What Lay Within the Box
(12 September, 2003)
Prowl stared disgustedly out to sea. Well, perhaps not disgustedly, as such an emotion would be detrimental to the grander purpose of divining a way to get himself out of this particular predicament, but as nothing was coming to him, he was slowly giving way to a sinking feeling of disgruntlement.
It had all gone so well. Communications between the Autobots and the government of Oceana had been nothing if not positive, and when they had sent a message that they would indeed welcome an ambassador from the Autobot ranks, Prime had been quick to dispatch Prowl as the appointed emissary. Sideswipe had been sent along as his backup, which by all counts could have been worse, and until the storm, Prowl had been blithely enjoying a quiet, peaceful shuttle-trip over the Pacific Ocean, he at the helm, Sideswipe happily at the X-box console.
And then it had all gone so horribly wrong.
"What's that?" Sideswipe had asked.
Prowl had just realized that the warrior was no longer playing his game, but was staring intently at the knot on the horizon. Maybe he'd felt a barometric shift; maybe it was just his Lamborghini senses tingling, but the warrior had already sensed the dreadful news, even as the monitors had begun sputtering with frantic bits of data.
The knot became a dark cloud; the dark cloud became a black and ugly pillar. The pillar…came right at the shuttle.
Prowl recalled having time to muse that he'd finally had a firsthand experience of the phrase, 'the calm before the storm', before all madness ensued, and the shuttle's hull buckled and flew apart in less time than it took to say 'hurricane'.
Good thing for him, he'd had along a backup who knew not to panic. In a battle, be it against Decepticons or the elements, Sideswipe was one of the best to have at one's side. Prowl remembered being grabbed from behind, and then jerked into a freefall, which lasted for many minutes.
He did not know how the storm had been able to come up so quickly. The weather reports had all talked about it for days, and he'd thought he'd plotted a course that would take them well out of its path. But it seemed that storms often took turns that neither weathermen nor strategists expect them to take, and almost incomprehensibly, Prowl found himself catapulted from his serene ride and into a shuttle-less plummet within a matter of minutes.
Thank Primus Sideswipe had thought quickly enough to lock his arms around Prowl's midsection, or they'd have been separated and possibly lost at sea. As it was, they were both a bit battered, though not as badly as Prowl would have thought, and were blown so far off course that by the time they crash-landed near a tiny island, neither Autobot had any clue where they were. Sideswipe had ignited his rocket pack when they'd neared what looked like land, and after a fierce battle against the whirling winds, managed to maneuver them both in the general direction of the tiny scratch of rock. He'd run out of fuel nearly a quarter mile out, but they were able to swim under water, where it was relatively calm, and came up on dry land, where they'd weathered out the last of the storm.
That had been the previous night, and now that morning had come, scrubbed and glaring, with not a cloud in the sky, Prowl found that their island of choice had been nothing more than a glorified sand bar, with a jut of rock sticking out the center. A few battered palm trees dotted the northern edge, but otherwise, the island provided little shelter, and was small enough that Prowl could have paced across it in twenty strides.
But the worst part…the worst part was that the reason they were going to Oceana in the first place was so that they could set up relations, and possibly a base, on an island near Decepticon Headquarters. Which meant, naturally, that wherever they were, they had a good chance of being very close to the last people in the world who they would want to find them. Radio transmission was an extreme risk, by Prowl's estimation, and for all he knew, they were hundreds of miles away from a mainland, so swimming back to civilization was not an option. Running out of energy halfway, and sinking down to rust somewhere on the ocean floor was not an idea Prowl liked to entertain, though Sideswipe seemed to have considered it, what with his morning bound out into the waves. Good thing Prowl had been able to talk reason into the impetuous warrior, or Sideswipe might have found himself in stasis lock and sunk into some ocean crevice, and crushed by water pressure into a miniature version of himself.
Warriors. Good for taking bullets, or opening that stubborn jar of turtle wax; bad for thinking up brilliant plans and not getting themselves killed. But someone had to amuse the tactician.
Not that amusement had lingered for long, and now he stared dully out over the water, and tried to devise a way to broadcast his location without Soundwave potentially being the wiser.
"Hey, what's to worry?" Sideswipe tried to cheer him up. "I'm the complete strandation desperation package!"
"Ok, Jazz," Prowl slid him a flat look.
"Come on…piledrivers, flares, good looks…"
"Priceless," Prowl tried not to roll his optics, "now you're channeling Sunstreaker."
"And look!" Sideswipe exclaimed with a flourish. "Crumpled up bits of Mad Magazine! And ooooh…The Dupont Registry. Forgot I had that. Look at this little number…"
The red warrior held up what Prowl presumed was supposed to be some sort of centerfold, but the tactician was clearly not in the mood to car-gaze, and shifted his stare back out to sea. Bad enough that they were stranded on a tiny and cliché little desert island, bad enough that said island was probably barely a hundred miles away from Decpticon HQ, but he was beginning to think that being stuck with Sideswipe and his very impressive version of a Bluestreak impression was going to be a little much. In fact, it promised to be excruciating, with no games to distract the warrior – though Prowl did have to admit that it could have been worse. It could have actually been Bluestreak.
"You know, Ferrari makes a luscious line." Sideswipe was carefully examining the outspread magazine at various angles, one optic ridge arched in appreciation.
"Would you put that away?" Prowl furrowed his brow. "We have more important things to consider."
"If you say so," Sideswipe gave him his familiar, lopsided grin, and cached the magazine. "Though between staring at sand, and staring at Ferraris…"
Prowl gave the other Autobot a flat look, but naturally, such things as dry stares never seemed to bother the red warrior, and Sideswipe merely hitched a shrug and looked dutifully out to sea.
"Ok," he squinted, "what are we looking for?"
"We're not," Prowl replied. "We're thinking without the interruption of endless, fluffy prattle."
"Oh, yeah," Sideswipe put his hands on his hips, still staring at the water, "don't you just hate that when people go on and on about nothing at all, when all you really want in the world is just some time to th—"
"Don't," Prowl interjected, "try to bait me, Sideswipe." But all he earned was a sideways grin.
"Oh, what's to worry?" the warrior asked. "They'll find us."
"I realize that," Prowl commented dryly, "though I do hope it's sometime before I go into stasis and rust into a heap."
"Well, at least you won't bleach out," Sideswipe pointed out ever so helpfully. "You're white."
Prowl counted to ten. "What I'm concerned about, Sunstreaker," he continued, (and talking over an 'Ooooh, that hurts' from Sideswipe), "is not whether the Autobots find us, but whether the Decepticons find us first. And since this island offers little cover…"
"Well," Sideswipe agreed with a look around, "sucks to be us."
"Hey," Sideswipe spread his hands, "don't worry. Sunstreaker'll find us."
Prowl gave him a look. "Thousands of tiny islands, in thousands of miles of sea, and us with no radio…and Sunstreaker will find us. What, is that some special twin sense?"
"No," Sideswipe shrugged again. "He'll just never give up, is all." He grinned. "So you're saved! Sunny always finds me, though…" he furrowed his brow, "…it usually is me getting him out of a jam…"
"Fantastic." Prowl looked back out at the water. "After hearing about your joint venture as a pair of proton-powered pathfinders, you'll forgive me if I'm not enthused."
"Hey," Sideswipe huffed, "we got there."
"After tunneling under a mountain."
"Well, I never said anything about the hard way not being an option," Sideswipe informed him airily.
For a good long minute of blessed silence, the Autobots stared at the water. Prowl wracked his processor, sent his battle computer through scenario after scenario, but nothing was coming to him. If they radioed, there was almost a hundred percent chance of the Decepticons intercepting and correctly decoding the signal. After that, there was a ninety-five percent chance of the Decepticons arriving at these coordinates before the Autobots did, and after that, Prowl didn't need his battle computer to give him odds on what would happen next. As far as he could see it, the only thing they could do would be to wait for the chance of early rescue by the Autobots, and failing that, send out a radio signal after a few days, in hopes that a rescue party would be close enough to respond before the Decepticons did. Of course, if they waited too long, the rescue party might give up and go back to the Ark, since, as far as the Autobots knew it, there was a chance that both tactician and warrior were lying at the bottom of the sea, where no one would ever find them. But Prowl doubted the Autobots would give up after only a few days, and added to that, he did have to admit that Sideswipe was correct in that there was at least one Autobot who wouldn't give up at all.
Which did, in some odd way, give him a little comfort, not that he had any intention of admitting such a thing to Sideswipe.
"So," the warrior broke the silence. "What now?"
Prowl offered a shrug. "We wait."
Sideswipe chafed, and tossed a glance around the island, as if feeling restless already. "But if we send out on low freq—"
"No," Prowl said quietly. "We wait. Give the Autobots a day or so to realize we're really downed, and then another day to get search parties out here. Then we'll risk a signal."
Though Prowl was sure Sideswipe understood and agreed, the warrior still looked crestfallen. "Days…?" Again, he looked around himself, and Prowl could all but feel the tension building in the other Autobot at facing not just confinement, but, horror of horrors, boredom. And Prowl could only imagine what terrors would be inflicted on himself when the warrior had gone too long with nothing to do.
But he was adamant. "Yes," he said firmly. "Days. Three, to be exact. I should assume that it would take the Autobots less time to get out here, but I want to be sure. I want to give them a good head start…"
He trailed off as Sideswipe waved him off with one hand, and turned away to pace the shoreline. In half a minute, he'd gone all the way around the island and come back to where Prowl was standing, but instead of pausing, he continued on, while looking alarmingly unhappy.
And he paced. Prowl lost track of how many times Sideswipe had lapped the island by the time he'd reached forty or so, and when the sun had reached its zenith, and become a staring, bleary orb against the blue-white sky, the warrior had not stopped. In fact, as Prowl settled in the lee of the rockface, he detected an actual rise in the warrior's level of discomfort.
Somewhere around mid-afternoon, Sideswipe had come to sit in the shade next to Prowl, where he pushed and piled the sand into idle heaps, while they both politely discussed nothing at all. It wasn't often that the two of them socialized, and their topics of conversation usually confined themselves to either work-related, or disciplinary issues. As Sideswipe was Prowl's most prolific repeat offender in regards to any and all rules and their integrity – or lack thereof – it was fairly common for Prowl to be dishing out this or that penalty to the warrior, and usually his brother as well, just for good measure. As a result, of course, there had arisen a bit of a wall between them, which wasn't necessarily a bad thing, since authority figures did need to keep some distance. But there was that part of Prowl that sometimes, even if it was only rarely, regretted not being on a little friendlier terms with the warrior.
Not that Sideswipe disliked him. On the contrary, Prowl suspected the warrior liked him quite a bit, and while it was neither here nor there as far as their jobs were concerned, Prowl had to (grudgingly) admit that he liked Sideswipe, too. He appreciated him, for one thing, in that he was extremely easy to work with when it came down to business. He might creatively interpret orders at times, but as a seasoned warrior, he had a firm understanding that following orders was for the greater good, and he usually executed his part of Prowl's battle plans flawlessly. He was, in short, the perfect tool for a tactician. His passion for his job made him extremely effective, and his comprehension of Prowl's job – and the importance of coordinating guidance on the whole – made him very, very useful.
So it wasn't that they were at odds with one another. Not at all. It was more…a mutual understanding of role. Prowl was a superior officer, and Sideswipe was a mid-ranking warrior. Each was very competent; each had his place on separate sides of the fence.
Which meant, naturally, that Prowl should not have cared one way or another whether he was chummy with the red warrior. He had few friends, which suited him nicely, since he liked to be alone to think during most of his free time. But there were times, even if he had trouble admitting it even to himself, when he wished he could get to know the warrior a little better.
And what better time than when both were trapped on a desert island together? Cybertron above, it was like a scene out of a movie, tailor made for the blooming forth of some magic moment, in which the two of them would bond and become lifelong friends. But that was without taking into consideration the fact that, in the absence of ever really talking before, they had no topic with which to break the ice.
So they sat, and canted restless gazes up at the horizon, while Sideswipe dug haphazard furrows in the sand. He even unearthed some bit of metal, which he promptly threw with all his might out to sea. Prowl watched the shard sail in an impressive arc before plopping noiselessly out beyond the breakwater.
"Nice arm," he commented, breaking the silence somewhere around dusk.
Sideswipe merely grunted, a sound that Prowl took to indicate thanks, and got up to pace again.
Sunset came and went. The sky bled from rose to black, and one by one the stars unfurled across the sky. For a long time, the warrior paused in his trudge to stand at the edge of the water and stare, and Prowl, in turn watching him, had the feeling that such a sight was something the warrior had seen many, many hundreds of times. It seemed to soothe the other Autobot a little, enough that he stopped pacing for an hour or so, and Prowl found himself wondering just what he saw as he looked so long into the sky.
But it was only idle speculation, musing to help Prowl himself pass the time, and he would have sunk into his own thoughts and left the warrior to his own devices, if he had not felt the slightest pang of sympathy for him. He supposed he shouldn't spare speculation on a situation that he could not remedy; it was obvious that the warrior would not be happy until he was free of his island cage, and there was currently nothing Prowl could do about it. But sympathy was that anomaly that had always kept Prowl just enough off-kilter that he was unable to fully process his experiences through use of hard logic. Sympathy, the unordered and usually unplanned glitch, was (though he didn't like to admit it) what kept him grounded in awareness that life was almost never mathematically perfect, and if he thought about it hard enough, he could conclude that sympathy was quite possibly the very emotion that had made him an Autobot in the first place.
So while he had loftier and perhaps more significant things with which to occupy his attention, Prowl found himself drawn back time and again to the fretting Autobot near the water. He did not know why he should spare the other such attention, when obviously he could do nothing to solve his problem, but whether he liked it or not, he took notice.
"You should conserve energy," he spoke up somewhere in the small hours of the night. Pinpricks of light sprawled like a blanket across the black, and he could only just make out the outline of the warrior as he paced about the perimeter of the island.
"I'm ok," Sideswipe called softly from somewhere near the southern tip of the island.
"Come back," Prowl urged him. "I'll keep watch while you shut down."
"Don't want to shut down," came the stubborn reply, and Prowl watched as the warrior plodded on.
Prowl had no logical reply to that, as honestly he had no recourse against the warrior's wish to not shut down, and since neither of them was injured badly enough that energy conservation should be of extreme priority, Prowl saw no reason to stop him. If he insisted on plodding about the tiny sandbar for the next forty-eight hours, that would be another thing entirely, and Prowl would find himself obliged to order the warrior to sit still, so that he didn't burn his fuel reserves down. But for now he didn't see the harm, and let Sideswipe pace on unbothered.
And, as he had assumed, the plodding did eventually cease. Looking a little wearied, Sideswipe approached sometime after dawn, and dropped to the ground next to the tactician, where he leaned back against the rock with a sigh. For a moment, Prowl thought he would say something, but that invisible barrier rose up again, and the warrior seemed at a loss for words. There was no need for useless speculations about whether or not the Autobots would come for them, as Prowl knew in Sideswipe's mind, that was assured. And because it was assured, there was no need to ask the question, simply out of need for comfort. Sideswipe's faith in his brother was absolute, and he did not need Prowl's idle reassurance to remind himself of that.
Had he been stranded with Bluestreak, Prowl was sure he would have been pestered at least a hundred times by now about whether he thought the Autobots knew they were missing, and how soon Prowl thought they would come. But because Sideswipe did not require such comfort, he, like Prowl, had found himself without a meaningful thing to say. It was a logical conclusion, that in the absence of significant dialogue, one would be best served to opt for silence, and it amused the tactician to find this similarity between himself and such an instinct-based creature as the red warrior.
And still, it troubled him. He was not sure why, but there was the inscrutable piece of himself that wanted Sideswipe to speak up, even if only to prattle on about nothing, and though Prowl tried hard to return to his thoughts, he found himself increasingly plagued by the troubled presence of someone who had nothing to say.
Maybe it was the very fact that Sideswipe was troubled; maybe it was his silence, despite his usual loud and gregarious nature. Perhaps it was merely the warrior's restlessness seeping over onto Prowl.
Their second morning on the island stretched from gold to white, as the shadow of the rockface crept steadily back. The temperature rose, and Prowl grew uncomfortable, but if Sideswipe noticed it, Prowl couldn't tell. Finally wearied enough to rest, the warrior dozed lightly, arms crossed over his chest, his head lolled over against the rock.
Nothing happened. The heat grew intense, sand and water shimmering in the glare, but no dark object dotted horizon or sky. For hours, Prowl watched, scanning in three directions, and sometimes standing up to stare into the north, behind the rock where he was leaning, but he saw nothing. He even imagined he heard Jazz's voice through the static as he sifted through his radio frequencies, but he was sure after a few minutes that he'd been mistaken, and went back to listening to the waves.
Hours more passed. Sideswipe woke, and stared at the surf, which rolled in and hissed up the sand barely two strides from where they sat. Prowl almost felt expectant, almost wished it really was Bluestreak sitting there, who would have woken and immediately asked, "You hear anything? Think they're still coming? You make sure to watch the north horizon? I can watch it for you if you want…"
And so on and so forth. But Sideswipe did none of these things. Logically, inanely, he had no need, and so he said nothing, because he knew that Prowl would have told him if he'd heard anything, and he knew that Sunstreaker was coming for him, and he knew that Prowl would have had the sense to stand up and look to the north every now and again, because Sideswipe trusted him. In fact, Sideswipe's trust in the tactician was so solid, he felt no need to question him about anything, a fact which, until now, Prowl did not realize could be so potentially irritating.
Twice, he almost opened his mouth to say something. Once, it would have been something about the weather, though before he could speak, Prowl stopped himself, since mentioning that it was unbearably hot would have been such an obvious statement that the tactician simply couldn't bring himself to say it. The second time was even less sensible, which would have been some remark about wishing for a nicely padded recharge bunk, which again would have been terribly obvious of him to say, so he refrained. Several times, each Autobot looked at the other, sighed, opened their mouths as if to say something, and then looked away. And each time, Prowl found himself closer to asking about the weather, even though he knew it would have been a uselessly ludicrous thing to say, and even though he was sure he could have put his mind to better use than fretting over a silence he should have appreciated.
Morning dragged into noon, which found Sideswipe up again, and peeling the leaves off of the palm trees. One by one he stripped them bare, while Prowl watched and tried to make sense of what the warrior was doing. Leaf by broad leaf, he piled them together in a neat stack, and then began stripping the bark off of one of the trunks.
At last, Prowl couldn't help himself. "What are you doing?"
"Stripping bark," was the short reply.
"To what end?"
"To the end of this tree," Sideswipe answered sensibly.
Prowl couldn't help but ask why.
"Because," the warrior offered, and pulled off another plate of bark.
Because…what? Prowl waited, but at length he realized that the answer was meant to stand on its own, and he leaned back against the rockface and returned his attention again to the horizons.
But now Sideswipe had become industrious, and was treading back and forth between their little sitting-place by the rock, and his stack of materials from the dismembered trees. Against his will, Prowl almost hitched a smile at the poor, forlorn-looking things, most of which now stuck leafeless out of the sand like crooked, useless sticks, while Sideswipe busily stockpiled their leaves in a little green heap near Prowl's feet.
"What are you doing?" Prowl asked again, when Sideswipe finally settled himself down by the leaf and bark.
Sideswipe shrugged. "Playing."
Prowl had trouble reckoning with what he'd heard. "Playing?" he repeated, quite uselessly, even by his own admission, since it was plain that he'd heard the warrior the first time.
But Sideswipe didn't seem to pick up on Prowl's sense of the absurd, and instead bent his head over his new pastime. "Yeah. Want some?"
"No," Prowl shook his head, and wondering what earthly use the warrior could coax out of this pile of vegetation. "But thank you."
So the warrior worked, fingers worrying at the bark until he'd pestered it into short stripes of twine. These, he tied together end-to-end, until he had a decent length of cord, which took him some time, and all the while plagued Prowl with curiosity as to what he intended to do with it. From time to time, as the sun rolled slowly across the sky, Sideswipe would straighten his back, stretch, or shake himself, and then bend back over his work. He seemed mesmerized by it, a pastime which Prowl concluded was preferable by far to the pacing, and he even seemed to have some idea of what he was doing, as after he was done with the twine, he picked up a stack of leaves, and began weaving.
This took a long time, of course, so long that the sun had begun to sink again toward afternoon, and had beaten so long and hot down on Prowl's head, the tactician thought that something in his cranial unit must certainly be frying into uselessness. Funny, he didn't feel any dumber, but he was sure that by the time the sun had gotten done cooking him, he would have dropped a point or two on the intelligence quotient scale.
And speaking of which, Sideswipe seemed to have finished his project. When at last the sun had slunk far enough down in the sky that the heat had finally slightly abated, the warrior reached out, turned his product upside down, and planted it firmly on Prowl's head.
"There," he said in all seriousness, and leaned back to have a look.
Prowl, nonplussed, stared back.
Sideswipe reached over to tug on one side, leaned back, and smiled. "There you go," he said, as if it explained everything, and then picked up the second product of his labors, and jammed it down over his head. "Ta-da! Crowns!"
Prowl, one leaf drooping over his optic, simply stared.
"Oh, fine," Sideswipe rolled his optics, as if he were actually shocked that Prowl didn't appreciate his efforts, and strolled off to pace again, his own crown flopping like a garden of rabbit ears around his head.
And around and around he paced. He paced so long that Prowl thought he might very well walk past sundown again. Wind ruffling almost soothingly through his crown of leaves, which he hesitated to take off, simply because it broke the awful monotony of his existence, Prowl watched the warrior plod through the surf, his red finish gleaming darker and darker red as the sun dropped down toward the sea. Spray sloshed up the sides of his legs, foaming and shimmering in the dusking light like so many coins of gold thrown down before his majesty's imperial passage.
Then just when Prowl thought he couldn't watch the warrior take another lap, Sideswipe abruptly cut across the island to where Prowl sat, and flung himself down on his back with poof of sand. Moving his arms and legs a little, he made some motion that looked for all the world to Prowl as though he were drowning, and then he lay still again and said plainly, "Sand angels."
Obviously, Prowl was expected to say something in reply, and in the absence of anything appropriate or even remotely intelligent, he said, "Oh."
Sideswipe uttered a sharp sigh. "Ok," he said, breaking the silence at last, "truth or dare?"
Prowl blinked; his crown swished in the breeze. "What?"
"Truth or dare?" Sideswipe asked again, quite unnecessarily, as Prowl had heard him the first time.
Understanding now, albeit a little slowly, Prowl gave the other Autobot a level look. "There is nothing on this island," he said, "which would require a dare. What exactly would I dare you to do?"
"Swim with sharks!" Sideswipe suggested with some amount of enthusiasm.
"You're a robot," Prowl pointed out. "You have robot armor. How is that daring?"
"Point." Sideswipe stared up at the deepening sky, his crown wilted and skewed in a heap around his head, hands clasped over his chest. "So…truth then?"
Prowl offered a little sigh; he couldn't help himself. "To what purpose?"
"To the purpose of breaking the monotony," Sideswipe replied. "I mean, we really could go on staring at the same flat, blue stretch of nothing for another few days, but I think I'm to the point where I really will throw myself to the sharks soon."
"And leave us all bereaved?" Prowl deadpanned. "By the matrix, say it isn't so."
Sideswipe closed his optics and banged his head against the ground.
"Is it really that bad?" Prowl asked, knowing full well it was.
Sideswipe continued to bang his head.
"Or is this merely one of your mild-yet-persistent tantrums, designed to accomplish the supremely important goal of entertaining yourself?"
"Yes," Sideswipe replied.
"Yes to which?"
Prowl refused to sigh. "Stop that," he offered, "and I promise to raise your pay."
Sideswipe stopped, mid-head-bang, and tipped a surprised look in Prowl's direction. "Hark? Doth mine audios detect a joke from yon tactician?"
"Oh, it's not a joke," Prowl showed a wan smile. "In fact, I'll increase your pay by fifty percent."
"Wow!" Sideswipe beamed, and looked back up at the sky. "Why, with an extra fifty percent of nothing, I'll finally be able to buy those ruby slippers, and fly back home to Cybertron."
"Oh yes," Prowl agreed, "and maybe your other half can finally buy a brain."
"Tell me, honestly," Sideswipe looked serious, "do you think I'd look good in ruby slippers?"
"I'm sure they would look fabulous stuffed up your exhaust," Prowl assured him.
"Is it just me," Sideswipe speculated, "or are we having a smartass competition?"
"Of course we are," Prowl explained. "It's in our programming, as, being weaker than Decepticons, we Autobots have as a race perfected the time-honored and considerable skill of smart-assery, which of course is why we expend so much time and energy on the battlefield insulting our enemy, as opposed to shooting at him."
"Because we can't hit the broad side of a moonbeam," Sideswipe supplied.
"Not to mention that we're short," Prowl added.
"And not particularly savage."
"Ah," Sideswipe nodded sagely, "explains so much."
"Well then," Prowl settled himself back against the rock, "we might as well get on with it. What questions did you want to ask?"
"No, no," Sideswipe shook his head against the sand, making a shallow dish beneath his head. "It doesn't work that way. There have to be rules."
"There do?" Prowl raised a metal brow.
"Well," Sideswipe nodded, "it is a game, which means there should be a prize and everything."
"I see." Prowl furrowed his brow. "Very well. What are the rules?"
"Simple," Sideswipe explained. "One question per side at a time, with short, direct answers."
"Keeps you from hemming and hawing," Sideswipe told him.
"And no lying," the warrior added.
Prowl uttered a soft snort. "And how might I know if you're lying, O King of Creative Rule Interpretation?"
But Sideswipe canted his head to look at the tactician seriously. "We both swear to tell the truth."
Prowl considered this, and after a moment's thought had to concede that it would suffice, as he had to admit that the warrior had never once lied to him. He might give a creative version of events, or skirt skillfully around actually giving a straight answer, but never once in all the years Prowl had known him had Sideswipe failed to honestly answer a direct question.
The tactician nodded. "Fair enough. But what is this prize?"
"Prize of choice," Sideswipe explained simply. "I win, and when we get back, you grant me and Sunstreaker a four-day pass. You when, and we get back, and I'll ensure you have four days of prank-free, trouble-free peace and quiet. Unless you want something else."
"Actually," Prowl considered this, "that sounds rather nice. So how does one win this game?"
"By asking a question the other can't answer," Sideswipe supplied.
"Like something embarrassing?" Prowl asked, trying to imagine an event that could possibly make the warrior too embarrassed to retell it.
Sideswipe shrugged. "Dunno. Just stump the other Autobot." He grinned, a little gleam in his optics. "No worries. It'll be fun."
"If you say so."
"Right," Sideswipe looked over. "So, rock-paper-scissors to see who goes first?"
Prowl managed a sufficiently confused look.
"You know," Sideswipe prompted him, holding out a fist, "rock-paper…oh, never mind. Hold out your fist." Prowl did so, and after explanation of the goal, lost to Sideswipe, who won the right to take the first turn.
"Very well," Prowl resettled himself, trying to arrange his door panels at least somewhat comfortably against the rock, "what do you want to know?"
Sideswipe grinned. "What's your favorite color?"
Prowl frowned. This promised to be unimaginably trite. His frown turned into a bit of a pensive look, however, when he realized the truthful answer. "I don't have one," he replied honestly, and immediately wondered if that were indicative of some psychological flaw on his part. Mulling for a moment, and looking at the impossibly blue water before him, he wondered even at the very notion of favor, and why it should be bestowed on some and not others, and sometimes seemingly for no other reason than that it pleased the one doing the bestowing. But before he could follow this line of thought, and because Sideswipe was staring at him oddly, he reminded himself that it was his turn, and jarred himself away from his thoughts. "Ok," he said, and ran through a list of possibilities, landing on something about which he'd actually been slightly curious. "Did you really shave that llama last summer?"
"Only half of it." Sideswipe grinned happily up at the sky, and immediately asked. "Do the Autobots really pay all of my speeding tickets?"
"All of them?" he lifted his head halfway out of the sand, his leaf crown flopping.
"Only one question at a time," Prowl chided, and watched Sideswipe drop his head back in the sand, where he scuffled himself further into the sand and looked suspiciously proud of himself. Prowl asked dryly, "Did you really tie fake pigtails to your helmet, and perform, 'Hit Me Baby One More Time' to get out of your last ticket?"
The warrior slid him a sideways look. "Do you really have to ask?"
Prowl smirked. "No. And you just used your turn."
"Have you always been red?"
The warrior barked a laugh at his question. "Yes. I did try black for a while, but it just didn't feel right. That, and Sunstreaker gave me such a rash of slag about it, I changed back to red just to shut him up." He raised a brow. "You always been black and white?"
"No," Prowl replied, a little bemused to find not just one, but both of the twins so attached to their color schemes, "though I've been this color for some time now. I find it…suits."
"Black and white like logic and all that." It wasn't a question.
"Hm," Prowl nodded. "I suppose so."
"What do you do for fun?" Sideswipe asked.
Prowl opened his mouth, then closed it. He tried again, came up short, and sat with his brow furrowed. "I work," he said, and offered a little shrug. "I read sometimes."
Sideswipe didn't look convinced.
"I think," Prowl added, and pressed his mouth together. Fun wasn't something he often considered. In fact, if he thought about it, he supposed his job was fun, (minus the part about going to war), so he really didn't require time for leisure. He liked to work, liked the challenge, and the idea of spending his time doing such ludicrous things as divesting hippodromes of their outer coverings was as far removed from his idea of fun as he could imagine. So he honestly had no other answer for the warrior, and though Sideswipe looked utterly unconvinced, Prowl could give him no better answer.
A little concerned that Sideswipe was making him work harder at this than the warrior himself was working, Prowl tried to think of a better question. He stared at the warrior lying in the sand, wreath of leaves sprawled ridiculously around his head, and wondered briefly if such a goal as trying to out-embarrass Sideswipe was actually an attainable venture, as such a creature as he had no shame. Prowl tipped his own head, feeling the wisp of his own crown of leaves as they shushed in the slight breeze, and though he paused to feel the slightest bit ridiculous, there was a part of him that would not allow himself to take the thing off. He wasn't sure why, other than there was something symbolic about it, some indecipherable thing that made the leaf-crowns as much a part of this game as the questions, and he knew somehow that taking it off would put him that much closer to losing. It was as though the crown carried with it a spell, and while he and Sideswipe sat beneath them, they were both allowed to sit outside of time, and talk for a while about the things that they could never have mentioned at home, and would probably never mention again.
Ridiculous? Perversely so. But valid all the same, and Prowl serenely left his crown to rest on his head while he asked, "Why does boredom scare you?"
Immediately Sideswipe sat up, the late afternoon sun glinting off his scarlet chestplate. Face screwed up, he gave Prowl an absurd look. "I'm not scared."
Prowl smiled, his mouth just curving. "You won't answer the question?"
"I—" Sideswipe started, then halted, his optics darkening a little as he realized Prowl was really playing now, and not just humoring him. Mouth snapped shut, he regarded the tactician shrewdly, the wind blowing the leaves of his crown back like the pinned ears of a horse, and Prowl saw a look of resolution pass over the warrior's face. "It doesn't –" he began once more, then stopped himself, and opened his mouth again to speak more slowly. "I just…I wasn't built to sit still."
Prowl regarded him blandly, not satisfied. Sideswipe knew it.
The red warrior sighed sharply, and tossed a glance out to sea. "I can't…describe it, ok? Makes me itch, like a claustrophobic or something. I just have to be engaged." He turned his glance back at Prowl, and shrugged. "Way I'm made."
Prowl nodded, knowing there was more, not knowing whether Sideswipe realized it or not.
The warrior nodded at Prowl. "What scares you?"
The tactician frowned. He had seen this question coming, of course, and briefly considered that he could possibly direct the entire flow of questioning from here on out, if the warrior would ask all the predictable follow-up questions. But he brushed that thought aside for the present, and tried to answer the question honestly.
He laced his fingers over his middle and looked into the sky. "Death," he replied blandly, "Pain. No one wants these things."
Sideswipe, predictably, did not look convinced.
With the faintest nudge of irritation, Prowl set himself back to thinking. It was not a difficult question, since he felt he could be perfectly honest about the answers without the trouble of interference from his emotions. But there was that one nagging doubt, the one that told both Sideswipe and himself that such patented answers were not, in fact, the entire truth. Furrowing his brow a little, he stared into the endless blue, digging, realizing that he had not bothered to ask himself such a question in so many years that he could not remember the last time he'd considered it. Of course he feared such things as pain and death, not to mention the death of his friends, and he knew that answer should have been good enough. But he also knew that there was something worse, and when at last it swam to the surface of his mind, he had to admit that it was something that honestly shook him, and perhaps would shake him for the rest of his life.
Looking back down, trading the vast blue of the sky for the unending well of the warrior's optics, Prowl said as much to himself as to the other Autobot, "I fear living my whole life without living."
Sideswipe pressed his mouth together, thinking. He seemed at first to want to ask more, but Prowl watched his answer sink into the warrior's processor, and as it did he could see that it made sense, and Sideswipe was satisfied. He nodded, slowly, thoughtfully, and then waited as though for the inevitable question.
But it didn't come. Prowl didn't need to ask what Sideswipe feared most. He already knew, and felt no need to make the warrior say it. Instead, he asked, "Do you worry about Sunstreaker during battle?"
Looking almost relieved, Sideswipe gave a little half-shrug. "Sunny takes care of himself." He hesitated, mouth partway open, then added more truthfully, "Sometimes. But mostly I can't. If I do, I'll make mistakes. I know it sounds cold, but I know if I worry about him for one second, I'll lose my concentration, get myself scrapped." He shrugged again, as if the shift of his shoulders could explain things more eloquently than words. "I worry about Sunny, and I die. Sunstreaker takes care of himself."
That seemed to seal it, and Prowl admitted silently that it was about as honest an answer as he was likely to get. In fact, if he thought about it, he could make the case that it was an almost painful answer, in that Sideswipe was admitting that there was a time in his life when he didn't put his brother's safety ahead of his own. It was for a greater good, not just for his own life, but for the Autobot cause, and in a roundabout way, his brother's well-being. But it was still an admission of selfishness, and though self-preservation was no sin, Prowl was sure that it was not easy for Sideswipe to make himself forget about Sunstreaker, even if it was only for minutes at a time.
Leaning back on his arms, the lowering sun turning his chestplate to a deeper and deeper red, Sideswipe regarded Prowl quietly. He seemed hesitant, as though the next question were not entirely fair by some estimation of his, even if he was going to ask it anyway. He almost looked sorry; Prowl could see it on his face. But instead of having any sort of decency, he went ahead and asked, "Have you ever – loved anyone like a brother?"
It truly wasn't a fair question. Prowl stared at the warrior, his face bland, his internal systems not so serene. In truth, it was an underhanded question, and he almost told the warrior so.
It was the one thing that Sideswipe had. It was his saving grace, and it was also a daily reminder to every other Autobot save one of faces that each of them would never see again. Prowl stared at Sideswipe, a creep of anger starting to uncurl at the bottom of himself, and wondered what would make the warrior ask such a thing. Did he not realize that he and Sunstreaker were perhaps the only mechs anyone knew who had not lost the one person they loved most? Or was Sideswipe going so far as to be cruel and to rub it in? He had Sunstreaker – would give his life for Sunstreaker; Prowl knew this. Why would he ask such a thing, knowing that neither Prowl nor anyone else still knew a single soul for whom they would have given everything? It was not a case of 'like' that Sideswipe knew, or even a case of solid camaraderie, though he certainly shared such things with his brother. It was a case of bottomless, all-encompassing love, and every Autobot knew that what existed between Sideswipe and Sunstreaker was something the other Autobots had lost long ago, and might never know again.
Lives destroyed, bodies crumpled in soot, friends' names on casualty rosters – all of these things flitted through Prowl's mind as he stared into Sideswipe's face, and wondered how he could ask such a thing. He had lost everything. Every Autobot Prowl knew had lost everything, and here was one of the only two people he knew who still had the brother he loved so much, and he had the bearings to ask such a thing. Of course Prowl had loved, of course.
But just as quickly as his anger has bloomed, another thought occurred to Prowl, and the offense faded like smoke. A little off-balance, the tactician slowly grasped what it was the warrior had asked. He had not asked whether Prowl had loved, but rather, whether Prowl had loved anyone like a brother. Frowning, Prowl ran the question again through his mind. Sideswipe was not commonly cruel, and it would not make sense for him to ask such a pointed, painful question for the mere purpose of a game. No, he had not intended to hurt Prowl at all. He had asked whether Prowl knew what it was to love like a brother, and in effect, he was asking whether Prowl understood him.
Resolved, Prowl looked up from the sand to find the warrior watching him. Face smooth, the warrior seemed to be almost bracing himself for fallout, as though he expected his question to be misunderstood, but hadn't known how else to ask it. And Prowl couldn't blame him for asking, though it certainly was not his business. It was, however, a fair question from someone who had spent the long years of his life not knowing what it was like to not carry the burden of having a brother to love.
Prowl considered him, his own fuel thrumming steadily through his systems now. "Sideswipe," he said evenly, almost feeling the weight of responsibility that must have been the warrior's life, "I have known sets of brothers before; I have even known a pair of sisters. But never in my life have I known anyone so close as you and Sunstreaker. No," he shook his head, optics still fastened onto the other's face, "I have not known a brother's love. And," he added, so softly that his words were almost washed over by the surf, "I don't think I would want to."
Sideswipe stared back, face as carefully blank as he could make it, but Prowl almost imagined he saw disappointment there, and it occurred to the tactician that it must have been lonely some days to not only feel such a weight of love, but to be afraid of it.
"Why?" he asked, the question forming itself before he had even committed to taking his turn. "Why do you love your brother so much?"
At once, Prowl saw the guarded look spring up in Sideswipe's optics, and he would have rephrased his question, but the warrior held up a hand, as if to say that fair was fair. He nodded, slowly, gaze shifting out over the water, where dusk was quickly turning the waves to a deep, roiling blue. Jaw set to the side, the warrior considered what he would say, and Prowl wondered if his question had been too harsh, as it implied that Sunstreaker was not obviously deserving of Sideswipe's loyalty. (Though Sunstreaker would naturally have said that he was indeed deserving of not just Sideswipe's, but the world's devotion. But that was beside the point.)
Sideswipe laughed, a short, incredulous chuckle that spoke of the vastness of what Prowl had asked. Slowly, bemused, he shook his head twice, then went still again as he continued to stare at the sea. He said carefully, "I guess I love my twin because I don't know how not to."
At that, he shut his mouth, and Prowl watched him, waiting.
The minutes passed, and the tide pushed itself gradually toward them, swallowing the white sand and sending fingers of water toward their outstretched feet. Prowl could see the first few stars begin to poke through the blue, pale against the violently dusking sky. Again Sideswipe laughed, optics still amazed at the impossibility of answering Prowl's question, though this time there seemed to be a bit of keenness hanging over his features. "He sure is an ass," he said, face faraway. "Talented in all manners of jerkdom, the Sultan of Surly, grand master of the piss-n-moan. I even hear rumors that the Autobots' second-in-command suggested keeping him locked up in a closet between battles, seeing as how it worked so well with the Dinobots."
"I hear, too," Sideswipe grew a bit less jovial, "that Prime really doesn't like him much." He half-shrugged, as if trying to prove it didn't matter to him, but Prowl was in no way fooled. "Guess I don't blame Prime, being so moral and all. Sunny's not the nicest, right?"
But it seemed to hurt the warrior that his own hero thought so little of the brother he loved so much. Though he understood it, it still hurt, and Prowl felt a small wave of pity for a warrior who not only staggered under the responsibility of love, but had to watch while others passed his brother off as worthless. Prowl knew Sideswipe would never defend Sunstreaker's antisocial, egotistical ways, but that didn't mean it cut any less when Optimus Prime looked at Sunstreaker as though he were little better than a savage. Sideswipe got as angry with Sunstreaker as anyone, and had probably called him every foul name Prowl had ever heard – plus some – not to mention the countless times he'd lit into Sunstreaker with his piledrivers, and earned them both the Wrath of Ratchet, as well as an all-expenses-paid trip to Prowl's office for disciplinary action. But still, Prime's disappointment could not have felt good, no matter how much it was deserved.
Again, the warrior hitched a shoulder, chestplate gleaming in the softly dying day, as he leaned back against his hands in the sand. "Maybe there is no reason why," he said, then smiled, as though at his own ridiculousness. "Like –" he looked (if it were possible) almost embarrassed, and turned to gaze at the water, half-smiling at himself, "—like trying to make sense out of time. I mean, if you can't measure time with…well, time, how do you explain it?" He snorted, and rolled his optics, shifting in the sand. "Love is because it is. It is its own reason, just like time measures itself. I guess. Heh," he turned a sheepish look back toward Prowl, and waited to be ridiculed.
But Prowl only stared at him, and he remembered being so shocked that the warrior could come up with such an analogy, that he found himself without speech. Mouth pressed close together, the waves echoing ever louder in the growing dark, he almost felt as if he could lose himself in all the layers of meaning of what Sideswipe had just said.
To the warrior, though, he must have looked skeptical, because Sideswipe shifted around again, digging himself deeper into the sand. "Ok," he dipped his head, and offering a self-deprecating shrug, "whatever. Laugh or something." He looked up, face etched with its usual sly half-grin. "Just stop staring at me already."
But Prowl could barely drag himself away from this new line of thought, and it was another full minute before he could slowly collect himself and formulate a response. He knew Sideswipe was expecting to be made fun of, but he could think of nothing reassuring to say other than, "That is perhaps the best explanation I have heard yet."
Mouth open with a ready retort, Sideswipe paused at the last moment, and registered what Prowl had said. A little taken aback, he flung his gaze out to sea again, looking a little ruffled. "Yeah, well…don't go telling everyone I've become a philosopher or anything."
"Surely not," Prowl said dryly.
"I mean," Sideswipe grinned, optics fathomless as the sky, "I'd hate for people to think I was deep or something."
Prowl gave the warrior a level stare. "Let's not get crazy."
"All right then."
"Your turn," Prowl reminded him.
"Oh yeah." Sideswipe seemed to have regained himself a bit, though not before having inadvertently exposed himself as being smarter than he usually let on. Prowl made a mental note. "Ok," he said, narrowing his optics a little at the blackening sea, "why do you believe in Optimus Prime?"
"Because I believe in his ideals," Prowl said at once. "I believe in his cause, in freedom, in the liberation of our world…"
He trailed off, and blinked, confused, as Sideswipe slid him a slow, ugly stare. He looked galled. "Should I be humming the Battle Hymn?" he asked flatly.
Prowl frowned. "I am answering your question. I see no need for you to mock me."
"Listen, Prowl," Sideswipe leveled with him, "if you're not going to play, just give up and give me the four-day pass already."
"I am answering—"
"No, you're not." Sideswipe was looking at him fully now, and Prowl was surprised to see that he was angry. "You think we fight for ideals? I mean, for concepts? Really, Prowl?" He seemed to be thoroughly mocking the tactician now. "Is that why we all go through that super fun agony and terror? Is that why poets write epics about war? For ideals? For ethics? Really, Prowl?"
"Well, if not," Prowl returned, straightening his back, "then I suppose we fight this war for what would be your sense of fun."
"Oh. Right." Sideswipe flopped himself onto his side, and propped his head on one hand, elbow dug into the sand. "I just love taking mortar fire up my ass."
Prowl gave the warrior an icy look. "You enjoy battle."
"Of course I do," Sideswipe admitted, face blithe. "I was built for it. But when one day Sunny gets himself smeared all over the ground for the last time, and I have to pick up my dead brother's pieces, are you going to comfort me with ideals? You going to accuse me of enjoying battle that day, Prowl?"
Prowl opened his mouth, irrationally angry, but at once he found he had no answer to that question. Somewhere in his processor, he tallied up the questions that had been flung back and forth, concluding that Sideswipe had already used up his next eleven turns, but he knew it didn't matter. He knew, somehow, that Sideswipe was right.
He sat back, felt the scrape of rock against his plating as he looked down at the sand. His processor, almost without his bidding, ran the scenario through his mind. He saw himself standing over Sunstreaker's dead body, Sideswipe next to him. He saw Prime lay a hand on Sideswipe's shoulder and tell him that Sunstreaker would have wanted to die this way, a warrior for the Autobot cause, champion of freedom. He saw himself saying nothing, because there was nothing to say.
And he thought, with a twist, that he did not like Prime very much just then. At once, Prowl felt ashamed at his own feelings, stuffing them back in their neat box as quickly as he could, guilty that he would think such things as to accuse the Autobot leader of being trite. But even as he stuffed, more of the same feelings leaked out, until he almost felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of his own frustration. It would be wrong to spout ideals at someone consumed with grief, wrong to do anything but stand with him for as long as he wanted to look down on his brother's broken body, wrong to tell him that his brother would have wanted things any other way than to be allowed to live.
At once, Prowl looked up, and directly into the warrior's face. "No," he said, "I wouldn't tell you that. It would be wrong."
Sideswipe frowned and lowered his gaze, as if having expected to argue a little longer, and surprised that Prowl had seen his point. He looked awkward laying there, picking at mounds of sand with a thumb and forefinger, as if he were so used to being misunderstood that he wasn't quite sure what to do when someone felt he was making sense.
Prowl watched him, this creature in constant motion, and saw war as a warrior would see it. He did not see a diagram of field maneuvers, but a hand thrust out of a cloud of smoke, hauling him back to his feet just before the rock below him gave way. He did not see a pattern of troop movements, but a quick flash of a grin as Bluestreak shot down one of the jets, and gave him a brief thumbs-up before taking aim again. He saw, instead of the grander purpose, the dirty, gritty moments of battlefield life, in which warriors struggle and bleed not for a cause, but for one another. And he knew, in that moment of insight, that though he told himself that he believed in Prime because of the leader's principles, in reality, he only believed in him because he liked him.
Prowl…liked Prime. He supposed, now that he thought of it, that he could have strung together a list of reasons why, but it was enough for now to come to the realization that he believed not just in his leader's ideology, but in…him. It was irrational, but it was the truth, and he told Sideswipe so.
"I like him," he said at last. "I believe in Prime because I like him."
The warrior looked up from his sand mounds, head still propped on one hand, and he gave Prowl a little nod, as though he'd been expecting to hear as much.
Cursing him inwardly, though not without the slightest bit of a smile, Prowl asked, "So why are you an Autobot?"
"Because," the warrior answered without hesitation, "I owe."
Prowl raised his chin, ready to demand more, but he reasoned that perhaps such an answer could not be expanded on – and perhaps should not be. Everyone owed a debt of some kind. He nodded, waiting.
"And you?" Sideswipe asked predictably. "Why are you an Autobot?"
Tired, Prowl sagged against the rock behind him, watching the stars reflected in the warrior's finish, wondering at what debt he felt he needed to repay, wondering at that brief, childhood time when they had all been free of debt. Once, if only for a small time in their lives, each Autobot and Decepticon had owed nothing, and Prowl wondered sadly at everyone's rush to injure one another – himself included. He felt the weight of years roll over him, eons of insults given and taken, wars kindled and fanned by the pride of those who could not see that they were already deep in a debt of blood.
But it was not the debt he thought of, but the blood itself. He did not know why it should be so, but it occurred to him that for every debt, there was a balance of blood. For every offense, someone's blood paid it back. The thought ran through him like a current of very deep water, and he understood without having to know why that the law of blood for debt was as old as the world itself. He saw the fluids spilled on the battlefield, saw his friends giving up their blood over and over and over. And whether or not it was futile, he saw that it was the very best thing that they could do. They could owe, but they could also repay, and though only Primus could repay it all, these Autobots could begin at least by giving their blood to repair the debt incurred by the wars of their kind. They could, in short, try.
Prowl smiled in a tired sort of way, and looked one last time into the well of the warrior's optics. "I am an Autobot," he explained, as much to himself as to the other, "because I hope."
No more was said that night, and when the next day, Seaspray happened by with the cavalry (to include a rather bossy and insufferable Sunstreaker on water skis), both Autobots went quietly home. Prowl granted a four-day pass to Sideswipe and Sunstreaker both, and found that for four days, he was for the first time in a long while left undisturbed by all the complaints and scuffles of everyday Autobot life.
Strangely, he did not feel any closer to Sideswipe after their ordeal, though he did feel somewhat closer to himself. He had also made the realization that, though he and the warrior would probably never be close friends, they had been all along much closer than Prowl had thought.
So he went back to his comfortably structured world of logic, and watched while Sideswipe resumed his own comforting pattern of behaving badly, and Prowl knew that such things would never change. But he also knew that it was not the comfort of reason or truth that made him continue to hope, but rather the messy, exasperating crowd of his fellow Autobots – his friends – who made this war worthwhile, and for as long as Sideswipe lived, Prowl knew he would never need to wonder why.