Author's Note – Originally written for "tf_speedwriting" but this took way too long to finish and so didn't qualify. Oh, well. The prompt was "time travel." Something of an AU of my "Designation 24601" series. Kind of an experiment for me – I don't normally mess with time travel. Intentionally a little vague and confusing at the beginning, but hopefully with some thought, it's not too much so by the end.

Disclaimer – "Transformers" and all related characters, events, and concepts belong to Hasbro, Takara, and any other related owners/distributors/producers. I get no monetary benefit from this. My benefit is the enjoyment of dealing with beloved characters.

"The Now That Was Before, the Now Yet to Come"
by DragonDancer5150

He gazed down at the mech huddled before him. He would remember this moment forever.

In fact, he already had. Or anyway, it felt like it'd been forever.

He remembered everything – how much he'd hurt, how frightened he'd been, and how confused. The mech standing before him had seemed so tall and strong in his sight, confident in a way he knew he would never be, and yet without the accompanying anger, the arrogance, the prejudice, the domination that he'd come to expect from tall, strong, confident mechs. The stranger had been clean and white, something that also was unknown in this dark, dirty, unforgiving world. This subterranean world that was all he'd ever known, all he would ever know.

All he was supposed to ever know, at any rate, if certain powers-that-were had continued to have their way with him.

He studied the filthy, abused, cowering mech and mentally shook his head. Was I really that bad off? I don't remember bein' this… His mental voice trailed off, avoiding the only word he could think of to assign.

Pathetic.

That wasn't really fair, though. He had been what they'd made him to be, what they'd beaten him down into before he'd had a chance to be anything else . . . and before he'd finally found the courage to take his life, his self, into his own hands. He wasn't proud of what he'd once been like, how cowardly and submissive to the point of servile . . . but neither could he blame himself for it. What counted was that he hadn't allowed himself to stay there.

Wide, pale yellow optics stared up at him in resigned fear, waiting for him to make a move – to turn on his heel in disgust or to decide to start pummeling him, because he was stronger and he could. The mech had been trapped by a cave-in, luckily only the majority of one leg buried, as opposed to the whole of him . . . plus a hand sheared off at the wrist and dents all over. More than there had been a few breems before. He'd be fine once he was found, freed of the collapse, and taken to the medics.

Well . . . "fine" to a certain degree of quality to the word. "Fine" until he was released from the medics back into the game of avoidance he played with his fellow slaves. "Fine" until one of them managed to corner him as they'd done so many times – domineering, beating, raping their favorite toy. "Fine" until his latest attempt at modifications to one of the excavators failed, he was dragged before Master himself, and he was flogged to within an inch of his life.

He remembered that moment all too well too. And knew it was coming in less than three deca-cycles for this poor young mech who had as yet known nothing but degradation, pain, and terror, who had no clue about the great, wide world and what awaited him there – more pain and terror, yes, and a war that would last far longer than anyone involved had ever wanted. But also there were possibilities, freedoms, explorations, knowledge, and wonderment like he had never dreamed existed. Friendship, love, a sense of belonging. A sense of safety and of being wanted, truly wanted, not for what he could do for others – or be forced to let them do to him – but merely for himself, because he was worthwhile, worth so much more than he could have ever believed in this moment that was before him.

He'd not forgotten – again, he'd always remembered and would always remember – but this moment had lain dormant in his mind, believed to be some kind of delusion, from the "now" that was before him to the "now" from which he'd just stepped, back around that corner not two meters behind him. But laying optics on the cowering sparkling brought it all to the fore, in hyper-vivid detail, and he knew with sudden, unshakable clarity that he had not been hallucinating all those eons ago.

"I'm not gonna hurtcha." He knelt down in front of the frightened, wounded, trapped sparkling. He even started to lay a hand gently on the other's arm in an attempt to comfort, but then he-

-didn't. The stranger who'd just walked around the corner, who was too big and too white and clean with his broad shoulders and heavy armor, who'd stopped so suddenly with inordinately bright, startled optics as if surprised by something far more great and important than the sorry sight of a mining slave caught in a moment of folly and a collapse of his own inadvertent doing, who had stared for so long as if at the same time the mech was both studying him anew and gazing on a well-known sight. He didn't understand. He didn't know where this mech had come from. The attempt at comfort was almost alien – no one ever tried to comfort him. He was nobody, nothing. And yet, the stranger seemed to want to comfort, even as he'd suddenly seemed to remember himself, drawing his hand back at last astro-second as though afraid to touch him, afraid to-

-hurt him somehow. He knew and yet didn't how all this worked, and wasn't going to risk physical contact between them blowing up some cosmic workbench. The words came easily, like a script he'd memorized – he'd heard it all before, after all. "Just hang in there. You're gonna be all right."

"W-who are you?" The other mech averted his gaze, suddenly remembering himself. "I-I'm sorry. I-"

"Shouldn't have spoken up? You have permission. An' I'm . . . um, well. I'm a friend."

"F-friend?"

"Yeah."

"Y-you . . . ya l-look-" Like me. Indicator flanges, rigid bands in lieu of proper faceplates-

"I know." -because Creator was cheap an' didn't care, so long as I could do the labor I'd been built for, the flanges added as an afterthought to keep me from getting away with muttering things I shouldn't. When I escaped an' managed to get my first reformat, I didn't have enough to afford full facial reconstruction along with everything else. An' after that, I've just . . . never bothered. I've kept it as a reminder. Of how far I've come . . . an' where I came from. "Don't worry about it. It's not a bad look, really."

"...w-why?"

"Am I here?" Good question. Never mind the modified space-bridge I'd been workin' on. Stupid thing was supposed ta warp the spatial fabric of reality, not the temporal. "Ta see you." Whether he'd intended it to start with wasn't the point. That fact was, he was here. He was meant to be here . . . as he had been before.

"M-me, master?" The younger mech's optics were bright with surprise. Or maybe alarm. No, he remembered it – it was definitely alarm. No one ever sought him out for an unharmful reason. No one ever took notice of him until either he'd screwed something up or someone just wanted a toy to play with, or a stress reliever, someone worse off than they were so they could remember they weren't at the bottom of the reality ladder. That no matter how badly off they had it, there was someone on whom they could take their frustrations, their rage, their sense of trapped helplessness.

"Listen, I dunno how much time I have." He could only assume the portal was still open behind him. He'd not come back after he'd said his peace and left, and no one when they'd found him four breems later had said anything about a stranger in the tunnel. "So listen . . . an' remember . . . okay?"

What had he been told? It hadn't been much really, for all that the stranger – that he – had made it sound so important. The eons stretched out in his mind, and with them, all that had transpired. He realized that he could make things so much easier on himself. He could warn himself about some of the things that were coming – how to handle this situation better, how to avoid that one, what was the right course of action six different times.

…no.

No, he realized. No, he couldn't. If he took one action differently, another wouldn't have happened. If one thing changed, so would a dozen others. What would he harm if he tried to change the events of his life? Who would he be?

Everything that had happened to him – the good, the bad, the grief-inducing, the terrifying and horrific – had happened as they did to make him who he was now. Thinking back, he was ashamed of some of what he'd done, and some of what had befallen him still frightened him to this day to think about. He looked at the mech before him and shuddered at the knowledge that he had still to face all that. But standing where he was this time around, he also knew that the mech would make it. And he wouldn't be alone.

The mech was staring at him in expectation. In fear. Waiting for him to speak his piece.

He drew a deep cycle of stale air through his vents.

"When the opportunity comes, take it. Don't let fear keep ya down. You'll know what I'm talkin' about when it comes. You'll see the surface one day, I promise. You'll know the sky . . . an' so much more. An' it'll be soon. You're stronger than ya think, stronger than ya could ever believe right now. Courage isn't the absence of fear. No one is without fear. No sane mech anyway. Courage is actin' anyway, no matter how scared ya are. Because ya have to. Because it's the right thing ta do. You'll have friends one day. Don't ever turn your back on 'em. They're more precious than anythin' else in the world."

He'd been listening to the soft, steady buzz-whine of the generator behind him, on the other side of the portal, and heard when the pitch changed, though faintly. That was his cue. He'd wondered at the time – as he knew the sparkling wondered now – what it was that had made the stranger stand so abruptly, seeming pressed for time when he'd seemed so leisurely the instant before.

"I gotta go. Glitchgrinder'll be here soon with the rest of the team, an' they'll dig ya out an' getcha ta the medics. You'll be okay. An' . . . you'll be okay after that too. Maybe not immediately – ya got some slag you'll still hafta deal with first – but . . . overall, you're gonna be okay. Just have faith in yourself. You'll learn ta see it." He turned to go.

"W-wait!" The mech was frightened, didn't want to be left alone. He was confused too. Very confused.

He stopped, looking back over his shoulder. He knew the question that was coming. He still didn't really know where it came from, what with all the other questions whirling through his processor at the time.

"W-will I ever see ya again?"

Sort of. More or less. "Yeah. Yeah, we'll meet again." He hesitated a moment, suddenly understanding what the stranger – what he – had meant when he spoke next. The words were sparkfelt and without exaggeration. "I'm proud'a you. What ya've learned ta endure, the kinda mech ya are in spite of everythin' ya've been through . . . the kind of mech you'll continue ta be in spite of everything you'll go through. Everythin's a choice – don't ever forget that. You can choose ta let others dictate what happens an' how you'll react, what kinda mech ya let yourself become . . . or ya can choose your own reactions an' who ya wanna be. Be proud'a yourself." He drew another deep cycle of air, then quietly added, "I love you."

It was the first time he'd ever heard those words. It had been vorns – long after he'd escaped the world of overbearing overseers and cruel convicts – before he fully grasped the meaning of what, to others, was such a common phrase.

The sparkling was left speechless behind him as he finally returned to his workshop on the Ark, on Earth.

He powered down his experiment and resolved to destroy it and his notes. Too much harm could be done with such a device even in well-meaning hands.

But first he sat down, laid his head in his folded arms on the workbench . . . and cried himself into recharge.


x


AN: Yeah, it shifts POV once, briefly – well, twice, sort of – and then doesn't again. I'd originally envisioned several shifts, but that didn't wind up happening, but I didn't want to take out the first ones so…they're still there. :shrugs, grins: