AUTHOR'S NOTE: During World War I, there were several unofficial truces called between the opposing armies, each on Christmas Day. Enemy troops would decorate their trenches and even visit each other in "no-man's land" to sing carols and play football. Our library has a touching book on the subject by Walter Cronkite, titled "Silent Night."
The following story is based, at least in part, on that event. Song lyrics are not mine. Merry Christmas.
I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the treetops glisten and children listen
To hear sleighbells in the snow...
If he'd had the capability to do so while still in vehicle mode, Wheeljack would have ripped out his car stereo and forcibly ejected it from his interior the moment Bing Crosby started crooning that tune. What was all the fuss over a white Christmas anyhow? He failed to see how something as capricious as the weather should have any impact on the holiday anyhow - in the years he'd been on Earth he'd witnessed Christmases of white, green, and even gray varieties and honestly found little difference between them. If the humans were so fussed over their white Christmas anyhow, they could keep it to themselves for all he cared.
Normally such a cynical attitude was more in Gears' or Sunstreaker's line of thinking than his... but then, normally he wasn't out slip-sliding his way through the worst blizzard to hit Multnomah County in a decade.
Wind sang in his audials and whipped at his chassis as he inched forward, almost as if it were a sentient creature attacking him and batting with icy claws at his door panels and armor. The stinging snow felt like laser fire peppering his frame, and a thick crust of ice was building up on his windshield, barely kept at bay by his windshield wipers. All around him a thick white haze blocked out anything further than ten feet away and nearly smothered the taillights of his companions ahead of him, though thankfully he could still make out the red pinpricks that served as a welcoming beacon for the shivering Lancia. Snow caked his undercarraige and tires, road muck spattered his sides, and icicles had formed on his bumpers and wheelwells. Suddenly the humans' figure of speech regarding being "frozen solid" no longer seemed so farfetched - if they didn't get back to the Ark soon, he was certain he would turn into a block of ice.
"Gaah!" That was Jazz, sliding off the road for the fourth time in half an hour. It was all Wheeljack could do to bring himself to a halt in time to avoid smashing into his rear bumper.
"Jazz, you all right?" And that was Hound, leading the way through the treacherous weather.
"Think so," the saboteur replied. "Might wanna back up a bit, 'Jack..."
Wheeljack carefully edged back as Jazz spun his tires, engine screaming, grayish blobs of snow flying everywhere. After a few tries - and showering his companions in dirty slush - he gave up and transformed, hunched against the wind as he walked back to the road. There he collapsed to his Porsche mode again and continued on his way.
"Thank Primus for snow tires," Hound said with a sigh. "I'd hate to think how much worse we'd have it off without them."
"One bright spot," Wheeljack conceded, though privately he had to wonder if they really made that much difference. The roads still felt as slick as ever to him. "How you doing, Hound?"
"Hanging in there," Hound replied, his usual good-natured tone present but slightly marred by pain.
"Let us know if ya need one of us t' take th' lead, 'kay?" Jazz ordered. "Don' wanna make things worse for ya."
"I'll be fine," Hound assured them. "Besides, I'm the one with four-wheel drive. Let me handle this."
Wheeljack wished the weather were clearer so he could keep a better optic on the weary, pain-wracked Jeep. It was just like the Decepticons to launch an attack on Christmas Eve of all nights. The Autobots had been scattered throughout Portland and the surrounding towns and cities, helping some of the local charities deliver a few last shipments of gifts and food to needy families. And Hound, Jazz, and Wheeljack had just left a grateful family of five to celebrate their Christmas when a couple of Seekers had appeared out of nowhere, firing upon the startled Autobots and sending them fleeing into the thick of the blizzard.
Luckily, the worst damage Wheeljack had suffered from the attack was a few dents and scrapes from accidentally sideswiping a guardrail during their escape. Jazz had suffered shrapnel injuries to his left leg and side, but nothing serious. Hound was worse off - his windshield was shattered and his engine buzzed ominiously, no doubt damaged from being shot through the chest and abdomen by Skywarp. Wheeljack had patched what he could, but they had to get the scout back to the Ark for a full repair before too long.
"It's getting worse," Hound moaned, pulling to a stop.
"The pain?" asked Wheeljack, concerned.
"No, the storm," Hound clarified. "Don't think we're going to make it back to the Ark tonight."
"Aww," Jazz groaned. "We're gonna miss th' gift exchange. An' the carols. An' th' kids in Carly's daycare class puttin' on their pageant..."
"We'll just have to find a place to wait it out," Wheeljack replied. "Blaster and Red Alert'll record everything, though, and we can exchange our gifts when we get there."
"Ain't th' same," Jazz whined, but he didn't argue further. "Can't get a message t' Prime, th' storm's interferin' with th' signal."
"We'll send one as soon as we can," Hound assured him, and he turned down a side road no one else had noticed until then. "My sensors aren't reading too far, but there's a building up ahead that should be big enough for us. It's not home, but it's at least warm and dry."
The promise of warmth was enough to give Wheeljack a burst of much-needed energy, and he trailed after Hound. True to the scout's word, a large barn-like structure loomed just ahead, windows glowing with an inviting light. Just a little further...
"Let me scout it out first," Jazz suggested, and before anyone else could protest he transformed and limped toward the doors, nudging them open. The saboteur cocked his head to the side as if considering, then motioned for the others to proceed. "Safe."
Wheeljack pulled into the barn and transformed, letting snow and ice slide off his plating and hit the floor. The occupants of the barn - three cows, a worn-out draft horse, a shaggy donkey, a handful of sheep, a bleary-eyed goat, and various barn cats - gave off various startled noises in response, but quickly quieted down and returned to their feed. Hound puttered in behind and unfolded to robot mode, moving slowly and carefully to avoid aggravating his injuries. That done, he limped to the back of the barn and collapsed in a heap of straw. A cow raised its head and gave him an almost reproachful stare, but otherwise the beasts ignored him.
"Kinda appropriate, actually," Jazz chuckled, sitting down in front of the sheep pen. "Christmas Eve in a barn. Reminds me of some of th' Christmas songs..."
"Don't start singing now, Jazz," Wheeljack told him moodily.
"Aw, 'Jack, c'mon!" Jazz whined. "We could use some Christmas spirit!"
"Yeah, Christmas spirit," Wheeljack repeated, kicking sourly at a blob of snow on the floor. "We're stranded miles away from the Ark in a snowstorm, with 'Cons probably searching for us outside and smelly barn animals keeping us company inside. The perfect place for Christmas spirit."
"'Jack, what's wrong with ya?" demanded Jazz. "This ain't like you."
"Look, Jazz, it's been a long day," Hound told him, his voice weary but not bitter or grouchy. "We're tired, hurting, cold, and just want to rest. Cut Wheeljack a little slack if he isn't exactly in the best of moods, all right? We'll get the old sourpuss to cheer up in the morning."
"Hey," snapped Wheeljack, scowling at the scout. Hound only chuckled tiredly in response.
"Everyone shut down and get some recharge, then," Jazz suggested. "An' run self-repair while you're at it. Hound, wake one of us up if ya think you're gettin' worse, all right?"
Hound nodded and leaned back, offlining his optics. A couple of barn cats hopped up onto his chest and curled up over his engine block, no doubt attracted to the heat the Jeep was generating. Hound didn't seem to mind the company and just smiled.
"Someone's gotta keep watch, though," Wheeljack pointed out. "I'll do it."
"Nah, we'll split it," Jazz insisted.
"You're worse off than I am," Wheeljack replied. "You'll need all the rest you can get."
"I'm fine," Jazz huffed. "Wake me in four hours, I'll take over from there, a'right?"
"Fine," Wheeljack conceded, though privately he decided to let the saboteur recharge and take over his shift. As the one uninjured mech in the party, Wheeljack felt responsible for making sure his comrades made it back to base in the best condition possible.
As Jazz made himself as comfortable as possible in the back of the barn, Wheeljack sat down near the doorway and pushed the door open a bit so he could see outside. The wind had died down just a bit, but the snow continued to pile up, forming cresting drifts like frozen waves. Road travel would be nearly impossible in this weather, and no aerial mech would chance flying in these conditions. The Decepticons would have to be insane to launch an attack right now. But then, since when did the Decepticons act rationally?
Wheeljack sighed softly and drew his rifle from subspace, letting it rest in his lap. He was in for a long night.
The warning bray of the donkey reached Wheeljack's audials, instantly awakening the scientist. Slaggit, when had he fallen into recharge? He must have been more exhausted than the thought. He kept his optics offline but tightened his grip just slightly on his rifle, sliding one thumb up to nudge the safety off. Maybe the creature was just reacting to Jazz getting up to stretch his legs... but he wasn't going to count on it.
He onlined one optic to see a foreboding winged sillouhette in the doorway, standing out in sharp contrast with the whitewashed landscape outside. No Autobot possessed that body type - broad in the shoulder and narrow at the waist and legs, with a vast angular wingspan. This could only be a Seeker. Had Skywarp returned to finish the job?
The Seeker turned in the darkness, his glowing ruby optics resting on the scientist. Wheeljack responded by raising the rifle and setting it to his shoulder, aiming for the Decepticon's lasercore.
"Leave quietly and you can leave without a hole in your internals," he advised quietly.
"This is a slaggin' good way to greet a guest," huffed the Seeker, and Wheeljack recognized the voice as belonging to Thundercracker. "Look, we don't want any trouble. The storm's picked up again and we just need someplace to wait it out. Can't fly OR drive in this mess."
"This place is taken," Wheeljack informed him. "You're on Autobot turf."
"Hey, did I come in here with guns blazing?" Thundercracker protested, raising his hands. "I ain't in the mood to pick a fight. I just want to warm up, chip this ice off my stabilizers, and let the storm blow out. And my associate wants the same, except for the stabilizer part."
"Can ya keep it down, 'Jack?" Jazz mumbled thickly, shifting about in the straw. "Mech can't 'charge with all this..." The Porsche suddenly snapped fully online and shot to his feet, wincing from the sudden weight on his damaged leg but pulling his gun and assuming a battle stance all the same. Hound, too, onlined and tried to get to his feet, scattering the cats that had been using him as a sleeping perch, but moaned and collapsed back into the straw, cycling heavily with pain.
Thundercracker's gaze moved over the three Autobots, taking in their damages. "Look, you don't want a fight any more than I do. Can we just call a truce for the night?"
Jazz pondered that, his free hand moving to his chin. "All depends. Who's with ya?"
"Jazz, we can't trust him," Wheeljack protested. "He's a Decepticon..."
"C'mon, 'Jack, it's Christmas Eve," Jazz retorted. "Have a little goodwill toward your fellow men... or mechs, in this case. B'sides, if he pulls any tricks, we can take 'im down just fine." He motioned toward the Seeker with his pistol. "But turn your weapons over, just in case. An' your friend does the same. Deal?"
"He's not my friend, but deal," Thundercracker replied, and he unclipped his arm-guns and slowly lowered them to the concrete floor. Then he drew his incidenary rifle from subspace and laid it on top of the pile. "Swindle, come in and hand over your guns."
"Just great," the Combaticon grumbled, trudging in and tossing his own arm-gun atop the pile. "We finally find shelter for the night and it's with fraggin' Autobots. Onslaught'll never let me live this down." Globs of snow slid off the tan Jeep's chassis and landed with soft plops on the barn floor, and once he'd shed his own weaponry he gave a vigorous shake like a wet turbohound, sending slush and road-sludge flying in every direction.
Wheeljack motioned toward the far end of the barn. "Stay over there and we won't bother you."
"No way," Swindle complained. "That puts you Autobots between us and the door."
"Then we compromise," Jazz replied. "You take the west side, th' 'Bots take th' east. That way no one's closer to th' door. An' once th' storm blows over we all scoot and go our seperate ways. Deal?"
"Deal," Thundercracker replied, nodding. "On my honor."
"Whatever," Swindle huffed, flopping down in front of the goat. The creature eyed Swindle curiously and nibbled at his leg, making the Combaticon back away in disgust.
Wheeljack sat back down near the door, but he didn't take his optics off of their unexpected guests. Unarmed they might be, but these were Decepticons, highly trained in every deadly art and dangerous even without weapons. He knew many Decepticon troops were fully capable of killing an opponent with their bare hands...
But it seemed that they had been completely honest in stating that all they were interested in was a place to wait out the blizzard. Thundercracker was methodically scraping accumulated ice and frost from his wings, while Swindle curled up with his knees against his chest in an attempt to retain his heat and warm up his internals. Jazz, who had scooped up their weapons, piled the guns near the horses and leaned back in the straw, humming a tune. Allowing himself to relax just slightly, Wheeljack moved over to Hound and touched a scanner to his helm, reading his vitals.
"What're you Autobots doing out in this mess anyhow?" Thundercracker asked at length.
"Thunder!" snapped Swindle. "Why're you making small talk with the 'Bots? Not like they'll tell ya anyhow..."
"He's fine, Swindle," Jazz replied. "We weren't on secret business or nothin'. Just out delivering some Christmas presents to th' humans."
Thundercracker frowned. "Delivering what?"
"Christmas presents," Jazz repeated. "For families who can't afford a Christmas of their own."
The Seeker's look of confusion didn't fade. "What's Christmas?"
Jazz sat up, dumbfounded. "You're kiddin' me, right? Ain't ya ever heard of Christmas?"
"Just bits and pieces," Thundercracker confessed. "Nothing specific, really..."
"Man, you're missin' out!" Jazz exclaimed, still looking shocked at the revelation that the blue Decepticon knew almost nothing about Christmas. "It's th' greatest time of th' year!"
"Sure is!" Swindle chimed in, brightening for the first time since he'd dragged himself into the barn.
"Swindle, you're in on this... Christmas thing?" Thundercracker demanded, turning to give the tan Jeep an incredulous look.
"Of course," Swindle replied cheerily. "It's the time of year I'm able to turn out the biggest profit! Humans buy stuff like crazy between November and January, and when one offers low prices on whatever's the hot Christmas item this year, they don't question who it comes from." He pried a chunk of ice out of a wheel-well, still grinning. "Most wonderful time of the year."
"Well, at least someone around here embodies the greed aspect of the holiday," Wheeljack noted, brushing a cat away from Hound's chest so he could inspect his wound better.
"So... it's a businessman's holiday?" asked Thundercracker, more confused than ever now.
"Nah, not really," Jazz replied. "It's... well, it's a lot of things t' a lot of people. Some humans celebrate it 'cause of their religion - supposedly it's the day a fella called Christ was born, the son of th' human God. For others, it's a time t' spend time with families an' loved ones, or t' do service toward others. There's gift exchangin', an' decorations, an' songs..."
"Don't overwhelm him, Jazz," Hound advised.
"Songs?" Thundercracker considered, some of his confusion fading at last. "I've been picking up some songs on the human wavelengths..."
"You listen to the human wavelengths?" Swindle guffawed, obviously smelling blackmail material.
"Stow it," Thundercracker snapped.
"Really?" asked Jazz. "What ones?"
Thundercracker thought a moment, then hummed a few bars of a soft, haunting tune that Wheeljack recognized but couldn't put a name to. Though if any mech could identify a tune, it would be Jazz... and as if to prove him right, the Porsche began to softly sing along.
"'O Holy Night,'" Jazz identified. "Pretty one."
"Eh, to each their own," Swindle said dismissively. "I like the more lively songs. 'Jingle Bell Rock' is fun. So's 'Sleigh Ride.'"
"Who's listening to human radio now?" Thundercracker chuckled.
"I didn't say it was a BAD thing!" Swindle protested.
Jazz cackled. "'Course it's not a bad thing! Music's one of th' big parts of Christmas, after all!"
"I'm still not clear on why you Autobots would be celebrating it," Thundercracker noted. "I mean, it IS a human holiday."
Wheeljack finished inspecting Hound's injuries and gave the scout a pat to indicate he could lay back down. "Probably because Christmas also covers a theme that Jazz didn't bring up - peace."
"Peace," scoffed Swindle. "Let me guess, you got the idea from Beachcomber..."
"You think it's just a few of us who want to see this war end?" Hound asked, voice quiet but steady. "We're all tired of fighting. We all want to live to see peace restored to Cybertron. Peace is a goal many humans are striving for, especially around Christmastime - 'peace on Earth, goodwill toward men' and such. And even as impossible as it may seem to achieve that goal... isn't it worthy of our time and energy?" He gave the two Decepticons a searching look. "Don't tell me neither of you hasn't ever just wished both sides would lay down their arms and stop trying to destroy each other."
Thundercracker and Swindle exchanged looks, thoughtful.
"No," Thundercracker said at length. "It's a thought that's crossed my CPU many times. More than anything I wish we could bring this war to an end and return to Cybertron."
"Same," Swindle replied. "It's tough being a business-mech dragged into a war. I'd love for it to end. Just don't see how it can."
"Maybe it can't," Jazz said with uncharacteristic solemnity. "Least not right at th' moment. But maybe... for t'night... we can forget about th' war. For Primus' sake, it's almost Christmas Day. Let's just forget we're enemies tonight and celebrate. Surely there ain't no harm in that."
Wheeljack opened his mouth to protest, but found he really couldn't. As Jazz had pointed out, it was Christmas, and surely Prime wouldn't begrudge the Autobots a single day out of the year where they could ignore the war and co-exist peacably with the Decepticons. He wasn't sure if Megatron would be of the same mind... but what the Decepticon leader didn't know wouldn't hurt anyone.
"How does that song go again?" Thundercracker asked. "The night one?"
"Just follow my lead," Jazz replied, and he coached Thundercracker through the first verse of "O Holy Night." The Seeker's voice wasn't exactly suited for singing, but he did a passable job of executing it. Passable, at least, until one of the cows gave a long, loud bellow at the last stanza.
"Yes, I know, he can't carry a tune," Swindle grumped in the animal's direction. "But we're stuck with it for now."
Thundercracker snorted. "Let's hear YOU do any better."
"Gladly," Swindle retorted, and he launched into a lively rendition of "For We Need A Little Christmas" in a voice that wasn't much better than his comrade's, though his enthusiasm made up for it. Jazz joined in and sang along, while Hound hummed along and Wheeljack and Thundercracker merely played audience.
"What about you, 'Jack?" Jazz encouraged. "Got a favorite you wanna share?"
Wheeljack considered, then selected a carol from his memory banks and began: "'Away in a manger, no crib for a bed...'"
With a little coaching from Jazz the others were able to follow along, though Swindle wore a puzzled expression as he sang. "What's a manger?" he asked finally once they had reached the end of the carol.
"It's one o' these." Jazz turned and tapped the draft horse's feed box. "Holds hay for barn animals. Accordin' t' legend, when Christ was born, he was born in a stable kinda like this one, an' slept in a manger. D'spite bein' a son of God, he had a humble birth."
Thundercracker mulled over that a moment. "Let's sing that 'Holy Night' one again. I like that one."
That seemed to set the theme for the night. Clear into the small hours of the morning, the five mechs sang carols, sometimes pausing to teach each other the words or explain the meanings if they knew them. Thundercracker, obviously, had to be educated the most, though he was at least willing to listen and give them a shot. Even Hound offered to lead a few of the songs, though the others' louder, off-key voices tended to drown him out.
It was the last song of the evening, "I Heard the Bells On Christmas Day," that would stick in Wheeljack's memory banks - or, specifically, the third and fourth verses of the song, which struck him powerfully even as they filled the barn:
And in despair I bowed my head
There is no peace on Earth, I said
For hate is strong, and it mocks the song
Of Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor doth he sleep
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men
Before this strange night had begun, Wheeljack might have cynically dismissed the song as the overly hopeful daydream of a naive human. But now, sitting peacably with two of their supposed enemies without fear or hatred, he wondered if it was such an impossible dream after all.
The last verse had barely finished when Wheeljack's radio suddenly crackled to life.
Autobots, come in! Over!
Prime? Wheeljack radioed back. The storm must have finally eased enough to allow radio communications through.
Wheeljack. Prime's voice oozed relief that the scientist was alive and well. Are Hound and Jazz with you?
Yup. Hound needs a medic, though. We were jumped by 'Cons, then got stranded in the snow and had to take shelter for the night. He fired off their coordinates.
Most of the roads are closed where you are, Prime noted. You'll have to walk to the highway. Do you think you can make it, or should we send a pickup?
We'll be fine, Wheeljack replied quickly - any sort of pickup Prime sent was bound to start a firefight once they discovered who was taking shelter with them. Probably won't make back 'til the morning, though.
Very well. Travel safely, Wheeljack. We'll see you tomorrow.
A'right, Wheeljack out.
"Prime on th' horn?" asked Jazz, cocking his head curiously.
"Yeah, just making sure we're all right," Wheeljack replied. "Storm's clear, but we'll have to hike out of here 'cause of the roads."
"In that case, we're out of here," Swindle huffed, getting to his feet. "Megatron's gonna have our cranial assemblies on pikes as it is."
"Wait," Hound requested, getting to his feet with a pained grimace. "Before you go..." He drew something out of subspace and offered it to Thundercracker. "Take this."
Thundercracker stared at the object resting in his hands - a package wrapped in green paper, trimmed with a gold bow. "What is this?"
"The humans have a tradition," he explained. "They give gifts to each other on Christmas. That was intended for someone else... but I think you could use it. It's a collection of Christmas CDs. Maybe you can learn a few of the songs for next year."
Thundercracker nodded and subspaced the package. "Um... thank you. For the gift... and for not blasting us when you had the chance."
"Anytime, TC," Jazz replied. "Y' two take care, a'right?"
"Don't think we're gonna be nice to you next time we're on the battlefield, though," Swindle informed him. "This ain't the end of the war, after all." And he turned and ducked out of the barn, Thundercracker close behind.
"That was a strange night," Wheeljack mused, going to the door of the barn and peering out. He had to power down his optics a moment to protect the circuits - the entire world was blanketed in sparkling white, reflecting the emerging full moon with blinding intensity. Only the tracks of the departing Decepticons disturbed the smooth blankness, ending some twenty feet away to mark where they had taken to the air.
"Was nice, though," Jazz mused. "Ain't bad guys, really. Wouldn't mind chattin' with 'em again."
"You heard Swindle, Jazz," Wheeljack told him. "Next time you meet them, you'll be talking to the business end of an armgun."
"Hey, a mech can dream, can't he?"
True to Prime's word, it took nearly an hour of hiking to reach the highway, which thankfully had been scraped mostly clean of snow. The grateful Autobots dropped to vehicle mode and continued the journey back to the Ark, though the going was still slow to accomodate Hound's damages. They'd already missed most of the Christmas festivities, but somehow that didn't matter much anymore. Going back home would be enough of a Christmas gift for the three of them.
Wheeljack let Jazz take the lead and dropped back to talk to Hound. "I thought you drew Swoop's name in the Christmas exchange, Hound. How are you going to tell him you gave his gift to a Decepticon?"
"I'm not," Hound replied. "I picked up another gift to replace it."
"Picked up another..." Wheeljack pondered that statement a moment before realization hit. "You smuggled one of the barn cats, didn't you?"
Hound just chuckled. "Swoop's wanted a pet, right? Hope you don't mind."
"Nah, I'll teach him how to take care of it," Wheeljack replied. "Still, that was a pretty bold thing you did there. Wonder what Prime would say if he found out."
"I'm sure Prime would understand," Hound replied. "Merry Christmas, Wheeljack."
"Merry Christmas, Hound."
And the three Autobots rounded the last bend in the road before the Ark, the rosy glow of the rising sun tinting the snowy landscape pink and welcoming them home for Christmas.