Difficult Things: Helplessly
By Dreaming of Everything

Disclaimer: I just play. Nothing but the story is mine.

Author's Notes: This really took me forever, didn't it? But don't worry—I'm still working on it! I hope everyone enjoys the newest chapter, and all the chapters to come.

Thank you everyone for all your support!

As always, many thanks to my beta, mmouse15, who never fails to be an inspiration.

It had been a while since Hound had checked in on the eagle nest he'd found, so he'd put aside his free morning for it. He was on a day shift but he managed to wiggle in some free time, since it wouldn't do to visit diurnal birds at night.

There had been some tenuous plans to head out with another mech or two—probably Beachcomber, maybe one or two other mechs—but they had fallen through. Hound was okay with that—he liked the chance to get out on his own sometimes. Sure, he was a friendly enough mech, but he was pretty used to quiet, which could be in short supply on the Ark.

He set off in fine spirits. It was a bright day, the sun bright even though the roads were still muddy from rain they'd gotten; it had been pouring down for close to a week, only stopping the night before. Hound could deal with a little mud—he'd certainly been in worse. Either way, the birds were singing (he'd gotten an early start, and the sun was still pretty low on the horizon) and the forest was especially green and full of life after the rain—there were frogs singing (or creaking, really, that was what it sounded like—a tree trunk squeaking and scraping against a neighbor) somewhere off among the trees, invisible even to his eyes.

And for once, nothing went wrong. He'd been half expecting it to, which was a good sign that he'd needed the break more than he thought. But there hadn't been any sudden Decepticon attack to call him back to the Ark, no last-minute emergency change-of-shift, no sudden pressing mission requiring use of his skills. Not that he usually minded that much—assuming the Decepticons didn't manage to do much damage—but it was all just starting to add up.

...That whole thing with Sunstreaker, too. The yellow twin—well, both of them, but Sunstreaker especially—was avoiding him now. Not obviously, for the same reason that their previous interactions had been so obvious—they didn't normally interact. But he was avoiding him. Hound didn't know why. It wasn't like he'd be—ashamed, or anything like that, there was no reason for him to care what Hound thought...

It had just been—confusing. That wasn't it, though. Not at all. It was bigger than that.

He didn't want to think about it. About what Sunstreaker had done to Bumblebee, probably because of him. At least, he thought so. It was hard to say. Bumblebee was avoiding the subject as only special ops could, and Sunstreaker—Hound wasn't going to talk to him. For one, it was probably stupidly dangerous. Sunstreaker was avoiding him, after all; to track him down was just inviting trouble. He wasn't going to argue with the mech.

Before, Sunstreaker had been seeking him out. What had happened? It was—confusing. How it had all started, what exactly it had turned into, what was going on now. Hound just wanted to forget about it, although at the same time he didn't.

Because Sunstreaker had been nice. Just to him, presumably. He was that sort of mech. He couldn't imagine why, though. And why him, of all the mechs there were on the Ark. It didn't make much sense to anyone, and it certainly didn't make any sense to Hound himself. He wasn't even sure it made sense to Sunstreaker, for that matter. Even though he'd never seemed—that out of control before. True, he was violent and unpredictable, but—

His interactions with Hound himself. They—had been different. Somehow. Before, but now, too. Sunstreaker never avoided people. Well, there were people he didn't like—he wouldn't sit at the same table as Tracks, for example—but Hound hadn't thought he'd been on that list, even though he'd hardly been Sunstreaker's favorite person—he thought—and then for a while Sunstreaker had sought him out. To spend time with him. He'd done it—oh, strangely, awkwardly, always with a hint of threat that Hound might have thought he was imagining, had been half-convinced he was imagining or at least something it was misinterpreting—until something cracked, and Sunstreaker had proven himself. And now Hound knew that the threat had always been there. He couldn't think anything else.

There was no reason for Sunstreaker to start paying attention to him. Unless he wanted to attack him, but he'd never acted like—like that before. And why Hound at all? Because he might buy the attempts at decency, at least for a while?

It hadn't seemed like he'd been acting, or pretending. That was what made it hard. He had believed him, or believed him enough to want to believe him entirely. That was part of what made it so bad—he'd known there was something strange going on, something he didn't understand. And then he'd chosen to ignore it, because—because why? Why had he gone along with their strange game?

He thought that if it had been acting, Sunstreaker at least would have done a better job with it. Because if it had been attempts at being nice, he'd never been very convincing about them. Hound had been wondering, and it didn't seem like acting because nobody tried to make friends—or anything else—like that. Was Sunstreaker really so damaged that that was the best imitation he could do of a normal mech trying to reach out and make connections? It didn't seem...right.

None of it did.

So Hound was ignoring everything he could, as best as he could. Sunstreaker was ignoring him, not seeking him out—so it wasn't likely to come down to a physical fight. So it was something he could—leave alone. Let fade, grow old and faint until things were never the same between them again, there was always a strange, wary coolness they were both aware of (if Sunstreaker could recognize it, Hound thought, unexpectedly bitter), something that was left alone. Untouched, and old and faded because of that, but no trust. No expectations, except to be—

He couldn't feel betrayed if he hadn't had some level of trust in the first place.

There was nothing to think about. Some things to forget, some other things to regret. Mostly there was anger that Hound couldn't let himself nurse, because that wasn't how you worked as a group, as a unit, as a soldier. And because he wasn't that sort of mech, and he didn't want to give Sunstreaker the sort of influence it would take to make him that sort of mech.

He was mad at Sunstreaker, but also at himself. For caring. For the—whatever it was, and that it might have been why Bumblebee was attacked. Of all mechs. Not aggressive, not abrasive, certainly not stupid, and an officer. And no one that Sunstreaker was likely to pick a fight with. He had no reason to. No reason to, except for—apparently—Hound. And Hound had no idea why.

He really needed to stop thinking about it.

Because there was road stretching out underneath his tires, warming as the sun rose. Because it was a clear day, glimmering with light reflected off of the remaining rain drops, the grass and small herbs glittering with dew. Because there were birds—finches, he heard wrens, he was going to go see eagles—and he had nothing to do all day but enjoy himself, enjoy this strange planet he'd found himself on, where every corner of—everywhere, really—burst with life, no matter how inhospitable. Even the barren surroundings of the Ark had countless little life forms tucked into it, something most of the other mechs seemed to forget, not notice or not care about. There were wildflowers after it rained, little ones that you missed until you slowed down and looked for them. Carly called them 'breathtaking,' a phrase Hound didn't and couldn't understand on a physical level—but he did, somehow. At least, he thought so.

Enough to make any situation a little better. Nothing was better than perspective, and distance, and it was a beautiful day.

There were engines coming up behind him—Cybertronian, his sensors told him, and Autobots. Just two of them—and the energy signatures were, sickeningly, familiar. Sideswipe and Sunstreaker—he'd gone driving with them several times. They'd been surprisingly respectful, once the little details had gotten figured out. And unnervingly quickly it had become nice, familiar. Comfortable.

Which was wrong. It had to be wrong. No matter how safe he was, and he was in no way convinced that he had been safe, would ever be safe around a mech as unstable as Sunstreaker, had had his reservations even back then—but it didn't matter if Hound was, personally, safe, because other mechs clearly weren't when they were around Sunstreaker, at least.

It had been confusing, and sometimes it had been nice—sometimes, it had really felt that there was something—odd, something different in how he was interacting with Sunstreaker.

"I wanted to see what you're doing," Sunstreaker had said. Walking up to Hound in a field, as he lay watching the rabbits. "I—want to get to know you better." He hadn't sounded very sure about that. But he'd said it. It was strange. Uncomfortable. Unbelievable, even while it was happening.

Almost—almost—incredible, incredulous enough to make him believe it.

But none of that mattered. Or it did matter; but it was not an excuse, and there was no way to—to make up for what had happened to Bumblebee. No way to compensate for something like that: you couldn't say "He seems like he's better than that, to me at least," and let things be. Not when—not for Hound. Maybe some of the others could. Sometimes, he—he could almost want to be someone like that. But he—

He didn't exactly believe in doing the right thing, in things being right. That implied a firmness of emotion, a certainty that he didn't have. Hound knew that the edges of morality were always squishy, undefined, prone to invoking dilemmas. But Hound did believe in doing the best he could. He wanted, even in the middle of the war, to do what felt right, even though sometimes it also felt wrong. To find the right thing to do, whatever it was.

The—whatever he'd had with Sunstreaker wasn't worth the risk. It wasn't worth the insult to Bumblebee, the sort of implicit approval he'd be giving if he continued as if nothing had happened. Because it had. And there would be a lack of trust: it would be unfair to Sunstreaker, not that Hound thought he'd really notice or care—mostly, Hound didn't want to be that sort of person, either. He believed in honesty.

There were still engines coming up behind, closer and closer—then twin blurs swept past him, aggressively close, not that Hound let that cow him. Sunstreaker didn't go in for collisions—too much damage to himself versus damage to the other mech; not hands-on enough for his energon-hungry tastes—and Hound was too strongly built for it to be a particularly good strategy in this situtation. And because he had his pride, fueled by the low, aching, anger burning along his neural network, pooling around his spark.

Then they fell back, slowing down. Hound did too, for a second, thinking about turning back, finding another route or another day—but he wasn't going to let himself be held back by Sunstreaker. Not after everything that had already happened. He wouldn't give him—them—that satisfaction. He resumed his usual pace—a little slower than he was used to, with Sunstreaker just in front of him, even though it was his normal speed. He'd gotten used to hurrying a little when he was on the road on a sunny day with the twins with him, the sort of respect he'd—he'd given back, because they'd been holding back for his sake. Even Sunstreaker, letting him set the pace, only polite considering how he was the slowest, but still unexpected, that should have been a warning sign in and of itself, that respect—

Now, no. Nothing. He was grim, leaving even Sideswipe a wide berth, tense. Silent—not engaging them. It was only logical, considering who it was: there was the risk that it would end with physical violence, Sunstreaker attacking him with apparently no provocation, like he had before, to other mechs—not Hound, not yet, but Hound had no reason to think he was any different. No matter what strange things had happened. And Sunstreaker had even more reasons to dislike Hound than he did Bumblebee.

Nice day, huh? Sideswipe sent, no mention at all of the tension of the situation, just casual, wild carelessness. Hound bristled, his engine growled briefly, he would have glared—but that wasn't wise, don't give them a reason to engage, he told himself, and considered how to reply, formatting responses then discarding them, even more quickly. Too aggressive, too polite, not polite enough. Yet another situation he was being forced into—drives, sitting with them in the rec room, nature documentaries—but with none of the half-bemused acceptance, not-unpleased-surprise, he'd had. Not even the potential for comfort. Just an unhealthy dose of resentment, subtle fear. Hound was sensible, and fear was sensible in this situation, even if Sideswipe was there—hopefully—to keep his brother at least a little more controlled.

So we were out for a drive, and picked up your signal. We were bored— Hound wasn't even sure that Sunstreaker could be bored, too self-absorbed for him to ever rely on the outside world for his entertainment, –and you look like you've got something to do, so we figured we'd—

No, Hound replied, blunt and serious as he ever got, not threatening—never threatening; Hound wasn't him—but no-nonsense, a line drawn firmly between them. Not a boundary to press. It's not a good time, he added, overtones to the radio message firmly implying that it was not likely to ever be a good time in the foreseeable future. Sunstreaker's engine raced and he sped up for a second, pulling further ahead—he had to be tapped into the radio link too, Hound knew. This conversation was not about him, Sideswipe and a casual drive through the mountains

It was just like Sideswipe, though, all those levels of pretense—approaching things sideways in convoluted, misdirected directness, subtler counterpoint to his brother's more violent, even more direct, approach, which had no hints of subtlety at all.

Maybe next week, Sideswipe said, apparently unfazed. Something that was cousin to fury rushed through Hound, all in a brief second, leaving determination in its wake.

I don't think it's ever going to be a good time, Hound said, almost grim as he was—again—forced into spelling things out for Sideswipe, and he sped up to pass, ready to be away from them, safe, ready to be past them.

Understood, Sideswipe said, and he sounded bitter. Disturbing, Hound thought. He hadn't thought—

He wasn't going to play this game.

He tried to shake himself from his thoughts, but there was Sunstreaker, barreling towards—past—him, a yellow blur, enough to make Hound flinch to the side, instinctual, even though there was room between them—barely, just barely room. There wasn't enough for him to feel safe. Because Sunstreaker didn't feel safe, and had never been safe, and it had all been a terrible, painful mistake—

Sideswipe was turning too. Sorry to bother you, Sideswipe sent as they disappeared behind him, around a bend in the road, hidden by a tangle of trees. He didn't sound sorry, as wickedly, carelessly, half-charmingly devil-may-care as always—nothing new there—but with something heavier underneath it.

Hound tried to feel relieved, not just shaken.

He flinched away from me, Sunstreaker said, shortly. Sharp.

You were trying to run him down, Sideswipe's replied, tone filled with exaggerated, patient reason.

He wouldn't have before, the yellow one said in return, bleak, and Sideswipe had no reply for that. Bad as his brother was with the other mechs that made up their team, he'd read that situation right. For once. For once, he seemed to get it—that Hound wanted nothing to do with him.

It made Sideswipe a little angry. At Hound, because he defended his brother—at his brother, though he kept it buried. At himself, for not making it work, somehow. For not knowing what to do. Just angry in general. He didn't believe in fairness, he couldn't, he couldn't—

Helpless. He hated being helpless.

Hound found the eagle nest, and nothing could keep him from the delight—the downy chick, just starting to fledge, and her parents, the incredible design present in the creatures, organic or not an amazing feat of engineering.

He was too restless to stay long, far too full of energy—nervous energy, anxious—to head back to the Ark. Instead he turned and pressed further into the woods, leaving the road in favor of wilder explorations, the extra difficulty helping to keep his mind better-occupied than it had been when he'd simply been watching the birds, not as at-peace as he usually was in the great outdoors—such a wonderful human term!

The ground squished beneath him, saturated with water, but it just added to the experience—he didn't like grit in his plating any more than the next mech, except he did—he loved the whole experience of Earth, everything that went with it, even the mud.

Even though the clouds had cleared away completely by now, he carried something gray with him. He just tried to ignore it, refusing to spend any more time racing the same circular track over and over again—it was unproductive, a waste of energy, nothing he wanted to occupy his thoughts with now.

There were flowers blooming over there, in a patch of sunshine. He went to go see what they were.

Sunstreaker growled at the first mech to approach them—optics a little wide, not truly afraid but not pressing the issue, Wheeljack backed up. Sideswipe shot him a grin, just slightly manic—that was on purpose, diffuse the situation, he was Sideswipe, manic was better than protective, even if that's what he was doing for the glitch next to him, protecting him—and pulled Sunstreaker away behind him.

The growl didn't stop, low and menacing. He ignored that. Ignored the fierce, violent rage pouring off his brother, almost tangible—probably even if you didn't have a link into his head, Sideswipe thought, with a lopsided half-grin that was particularly bitter.

Optics bright with fury, Sunstreaker punched a wall as Sideswipe guided him into their quarters. The mech next door banged back, no doubt wanting them to shut up.

"It's all wrong," Sunstreaker said, voice not anguished at all—angry, but even just barely that. Mostly blank. "It's my fault, right?" He paused, then shook his head and stood to pace again, shaking slightly with repressed tension, every wire and cable pulled tight. "His damn fault. He thought I'd attack him. Should have—should have when I still..." He stopped, the tremor a little bit stronger. Then he shook himself, seemed to recover, expression going hard. "I hate it," he hissed, suddenly venomous, and Sideswipe didn't need to ask what he hated, because right now it was almost everything: the Autobots, this planet, Hound, he hated himself—probably hated Sideswipe, too, for having what he didn't. Between the two of them, Sides was the one who understood outsiders...

"Yeah," Sideswipe said, softly, trying to hide the bitterness still present but not fully able to—he wasn't sure if his brother could hear it. It was an insufficient word and an insufficient reply, but he didn't have anything else to say. He couldn't lie to Sunstreaker, and the truth...

The problem wasn't so much the mudslide as it was how the mudslide had buried him, and in the process some sort of rock had gotten pushed into his leg at the hip joint, with enough force to rip through some pretty important wires, and then the slurry of dirt and water had shorted out—some things. At least one important system. He couldn't really move his legs, and one arm was pinned underneath mud, mobility further hampered by bad denting in the armor, pinching wires and energon tubes, where a fallen tree had hit him, buried under the weight of mud.

He was pretty stuck. And his radio transmissions weren't going far because—luck tended to go like this—there'd been some damage to his comm systems, too.

It was probably about what he deserved after trying to climb up a steep bluff after that much hard rain. He should have been more careful, at least taken into account the signs of geologic instability—a real danger on this planet. And he knew that Earth could be dangerous, didn't make the mistake of underestimating any part of it the way the Decepticons seemed to, and even some of the Autobots, but apparently—well, apparently he hadn't known well enough.

He was going to have at least one commanding officer give him a talking-to. Ratchet probably would, to start with, especially since they both knew that he should know better. As a tracker, it was his job, his driving purpose, to be in touch with the landscape around him.

He'd been... distracted, lately.

No matter what, there were enough dents knocked into his armor that he wasn't going to be forgetting anytime soon. He'd probably need a complete repaint, especially after they got hammered out—which might take a while, especially depending on whether or not his commanding officer decided he needed a punishment detail. Not that this wasn't already punishment enough. And oh, he was going to be ugly for a few days. Probably bad enough to make Mirage look thoroughly horrified, and maybe even scandalized. ...Which actually might be kind of funny.

He wasn't exactly known for his stunning good looks, sparkling paint or obsessive upkeep, but there was a big difference between that and—well, what he was going to look like when he got dragged out of the mud. If he did. No, he couldn't think like that. When he was rescued. An Autobot would pass by eventually—come within range of his emergency transmissions. Or even a human, if he could get them on a radio. Hopefully not Decepticons, but this wasn't an area known for Decepticon activity, and wasn't likely to become so. Hopefully. It was hard to tell, sometimes, with them...

No. Some mech would notice him missing pretty quickly, and even if that didn't happen—he wasn't exactly high profile, and he was often gone for long stretches of time, tracking Decepticons in the wilderness—the officers would when he didn't show up for his next assignment. He was more reliable than that. It wouldn't take much to figure out that something was wrong, or at least get people concerned that something might be wrong. Especially with the ever-present threat of Decepticons hanging over their heads, like storm clouds. About as logical as storm clouds sometimes, too. And he could last for a while, with a mostly-full energon tank and no real energy drains he needed to worry about—thankfully his circulatory system hadn't been damaged, or had been fixed quickly by self-repair systems where it had; he wasn't leaking energon—so unless he needed to do a lot of shooting or holographic projecting before he was found, he'd be fine.

He tried shifting again, and winced as something else tore.

Someone would find him.

In the meantime, he started shutting down his nonessential programming. No reason to waste energy, after all. He settled in, as best as he could, but the only direction where he could see anything more than rubble was up—up above his head, back lit against the blue, blue sky, sunlight dazzling at the black edges, there were birds. Swallows, he thought, feasting on the midges that were breeding in the damp puddles still littering the ground. Flying to make a Seeker jealous, distinctly unmelodious, their tuneless chirps somehow, inexplicably, comforting.

He tried to shift again, to follow the sweeping arc of a dive, and was rewarded by popping, half felt and half heard, in his lower leg. His feet, already unresponsive, went numb, not even the background hum of working systems in place. He frowned, and tried to hold still, and concentrate on the dizzying sky, and the birds darting in and out of it.

"You ruined everything," Sunstreaker hissed, voice caustic, vitriolic as his optics, bright with fury. Bumblebee pulled up short in the otherwise empty hallway, already reaching for his gun, and suddenly Sunstreaker was slumping, posture entirely unaggressive, and there was a momentary spark of worry because of that, too—did the mech have a program that was actually malfunctioning? They'd just gotten annual exams, and Sunstreaker was always in and out of the med bay, it wasn't something that Ratchet was likely to miss, and especially not in this mech, not after everything—but then the other mech was speaking again, voice pitched unnaturally low for his normal range. "...I'm sorry."

He was backing up, like Bumblebee was something to be afraid of. Which he wasn't, like this. He'd lose a one-on-one fight, might have an advantage in other situations—but not here, not now.

There had never been any reason to expect an apology. Right now, it scared him. Had it been forced, part of the punishment detail? He didn't think any of the officers on the ship would push at the already-delicate situation like that, not with this mech, not with him, not right now. Or was it of his own volition, his own idea or his twin's, something to convince the officers that he wasn't an irredeemable threat to the safety of the team? That was too subtle, for him. It smelled too much like admitting defeat, to surrendering or pandering, to feel like something that Sunstreaker would do.

Sunstreaker turned around, actually turned and left—and that, that looked like running away, which was something Sunstreaker never did. And just like that, he was gone. He'd never even touched Bumblebee—managed to come disconcertingly close, offered what could be interpreted as a threat, but he'd left. And apologized. And looked—uncomfortable. Or, no, it was greater than that: he looked almost—almost—like he was in pain, and like he didn't know how to—handle it. Like it wouldn't show properly on his face. He'd seen Sunstreaker hurting before—everyone on the Ark had, because Sunstreaker didn't retreat—so he knew he was capable of the expression, but this time it almost looked like he couldn't quite form it. Like pain was half-submerged, under his face.

But he'd apologized. After threatening him. What had Bumblebee ruined? His illusions? He'd talked about the Ark, about Hound...

It wasn't adding up. Which meant, Bumblebee knew, that he didn't know enough. He wasn't sure if he should investigate any further. Or leave it alone.

Sunstreaker pulled up from the night patrol, confused and just slightly blinded by the headlight beams cutting through the thick darkness.

"What's going on?" he demanded as he stalked into the throng, confusion being replaced with anger—standard for him; he'd been even angrier than normal, recently, something else that was getting remarked on, tacked onto rumors that Sideswipe had heard even if he hadn't—and growing anticipation. A battle? He wanted to bathe his hands in Decepticon energon.

"Hound's missing," someone said, tersely—probably didn't realize who it was. He peered a little closer—Trailbreaker, he thought, bitter, not looking in his direction. One of Hound's friends. His face was pinched with worry, and it looked like even he was willing to go out and search.

Sunstreaker wouldn't be welcome. No, he didn't want to go look. He stalked back inside.

Sideswipe was waiting for him. "Let's go," he said, shortly, eyes a challenge—Sunstreaker wanted to meet it, wanted to argue with him, fight him, wanted to—wanted—

He turned instead, silently, and transformed, engine idling as he waited for Sideswipe to get them assigned to a sector. And didn't think about Hound at all.

Not at all.

He didn't matter anymore.

-End chapter 6-