Li'l Author's Note: So…another little Dinobot story, one of the sort-of follow-ups to "Vigil," second of the five that I want to write and will write over the next 15 years or so. ;) (Hey, it's been like five years since I wrote the first one, sooooo...) Anyway, something like this one has been in the back of my mind for a long time now, so long that a piece of art actually preceded it, and that was a while ago. I just haven't written it until now. I really can't tell you why not, other than maybe I was too busy with "Redemption." :)
This one takes place at some indeterminate time in the future. I don't know when, so don't ask. Must be a while after "Vigil," though, because the Dinobots aren't using the "Me, Slag"-type verbal construction that, quite frankly, drives me crazy to write after a while so I avoid it if I can. Way I see it, they've grown out of baby talk, and it's only partly in order to save my own sanity. :) So, there it is. No slash to be found here, so it's safe for all audiences, unless usage of the word "hell" deeply offends you. :)
Swoop was momentarily taken aback by the vehemence – not to mention the volume – of Slag's reply to his simple, rhetorically polite, "How are you, Slag?" He halted abruptly in his tracks as he approached Slag's medbay berth and regarded his fellow Dinobot with a deeply disapproving look, folding his arms over his chest as he did so.
"Well, that's what you get for getting your legs blown off," he airily informed Slag, almost sing-songing the words at him. He knew that the tone of his voice would immensely irritate Slag, and he considered that a small payback for having to deal with his grumpy, loud, bored, and completely exasperating comrade for the last two days.
On schedule and as expected, Slag scowled fiercely at Swoop and folded his own arms across his own chest, unconsciously mimicking Swoop's posture.
"Onlyone," he pointed out waspishly, petulantly slamming his back against the inclined-to-seated-position berth.
"And a half," Swoop felt compelled to dryly add, playing with fire. Literally so, given that fire was Slag's very own specialty.
Again as expected, Slag's scowl didn't moderate in the slightest at Swoop's words. If anything, it deepened by an order of magnitude or so as he spat an eminently irritated "Shut up!" at Swoop. In response, Swoop attempted, very unsuccessfully, to hide an amused smirk.
"SHUT UP!" Slag insisted again, seeing Swoop's blatant amusement and wishing that he had something handy to throw at him.
"You shut up," Swoop mildly countered before adding, "It's a good thing for you that Prowl there is unconscious and can't be bothered by your racket. Besides, I didn't say anything."
Slag didn't even spare a glance at his roommate, who along with Slag had been the most badly damaged in the latest skirmish with the Decepticons. There had been some worry about losing their resident tactician for a few long and very tense hours, but he was recovering nicely now, two days later.
"Werethinking about saying something," Slag peevishly informed Swoop. He leveled an accusing index finger at Swoop and added a snarling, "Can read you like a book, you know."
Which was, Swoop reflected, unfortunately true; all of the Dinobots knew each other precisely that well. For that reason, Swoop knew that it was inevitable that an incapacitated Slag would make the lives of all of the medical staff a living hell for however long he was their unwilling guest. He didn't handle bored inactivity very well under the best of circumstances, and the lack of one and a half legs – courtesy of a close-range blast from Megatron's fusion cannon – pretty much negated the possibility of Slag getting up off of his medbay berth and wreaking any boredom-alleviating havoc any time soon. He had at least several more days of languishing in the medbay ahead of him, even if he eventually had to spend them literally chained to his berth. It certainly wouldn't be the first time the medical staff had had to resort to such measures where Slag was concerned. Swoop wondered how in the world they – Slag as well as the entire medical staff – would survive the experience with their sanity intact, so he was trying to preemptively mitigate the damage as well as he could. Hence, this very visit to give Slag someone to talk to for a little while, at least.
Sighing a resigned little sigh, Swoop finished his approach to Slag's berth and then unceremoniously plopped himself, all uninvited, into the space on it that would normally have been occupied by Slag's right leg, had he possessed a right leg at the moment. Slag leveled a glare at him for the imposition, momentarily but seriously considered shoving the much-smaller Dinobot off his berth as rudely as possible…and then simply sighed in defeat, shoulders slumping and all the fight suddenly leaving him. He was, suddenly, utterly exhausted, which was entirely understandable, given that he had been only slightly less badly-damaged in the skirmish than Prowl had been.
"How much longer?" he moaned pathetically, rhythmically banging the ceratopsian-head hood behind his head against his berth for lack of anything better to do. Swoop hitched a genuinely sympathetic smile at him.
"Three days," he said softly, giving Slag the bad news straight but also as gently as he could, hoping for the best. "Maybe four."
In response, Slag simply gaped at Swoop, slack-jawed and dumbfounded.
"Days?" he incredulously echoed long moments later. "DAYS?" he reiterated, quite a bit more loudly.
"It's complex fabrication," Swoop answered sagely, with a philosophical shrug. "Takes time."
"Tell Wheeljack to hurry up!" Slag demanded.
Protective as always of Wheeljack, Swoop glared at Slag and testily replied, "He's working as fast as he can, Slag. You know that."
Slag did know that, indeed. He was completely aware that if any of the Dinobots required something – anything! – then whatever he required immediately rocketed straight to the top of Wheeljack's miles-long priority list. And then the engineer worked tirelessly at procuring or fabricating whatever was needed as quickly as possible. Still…
"It's only a leg and a half!" Slag bellowed, heedless of Swoop's reassurances. "Can't take that long to—"
"It's not just your legs!" Swoop suddenly and rather loudly pointed out, his vehement and completely unexpected interruption startling Slag into abrupt silence. Swoop didn't yell, as a general rule, and he had just come very close to doing so.
Slag gave Swoop an odd, inquiring look, but Swoop was refusing to look at him. He went to nudge Swoop with a knee before he remembered that he didn't have any knees at the moment. So, he had to settle for an insistent poke with one finger to get Swoop's attention instead. In response, Swoop gave him an odd, sidelong, and likely guilty glance.
"We almost lost you. Healing from that takes time, too." Swoop said quietly before hesitantly adding, "And if we had lost you…it would have been my fault."
"Not your fault," Slag immediately assured him with, for Slag, startling gentleness, so startling that Swoop looked at him straight-on and askance for an extended moment before answering.
"I missed Megatron," Swoop pointed out matter-of-factly before looking away again. "Had him square, but then…missed."
Slag uttered a noncommittal grunt at that and then pointed out, "Grimlock told me that Skywarp had you square, too. Shot at you. Startled you."
"Shouldn't matter," Swoop mournfully replied, his shamefaced gaze fixed squarely on the wall somewhere to the right of Slag's head.
Slag snorted disbelievingly at that.
"Not your job to protect me, Swoop," he gruffly asserted.
"Is!" Swoop insisted, manically fixing a wide-eyed gaze on Slag's face again and simultaneously losing hard-won proper grammar in his distress. "My job air support. Me Swoop failed."
"Didn't!" Slag countered, equally insistently. "Me Slag not dead." Swoop couldn't argue with that, at least. "You Swoop distract Megatron," Slag pointed out, "so he not hit me square. Might be dead now, if not for you." He paused and somewhat reluctantly added, "Not the first time, either."
At that, Swoop hitched a hesitant but grateful half-smile at Slag. Slag might be a giant, belligerent pain in the aft sometimes – Most of the time, actually – but at least he didn't tend to hold grudges against anyone who wasn't a Decepticon, Optimus Prime or, occasionally, Grimlock.
Slag, meanwhile, leaned forward and laid a hesitant hand on one of Swoop's and then squeezed it lightly, offering an awkward and unaccustomed attempt at reassurance. Swoop jumped slightly at the unexpected contact and stared down at Slag's hand that was covering his for a moment. And then, almost nervously, he looked up into Slag's entirely earnest face.
"I'm not dead," Slag reiterated quietly once he was sure that Swoop was looking at him and that he would absorb what Slag was saying. "You not fail. OK?"
Swoop's little half-smile morphed into a shaky but full one.
"OK," he said quietly, although his voice was every bit as shaky as his smile. He wasn't entirely convinced that Slag's damage wasn't all his fault, but Slag's words were good enough for now, at least.
Thankful that the mushy stuff was over, Slag abruptly and deliberately resumed his customary grumpy mien.
"Still bored," he pointedly announced, abruptly changing the subject as he leaned back against his berth again.
Swoop sighed in mock irritation, although he, too, was grateful for the change of subject. He stood up then, looking down at Slag in amusement.
"What am I supposed to do about that?" he asked.
After a meaningful glance at the dead-to-the-world Prowl lying on the berth next to his, Slag slid his gaze over to re-fix it on Swoop's face and said with a sly smile, "Bring me my chess board."
Dumbfoundedly, Swoop blinked for a moment at Slag's currently-offline roommate.
"Prowl is unconscious, Slag," Swoop patiently and unnecessarily pointed out. "He can't play chess."
"Unconsciousnow, yes," Slag confirmed, with a patronizing sigh at Swoop's statement of the utterly obvious. "Will wake up soon. Will practice against computer while I wait."
"You really think you can beat him?" Swoop asked, grinning loopily at the image that bloomed in his head of Slag and Prowl faced off over a chessboard, competition hanging heavy and fierce between them.
Slag grinned back, and for once it wasn't a mean, sadistic grin.
"Oh hell, no!" he exclaimed with, shockingly, an enormous and highly amused belly laugh. "But will be good practice."
"Maybe he'll be off his game," he offered hopefully, "since he's…you know…right now…" His voice trailed off and he waved vaguely at the deeply unconscious subject of their discussion.
"My thinking exactly," Slag answered with a smug but approving nod. "'He will win who knows when to fight,'" he added, quoting "The Art of War" sagely and with a mischievous little glint in his optic visor.
Swoop snorted at that.
"Thank you, Sun Tzu," he said, mock wearily. And then he left, turning smartly on his heel and heading for the door, all the while shaking his head in extreme amusement.
This…he thought. This will be interesting…
Sitting upright was, for Prowl, both excruciating and exhausting, but Slag's offer – indeed, his challenge – had proven irresistible, despite the discomfort. Prowl had found the challenge laughable at first, of course; he'd thought the notion of playing chess with Slag, of all people, ludicrous. Indeed, he had wondered if perhaps someone was trying to play some sort of elaborate joke on him, with Slag as a likely unwitting accomplice.
But now, near the end of their first game, Prowl found himself in the odd position of almost admiring Slag. Oh, the Dinobot was going to lose the match, naturally. Slag was left with only two courses of action open to him, and both of them were ultimately futile. If he chose Course One, he would be checkmated in four moves; if he chose Course Two, he'd last for two additional moves. Still, the Dinobot had put forth a remarkably capable effort, one full of surprising finesse. Where Prowl had thought that Slag would merely take the offensive, trying to use his customary brute force to win a game that was, instead, all about subtlety and effective defensive rather than offensive strategy, Slag had instead shown a depth of understanding of the game that Prowl wouldn't have thought possible an hour or two earlier. He had lasted far longer than Prowl would have thought possible, as well, and he found this…intriguing, to say the least.
Sitting back carefully in his chair, mindful of his still-torn-up back, Prowl watched Slag as the Dinobot contemplated the chessboard in front of him, his chin resting on clasped hands. No doubt, he was calculating possibilities and probabilities and extrapolating logical outcomes in his head. Prior to playing this game, Prowl would not have thought Slag capable of such things. Yet, he clearly was so capable, as he had repeatedly shown over the course of the match. He'd both defended himself and countered Prowl's gambits with an impressive degree of success. Prowl had never been in true jeopardy, of course; chess was elementary to him, albeit enjoyable as a relaxing pastime requiring not much thought. But it was clearly evident that Slag was putting a great deal of thought into every move he made, obviously calculating and recalculating probabilities and adjusting strategy on the fly as he went along. The degree of flexibility in the Dinobot's thinking – indeed, the fact that he was adept at thinking at all – was both intriguing and surprising to Prowl.
Upon reflection, though, Prowl supposed that perhaps it shouldn't have been quite so surprising. Over the years since their creation, the Dinobots had begun to show a breadth of talent that none of the Autobots – perhaps not even their creators – had thought possible. Swoop was a skilled and dependable medic now, earning his crosses – which Ratchet had proudly bestowed upon him – as a full-fledged medic in his own right a few months before. Sludge, once thought irretrievably moronic, had proven himself an accomplished and endlessly creative artist who had a following and a backlog of commissions that kept him both busy and happy. Grimlock was showing a gift for diplomacy and leadership; once he'd put aside his inherent stubbornness, he'd found that he could benefit from learning from others, his former nemesis Optimus Prime in particular. Snarl…Well, no one really knew about Snarl – not even the other Dinobots – but it would not surprise Prowl in the least if the taciturn Dinobot was harboring some skill of which his comrades, even, could not dream. Whether or not the antisocial and occasionally misanthropic Snarl would ever deign to show anyone any talent that he might possess was entirely another question, of course.
And now…Now here was Slag, losing to Prowl at chess but playing competently and with utterly sound strategy. Prowl was duly impressed, and he did not as a general rule impress easily. As he watched, Slag finally made up his mind about his next move, reaching decisively for his one remaining knight. In response, Prowl emitted a small, almost satisfied, sigh. Slag had, indeed, chosen the path that would allow him to survive for two extra moves. Without thinking, Prowl nodded in approval, leaned tiredly back against the back of his chair…and then nearly passed out from pain, barely suppressing a yelp and failing entirely to suppress a pained gasp. He'd temporarily forgotten the condition of his back, as busy as he had been evaluating and, indeed, appreciating Slag's tactical skills.
Slag, hearing Prowl's sharply indrawn breath, looked up at him, his face immediately registering concern. Almost instantly thereafter, his hand moved from his knight to his king, which he toppled in surrender with a casual flick of one finger. He sat back in his own chair, crossing his arms over his chest, and watched Prowl attempt to regain control of himself. It was a long process, and when it was over, Prowl, although exhausted to his core, took the time to look askance at Slag.
"What…what did you do that for?" he asked weakly, gesturing equally weakly at Slag's toppled black king.
Slag snorted, shrugged, and gruffly answered, "Would have beaten me in six moves, anyway. No point in finishing."
Prowl merely blinked at the Dinobot, no longer surprised that Slag had accurately surmised his tactical situation and had already precisely calculated the inevitable end result.
"And you don't look too good, either," Slag announced after scrutinizing his opponent with his head tilted appraisingly to one side. "Should go back to bed before Swoop kills you."
Prowl opened his mouth to protest, a flood of weak arguments contradicting Slag's assessment rushing to the forefront of his thoughts before he realized that Slag was probably right. He was exhausted, and his entire body was singing with pain, his limbs even beginning to shake with the effort of continuing to sit upright. Surrendering to the inevitable just as Slag had on the chessboard, Prowl rose very unsteadily to his feet, leaning heavily on the table in front of him for support for a long moment before he determinedly straightened to his full height and looked down at Slag.
"You played well, Slag," he said quietly but sincerely. "I confess that I am…surprised."
One corner of Slag's mouth lifted in a pleased half-smile.
"Thank you," he said quietly, knowing that Prowl did not offer compliments lightly or, indeed, very often at all. "Have been practicing."
"I can tell," Prowl answered as he turned, staggered a bit, but then determinedly began putting one foot in front of the other, making slow progress toward his berth.
Slag watched Prowl warily and almost offered assistance before remembering that he still lacked legs. Swoop and a burly assistant had had to carry him to the table for the chess match to begin with, and they would need to be summoned to help him back to his berth, as well. So, Prowl was on his own. He made it, though, settling himself with a relieved sigh on it. Laying curled on his side, a position facilitated by the fact that he currently lacked one door wing, he regarded Slag with extreme exhaustion.
"If you like…" he offered hesitantly, his voice heavy with impending unconsciousness, "I can help you to refine some of your strategies." And then, before Slag could answer him, Prowl went abruptly offline with either recharge or unconsciousness. Regardless, Slag answered him, though.
"I would like that very much," he said quietly, and then he reached for the call button lying next to the chess board. He found that exhaustion was getting the better of him, as well, and it was suddenly all he could do to remain awake for the few minutes it took for Swoop and his assistant to arrive.
As they made their laborious way toward Slag's berth, Swoop and his assistant carrying Slag between them, Swoop asked of Slag in a conspiratorial half-whisper, "Well?"
"I lost, of course," he muttered.
"Of course," he said, somewhat disappointedly. He had expected Slag to lose every bit as much as Slag himself had expected to lose, certainly, but there had still been a part of him that had hoped that Slag would somehow manage to win the match. Just because. So, as he and his assistant settled Slag on his berth, Swoop opened his mouth to offer his condolences. But Slag spoke over him, glancing over at Prowl and then looking back earnestly at Swoop.
"But I think I won, too," he said, with a small, proud-of-himself smile on his face. And with that cryptic little comment, he, too, allowed his exhaustion to overtake him, and his body completely relaxed against the berth as he settled into recharge. He was still wearing that proud little smile.
Smiling affectionately himself, Swoop watched his comrade sleep for a moment, idly watching the wall-mounted monitors that had automatically sprung to life the moment Slag was settled onto his berth. Satisfied that everything was normal there, he turned away with the intention of heading toward the door to attend to his other duties. On his way, though, he found his attention drawn for some reason to the table where the chessboard lay, noting the almost-equal piles of defeated pieces off to each side of the board as well as the toppled black king. For some reason, he felt compelled to approach the table and pick up the toppled piece. As he repeatedly turned it over in his fingers, studying it, Swoop reflected that, just perhaps, Slag getting his legs blown off had somehow managed to turn out to be a good thing. He found his lingering sense of guilt over the incident easing somewhat at the thought, and he found himself slowly releasing a tensely-held breath that he had probably been holding since the moment Megatron had nearly managed to kill Slag. Smiling to himself, Swoop nodded at no one and nothing, returned the chess piece to its former toppled position on the board, and then headed for the door, leaving his two sleeping patients to their well-deserved rest.