Sideswipe's "siblings" - Cybertronian language, while infinitely more complex than most Earth languages, is limited in the forms of familial titles available. The concepts of mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, cousins, or in-laws do not exist in Cybertronian language or culture. There are creators, who may or may not hold a parental-like role in the creation's life, and there are siblings (sometimes referred to as brothers and/or sisters, although Cybertronians hold no sexual dichotomy to support the titles). Since the familial categories are so limited on Cybertron, everyone within Sideswipe's troupe can be loosely considered his 'siblings' (brothers/sisters), though not his equals. In some contexts, even Sideswipe's own creators can be considered his siblings as well. This has been Another Useless Fact About the War Eternal Universe! 8D

For all the reviews of the last chapter... holy crap, I don't know what to say. So many of you reviewed! Every single one of you blew me away! I didn't expect such a strong response! I mean... wow. Just...WOW! All of you who held on during the haitus, you have restored my faith in humanity. All the new reviewers who are just tuning in, you guys are reminding of all the reasons to keep that faith intact. Thank you so much to riah riddle, Anodythe, Kapu37, StarscreamII, thegreatwhitewolf, Blitz-Kratzi-1, Poiseninja, Daklog73, Alangrieal, GemDragon22, SavvyEnigma, Knocks, TransformersLover95, Piper of Locksley, luinrina, FunkyFish1991, Cybela, femme4jack, Wanderling, Leonixon, SEZwho94, Faecat, VyxenSkye, DitzyMusicLover, Dark Glass Marionette, KiaMianara, and Farky-fark and the Munky Bunch. I have more love for you guys than there are stars in the sky!

Chapter 25: Part II

Sunstreaker wondered how many levels of uncomfortable truly existed, because he was quite sure he was currently rotting at the worst one.

It was the level at which his spark beat a hard, fast tempo against the inside of his sparkcase while energon blistered hotly through his lines. His tanks would not settle, but instead gurgled with upset. Every articulation joint in his spinal column burned as he continued to sit as rigid as an iron pole. Tension wires in his neck cramped as he refused to look anywhere else except out the window next to his seat in My Precious. His optics were straining from being set to the one sight and not allowed to stray for a moment.

His physical ailments paled in comparison to every other discomfort he was currently suffering, all of which defied physical description.

He had Megatron to thank for it. The Lord Protector who had to be so damningly nice as to offer Elita One and Sunstreaker a flight to Crystal City free of charge. Nice? Nice! It was practically a death sentence for Sunstreaker! Now Megatron sat at the front of the ship, piloting My Precious as if there was nothing wrong in the world. He had the audacity to say all the things he said two nights ago and go on pretending that everything was okay.

He was doing a damn good job pretending, damn him!

But, in truth, it was mostly Sunstreaker's problem. He knew it was his problem. He was the one who had eavesdropped. He was the one who overheard things he never should have heard. Now he was paying for it with every moment he spent seething in Megatron's company. It was only a matter of time until someone availed upon him to speak. If Megatron continued to act normal and have a decent conversation, Sunstreaker feared what he might end up saying to the Lord Protector. Would all his thoughts suddenly come spilling out his mouthplates like a word-purge?

A smart bot might have faked recharge just to avoid the chance of conversation. Sunstreaker was too tied up in knots inside to even try relaxing. Deep down inside, he was churning like an angry thunderstorm. Not from his upset tanks, but deeper than that. In the darkness lurking inside of him that he feared and refused to acknowledge. A part of him was thrilled by the danger he knew he was in. A sick, sick part of him that scratched at the inside of his head and whispered to be let out again.

"Sunny," Elita One said, touching his hand gently. It was enough to make the golden bot jump.

"What? Oh..." Sunstreaker's head snapped around so hard he nearly gave himself whiplash. "Did you say something, Elita One?"

"I asked if you've ever visited Crystal City before with your circuit," she asked, laughing at his distraction.

Sunstreaker revved quietly, shaking his head. "No, I've never been to Crystal City. I've seen it, though. Bluestreak shared memories of it with me once."

"How nice!" Elita exclaimed. "I imagine he has only shown you the capitol city column."

Sunstreaker nodded demurely. "He only has memories of the capitol, but I imagine the rest of the territory is nice."

Elita tapped him playfully on the tip of his olfactory sensor. "Remind me sometime to share some of my memories with you. I'm from Crystal City territory as well, but I lived in Quartz province. It was really quite beautiful there."

Sunstreaker nodded again politely.

The Prime's mate cast him a bright smile. "I find it surprising that your troupe never performed in the territory, not even in the outer provinces. Centaurie Tetrax and Crystal City share a border, after all."

"My troupe wouldn't perform there unless invited into the circuit that's already in the capitol," Sunstreaker explained, forcing his gaze to remain on his mentor rather than wander to the Lord Protector lurking ahead of him. "I've seen holovids of the Crystal City performers- they're good. They really don't need to invite anyone from outside their territory to make their shows good."

"They're spoiled. They think they're too good for everyone else," Chromia sneered from her seat up front next to Megatron. She had claimed it when Sunstreaker had turned the offer down. Now she took every opportunity to point out everything the Lord Protector was doing wrong, sometimes before he even did it.

"Chromia!" Elita One chastised.

"It's the truth, Elita," Chromia barrelled on, flicking her hand dismissively over her shoulder. "I know Crystal City is your home territory, but even you know when a bunch of bots are being half-bits. Every time we're in the capitol, there's always something in the media about them causing a scene."

"They're just..." Elita failed to come up with a proper defence.

"It's their director's fault. Gotta be the director," Megatron intoned knowingly. The sound of his voice made Sunstreaker tense up.

"The director?" Elita One wondered politely.

"Of course," said the Lord Protector, who then spat a curse at the small merchant ship flying ahead of him, going far too slow for his liking. The sky above was clear, though it was technically against the law for private aircraft to rise above a certain sky ceiling without a permit; Megatron was Lord Protector, and occasionally the law was beneath him when he deemed the cause appropriate. With a jerk on the controls, My Precious jackknifed.

"You idiot!" Chromia roared, flung back into her seat with her feet nearly flying up above her head.

"Oh, pipe down!" Megatron exclaimed dismissively.

Elita One and Sunstreaker held on to their safety harnesses for dear life.

My Precious came back down very calmly on the other side of the too-slow merchant ship. All engine functions returned to normal, and a moment later it was like the madness never happened in the first place.

Megatron cast his co-pilot an arched look while she seethed at him.

"I don't know why you got your circuits in such a twist," he said. "See? Nothing happened. I was preventing an accident by passing a slower moving aircraft. Would you rather have me rear-end him?"

While the worlds were very reasonable indeed, and no one aboard My Precious was willing to dispute that avoiding a crash was much better than being involved in one, Megatron wore such an expression of smugness that spoke of all the enjoyment he took in rattling his passengers. Particularly, he took joy in rattling Chromia, but only because they were the type of acquaintances who did best when they were bothering each other.

Chromia did not reply, clearly at a loss for words. Instead, she whipped her fist back and landed a solid blow to the side of Megatron's arm.

Megatron reared back with a wounded howl.

"Chromia, was that really necessary?" Elita One sighed.

"Yes," Chromia replied with a concrete finality that defied all argument otherwise.

Elita rolled her optics. "You were saying, Megatron? About the director in Crystal City's capitol-."

"Right, that," the Lord Protector grunted. "Just saying, if the commander in any kind of unit is weak, then the coherence of the unit is weak. Strong command makes for a strong unit."

"That's military strategy," Elita pointed out.

"It applies in civilian life as well," Megatron replied. He turned his head to see Sunstreaker out of the corner of his optic; Sunstreaker could see him looking, but refused to look away from the window. "Sunstreaker can vouch for this, can't you?"

Golden plating tensed.

"Well?" Megatron drawled. "Tell me, if the director of a troupe lacks control over his stuntbots, then the whole troupe simply falls apart, am I right?"

Reluctantly, Sunstreaker pealed his gaze away from the window and gave a jerky nod. "Stuntbots are nothing without a director," he said, finding that his voice sounded surprisingly steady for the amount of tension that was riding him. "I think it's part of the programming for a stuntbot. You listen to the director no matter what. If the director is a bad one, then..." He shrugged.

"Exactly my point," Megatron said.

Elita canted her head in Sunstreaker's direction. "I haven't met with your director for any length of time, Sunny, but I take it he has very good control of the troupe he directs."

"Flip?" Sunstreaker asked, almost laughing and shivering at the same time. "He's a tyrant. The best director any bot could ever ask for, but he's not easy to live with otherwise. It's all practice, practise, practise with him, and he knows when you're goofing off. No one gets away with anything."

"He sounds like a good director," Megatron proclaimed confidently.

"He is," Sunstreaker agreed quietly.

A moment later, their conversation veered into another topic regarding Crystal City. Sunstreaker let it go over his head. He did not care what they were talking, and it did not seem like the three older bots in the ship minded his distraction. The sky passed by in an uninteresting haze, obscured occasionally by a yellow mass of sulphurous cloud. When cloud cover was heavy, the heights to the airways were generally adjusted; slower moving traffic meant to stay beneath the clouds while highway airway traffic was raised to be above the ceiling of the clouds to prevent as many accidents as possible.

When a hole opened up in the shifting masses, Sunstreaker could see down to the land below. Not that there was much to look at. The outer provinces of Iacon looked much like the outer provinces of any territory, with low buildings and a quiet demeanour. Jaded by the grandeur of the capitol he grew up in, Sunstreaker had little appreciation for any province on Cybertron. Though he had toured the provinces in Centaurie Tetrax with his troupe while they travelled the circuit, they had never possessed the same life and activity that the capitols held. Not as colourful. Not as populated. Never as interesting.

His attention wandered back to the interior of My Precious as Elita One's voice chimed in his audio.

"Oh, Megatron, Chromia, I forgot to tell you the other orn! Did you hear who came up from the archives a couple nights ago?"

Sunstreaker jerked in his seat, head whipping around so fast it cramped the tension wires in his neck.

"Let me guess," Chromia intoned dryly. "One of those decrepit archivists you keep locked beneath the Plaza like prisoners?"

"They're not prisoners," Elita One replied. "They are good and loyal employees of the Prime who just..."

"Happen to hate sunlight, freedom, and large, open spaces?"

"You are a regular comedian, Chromia," Elita drawled.

"Did you read my contract? It's part of the job description," Chromia replied.

While Elita managed a free laugh, the noise that came out of Sunstreaker was strangled. Megatron made no noise at all.

"Tell us, Elita. Who came up from the archives?" the Lord Protector asked.

"Prima Bella," Elita exclaimed, her hand reaching over to hold Sunstreaker's cheerfully. Sunstreaker could not force himself to pull away. Noise oddly became muffled in his audios while his vision narrowed to a pinprick no bigger than the back of Megatron's head. His imagination filled in what the Lord Protector's faceplate might look like. Oh Primus, is that the taste of his spark in his mouthplates? Two astroseconds from now, he was probably going to purge it all over the floor.

Chromia paused for a moment, now picking up on the sudden tension electrifying My Precious's insides. Her optics flicked to Megatron, and then she craned around to land Sunstreaker with an arched look.

"Prima Bella, huh?" the dusky blue femme said.

"Yes, isn't that odd? It's been vorns since I've been down to see her. Oh, it's probably been vorns since I've even thought of her! I know that's horrible to admit, but..." Elita shrugged in embarrassment.

"Not as bad as what I was thinking," Chromia admitted. "I thought she was dead already and no one bothered to mention it. Your creepy archivists probably propped her up in a corner and kept working."

"They're not creepy and she's not dead," Elita One countered, followed by the worst thing she could ever possibly do: she appealed to her apprentice. "Sunstreaker, tell Chromia that Prima Bella is not dead. You saw her with your own optics while you were out for that walk the other night."

My Precious suddenly took a violent nosedive.

"Megatron, what the pit are you doing?" Chromia howled, gripping on to her seat so fiercely she left gouges from her claws. "Where did you learn to fly, you dolt?"

Luckily for everyone's safety in the airways, the stretch of sky they were currently flying through was mostly empty.

A noise that was quite possibly a savage curse in the guise of a rough growl rumbled from deep in Megatron's chest. He righted the aircraft, engaged autopilot, and spun his seat around. Chromia continued to rant for two more sentences before deciding that her scathing remarks would be more effective if she were facing the same direction as the mech who her insults were meant for. Her seat creaked around and she spat her final breath of vitriol.

"-If you don't get a grip on yourself and your flying abilities soon, I am going to throw you out the hatch and fly this damn ship to Crystal City myself. And believe me, I will hit every piece of air debris I can along the way just so I can watch you cry over the scratches-."

For all the horror that a threat like that would normally instil, Megatron did not so much as flinch. His steely gaze landed on Sunstreaker with the piercing intensity of lasers. In that moment, Sunstreaker knew that he had been caught. Worse than that, it had been his own mentor to give him up and she had no clue that she had just ordered his own painful death.

"Honestly, Megatron, just because you transform into a jet doesn't mean you know how to fly one," Elita One chastised, adjusting her safety belt so that it did not bite under the plates covering her shoulders.

"My apologies, Elita One," Megatron murmured, though his gaze had yet to stray from his intended target.

Sunstreaker flinched, too aware of the fact that when Megatron turned formal he turned dangerous.

Chromia also watched Sunstreaker, though she was not as intense. More like curious...the same way a predator was curious about the prey trapped between its claws, moments away from death.

"You look like you're going to purge, little one," observed the blue femme.

"That...last...jerk..." Sunstreaker croaked out. "I think I'm going to be sick."

"Right," said the femme. "Aim that way." She pointed directly at Megatron.

"So you saw Prima Bella the other night?" Megatron enquired, ignoring Chromia.

Sunstreaker managed a shaky nod. The level of uncomfortable he had been riding was now plummeting at an unprecedented rate. If he had believed he had sunk as low as he could possibly go before, he had been wrong. He hadn't even been close to the bottom.

Even worse was the thrill that bubbled through his frame. Knowing the danger he was in and wanting to suddenly let loose in it. A powerful and panicked feeling that made him want to jump up, run, transform, scream...anything. He wasn't sure what he wanted. He could barely think while the weight of the Lord Protector's gaze bore down on him.

"Where did you happen to come across her?"

Sunstreaker opened his mouthplates, and then closed them. Elita made a small noise when he clenched her hand too tightly. He let her go with a snap, as if his fingers were suddenly spring-loaded.

"In the lobby," he breathed lowly. "We met in the lobby, spoke for a bit. She told me to give her regards to Elita and Optimus."

"Indeed," Megatron intoned shrewdly. "Is that all?"


Now it was time for Elita to frown. She was not oblivious to the tension, and now she had finally reached the end of her tolerance for it. As a politician, she had trained herself for the usual forms of tension inherent in bringing together powerful bots into one place, but there was only so much she was willing to take when trapped in an enclosed space. Particularly when such weight is invested in the unquestionable innocence of her apprentice.

"Megatron, I was not aware there were grounds for this conversation to suddenly become an interrogation." There was steel in her voice, more cutting than any sword.

"It's not an interrogation," Megatron assured.

"Then you would do well to turn around in your seat right now and stop acting like Sunstreaker suddenly admitted to being a terrorist. He's done nothing wrong, and I can't imagine why you would be acting this way."

"It's nothing," Megatron said evenly.

"Then turn around."

One grey steel optic ridge shot up. It was hard to tell if it was in humour or incredulity. "Is that an order?"

"I outrank you, so I do imagine I could make it an order if need be." It was quite clear in that moment who held all the power. While both Chromia and Megatron were armed to the hilt, physically powerful and mentally agile in all the ways that would make them deadly in a fight, Elita One was the second most powerful bot on Cybertron.

Chromia crossed her arms over her chassis. "I'd be happy to enforce any order you make, Elita."

A long moment passed while Megatron came to grips with himself. He dragged in a huge draft of air, held it for a moment, and then released it in a whoosh. Tension drained from his frame while a convincing fa├žade fell over his features. A handsome smile darted at the edges of his mouthplates, sheepish and apologetic.

"No need to make it an order, Elita," Megatron chuckled. "Guess I got my circuits in a knot for nothing."

Elita was not so easily appeased. "You have a habit of that."

"When you are the Lord Protector of a planet, the things you see and do have a way of coming back to you in the oddest ways. They always haunt you."

"I bet they do," Sunstreaker breathed, too low for anyone to hear, but the way Megatron's gaze wandered back to him, spearing straight through him, it made him question whether or not the Lord Protector had caught something. There was no doubt that this passing moment was not over. A promise lit the harsh blue light of the Lord Protector's gaze. Some time soon, Sunstreaker was going to be trapped alone with the Prime's younger brother, and then they were going to have an extremely uncomfortable conversation.

"That's what reprogramming is for," Chromia intoned dryly, as if to break the stifling atmosphere. She nudged Megatron in the side, sharper than she probably meant to. "There's also decommissioning, if you're getting too worn out for your function. Ironhide would be happy to take over your position. Come to think of it, so would I."

"Not a chance, femme," Megatron snorted, easing his seat around to take back control of My Precious.

Chromia tilted her chin in the air, casting the Lord Protector a narrowed look. She then regarded Sunstreaker with a careful look, assessing him in a new light that could not possibly make the poor bot any more uncomfortable than he already way. Sunstreaker found himself shrinking lower and lower in his seat until he wished the floor would open up and he could fall right through it. Once Chromia was through with her assessment, she nodded and spun around the proper way.

Elita One leaned over to shuffle Sunstreaker back into his seat the proper way. She fixed his safety harness and then buffed his cheek where she thought he could use a little shine. Her optics spoke volumes of questions she wished to ask. No words spilled from her mouthplates, and for that Sunstreaker was very grateful. He leaned forward and pressed his forehead to his mentor's, allowing his youth to show through too clearly. He sought comfort in her for something he knew he would never be able to breathe a word about.

Wordlessly, Elita One wrapped her arms around his thin frame and held him gently.

For a brief moment in time, Sunstreaker felt comforted.

Sideswipe was aware of Sunstreaker's discomfort. There was nothing for him to do about it, so he forced himself to get on with the rest of his orn. He was lucky that practice today comprised of a mindless routine he had memorized already, the movements now automatic. He let his frame jump and twist in time to the others while he let his mind wander elsewhere.

In a few orns, Sunstreaker would come home and then they would be able to talk properly. Whatever had the golden bot so spooked must be something major. If he didn't want to talk about it on the channel...

"Sideswipe, you're lagging!" Wildride called out, startling the red bot out of his brief distraction.

"Sorry!" he yelled back, instantly synchronizing with the rest of the set. Above them, lights flashed while Lightshow tested each operation, making sure everything was show-ready. Blaze's clunking footsteps were barely an echo as he travelled the catwalk making sure all of the pyrotechnics were safely hooked up and ready to detonate. Occasionally, a bang would crack the air, followed by a whistling shriek and a shower of sparklers. This was such a common occurrence that none of the performers stopped to pay mind to the pretty show.

Sideswipe cast his gaze from side to side, trying to gauge if anyone else had noticed his distraction. No one else was watching him from the corner of their optics, they were all too busy keeping up with their parts of the act. Thrillride and her lightcycles were tumbling across the arena, their bright aurora paint jobs creating a fantastical treat of the optics. Larger mechs surrounded a small platform, performing stationary tricks; flips, twists, contortions. It was a simple routine, one that was meant to be performed in between the larger, flashier tricks.

"All together now," Flip instructed, keeping an optic on all the frenetic activity.

Sideswipe took his cue and coiled up, performing a sharp back flip in time with the rest of his set. He was getting quite good with flips and other simple tricks; performing in the streets with Whistler had given him plenty of practice. He also managed to make a few credits from it when Whistler's customers offered a little extra on the price of their energon. Whistler happily handed over the tips at the end of the orn, since it had been Sideswipe who had truly earned them.

"Blindside, you're landing was too sudden," Flip called out.

"Sorry, Flip. I didn't get a good lift-off," replied Blindside while still keeping up with the rest of the routine.

"We'll try it again," Flip said, clapping his hands to end their part of the performance. Thrillride rolled to a halt, coming to her feet, only to be waved away. "No, no, Thrillride, you're doing just fine. You continue practising. I just want to work with them for a moment," Flip said, nodding to the platform where Wildride, Blindside, Flashdance, and Sideswipe stood alongside six others.

"Alright," Thrillride nodded, reverted back to alt mode to rejoin the pack of lightcycles that had gone on without her.

Flip came over to the edge of the platform. "On my mark, I would like you all to perform the proper flip, please. Blindside, be sure to get a proper lift-off this time. On my mark...go."

Sideswipe flew up at the same time as the rest of his team. The world whirled around for a dizzy moment. He came back down on steady feet just as the others found ground as well.

"Much better," Flip said with a nod. "Again please, now."

They flipped.

"And again."

Up and over they went.

"I want to see it one more time."

No one dared groan as they followed the order.

Sideswipe came back down, and then put a hand to his head to dispel the brief moment of dizziness. It was not from the flipping, he knew that. He was too accustomed to the movements to be bothered by them anymore. He knew his frame too well to have done something to upset his gyroscopic sensors.

This time, no one missed his moment of distraction.

"Getting a little too much for you, Sides?" Flashdance teased.

"It's nothing," Sideswipe said quickly, dropping his hands to his sides. He was the apprentice in the group, but he'd be damned if anyone dared think he couldn't do anything that everyone else could do. If anyone suspected that he was dizzy from his spark, they would make him sit out on the rest of practise. Not that he wouldn't appreciate the break, but he hated being treated differently from the rest of his siblings and fellow performers.

"Sideswipe," Flip called. "I want to see another flip. Front flip this time, if you please."

Sideswipe coiled down and then launched his weight, performing one neat mid-air front flip. His landing was near perfect, if not for the fact that one of his feet stepped out to catch himself when he started to lean forward too far.

"Almost perfect," Flip said. "Not good enough for a show, though. I want better."

Sideswipe revved quietly, looking away.

There came a clip-clop-clipping up the side of the platform as Flip made his way up the stairs. Sideswipe had yet to get used to the director's new frame. He did not trust the centaurian shape. Plus, the four legs confused him. Yes, there was a bot in the troupe with six legs, but that bot had always been there and now seeing six legs was perfectly natural. Flip, on the other hand, had not always had four legs and Sideswipe could not help but resent the change. He failed to understand how anyone could walk with so many legs and not trip over themselves.

"Maybe we should take a break?" Wildride suggested. "Sideswipe's still young for an apprentice and we've been working him hard."

Sideswipe bristled. "I can do anything you can do!"

Wildride's optic ridges shot up, his hands raised in defence. "Whoa there, little one. Dial it back. I was just saying we could all use a break. Nothing wrong with that."

Guilt slid into Sideswipe's tanks. "Sorry," he mumbled, scuffing his foot on the floor.

Flip finally made his way over, placing a hand beneath Sideswipe's chin to force his optics up. Sideswipe had his faceplate turned one way, and then the other. As always, Flip's gaze was enigmatic and assessing. Sideswipe knew the director was thinking of the other night when Sunstreaker had called. He had no idea how much Flip had heard out in the hallway, but he had no doubt that enough had been said to make the old bot concerned.

"You're fine," Flip announced, releasing Sideswipe's chin.

"So we can get back to practising?" Sideswipe wondered stubbornly, arms crossed.

"Yes, I imagine we can get back to practising."

"Now?" Sideswipe insisted.

"Of course, but first I would like you to go answer the door. After that, you may return to practise with everyone else."

Sideswipe wrinkled his olfactory sensor. "What door?"

A buzzer rang in the distance.

"That door," said Flip.

"How does he do that?" Flashdance exclaimed in a mock-whisper to the bot standing nearest to him. Rundown shrugged haplessly in return.

"Can't someone else answer the door?" Sideswipe snorted, scowling. He did not want to go answer the door. He wanted to keep practising in order to keep his mind off of other things, like his brother.

"No, I asked you." There was cold steel in Flip's gaze, which meant Sideswipe would not win this staring contest.

"Fine. Whatever. I'll be right back." He stepped around Flip and hopped off the platform. His optics stubbornly stayed on the floor as he stalked from the arena, his foul mood mostly self-driven rather than directed at anyone in particular. On his way to the backdoor, he muttered to himself. It was mostly a collection of empty promises and silly reprimands. Next time, he wasn't going to back down when Flip used him as the errand bot. Someone else could do it. He wasn't stupid. He wasn't weak. He wouldn't stand for being treated differently.

With his foul mood following him to the door, he whipped it open and did not recognize who was on the other side. It was a femme...drone. At least, he thought it was a drone. The cheerful yellow paint was familiar. The creature did not stand straight and blank as a drone did, but hunched over nervously, pressed against the wall in the shade where no one would be likely to see her if a vehicle passed around the back of the coliseum. A vague sense of a spark signature hung in the air, but not clearly readable. Sideswipe could not help the sense that he knew the bot.

"Um...can I help you?" he asked, his bad mood evaporating.

"It's me," said the yellow bot. "Lucky Charms." Clenched in her hands was a box of relative size, too big for her palms to sit comfortably. Sideswipe recognized it as a trick-dampener that one might purchase at novelty shop. The damper could somewhat hide a spark signature for a short amount of time, but it was nowhere near as effective as the ghost-boxes and Sideswipe and Sunstreaker's possession. Lucky pressed the release button and her full spark signature registered on Sideswipe's scanners. She then pressed the button again to disappear.

"Lucky?" Sideswipe hissed in sudden panic, head shooting around to make sure no one had followed him to the door. None of his family was around to see. Good. He pushed the other bot farther out onto the step to give him room to join her, and then he shut the door securely behind him. It wouldn't do for anyone in the troupe to catch him with Lucky. While he wasn't ashamed of her, or of any of his misfit friends, it was clear enough by her appearance that she was from one of the lowest levels in the city, and Sideswipe doubted his family would approve of such an association.

Taking Lucky's hand and leading her away from the door, he guided her into a small alcove where they could both stay hidden.

"What are you doing here?" he exclaimed breathlessly. How long had it been since he had been to see her? Or any of his friends, for that matter? He had been keeping his distance like he had promised. Jazz was in the area, creating too much of a risk for him to wander out. Even the media was reporting on strange occurrences, though no one had a designation to pin the sudden rash of insanity that seemed to be occurring in the lower levels.

Never had Sideswipe expected Lucky to show up at his home. The clash between his normal life and his secret one was surreal. A sudden connection between two things that were once so vastly disconnected that they might as well have been on separate planets.

"Something's happened, Sideswipe," she whispered, just as nervous as he was. It had been a very long time since she had come up to the surface. Now she was discovering that sunlight and wide, open spaces were not her thing. This, however, was an emergency. She shined herself up to look as respectable as possible, used a dampener to hide her spark, and came straight to the coliseum. Luck had been on her side when Sideswipe answered the door instead of someone else. She might have ran if it had been another performer.

"What happened?" Sideswipe asked, ducking his head toward her. He grasped her upper arms, surprised to feel grooves in her left arm. He looked down and noticed the new engravings that travelled from her elbow up to her shoulder. Pipes must have gotten a hold of her with his burin. He could also feel her shaking.

"It's Whistler," Lucky croaked hoarsely.

A wave of dread passed through Sideswipe's spark. Whistler was the only mech of the group who had refused to abandon The Lot of Misfits in fear of Jazz.

"Is he... did he...?" Oh Primus, he was choking on his words.

Lucky closed her optics tight, taking a deep drag of air. "He was attacked," she whispered. "It's bad, Sideswipe. Me, Pipes, and Swerve went down to see if it was safe to move back into the lot and we found him. We don't know how long he's been down there like that."

Sideswipe jerked away from her so hard he banged into the wall at his back. His vents seized and his spark felt cold and heavy in his chest.

"I came here to tell you," Lucky murmured, unable to look at him. "I- I'm sorry I had to come here like this-."

"Don't apologize," Sideswipe begged hoarsely. "I'm glad you came."

She nodded quietly, keeping her optics on the ground. "I thought you should know what happened. Since I was the only one who knew who you really were..."

"I get it," Sideswipe breathed. He scrubbed his hand over his faceplate. His framed jerked in one direction, and then in the other. He didn't know what to do. Where to go. Lucky looked so small and in need of a hug. She was so much older than he was, and had so much more life experience than he did, but he found his arms going around her. Her head laid against his chest, her arms locking around his frame. They stood like that for several astroseconds before they mutually backed away. The walls on either side of the alcove prevented them from moving too far away.

"Can you take me to him?" Sideswipe asked, reaching down to take Lucky's hand. "Please take me to him."

Lucky stared down at his hand, her mouthplates trembling. Her whole frame trembling. "Are you sure? Don't you have more important-"

"Nothing's more important than this. Whistler is my friend," Sideswipe said, cutting her off vehemently. "I don't care what level he's from, I just want to see him. Take me to him."

Lucky sighed, frame sagging. "Alright, come on." She backed out of the alcove, optics roving in case someone was around to see them. She waved to Sideswipe. "Put on your dampener unless you want someone following us."

"Right. Right..." Sideswipe immediately whipped out his dampener and turned it on. Unlike Lucky, his spark signature completely disappeared. He ignored every other preparation he normally went through to hide himself. No grease sticks. No hiding his decals. He just had to see Whistler. If someone saw his troupe decals... frag it. He didn't care.

Lucky transformed into a lightcycle, similar to Thrillride's alt mode though the quality was not as high as Thrillride's was. Her paint was chipped and browned. She was still shaking, even when she revved her engine, activated her anti-gravity generators, and rose off the ground.

Sideswipe folded down onto his tyres, nudging her gently. "Lead the way," he said, keeping pace with his friend as she shot off down the street. Traffic moved out of their way as they merged. Sideswipe had no clue where they were going; Pipes had never gotten back to him about where he and Lucky had set up their temporary camp. They said nothing during the drive. They pushed the speed limits, but not going over just in case they got caught by Security Response.

When they got to a lift that would take them down, it was crowded and too loud. So many bots pressing in from all sides made Sideswipe feel sick. Lucky held on to his hand in a death grip. Her faceplate was a mask now. Bots learned to hide what they were feeling when they lived in Cybertron's underworld. Weakness could be exploited too easily. Sideswipe didn't have that skill. His faceplate was a mask of fear and dread. He felt himself shaking.

"This is our stop," Lucky murmured, dragging him from the lift onto a mid-level of the city. They took narrow side streets, darting through alleys. Business districts passed them by until they crept up on the industrial district. The road they drove down was deserted, butting up against the back end of a large warehouse. A chain-link fence ran down the entire stretch, hung with signs warning all bots to stay off the private property.

Midway down, on the opposite side from the warehouse, was a narrow alley big enough for a cart to hide in. As Lucky transformed, bidding Sideswipe to do so, she sucked in a shuddering drag of air and ducked into the alley. Sideswipe followed, squeezing past Swerve's massive cart. Lucky's smaller cart followed. At the end of the dead end alley was Pipe's cart, its door propped open. Swerve was sitting on the stairs, looking down at his hands. When he heard them approach, he shot to his feet.

"It's us," Lucky said, disengaging her dampener. "It's me, Lucky. I went and got Sideways."

Sideswipe raised his head, meeting Swerve's stark gaze.

"C'mere, little thing," Swerve croaked, grabbing Sideswipe up into a tight hug that took his feet off the ground.

"How's he doing?" Lucky asked, peering into Pipe's cart. "Pipes? Pipes, how's he doing?"

Pipes's dark head appeared out the door, followed by his heavy set frame. In the shade of the alley, his dark purple paint looked jet black. His expression was strained, every inch of it mourning.

"Not good, Lucky Charms," said the tinkerer, and then he noticed Sideswipe. Something like a smile appeared. "Ah, Sidesways. So you're who Lucky went off to find."

Sideswipe regained his footing on the ground, reaching for Pipes. He held the mech's hands tight.

"Can I see him?" What a painful question to ask. He didn't know what answer he wanted to hear. Yes, you can go see something that will break your spark. No, you can't go see him but your spark will break anyways.

"Go on in," Pipes murmured, shifting off the step to clear the doorway. "Try not to disturb him. He's in rough condition."

Sideswipe nodded, creeping up the steps reverently. The interior of Pipes's cart was dim and narrow; to his right was the driver's seat hidden by a curtain. To his left stretched out the rest of the cart. Modified shelves and drawers filled the entirety of one wall, containing bits and pieces of everything a tinkerer might need in the event that someone calls upon him to fix something. On the opposite side was a small table with booth seats attached to the walls. Beyond that was a small berth area where Whistler was inevitably being kept.

Sideswipe made the mistake of looking down, seeing trails of energon on the floor. Fresh energon. Beyond a thin curtain hiding the berth area came a rough cough, wet around the edges as energon came up. A weak groan cut straight through to Sideswipe's spark. He peeled back the curtain, only to whimper as he stared down at Whistler.

"Hey," croaked Whistler, trying to smile. It didn't work. The joints in his face were too damaged. "If it isn't my imaginary hallucination."

"That's me," Sideswipe breathed hoarsely. "Your personal imaginary hallucination."

"I could use some cheer," said the old bot.

Sideswipe could barely manage a fake smile.

"I look bad, don't I?" Whistler asked, though he knew the answer.

There was no point in lying. Sideswipe managed a creaky nod, followed by a shuddered drag of air. He almost started crying. He was determined not to cry. He would wait until he got outside before he started to cry.

Whistler was destroyed. It wasn't just a scratch or even a gouge. Not a simple case of getting mangled in an accident. His frame was simply destroyed. The aluminium foil that had covered his arms and all the places where his proper plating had rotted off was now gone, except for the pitiful jagged strips which clung wetly to oozing lines of energon. Part of his chest had been ripped open. His legs were all wrong. The joints had been smashed. Everything looked like it was pointing in the wrong direction. Even most of Whistler's faceplate was gone.

Pipes had been working to save him. Tinkerers were not medics, but they knew a thing or two about machines. They could fix things.

It was clear that Whistler was far beyond the realm of Pipes's ability to fix things.

"Can't say I didn't ask for it," Whistler sighed.

There was a metallic thump as Sideswipe dropped to his knees and crawled to the edge of the berth. He was too scared to touch his friend, so he clung to the edge. His fingers burned with how hard he was clenching the metal. The berth must have been terribly uncomfortable. There was no polymer covering. A deep groove in the middle attested to Pipes' heavy use of it.

"No one deserves this," Sideswipe gasped, holding back a sob.

"This is what ya get for being in Jazz's way," Whistler said. "I knew better."

Sideswipe's optics flashed. His mouthplates moved numbly. "You tried to fight him?"

"No," said the old merchant, shaking his head. A piece of him fell off from the side of his faceplate. Underneath was a mess of leaking blue energon and clear, viscous lubricant. Everything was twitching and writhing.

"What did you do?" Sideswipe pressed. The burning in his sparkcase rose up into his neck, into his head. He felt like he was imploding on the inside. "Whistler, what did you do?"

"I told ya. I was in his way."

There was a cube of high-grade sitting on the floor next to the berth. Strong high-grade by the looks and smells of things. Enough to numb the pain. It was all the anaesthetic misfits could afford.

"H-here," Sideswipe said thickly, raising the cube. "Drink this. Please."

Bright blue dribbled down Whistler's mouthplates. Some of it went in and some of it oozed out. Swallowing looked like it hurt. There probably was not enough high-grade in all the universe to make the pain go away completely.

"It's going to be okay," Sideswipe croaked. The broken promise left a bitter taste in its wake. He felt like purging.

"I know," Whistler breathed, coughing a wet chuckle. "Things turn out the way they're supposed to."

"You're going to be okay," Sideswipe said again, trying to impress that fact on the old mech.

The edges of Whistler's mouthplates curved up with the last of his strength. "How about a story, little one? Did I ever tell you...about the time I..." He trailed off into silence. His optics went dim.

"Whistler?" No answer. Sideswipe levered up higher on his knees. "Whistler?"

He wasn't dead. Just passed out. If nothing was done, he would be dead soon.

Sideswipe struggled to his feet, finding his legs had gone numb. He banged into the table as he past by, scattering the tools that laid across it. He was met at the door of the cart by Lucky, who took his hand and helped him to the ground. He was pushed into a sitting position. Pipes knelt to his side, wrapping an arm around Sideswipe's back.

"We know you and Whistler have gotten close since you two met," the tinkerer said. "He was really fond of you."

"Is fond of me," Sideswipe corrected quickly. "He's not dead yet."

"There's nothing we can do for him," Pipes sighed.

"What about a medic?" Sideswipe asked. "Can't we bring him to a med bay or something?"

Swerve banged his fist against the alley wall. "We don't have the credits to see a medic. If we did, do you think we would be letting Whistler die in there like some forgotten piece of scrap?"

Lucky grabbed Swerve's wrist. "We don't need to be yelling at each other right now."

"How could one bot do that to another?" Sideswipe whined, putting his head in his hands. His shoulders started shaking. Long buried memories started coming up. He had never forgotten that one night in Kaon. The dirty ring with its two combatants. How a spark looked just as it was smashed into oblivion. But there had always been dam around those memories. It had never hurt as much as he thought it should. And now he felt the dam cracking. Searing knives of pain starting jamming their way into his spark.

"Jazz is a monster," Pipes said softly. "Whistler knew the risk he was taking when he stayed down in the lot."

"Is that supposed to make me feel better? Because it doesn't!" Sideswipe shot to his feet, gasping for air. He was sick and dizzy and on the verge of breaking down in a screaming, crying fit.

None of the misfits had any clue what to say to him.

"What if..." Sideswipe began, and then choked. He swallowed back the thick waves of sobbing that wanted to spill out of him. "What if you had the credits to take Whistler to a medic?"

"Then we'd do it," Lucky said softly.

Sideswipe stared down at his fists while they clenched and unclenched. He came to a decision. "Take my credits."

Pipes jerked up. "Your credits? Where would you get that amount of...?" He stopped talking, for the first time noticing that Sideswipe had a decal on his forehead. Shortly thereafter it dawned on the tinkerer where Sideswipe might actually be from.

Sideswipe held out his hand, holding it as steady as he could. A stunt like this was likely to get him in a lot of trouble. He did not even want to think of how much trouble he was going to get into. Nonetheless, he was going to do it. Some things were worth the risk.

"Take my hand, Pipes," he said.

"Sideways, think about this. If you do this, your troupe is going to want to know where it all went," Pipes said, raising both hands to back away.

Lucky was on her feet as well, hands on Sideswipe's arm to try and pull him back. "If you do this, you might not be able to come to us."

"And if Whistler dies, I don't think I could bear coming back." Sideswipe held his hand out farther. "Pipes, just take it."


"Take it!"

Swerve reached out and wrapped one large hand around Sideswipe's, gripping it tight. In an instant, credits from the troupe's account drained into Swerve's account. Sideswipe didn't know how much to give, so he kept holding on.

"That's enough," Swerve rumbled, breaking contact when he felt like the amount was too much. He and his gang might have been misfits, but they were no beggars. He took enough to cover most Whistler's care. If any extra was needed, then he, Pipes, and Lucky would cover it. If they could get a hold of Avanti and Hubcap, the two of them would be chipping in as well.

"Let me give you more," Sideswipe side, moving to take Swerve's hand again.

The other bot pushed him back gently. "It's enough, Sideswipe."

Sideswipe gasped, but then remembered that Swerve would have seen his designation in the credit transfer.

"Sideswipe, huh?" Pipes murmured. He glanced at Lucky. "You knew?"

"I did," Lucky admitted. She wrapped Sideswipe in a tight hug. "I keep telling you that you're too good for us."

"Sometimes I think it's the other way around," Sideswipe sniffed, holding Lucky tight before letting her go. He took a shaky step back. And then another. A deep drag of air. He almost purged, but managed to keep it down.

"I think...I think I need a walk," he said, leaning weakly against the cold, dirty metal of the alley wall.

"Go home," Pipes said. "We'll take Whistler to a medic. If anything happens, good or bad, we'll find you, okay?"

"...kay," Sideswipe breathed. "But you have to promise to come get me if anything happens."

"Promise," Lucky breathed. "I promise, I'll be the one to come get you."

He nodded at her, and then nodded to Pipes and Swerve. Any one of them could run off with his credits and not look back. For all he knew, he could have just been scammed. But the look of Whistler laying on that berth would not leave his mind. It was burned into him. He trusted his friends to make the right decision...because he was about to make a very bad one.

He turned down the road and made his way to the nearest lift, intending to go as far down as it would take him.