This wasn't at all what Prime had expected. When Teletraan-1 had alerted him to the presence of Decepticons at Earth's northern pole, he had anticipated another attempt by Megatron to drain Earth's energy via it's core. Or perhaps a mission to scout Skyfire's crash site and see if the scientist had left anything interesting behind. Or maybe even a quest for an artifact of some kind, some crystal or talisman or alien technology that the Decepticon leader could incorporate into his latest superweapon.
He had NOT expected to arrive at the planet's pole to find a small town, comfortably nestled among the icy wastes of the Arctic... and blazing in ruins.
"Primus Almighty," Jazz breathed, transforming to stand beside the Autobot leader. "Place is a mess."
"I don't understand," Prowl said quietly, optics bright with astonishment. "This place is supposed to be uninhabited."
"Wouldn't be the first time colonies have popped up in unexpected places," Ratchet put in. "And this place is remote enough that a settlement might avoid scrutiny for awhile..."
"But it's uninhabitable," Prowl countered. "Temperatures in this region reach lows that humans cannot survive."
"Humans are adaptable creatures," Wheeljack countered. "You'd be surprised where they can settle in..."
"Enough talking," Prime advised. "Search for survivors immediately. Inferno, Hot Spot, extinguish any remaining fires. Aerialbots, cover us and make sure the Decepticons have truly gone."
"Yes sir," Silverbolt replied, saluting.
The Autobots descended into the valley, taking in the scene of destruction. What looked to have once been a small but thriving community had been laid to waste, and what buildings were still standing had taken a severe beating. A large brick building that might have been a factory bore a gaping hole in one wall, with flames still flickering inside that Inferno tackled immediately. Other, smaller factories were either reduced to rubble or still blazing. Small houses had either been flattened entirely, no doubt by Devastator or one of the other gestalts, or torn open like sardine cans. A larger, more ornate house stood atop a small rise just to the side of the town, its roof caved in. There seemed to be no order or reason to any of the attacks -- the Decepticons had come here not to raid or seek out information, but simply to destroy.
As Prime strode through the ruined town, he couldn't help but feel that all this seemed familiar somehow. He knew that he'd seen this or something close to it somewhere, but he couldn't quite place it...
"Prime, we've got survivors!" Hound shouted.
Prime turned to face the scout, who was kneeling beside a cluster of humans... or what looked like humans at first glance. But as he knelt to speak to them he realized they were too small and their features too delicate to be the sort of humans he was familiar with. The tallest of them was a mere three feet in height, yet they were perfectly proportioned for their size. And despite the horror they had just faced, they looked upon Prime with a kind of quiet dignity, as if they were determined to put the best face possible on this tragedy.
"Greetings," Prime told them, raising a hand in a friendly gesture. "I am Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobots..."
"We know," the tallest being replied, a slight smile crossing his age-creased face. "Even this far north we get news from the rest of the world." He extended a fine-boned hand. "Oliver Merryweather, sir."
Prime nodded. "Can you tell us what happened here, Mr. Merryweather?"
"Decepticons, what else?" a tiny female replied with a mixture of fear and anger. "They destroyed the toy factory, scattered the reindeer, tried to use us for target practice..." She sniffed and dabbed at her eyes. "Thank heaven for the ice caverns. They helped most of us hide during the attack."
"Are there any injured?" Prime asked.
"A few, but your medics have those handled," Oliver assured him. "And at any rate, elves are a hardy folk. We've faced far worse..."
Elves! Prime would have shaken his head in disbelief had he not been trying to maintain his composure. A settlement at the North Pole, mentions of toys and reindeer, and now elves... No wonder this all seemed familiar! But surely it couldn't be true. Surely all the human tales couldn't be anything more than myths and folklore...
"RATCHET!" That was Sludge's voice, but it carried a tone Prime had never heard from the Dinobot before -- a strange combination of fear and excitement. "You Ratchet come here quick!"
"Fraggit, I'm busy!" Ratchet snapped, stepping out of one of the damaged factories. "It had better be important..."
"It very important!" Sludge insisted, grabbing the ambulance-former by one arm and hauling him forcibly along toward the house on the hill.
Oliver paled. "Oh no..." And he took off running after the departing Autobots. Prime, by now thoroughly befuddled, followed.
Sludge dragged a protesting Ratchet to the base of the hill and pointed defiantly. "Me Sludge told you Ratchet he was real!"
"Holy Primus on a pogo stick," Ratchet gaped, kneeling and scooping something out of the snow... a human. Not an elf, Prime was sure, but a full-sized human, red velvet and white fur clothing his portly frame and a sizeable beard framing a face that would have been pleasant and grandfatherly in appearance were it not contorted in a grimace. While he wasn't bleeding and didn't appear to be burned or missing any limbs, he seemed to be in a fair amount of pain, and the unnatural angle of his right leg couldn't be healthy.
This is not happening, Prime thought dazedly.
"Please tell me I'm not seeing what I think I'm seeing," Prowl pleaded, echoing Prime's thoughts, as he came forward to stand beside his commander.
"Land's sakes," breathed Jazz, grinning broadly despite everything. "Who'd have guessed..."
"Santa!" Oliver shouted, craning his neck to get a look at the injured man. "Sir, are you all right? Prime, sir, give me a lift please!"
Not knowing what else to do, Prime picked up the elf and lifted him high enough to see. Santa, by this time, had managed to sit up in Ratchet's hands, rubbing his side with a wince. Upon spotting Prime he managed a friendly smile.
"Well, sir," he said with a chuckle, "your old friend Megatron seems bound and determined to land himself on the naughty list this year."
"Don't try to talk," Ratchet told him. "I need to scan you for internal injuries..."
"I'm fine, I'm fine," Santa told him with a wave of a gloved hand. "I have to be, don't I? It's Christmas Eve, and gifts don't deliver themselves." He turned to Oliver, sudden worry flashing across his face. "The gifts weren't destroyed, were they?"
"They were protected in the caverns," Oliver replied. "But sir, you're not going anywhere with a broken leg!"
"It's not broken," Santa insisted. "Just twisted a little funny, that's all. Let me walk a bit and limber it up and it'll be fine." He looked up at Prime and gave an amused laugh. "What's the matter, sir? Cat got your vocalizer?"
Prime realized he was staring, and shook his head briefly to clear his CPU. "You must forgive me, Mr. Claus," he apologized. "But we Autobots were under the impression that you were a fictional entity."
At that, Santa gave the deep-chested laugh that he was so famous for in the human media. "A common misconception, Mr. Prime, and one I don't mind in the least. Last thing we need is meddlesome humans trying to get their hands in our affairs up here."
"If we had known your base of operations was here, however, we would have acted more quickly to get troops here," Prime replied. "As it is... we were too late. I am sorry."
"Don't be," Santa assured him. "How could you have known?" He got to his feet, stood shakily for a few moments, then collapsed with a groan. "Ow."
"Hold still," Ratchet ordered. "That leg needs set..."
"But I have to go," Santa insisted, a pleading note in his voice. "It's Christmas Eve, and there's so much to do... the children are counting on me..."
"Mr. Claus," Oliver said hesitantly, "even if your leg weren't broken, we can't deliver the presents. The... the Decepticons destroyed the stables. The sleigh is kindling now, and the reindeer are so spooked it'll be New Year's by the time we can get them rounded up. I... I'm sorry."
Santa's bright blue eyes filled with tears. "We've never missed a Christmas... not even during the World Wars. If I don't make it out tonight..." He couldn't finish.
Prowl spoke up at that moment. "This must have been Megatron's intentions in the first place, Mr. Claus. Somehow he must have discovered you here, or simply theorized that you had to be here. And he attacked in order to prevent you from making your trip this year."
"But why would he do that?" Oliver demanded. "We've never done him any harm!"
"Megatron's always made a habit of attackin' 'round Christmas," Jazz explained. "Figures if he spoils th' holiday, it'll ruin Autobot an' human morale. He musta figured that by attackin' YOU an' stoppin' your trip, he'd do th' ultimate job of it."
The old man held his face in his hands, shaking with emotion. Prime felt his spark going out to him. Prowl was right -- if Santa couldn't make his appointed rounds tonight, it would deliver a crushing blow to human morale. And wounded morale could be every bit as devastating as physical injury could be. There had to be something the Autobots could do...
A wild idea materialized in his processor, but he quashed it immediately. Surely it couldn't be possible...
The same idea must have occured to Santa at the same moment, for he lowered his hands and looked steadfastedly up at him. "Optimus Prime, I hate to ask this of you when you have already done so much good for our world this year. But the presents have to be delivered tonight. If I can't make the journey... can the Autobots do it?"
"But it's impossible!" Prowl broke in. "There's no possible way to deliver gifts to every household in the world in one night. Even a teleporter couldn't complete a quarter of the journey in that time..."
"An' how are we supposed t' get IN th' houses?" Jazz pointed out. "Not like we can fit down th' chimneys..."
"And how do you expect us to do it without being noticed?" asked Ratchet. "Let's face it, we attract a LOT of attention on this planet..."
Santa raised his hands, silencing the Autobots. "I know it seems an impossible task. Most worthwhile tasks seem impossible to complete at first glance. But it can be done -- I do it on an annual basis, after all. All it takes is two important things -- the will, and the belief. If you are willing to do it, and if you believe you can do it... it can be done. I promise you that."
Prime considered, then nodded. "It is the least we can do for you. We failed you once by not preventing this attack. We won't fail you again."
"Thank you, my friend," Santa said with a glowing smile. Then his expression became serious as he addressed Oliver. "Mr. Merryweather, I'm putting you in charge of the elves! I want half of the able-bodied elves to begin cleaning up and rebuilding, and the rest to help load the gifts into Prime's trailer. And hurry!"
"Yessir!" Oliver barked, grinning for the first time that evening. "Um... can you put me down, Prime sir?"
Prime set the elf back down in the snow. "Autobots, assemble! Ratchet, Hoist, Grapple, and Protectobots, I want you to remain behind and assist with the first aid and reconstruction here. Aerialbots, stand guard in case the Decepticons return to finish the job. Everyone else... we have a BIG job to do tonight."
"I can't believe we're doing this," Sunstreaker huffed as he and Sideswipe pulled up to their first house of the night, a two-story affair with a still-smoking chimney and a glittering Christmas tree in the front window. "Has Prime blown a motherboard or something? Primus, have we ALL fried our CPUs? Or just gone nuts from the cold?"
"Can it, Sunshine," Sideswipe replied, transforming as quietly as possible. "And cheer up. This is fun! We get to literally play Santa this year!"
"Santa Claus," mumbled Sunstreaker, unfolding to robot mode and shaking his head in disbelief. "Who'd have thought the old fogey really existed? Daniel's going to have a field day with this..."
"You gonna help me or just stand there running your vocalizer?" asked Sideswipe, putting his hands on the roof.
"Hey!" demanded Sunstreaker. "What do you think you're doing?"
"Going down the chimney, what else?" Sideswipe replied.
Sunstreaker groaned. "Number one, dim-watt, you'll collapse the roof. Number two, even if it COULD support your lead-aft, there's no way in the Pit you could fit down that chimney. Number three... where there's smoke, there's fire, and where there's fire there goes your paint job."
"All right, wise guy, what do YOU suggest?" snapped Sideswipe.
"The door," Sunstreaker replied.
"Oh, right, because we can fit just as easily through the door..." Sideswipe sneered.
Sunstreaker ignored him. He took the handle between a thumb and forefinger and twisted experimentally, hoping the humans had forgotten to lock their door. It didn't matter anyhow -- he ended up pulling so hard he yanked the door off its hinges. "Oops."
"Nice one, Sunflower," Sideswipe griped.
"Shove it, slagger," Sunstreaker snapped, and he knelt and did his best to contort himself enough to fit through the doorway. It was a tight squeeze, and the sound of splintering wood and screeching metal indicated his paint job was a lost cause, but he managed to crawl inside. "Okay, hand me the bag."
"I thought the point was to be inconspicuous," said Sideswipe, tossing him the bag.
"What else are we supposed to do?" asked Sunstreaker, doing his best to crawl through the house without disturbing anything. Luckily, the room containing the tree was right off of the entryway, and with a relieved sigh of his intakes he emptied the bag and began arranging the gifts beneath the tree -- a soccer ball, a few action figures, a Nintendo Wii, and assorted other items obviously intended for a young human boy.
"You done in there?"
"Almost." Once the gifts were arranged to his liking, he turned to go... and found two boys in pajamas staring at him, the smaller clutching a stuffed elephant and with a fist in his mouth. They gaped up at him, unmoving.
"Shoo," Sunstreaker ordered. "I've got a schedule."
"Santa?" the smaller boy asked, eyes wide.
"Do I look like a fat human in red?" asked Sunstreaker. "Santa broke his leg, I'm doing his job for tonight. Now scoot."
"He's real?" gaped the bigger boy. "He's really real? You got to see him? Is he really that fat? What color are his eyes? Did you see the reindeer? What do the elves look like?"
"Aren't you kids supposed to be in bed?" demanded Sunstreaker. "If you want the stupid Wii, get back to sleep, all right? You're in my way and I ain't got all night."
The boys ran off, giggling and whispering about "Santa-bot." Sunstreaker crawled out of the house, managing to break the doorway wider and catch a string of the outdoor lights on his headfin, ripping a line of them off the eaves. This was going to be a LONG night.
"Well, this'll be an interesting nut to crack," mused Wheeljack as he pulled up to the seventh house in the subdivision he and his partner were covering. "Though it'll give me a chance to test out my latest invention, right?"
"I seriously doubt that tonight is a night for testing inventions, Wheeljack," Tracks said balefully, transforming and pulling a sack of gifts out of subspace.
The Lancia and Corvette had worked out a system for their mission, one that had served them well up to this point. Wheeljack would lower a sensor on a cord down the chimney to ensure that no fire was going in the fireplace, and send a gentle spray of flame retardant down the flue if there was any sign of coals or a blaze. Then he and Tracks would tie the cord to the gift bag and carefully ease it down the chimney. There had been one or two difficult points when something had gotten stuck on the way down and they had to try again, but for the most part the night had gone relatively smoothly.
Until now, when they found themselves confronted by a house without a chimney.
"Wonder how Santa normally deals with these situations," Wheeljack mused. "But what the heck, we'll give this a shot." And he pulled a device that looked something like a human remote control out of subspace.
"Do I dare ask what you're planning to do with that?" asked Tracks.
"Simple," Wheeljack replied. "It's an electronic lockpick. It's designed to open any computerized lock -- and if my equations are accurate, it'll open garage doors as well." He nodded at the house's two-car garage. "We can pop the door and leave the gifts in the garage. Someone's bound to notice 'em before tomorrow's over, right?"
"I suppose..." Tracks began doubtfully, but paused and glanced down at the bag, which had suddenly begun squirming and making bizarre sounds. "What the deuce?"
"Here goes nothin'," announced Wheeljack, and he pressed a button. Nothing happened. The scientist stared at the remote for a few seconds, headfins flickering a puzzled lavender, then gave it a good shake and tried again.
"Ah, there's the source of the trouble," said Tracks, opening the bag and gently pulling out a wriggling, whining bundle of chocolate-colored fur. "Seems some lucky child is getting a puppy for Christmas."
"Least it's not a hippopotamus like in the song, right?" Wheeljack chuckled, and he pushed a few more buttons on the remote before flipping it over and sliding open a panel in the back. "The power cells dead or something?"
The puppy, meanwhile, had calmed down enough to stop whining and look up at Tracks with huge, expressive blue eyes. Its tail wagged with such force that it's entire back end swung back and forth like a metronome, and its mouth was open in an eager smile... an eager smile that dripped with slobber.
"Disgusting," Tracks muttered. "Wheeljack, have you figured it out yet?"
"Think so," Wheeljack replied. "Looks like I put the power cell in upside down." And he pressed the button again... only for a car on a nearby street to suddenly pop its hood, unlock its doors, and sound its alarm system. "Gaah! It wasn't supposed to do that!"
"Wheeljack, hurry!" Tracks shrieked. "This animal just did something unspeakable in my hand!"
Wheeljack jammed his thumb against one more button... and hissed in relief as the garage door rumbled open. "Quick, put it in!"
Tracks was only too happy to oblidge, plopping the gift back next to the family's vehicle and the dog next to it. The puppy looked at Tracks and gave a pitiful whine.
"No, you can't come with us," Tracks snapped, shaking his befouled hand with a disgusted expression. "Wheeljack, shut the door!"
"Aw, it likes you," Wheeljack laughed, though he was quick to shut the garage door. "Quick, let's transform and book it before someone comes outside."
"Prowl, incoming! Decepticons at five o' clock!"
At Trailbreaker's shout Prowl whirled away from the apartment complex he had been contemplating, acid rifle drawn and the safety flicked off. Part of his CPU theorized that the Decepticons must have gotten wind of the Autobots' plan to salvage Christmas and were hunting them down in an effort to thwart them. The rest of his processor instantly clicked into battle mode, calculating the trajectory of the incoming Seekers, the angle at which he'd have to fire to hit, the identity of his attackers and what potential strengths and weaknesses they might possess...
Ramjet and Skywarp transformed and landed in the parking lot, one of Ramjet's leg wings catching a light pole and ripping the decorative evergreen garland off. He glared distastefully at the offending ornament and shook his leg in an effort to get rid of it. Skywarp smirked at his comrade before turning to face the Autobots, guns drawn.
"Just try it, Sky-dork," Trailbreaker taunted, and the air around him and Prowl shimmered as he activated his force field.
"No fair," huffed Skywarp, pouting and lowering his arms. "We find Autobots and we get the fraggin' shield generator."
"So we hang around until he runs out of power," suggested Ramjet, pulling the garland off. "He can't keep it up forever."
"I suggest you leave," Prowl informed them in a low, deadly voice. "Or you'll be leaving with a few acid holes in your wings."
"You talk tough, Autobot..." snarled Ramjet, stepping forward.
"Hold it, Ramhead," Skywarp ordered, placing a hand on the white Seeker's shoulder to stop him. "What the slag are you 'Bots doing out here in the middle of the night, anyhow? On Christmas, no less? Shouldn't you be holed up in your base singing to a tree or whatever it is the humans do tonight?"
"Singing to a tree?" repeated Prowl, confused.
Trailbreaker snorted. "We have you 'Cons to thank for being out here, you know," he informed them. "We're taking over Santa's duties for Christmas."
Both Seekers stared blankly at the Datsun and SUV for a moment. Then they doubled over and cracked up with hysterical laughter.
"It's the Santa-bots!" hooted Ramjet. "Lemmie guess, the Dinobots are the reindeer? How'd you get the horns on 'em?"
"Hey, I've been good this year!" Skywarp giggled. "Or at least sorta good. Where's my present?"
"The Decepticons are on Santa's naughty list permanently," Trailbreaker informed them, though he was fighting to hide a grin of his own. "Trashing his workshop didn't exactly help your case either."
"Whatever," Skywarp replied dismissively, waving his hand. "Got any coal for Starscream? I'll deliver it for ya."
"Buzz off, we've got work to do," Trailbreaker ordered. "Still a lot to do before morning..."
"Are you kidding?" Ramjet cackled. "When we have the chance to pummel two Autobots without Prime or a Dinobot smashing our heads in? We ain't passing this up!"
Prowl's gaze flicked behind the two Decepticons, then a smug smile crossed his faceplate. "I doubt you'll be getting that chance anytime soon, Ramjet."
"What do you..." Skywarp began, but his voice trailed off as realization hit. "They're standing right behind us, aren't they?"
A blue-plated hand came down to rest on Skywarp's shoulder. "Your powers of observation are astute tonight, Skywarp."
Trailbreaker chuckled as the two Seekers raised their hands in the air and turned to face their captors -- Optimus Prime and Grimlock, the former looking amused at their find, the latter shifting from foot to foot as if itching to pound something. Skywarp grinned weakly and gave an equally thin chuckle.
"Didn't mean no harm," he assured the Prime. "Just messin' around..."
"I should let Grimlock have his way with you," Prime noted. "However, it's Christmas Eve, and we don't have time for distractions such as this. So in the spirit of the holidays, I'm going to let the two of you go. But if we catch you again... we won't be nearly so easy on you. Am I clear?"
"Crystal clear, sir!" Skywarp replied quickly, and with a leap and a few deft twists he transformed and shrieked away. Ramjet grumbled mutinously but was close behind.
Trailbreaker let the force field drop with a relieved sigh. "Thanks, sir."
"Not a problem," Prime replied. "We should count ourselves lucky that our routes had us cross paths here."
"Me Grimlock could have bashed them Decepticons good," grumbled Grimloc, arms crossed in an obvious pout. "Then them not bother us Autobots again."
"Perhaps another time," Prime told him. "Back to work, Autobots. We have a lot more ground to cover before the night is through."
"For we need a little Christmas right this very minute! Candles in the window, carols at the spinet..."
"Hey dude, aren't we supposed to be quiet while we do this?" asked Rewind softly. "The humans are sleeping, you know..."
"Well, nothing wrong with having a little holiday cheer, is there?" demanded Eject.
"Nothing wrong with that, but you can sing carols without having to bellow them like a Guardian with rocks in his fuel tank, can't you?"
"I'm not THAT loud..." protested Eject.
"When the family dog wakes up howling at you, you're too loud," Rewind pointed out.
"Okay, okay, I'll keep it down a little. Steeljaw, hand me the next present."
Of every Autobot team that was out and about tonight trying to deliver gifts, Blaster and Bumblebee undoubtedly had the easiest time of it. While the other mechs found themselves puzzling over just how to leave gifts inside each house without causing severe property damage, Blaster would simply send his cassettes down the chimney or through any convenient doors, windows, or other entrances, then he and Bumblebee would keep watch while the smaller Autobots arranged the gifts to their liking. It was for this precise reason that when teams were first being formed up, everyone had fought over who would be partnered with Blaster -- Prime had finally assigned him to Bumblebee for the simple reason that the young spy had been among the few who hadn't joined in the bickering.
That wasn't to say the night was without upsets, however. There had been a delay in Spokane when Ravage had surprised their group and Blaster had to break apart the resulting catfight between the Decepticon panther and Steeljaw. Twice one cassette or another had set off burglar alarms, forcing them to book it and leave the presents in an untidy heap. And they had long since lost count of the number of times someone had bumped a shelf or table and broken some knicknack or other. Hopefully humans were more forgiving of robot-caused destruction around the holidays.
Eject resumed singing, his voice lower but no less infused with an unhealthy amount of cheer, and resumed his job of arranging packages around a tree. Rewind just shook his head and kept stuffing the stockings over the fireplace. Steeljaw aided both cassettes by handing them gifts out of the bag, doing his best not to leave toothmarks on anything. Ramhorn... was outside with Blaster, having been relegated to lookout status after accidentally shattering a valuable-looking vase in the last house.
"That the last of them?" asked Eject.
Steeljaw growled and lifted the edge of the bag in his mouth, letting it hang open to show its empty interior.
"Then let's jet," Eject suggested. "Next house!"
"Eject, keep it down a little," pleaded Rewind. "You want the humans to..."
A soft noise interrupted Rewind, and he and his brothers turned toward the nearby couch. It was covered in blankets and cushions, as if someone had been sorting bedding and been interrupted in the process. But to their surprise, the blankets shifted as a little human girl pushed them aside, rubbing sleepily at her eyes.
"Uh-oh," Rewind whispered. "Didn't realize someone was sleeping there." And he ducked into the fireplace, scrabbling up the chimney flue as fast as possible.
Eject stood and tried to follow... only for his foot to catch on the cord to the tree lights, making him yelp in surprise and fall flat on his face. That wasn't the worst of it, however -- that action also served to topple the tree, and it landed atop him with a loud, rustling jangle of ornaments and tree limbs.
"Ow," he whimpered belatedly.
The little girl giggled and waved shyly. "Hi."
"Hiya," Eject replied, squirming out from under the tree.
"Are you Santa's helpers?"
"You could say that." He got to his feet and brushed bits of tinsel and pine needles from his chassis. "Santa's got a broken leg, so we're doing his job tonight. Um... sorry about the tree. I'll fix it..."
"That's okay," she said in the adorably matter-of-fact way children tended to have. "Daddy knocks it over all the time." She turned to Steeljaw, and her eyes went wide in wonder. "Kitty!"
Steeljaw purred -- there was no other word for it -- and rested his head on her lap. The girl giggled delightedly and stroked his head.
"I asked Santa for a kitty for Christmas," she said. "Mommy says I can't have one 'cause I'm allergic, though."
"Well..." Eject turned and examined the presents under the tree, doubting any of them contained the requested feline. "Santa didn't bring you one, so he must agree with your mama. But tell you what, kid... what's your name?"
"Tell you what, Ashley. If you're a good girl, we'll have Steeljaw come by and visit you from time to time, all right? He's just as good as a real kitty, only bigger and smarter and he won't bother your allergies."
"Okay!" she replied brightly, eyes shining. "Mommy'll be happy because I'm not allergic to robot kitties!"
Eject laughed softly. "Steeljaw has to go now, so go back to sleep and he'll see you later, all right?"
"Don't forget the milk and cookies!" Ashley exclaimed, pointing at a nearby table where a plate of snacks and a glass waited.
"Oh." Eject stared at the plate a moment, then shrugged and gathered the cookies up in a napkin. "Autobots don't eat, so I'll just take these to Santa for you, okay?"
"Okay!" She flopped back down on the couch and snuggled under the blankets, still grinning from ear to ear.
Rewind was waiting on the roof when Eject and Steeljaw finally emerged from the chimney, tapping a foot against the shingles. "What took you so long?"
"Just making a friend," Eject explained. "Where to next?"
"Headin' south now!" Blaster announced. "Christmas in California, here we come!"
The scout glanced up from the snow-covered lawn, where he was trying to set right the yard display. Neither he nor Bluestreak had expected the roads here to be quite this icy, and the unfortunate Datsun had lost control and careened right into the middle of an elaborate outdoor display of lights and figures. He hadn't been injured and none of the figures looked to be too badly damaged, but Hound figured it was only right to try and restore some semblance of order to the illuminated reindeer, elves, snowmen, and Nativity set. Bluestreak had volunteered to drop off the presents while Hound fixed the display, and the Jeep figured it was an even division of the duties.
"You finished, Bluestreak?" he asked, adjusting one last shepherd before standing and turning toward the gunner.
"Uh... yeah, but... I think I'm stuck," came the sheepish reply.
"Oh, Primus," groaned Hound. "Stuck" would be an understatement -- Bluestreak's head, shoulders, and arms were wedged tightly in the doorway of the house, the door frame bending and splintering on either side of him. His doorwings were twisted awkwardly and pinned against his arms, and his aft stuck up at a rather embarassing angle as he jerked and tugged in an attempt to free himself.
"Okay, hold still," Hound advised, grabbing Bluestreak by the ankles. "On three, okay? One, two... THREE!"
"OW!" he howled as Hound yanked. "Owowowowow! You're gonna yank out my doors!"
"Keep it down!" Hound ordered. "You'll wake everyone in the county if you keep that up. I'm going to try again, okay? Ready?"
"Too bad. One, two, THREE!"
Hound kept yanking, doing his best to ignore Bluestreak's pained cries. Too bad they couldn't just cut the gunner free, but he really didn't have any desire to wreck the humans' property more than they already had.
"One more time, all right? One..."
"What the hell's going on out there???"
"THREE!" Hound gave a mighty yank, and Bluestreak popped free with a horrific CRACK of breaking wood. The gunner didn't stop to assess damages but transformed and peeled away, sliding dangerously on the slick road but not slowing.
A rather grouchy-looking human emerged from the house at that moment, clad in a faded bathrobe and slippers and pumping a shotgun. Hound decided it best not to stick around and explain, but transformed and took off after the speeding gunner.
Only when they were a safe distance from the house did the two Autobots slow down. "That was close," sighed Hound.
"I think you fixed the nativity up wrong," Bluestreak said. "Last time I checked, reindeer weren't part of the Nativity scene..."
"If you'd like, you can go back to that house and fix it," offered Hound.
"Uh... no thanks."
"I thought not."
It was Mirage and Gears' last stop for the night, and both mechanisms were relieved that their journey was finally over and done with. In Mirage's case, it hadn't just been the mission that was the problem, even if he found the concept of secretly delivering gifts on Christmas Eve rather silly. Rather, he was simply grateful that he would spend no more time in Huffer's company. Having been forced to listen to the whiny minibot's complaints all night had been enough to make him want to put a spike through his audials.
"It's so cold here," Gears griped as they continued down one last road to reach the final house. "I can feel my fluids congealing. And all this sand and salt building up in my wheelwells is going to make me rust before my time, I just know it..."
"Gears, I'd rather not be out and about tonight either," Mirage informed him. "But for the forty-second time, shut your vocalizer already. I've heard over and over how it's too cold, too slick, too dirty, too slushy, and who-knows-what else out here. Let's just finish up so we can go home."
"Easy for you to say," huffed Gears. "You can go back to the Ark and recharge in a nice warm berth. I have guard duty as soon as we get back, and I just know I'll be a block of ice by shift change..."
In an effort to drown out Gears' complaining, Mirage turned on his radio and rifled through the human music stations, looking for one that wasn't playing Christmas music at the moment. He didn't want to be out here any more than the minibot did. He, too, was cold and tired and dirty, and wanted nothing more than to return to base and unwind after a long night. He didn't see the point in this ridiculous mission anyhow. So what if a few packages didn't get delivered tonight? This Claus fellow could just as easily wait until his leg had healed and go about his rounds then, couldn't he? Surely the humans would understand...
"Are you even listening to me?" Gears shouted. "I asked you to slow down! I'm too tired to keep up, and I think this gas we got in Santa Fe was tainted or something, I'm starting to get sick to my tank..."
Mirage gave up and hit his brakes, coming to a stop in the middle of the road and almost making Gears rear-end him.
"What'd you do that for?" he shrieked.
"I've had enough," Mirage replied coolly. "I'll handle this last house. You just go home, all right?"
"But nothing. Go."
Gears grumbled to himself as he made a U-turn and drove away. Mirage waited until his taillights had faded out of sight, then proceeded to the last house. At last, peace and quiet, and the promise of a tranquil drive home...
The last house on his route turned out to be not a house, but a battered RV parked a short ways off the road. Mirage pulled up alongside the vehicle, puzzling. Surely no humans actually lived in this thing -- perhaps they were on vacation for the holidays, but this couldn't be their permanent residence. But as far as he could tell no one had actually driven the RV in some time, and the ancient pickup parked on its left and the makeshift clothesline set up on its right indicated that it was indeed someone's living quarters. A garbage can sat by a set of ramshackle wooden steps by the front door, and hanging from said door was a cheap but festive Christmas wreath set with tiny lights.
It wasn't the humblest dwelling he'd ever come across... but for one raised in the Towers District of Cybertron, it was still a shock from what he was accustomed to.
Mirage quietly transformed and activated his cloaking device, vanishing in a flare of orange. Then he carefully drew the last bag out of subspace and peeked inside. In addition to the usual toys he'd come to expect from these drop-offs, there were other items that he wouldn't have thought to be acceptable gifts -- clothes, canned goods, soap, diapers, an electric razor, a thick quilt, a bundle of towels -- all just as lovingly wrapped in ribbons and bows as the other gifts he had distributed tonight. What sort of gifts were these, anyhow?
Moving silently as possible, he set the bag on the doorstep and tapped the door of the RV. Then he sat down a short distance away to watch.
The door creaked open, and a young girl in a faded, threadbare nightgown rubbed at her eyes as she stepped out into the cold night. Her gaze rested on the bag, and her eyes went wide with wonder.
"Mom!" she shouted. "Dad! Santa's been here! He came! He came!"
Mirage stared in wonder as a family spilled out of the RV to admire the contents of the bag -- an unshaven and weary-looking man, an equally haggard-looking woman carrying a small baby in her arms, and a boy who looked to be about a year younger than the girl and clutched a ragged-looking Barney doll in one arm. A light seemed to shine in the man's eyes as he dug through the bag and pulled out item after item, and tears streamed down the woman's face as she looked on. The children bounced and darted around excitedly, never minding the frost underneath their bare feet, shouting over and over that Santa had paid them a visit and this was the best Christmas ever. Everything in the bag was treated as if it were a priceless treasure, regardless of whether it was a toy or just a can of soup.
"Who do you think left it?" the father wondered aloud.
"An angel," the mother replied, smiling broadly despite her crying.
"Santa!" insisted the little girl. "I told you he'd come!"
"Yes, baby, Santa came," the father replied, catching her as she dashed by and pulling her into a firm hug. "Bless the faith of little children."
And the family bustled back inside the RV, taking the bag with them.
For a long while Mirage just sat there, pondering what he'd just seen and what he'd just been a part of. It took awhile for the full impact of it to sink in -- that he had just played a role in a miracle. And a Christmas miracle, no less.
Part of him wanted to knock again and reveal himself to the family, to explain why he was there and wish them the best of luck. But another part of him reasoned that doing so would spoil the miracle. Best to just let the children believe it was Santa, and the parents to believe whatever they wished.
He transformed and drove slowly home, "Silent Night" playing softly on his radio, a warm glow in his spark.
It was a very tired, and yet very satisfied, Optimus Prime that made the journey back to the Arctic the following day, alone and unescorted. The rest of the Autobots were still doing their best to recuperate from the long, long night, taking it easy back at the Ark and hoping against hope that Megatron would lay low for a few weeks and let them have a much-needed vacation. Prime would follow their example and take a day off to just recharge later... but there was something he needed to do first.
The Protectobots, Hoist, and Grapple had made amazing progress during the night -- repairs were well underway on most of the damages, and much of the heavy work was already completed. The elves were taking over the smaller, more cosmetic work, but already a few of the factories were up and running, smoke churning from their chimneys and workers bustling in and out even as other elves were hard at work laying bricks and setting new windows. A cluster of elves were pushing a shining new sleigh across the snow and toward the stables, and on the hill smoke puffed from the newly repaired chimney of Santa's house. It seemed Oliver Merryweather had been correct -- despite the brutal setback, the elves had not only recovered, they weren't letting the attack slow them down and derail them from preparing NEXT Christmas.
And Santa Claus himself was in the thick of it, leaning on a crutch and holding the halter of a reindeer while Oliver dressed a burn on its hindquarters.
Prime transformed and knelt beside Santa to address him. The reindeer gave a startled cry and danced to the side, but Santa kept a firm grip on its halter and spoke soothingly to it.
"Easy, Vixen," he told it. "He won't hurt you." He patted the beast's nose before turning to Prime. "I take it the mission was successful?"
"A smashing success," Prime replied, nodding. "Unfortunately, smashing in more ways than one." He suppressed a wince at the memory of Grimlock's attempt to go down a chimney, which had resulted in part of a roof being torn off.
"Ah, property damage, I take it?" Santa chuckled. "Happens every year. Why, I remember the time thirty years ago when my sleigh crashed through a storefront window in... never mind, that's a long story. But don't worry about it."
"How can we not worry about it?" asked Prime. "What will people think when they wake up on Christmas morning to find a repair bill waiting for them?"
Santa's face crinkled in a good-natured smile. "How do you think your troops were able to visit the household of every believing child in the world, all in one night? How do you think you managed to find a way to leave gifts at every house, even when it seemed impossible at first glance? How do you think you remained unharmed and undisturbed by Megatron? Christmas has a magic all its own, Optimus Prime. And remember what I told you before you began your journey? If you have the will and the belief... all things are possible. Someone might find a set of unusually large footprints in the snow of their yard, or a child might awaken with the memory of having seen something enormous and shiny outside their bedroom window, but for the most part there will be no mark of your passing. So it is every Christmas."
Prime puzzled over that statement awhile. "I'm not sure I understand."
"Sometimes," Santa replied gently, "the things we don't understand are the things that are most precious and necessary." He patted Vixen's muzzle and let Oliver lead him away. "We must keep believing in miracles, Optimus Prime. Or else life isn't worth living."
Now THAT, Prime understood very well. "Mr. Claus... thank you. Last night is a night none of us will ever forget. We will continue to protect your operations here, and feel free to contact us if you need our aid again."
"Thank YOU, Prime!" Santa countered. "Your actions saved Christmas. I can never thank you enough for..."
"NICHOLAS J. CLAUS!" That voice came from the house on the hill, and though the volume was somewhat dimmed by distance, the intensity of it was as strong as ever. "You are supposed to be taking it easy! Get back here before I have Blitzen drag you back and sit on you!"
Santa blushed and gave an embarassed grin. "That'll be the Missus. Fusses over me like nothing else. I suppose I should let you go, Prime. Take care, and Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas to you as well, Mr. Claus," Prime replied with a chuckle. "Until all are one."
"I'm coming, dear!" Santa hobbled off toward the house as fast as he could on crutches and one good leg. Oliver just watched him go with a slight knowing smile before leading Vixen away.
Prime returned to his truck mode and drove away, laughing. What a Christmas it had been. He wondered what Spike and Sparkplug would have to say about this... if they even believed him.