled in a lazy arc, and Mirage peered at them strangely, feeling their maneuvers were somehow familiar, but before he could linger too long on the thought, he was prodded into motion again by a very irritated Ratchet.
Everyone's mood was foul that morning, possibly due to the rain and the hard journey, but no one was in darker spirits than the medic. Everyone had wakened to find Sideswipe and Sunstreaker with their heads hanging to the ground, noses barely brushing the rock, and when the medic saw them, he flew into fits of squeals and stomping. Braying and gnashing his teeth, he railed at the pair of brothers, as though a scolding would wake them out of their fever, but of course it did no good. Coats grown dull, eyes vacant, they stood silently while ugly fluids seeped out of their wounds and ran in viscous dribbles down their legs. They were awful to look at, a sight made ten times worse by their lack of complaint, and the Ratchet was about as mad as Mirage had ever seen him. He even indulged in a second wave of histrionics, almost desperately trying to spark some protest – some sign of life – from the twins, but nothing he did worked, and all anyone could do was push the brothers on, and hope they could keep their legs underneath them.
Slowly, painfully, the twins resumed their tortured journey through the stony hills. The rain seemed to have defeat them somehow, and every so often one of them would let off a little shiver, though the wind was not cold, and the sun had begun to break through the clouds. Mirage wished he understood anything about equine health. He wished he knew what he was looking at, and how close the twins were to actually laying down to die. He only wanted to know, so that he would know when to look away.
But they did not lie down, and did not slow, though their steps were dull and agonizing. The ponies milled about the pair, their hardy little faces casting anxious looks, wishing they knew how to help, but at last Ratchet chased them all away, and took up a vigil behind the brothers, where he made sure they kept moving.
Somehow, the gladness of the day before had gone, and as they trudged through the hills, the ponies took on something of a stubborn air, like an army of little mites with chips on their shoulders and something to prove. It amused Mirage slightly, and he exchanged glances with Wheeljack and Bluestreak, though they had little amusement to spare. There was something leaden in the air, something foreboding.
Before they had traveled an hour, an eerie screech pierced the sky, and the band halted, ears pricked to listen. Only the brothers kept trudging, and ploughed into the ponies before them for several strides before they realized they were to stop, too.
Again, the sound stabbed through Mirage's hearing and he looked up to see that the circle of birds was much closer – and that they were much bigger than he had previously thought. Wild and almost forlorn, six vultures stared down at his band from overhead, their dark wings etched like ink against the sky. With a twinge, Mirage wondered if they were eying the brothers, hoping the pair would drop back, when he realized that there were six…
He snorted, body tense with alarm, and around him, the herd bunched. Vultures. There were six…six birds of prey, six jets…
With a cry of warning, Mirage reared, but he was too late. In formation, the birds dropped from the sky, talons outstretched, and the band scattered in disarray. Two condors emerged from the other side of the cliff face, and with a plunge of despair, Mirage realized that what he'd seen was true: it was the Decepticon jets, plus Laserbeak and Buzzsaw.
Ducking, he galloped along the cliff face, hoping that he was too close for the birds to fly directly overtop of him, but he had not counted on their superior flying. Angling himself, one of the vultures folded his wings at the last minute, and dove to sink his talons into Mirage's shoulders, scraping down to bone. With a wrench, Mirage leaped to the side, but the vulture had already risen into the air, and was diving to strike again. This time Mirage threw himself into a rollback and reversed direction, making the vulture overshoot, but it wasn't enough. The bird banked, preparing for another pass, and Mirage took off to bolt again, his shoulders on fire.
Squeals and shrieks shattered the air around him as he bucked and dodged, desperately trying to shake the bird above him. Ahead of him, the Fjord pony threw himself to the ground to roll, trying to pin the bird clutching his shoulders, but it did no good; the vulture launched himself back into the air, and Mirage was suddenly forced to jump over Bumblebee entirely. On the far side, he stumbled, legs jarring painfully against the rock, before he was able to pick himself up again, and he felt a new, searing gash opened up along his side. Almost without thought, he slammed himself to a halt, threw himself back on his haunches, and when the vulture banked sharply for another attack, Mirage gathered himself and sprang into the air, jaws wide.
Astonished, the vulture pulled up, but not in time, and Mirage was able to clamp down on one of its wings, while the other beat furiously at his face. Whipping his neck from side to side, Mirage bit down as hard as he could, trying to ignore the sting against his cheek, where talons dug in, but the pain grew too much, and he had to let go. Battered, the bird dropped to the ground, shocked, but before Mirage could bring down his hooves, it limped into the air and winged crookedly away.
Breath coming rapidly, sides heaving, Mirage stood with his legs splayed and looked around him. The band had scattered all over the valley floor, some fleeing back the way they had come, some bolting on ahead, so that Mirage had no idea which way to go. Beside himself, he whinnied, then immediately chastised himself for losing his head, but it did no good; instinct was swelling in him again, and he who had spent so many years alone, and who had spent so many years desperately wishing he wasn't an Autobot, felt very suddenly terrified of being separated from his herd. It was wrong to be alone, dangerous, or so the blood inside him was telling him, and he wheeled, half-rearing, not knowing which way to go, and for reasons he didn't understand, feeling as abandoned as the day he'd lost his family in the war.
But just as suddenly, as if in answer to his call, Bluestreak came galloping from around the bend ahead, whinnying, head high, and Mirage was never so glad to see him. Surging forward, he met the dapple gray halfway, and Bluestreak wheeled to join him at the run, as though urging him on to come see what he'd seen.
As he rounded the corner though, Mirage suddenly wished that he hadn't seen. There across the plain before them was their home, gleaming softly gold at the base of a mountain, but down on the plain, halted in a desperate circle within a ring a wolves, was the rest of the herd. There were so many of them, gray and husky, all led by their huge, silvery leader who grinned and lolled out his tongue, mocking the horses before him. Mirage counted at least fifteen wolves, maybe twenty, plus several large cats, and he saw that the two condors were winging their way back to the wolves. It was heartbreaking, knowing that if just one of the band could break loose from the ring, they might be able to race to their home, where they might find someone who could help them all. But there was no breaking through such a front, and Mirage knew that it would only be a matter of time before the wolves and cats and birds of prey cut the horses down one by one. He could see Prime, his powerful roan body plunging at the wolves, time and time again, but though they backed away from him, it was with mocking leers, because the Decepticons knew they were no longer playing on an even field. They were the ones with weapons, the claws, the fangs, and the mighty Optimus Prime, and his stubborn band of Autobots, had nothing left with which to fight.
Nothing, except for speed.
Behind him, something scraped against the rock, and Mirage whirled, half-rearing. But it was only the other members of the party re-gathering. Some of the ponies were still missing, and the ones that had returned were covered in long, bloody scratches, but Mirage saw to his relief that Wheeljack and Ratchet had managed to safeguard the twins. Heads low, feet dragging as though oblivious to the ambush they had just escaped, the two sport horses trudged up from the valley floor.
Behind them, the others tossed fretful glances at Mirage and Bluestreak, as if shocked at the attack, and worried that another was imminent. But their look was nothing compared to the dismay that came over them when they rounded the corner to see the plain below. Heads high with fright, everyone stood still as stone. The herd. One of the ponies snorted softly, in plain lament.
There was nothing they could do. The herd below was being battered and slashed into a tighter and tighter bunch, and even from a distance, Mirage could see that some of them were stained with blood. They couldn't last long, and they were gathered below a shallow rise, just out of sight of their home. No one could see them, and no one would ever know they needed help.
But what could they do? The little band looked at one another, Mirage catching Bluestreak's eye again, the ponies beginning to shuffle. He knew that if they went down there, they would only be galloping to their death. There were too many wolves and mountain lions, and even the swiftest of their little band couldn't hope to sprint by them before being cut off. Maybe if they went around the side of the valley, out of sight…but that would take too long, and the herd would be broken by then.
A sudden snort broke through Mirage's thoughts, and he looked over to see Ratchet suddenly frozen with horror. The others snorted in alarm, and as Mirage followed their gazes, his heart sank.
There on the edge of the plain, just making their way down the last of the steep rock, were the twins. Doggedly, painfully, Sideswipe and Sunstreaker plodded over the stony ground, and Mirage could see by their stubborn bent that they were making directly for the herd.
Stupid! Ratchet slammed both forefeet into the ground, horrified and angry at once. Out over the plain, one of the condors screeched, and suddenly several heads swiveled as the Decepticons caught sight of the stumbling pair. For an instant, everyone froze, watching while a trio of wolves broke off their attack from the herd, and began trotting gleefully toward the twin horses, jaws hanging open to grin. But then Sunstreaker slowly turned to look back at the band on the hill, and gave them all the oddest sort of glance, and at once, everyone understood.
As one, the small band exploded down the hillside. Scree flying beneath their hooves, horses and ponies scrambled to the ground, and launched themselves with all of their might out and over the plain. Decoy. It was so simple, and Mirage would later admit at least to himself that everyone had been thinking it, but that no one wanted to offer himself to do it. They could not all make it past the Decepticons, but at least one of them could, and the twins knew this. Mirage had thought them too far gone to fever to know what was happening, but he'd been wrong, and now they'd made the decision that none of the others could make. In that one glance from Sunstreaker, each of them had understood one word: fly.
And so they flew. The ponies knew they would not make it, and so they veered off to offer what help they could to the stumbling brothers. But Mirage, Bluestreak, Wheeljack, and Ratchet all stretched out to run, long legs eating the ground away, tails flagging behind them, and at once, the race was on.
Away to the north Mirage could hear a snapping voice barking orders, but he could not pause to look, and only ran with all his might while he hoped that they'd been quick enough. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the burly shapes of wolves flying toward him, and he heard an angry squeal from the herd, but he barely took it in. He only knew to run, and into that one thought, he poured his entire being.
Behind him, he heard a stumble and an ugly snarl, then saw a tumbling flash of chestnut and white. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew that Ratchet was down, but he did not think, and only thundered on. Something drew up beside him, snapping, and he pinned his ears in fear, spurring to greater speed. Hot breath steamed at his hocks, and he felt the brush of teeth barely scraping off of his flanks.
At once a flurry of spots rushed in, and there came a sudden yelp, as the wolf behind him went down. Wheeljack screamed as he stumbled, caught himself, and then went down under a snarling mass. Bluestreak leaped clear of the mess, gathered himself, and at once, only the two of them were left.
Silvery white next to dapple gray, the two horses raced over the ground. Ahead of them, the wolves were converging to cut them off, and Mirage gathered himself to make one last, furious leap, but Bluestreak caught his glance.
Dark, liquid eyes peered into his own. Mirage flicked a look at the other's round, dapple body, his short, tiring legs.
For an instant, the two strided as one, shoulder to shoulder. Bluestreak looked at him, offered a quick, strained whicker. Don't feel bad.
Mirage was faster. They both knew this. He hesitated, his body going cold. He did not want to be the last.
But Bluestreak only shook his head, his white-and-silver mane flying, and gave one last whicker before dropping back. Don't worry. Just run.
So Mirage ran. There was no momentous decision, no time for guilt, no fanfare. It was just him now, alone, and with the single, clear thought that though he was wearing an alien body, Mirage shared with his physical form all the ages spent knowing what it was to fly like the wind. Like a gale, the memory came back to him of speed, of great, flat, endless plains, and with a rush, Mirage bent his body low to the ground. Fear peeled away. Sounds faded to only the thrum of his hoofbeats, and as he lengthened, hindquarters hurtling him on, Mirage felt a great, unfathomable peace, as he and his body gave themselves utterly to the one, most basic thing for which they had been created.
And so he flew. He did not remember reaching the Ark, or when he recalled its name. He only knew that when at last he floated down to a canter, and to a trot, and to a halt, he felt at that moment as though he understood himself and his race more clearly than he ever had before, and better than he ever would again. He understood the herd. He understood sacrifice, and what was more, he understood that it was a part of ongoing motion of life, and that it was necessary, and that within even such sorrow, there was peace. He understood the smell of grass, the smell of life. He understood, at long last, what it was to do what he had been created to do, and for one small moment, he felt content with himself and with the world.
And that's how it was. It was like a dream. I don't remember much now, and I don't think I want to. Not really.
The last thing I really remember is Sparkplug targeting the Decepticons with the Ark's weapon systems, and beyond that, it's mostly a haze. I was one of the last to be changed back, because there were others who were hurt quite badly. I think Sunstreaker had something like an estimated twenty minutes to change back into his Autobot body before his spark was lost, and the human science team worked as quickly as they could to perform the procedure. Needless to say, I'm a little shocked that we all made it. And clearly a little bitter that we didn't find any wolf carcasses out on the plain. Somehow the Decepticons must have slunk off to have themselves changed back, but I suppose it was too much to hope for that we could have killed them off that easily. One volley from the Ark, and they scattered like turbomice.
I suppose I shouldn't even be writing this down, the whole incident was so appalling. To think of my friends ever seeing me in that organic getup is simply too embarrassing for me to consider. But still, I guess even the basest of experience need to be recorded, so we can all have a good laugh about ourselves after the war.
And still. It's as though I'm forgetting something – something important, something vital. I remember fragments, smells. I won't tell Wheeljack – or anyone for that matter – but sometimes when I catch the scent of grass, I get this longing to feel it around my knees again, or to…I know it sounds crazy…but to taste it.
And still, it's something more than that, something deeper than taste or smell. It's like I remembered for a second the reason for this whole mess – this war – and if I could just think hard enough, I could recall what that reason was. Sometimes I think of it, just before I cycle back online, but I swear, no matter how hard I try, once I'm fully awake, I simply can't remember a thing.
Likely it's only an after-effect of the reversal process, and these impressions will eventually stop. I'm sure it's not important anyway, and I'm pretty sure I have Wheeljack to blame for the entire, sloppy mess, a fact I'll be quite happy to reward with a good throttling, if I ever get my hands on him. Too bad Ratchet seems to have taken up with him again, because if I ever corner that mad inventor by himself, I'll be sure to give him a good and solid piece of my mind.
Such indignity, being an Autobot. Sometimes I despair of ever finding myself again.