As the summary says, this is a bit of a sequel to my somewhat recent story called "Monkey." If you haven't read it, this story is guaranteed to confuse the holy living hell out of you. So…go read it first. You can find it on my profile. Or, if you did read that story and found that you didn't like it, then you probably won't be interested in this one, either.

But if yer gonna read this thing, you should know that I have absolutely no idea where it came from and/or where it's going, if it's going anywhere at all. As it is, it's just a one-shot. I woke up at 3AM today with a few of the lines of its dialogue echoing around in my head, and I felt compelled to write them down before I forgot them. And then I found myself staying up and writing this entire thing, which may or may not lead to something else. I really have no idea about that. It depends on what my brain next decides to do at 3AM or some other hour when I'm otherwise sound asleep.

I'm afraid that this is not at all Romantic/Gothic in tone, as "Monkey" is. (Sorry, antepathy!) I can't keep that up for long, not without freebasing a lot of Bronte first, and since this just sort of squirted itself out of my half-asleep brain, there was no time to read Jane Eyre first. :) Nor is this all dark like the first story…but then it's not exactly bright and happy, either. It's just a conversation between two characters, one of whom is Tracks, a character whom I love dearly and who needs depth desperately, but whom I just haven't gotten around to writing much. This was a chance to do so, and it really ended up being more about him than Sideswipe, I think…

It was a surprise when a shadow fell across Sideswipe, indicating someone's presence close-by; it was nothing less than a shock when that "someone" chose to sit down in the chair across from him. Sideswipe looked up from his deep and meditative contemplation of the container of energon in front of him and was surprised to find himself looking into Tracks's red face.

"What do you want?" Sideswipe muttered, the words an unwelcoming growl, his eyes narrowed to untrusting slits. The very few "friendly" gestures that he'd received since he'd been roused from stasis the previous week had turned out to be not so friendly at all, in the end. He'd found that it was safest to be suspicious of everyone and, more than that, to keep everyone at a distance, as long of a distance as possible.

Tracks didn't answer Sideswipe for a moment. He merely cocked his head to the side and narrowed his own eyes, studying Sideswipe as if he'd never seen him before…and it occurred to Sideswipe that that was exactly the case. No one had ever seen him, not the real him, before. They had only seen the façade that he had carefully designed, constructed, and projected. The façade was not him but rather the individual that he had wanted, so desperately, to be or at least to become at some point in time.

It was the individual that he would never be, now.

"I've come to welcome you," Tracks eventually said, after an impolitely long stretch of time spent silently staring at Sideswipe.

Sideswipe blinked.

"Welcome me?" he echoed after a moment, perplexed but still very guarded. "To what?"

Tracks half-smiled at him.

"Why, to the outcasts, of course," he answered smoothly. "We were most impressed with your application, you know," he continued airily. "You went from one of Optimus Prime's darlings to even more of an outcast than Grimlock in the space of what? Three minutes at most? That has to be a record."

Sideswipe scowled at Tracks, suddenly certain that he was about to become the butt of a very public joke. Again.

"Leave me alone," he snarled.

Tracks frowned, dismayed by the reaction.

"You think me insincere," he surmised, a distinct measure of hurt in his cultured voice.

Sideswipe narrowed his eyes at Tracks again, searchingly this time. He was searching for hints that Tracks was being, indeed, insincere. But try as he might, he could find no such indications. So either Tracks was a very good actor, so good that he'd managed to convince even himself that he was sincere…or else he really was being sincere. The latter possibility seemed the far more likely one, and Sideswipe almost unwillingly let down his guard by just a few centimeters, completely ready to snap it fully back into place at a nanosecond's notice if necessary.

He shrugged, leaned back in his chair somewhat, and said, "Yeah, well. Since I've been…back…it seems to be the national pastime to try to make mincemeat of me in very creative ways. I learned very quickly not to trust any of you."

"Mmmm," Tracks murmured in acknowledgment. "I know the feeling all too well," he said, very seriously and very sympathetically. Sideswipe frowned at him again, but this time in curiosity. "But you should know that there are some of us that you can trust. Some of us understand something of what you're going through," Tracks added, and then he tossed the datapad he'd been holding onto the tabletop in front of Sideswipe. Sideswipe, despite himself, picked it up.

"What's this?" he asked without looking at it, frowning.

"Call it," Tracks answered with a sigh, "a membership card. It contains directions to our secret hideout."

At that, Sideswipe scowled at the information on the pad's small screen and noticed that, indeed, it was a set of coordinates and a street address.

"It's Raoul's place," Tracks was saying quietly. "Please don't go off and kill him now."

Sideswipe immediately gave Tracks a hard, sharp look that the cutting power of a laser beam might have had cause to envy, and Tracks immediately held up his hands in surrender.

"It was a joke," he said. "One that was in extremely poor taste, apparently. My apologies."

Sideswipe continued to glare at Tracks, but he still could detect no malice from him at all, nor even a whiff of deception, nor any indication that he was about to pull the rug out from under Sideswipe to everyone else's amusement.

So he said, softening by another smidgen, "It's all right. I…suppose that I should get used to such 'jokes.'" And then he paused, squinting at the datapad again, the location of the coordinates having registered with him. "This is in Phoenix," Sideswipe pointed out, as if Tracks wouldn't already be aware of that. "I thought Raoul was in New York."

"He was," Tracks said with a nod. "Until about six months ago, after his mother died. It turned out that she had a very nice little insurance policy of which Raoul was the sole living beneficiary. So, I convinced him that he needed a change of scenery. And since he's never liked the cold, Phoenix seemed like a good place."

"The fact that it's about 2,500 miles closer to you," Sideswipe lightly jibed, "is…what? Coincidence?"

"Absolutely," Tracks answered, deadpan. "It's a nice place," he continued smoothly, before Sideswipe could say anything. "A bit of land. Secluded. It's a good place to be alone, if you want to be. Or, you'll find that Raoul's excellent company, if you want company, and I've already told him that you might be showing up. Your fellow outcasts are all good company, too, if any happen to be down there when you go. It's something of a drive from here, but sometimes that's good, when you need to clear your head. And believe me, you'll need to, sometimes."

Sideswipe was quiet for a long moment, repeatedly turning the datapad over in his hands, thinking.

"Why are you doing this?" he felt compelled to ask of Tracks then. "I mean, being friendly to me will only make you even more of an…outcast."

Tracks snorted derisively.

"As if I care," he scoffed. "As if any of us care. But you…" Tracks leaned toward Sideswipe then, lowering his voice, "This 'punishment' of theirs is…unjust, and it makes us think even less of them. All of them."

Sideswipe blinked at him.

"For what I've done," he said levelly, "I think it's more than fair."

Tracks shook his head, vehemently.

"I disagree," he said. "You are not entirely the person who committed those crimes. I suspect that the…person, essence, whatever who is largely responsible for them is still in stasis, which is no punishment at all. But they seem to feel a need to punish you for those crimes, anyway. And that's…not right."

"It's not just the…the murders, you know," Sideswipe pointed out quietly. "I lied, Tracks. For a very long time. Because of those lies, many people got hurt over the years. More people than…than I like to think about."

"But no one was killed," Tracks pointed out.

"They easily could have been."

"But they weren't," Tracks insisted. "And in any case, again, you were not the person who hurt them."

"But it was still my fault," Sideswipe insisted. "He can't, couldn't, help himself in some ways. It was my responsibility to keep him under control. And I tried, but I— "

"You did the best that you could," Tracks interrupted quietly. "Yes?"

"Yes, but my best wasn't nearly good enough," Sideswipe answered bitterly.

"Newsflash, Sideswipe," Tracks answered, with a haughty but weary sigh. "You're not perfect. None of us is. But in the end, you in all your imperfection were willing to die to save others. That counts for much, in my book."

"I wouldn't exactly call it willing…" Sideswipe demurred, shaking his head. "It's not like I cheerfully volunteered or anything."

"Yet there you were, dying anyway," Tracks answered firmly. "I saw it with my own eyes, you know, and I even saw the look you gave Prowl just before he pulled the trigger. And I know what it meant."

Sideswipe flinched, remembering the moment all too well. It had lasted maybe a second, but it seemed to have been stretched into hours in his own memory.

"And all of that aside," Tracks was continuing, "I would challenge anyone to do as well with the situation that you were facing with Sunstreaker as you did. I…can't even imagine what that must have been like. And I highly doubt that anyone in your position would have been completely honest about it. Certainly not in the face of H&M, at any rate."

"The face of what?" Sideswipe said, frowning in confusion.

"'High and Mighty,'" Tracks translated quietly. "It's secret code for 'Optimus Prime.' Don't tell anyone," he added in a stage whisper.

Sideswipe couldn't quite suppress something of a smile. Tracks leaned back in his chair, watching him.

"Well," he said, "that's certainly nice to see."

"What is?" Sideswipe asked.

"A smile from you," Tracks answered, shrugging. "It's been a while."

Sideswipe snorted at that, and then he sighed.

"I still don't understand why you're doing this," he said.

Tracks shrugged.

"We all have skeletons lurking in our closets," he answered philosophically. "Things we aren't proud of. Why should anyone be ostracized for them?"

"Because other people," Sideswipe insisted, "don't have the kind of skeletons that I have."

Tracks shrugged again.

"You brutally murdered a number of people in a…previous life, so to speak," he said. "Yes, I'd say that's utterly reprehensible. But on the other hand, you were already tried, convicted, and had your sentence carried out for what you did. Even the 'primitive' humans don't keep punishing someone for a crime for which they've already served their time. But the 'noble' Autobots? Well, we apparently embrace the concept of eternal damnation and punishment."

Sideswipe smirked at that.

"And now," Tracks continued, "you're no longer entirely that person, anyway. But even if you were…Well, other people's closet skeletons might not be quite as nasty and smelly as yours, that's true, but they're still skeletons. Crimes, even, according to The Powers That Be. And sometimes…just plain old crimes."

"Crimes?" Sideswipe scoffed. "Like what?"

"Well, Mirage is an arrogant ass who isn't the gung-ho and happy camper that he's 'supposed' to be. That's very much frowned upon. And the Dinobots…Well, some of them had the sheer audacity to try to kill H&M, and they would have succeeded quite easily if they hadn't pulled their punches in the end. And to this day, all of them continue to defy him on occasion, which is apparently a crime even when H&M and practically everyone else habitually treat you like dirt."

Sideswipe flinched almost involuntarily, knowing that he was amongst that "everyone else."

"And then there's Wheeljack," Tracks continued, "who, whether he realizes it or not, is flirting with outcastdom because of his increasingly frequent and rather…loud…disagreements with H&M over the Dinobots. Telling H&M to stick it where the sun doesn't shine, among other things, is indeed a crime, but Wheeljack isn't quite at outcast level because of his unique talents. But I guarantee you that if he keeps it up much longer, we'll look around one day and there he'll be, at the 'hideout,' talents or no talents."

Tracks paused for a moment, amused at the dumbstruck look that had bloomed on Sideswipe's face.

"And then there's me, of course, the worst offender of them all," he continued smoothly. "I am an arrogant ass who happens to like and care about this planet far more than my lost-cause native one. And, yes, I care far too much, according to them, about one specific human male. But worse than all of that, I quite happily committed the cardinal sin of deliberately hurting 'precious' humans."

Sideswipe blinked at him and asked, "Why?"

"Because," Tracks readily answered, "I care about Raoul too much, remember? I care about him so much that I have killed a few disreputable members of his species who had guns leveled at his vital organs when he was defenseless. And I have injured many more of them, all in order to protect him. And I will gladly do it all again, if I have to…although I do hope that he is now sufficiently removed from his former situation, so that such situations never arise again. But you see, Sideswipe, you're not the only remorseless killer at this table. Except that for me it isn't ancient history, I've never been punished for it, and I was solely the one who did it."

Sideswipe gawked at Tracks, astonished.

"But," Tracks finished, with a nonchalant shrug, "that's really all beside the point. The point is that at least some of us are willing to admit to our closet skeletons, unlike…certain other people," he said, subtly gesturing at everyone else in the rec room.

"Except…" Sideswipe rather weakly pointed out, still not having fully assimilated all that Tracks had said, "Except that I didn't really want to admit to mine, either."

"But, damn it all, you went and admitted to them, anyway!" Tracks exclaimed, smacking a palm against the tabletop so abruptly and unexpectedly that Sideswipe jumped in his seat. "When it really counted, you owned up to them, which earns you kudos from me and mine. But from them, it earns you censure. And you have to wonder about the kind of message that sends, eh? Admitting to unpleasant truths about oneself is apparently a punishable crime at Autobot Headquarters, and I'm sure that everyone will keep that in mind, now. Hoo. Ray," he finished, disgusted.

Sideswipe gawked at him again, speechless, and Tracks smirked.

"Well, then," he said almost cheerfully after a moment. "I think I've done all of the damage that I needed to do here today." And with that, he rose from his chair and moved to leave. But before he did, he leaned down and tapped Sideswipe's "membership card" meaningfully as he quietly added, "See you around, Sideswipe."

And then he was gone, and Sideswipe was alone again. Yet, somehow, he felt far less alone than he'd felt before Tracks's shadow had fallen across him.