Of all the places Prowl had been sent for his Prime, Uraya was coming to be the most depressing by far. It was a small town, barely qualified as one, and it was dying. It hovered on the edge of utter disrepute, clinging to existence with the sort of thin-fingered tenacity of the truly desperate.
As far as picking a place to commit morally dubious experiments, Uraya was a great choice. Prowl could see why Starscream would choose to set up shop here. If not for certain odd transactions taking place which attracted the attention of those in Iacon, he might have never been discovered.
The longer Prowl remained in Uraya, the deeper the pity took root in his spark. Cities like Uraya, decaying towns like this, they were evidence of how far Cybertron had fallen. The Golden Age was so long ago as to be the shadow of a memory.
Prime refusing to acknowledge their troubles would only continue to contribute to the unrest. Having been sparked at the height of the Golden Age, he saw their planet through the gold-tinted spectacle Cybertron had once been. Then again, Iacon itself was a monument to how great Cybertron had become.
It was difficult to see the decay when surrounded by purity.
Prowl had been in Uraya for two weeks. He had accomplished nothing save mapping the general layout of the city, and establishing that everyone here was suffering in one way or another. From the packs of Empties roving the wastes, to the Empurata victims creeping in the alleyways, to the citizens struggling to keep themselves fueled, never able to escape their circumstances for one reason or another.
And Starscream, presumably leading them all, but too entangled in his machinations to care for those under his ‘guidance.’
It was exhausting.
Prowl was exhausted.
But he’d heard, of all the businesses in Uraya – though to call them such was being generous – Color and Conversation was the hub of activity. It was well-known. It was well-visited. And the proprietors were connected, somehow, to the Regent – aka Starscream.
It was one of the last places on Prowl’s list to reconnaissance. Which was convenient, given that his tanks had been pinging him for the last hour, and exhaustion tugged at his struts. He could use a sit down, and a sip of something sweet.
Rumor had it that Color and Conversation had the best treats this side of the Wastes, too. Well, Prowl wasn’t much interested in treats. But he could approve of good engex.
He invited himself through the front door, a cheerful little chime announcing his arrival. Everyone looked up as he stepped through, registering and weighing him in one glance. He was dismissed by most, given a few suspicious glances by several others, but otherwise, ignored.
Prowl stood out here. He knew he did. With his relatively spotless, expensive armor, and the fact he held his head high, he obviously didn’t belong. He should have taken up on Jazz’s offer to redecorate himself ‘like the natives’, to quote his irreverent brother. But Prowl was not, and had never been, a spy. He was an investigator. He intended to look like one.
He found an unoccupied booth and slid into it, relieved that it was not so narrow as to restrict his sensory flats. In fact, he could lean back comfortably. How convenient.
He noticed several doorways. One, nearly behind the counter, must have led to some kind of personal quarters, perhaps the owner’s suite. Another, on the far wall between the counter and another string of booths, was more doorway than door. It was open as though to invite visitors inside, though the angle at which Prowl sat meant he could not see into the room.
He looked up as a red mech sauntered into view, a broad grin on his handsome face, and a sparkle to his optics. He had heavy armor, which suggested a warrior or soldier of some kind, though it gleamed as if freshly polished. He carried no rank or affiliation badges either, but he did not appear armed.
“Need a menu?” the mech asked.
Safe to assume he was one of the owners. Prowl doubted there was enough income here to support an employee. He, like everyone else in the city, was probably only scraping by.
“No, thank you,” Prowl said as he inclined his head. “I’ll take whatever you recommend.”
The mech’s orbital ridge rose upward. “You don’t look like a mech who’s not particular,” he commented.
Prowl offered him a polite smile. “Looks can often be deceiving.” He pulled a cred chip from a subspace pocket and handed it to the mech. “If you could add a selection of your energon candies, I would be grateful.”
He was given a suspicious look, but the cred chip quickly vanished. Not a fool was he.
“Sure thing,” the mech said cheerfully. “I’ll just be getting that for ya. The name’s Sideswipe. Holler if you change your mind about what you want before I bring it, yeah?”
‘Sideswipe’ winked and sauntered away, though he swung by a few booths to collect some dirtied cups and flirt with his patrons. While the cafe wasn’t busy, Prowl suspect that this was the average amount of customers. Most of whom were no doubt regulars.
Sideswipe made a complete circuit of the dining area, but he paused by the open doorway Prowl had noticed earlier. He leaned in and shouted, “Sunny, it’s time for your break!”
“I know!” came a snarled reply.
Sideswipe just shrugged and continued on his route. “Then actually listen to me this time,” he shot back, though with far less energy behind it.
No one blinked twice at this exchange. Apparently, it was a common enough occurrence. Curious, but common.
Sideswipe returned behind the counter, dumping the dirtied items into a bin, and humming to himself as he started making orders. Prowl’s gaze wandered back to the open doorway, just as another mech emerged.
Prowl’s spark stuttered.
Sideswipe was handsome, but this mech was even more so. He was, dare Prowl say, pretty. A gleaming gold compared to Sideswipe’s lustrous crimson, though his armor carried the same heaviness as Sideswipe’s. Despite the pitched glare and near smile, he was absolutely stunning.
He stomped out of the room like a stormcloud hovered over his head.
“There you are,” Sideswipe said, and without a missed motion, tossed a rag in the golden mech’s direction. “Here. You missed a spot.”
‘Sunny’ scowled and snatched the rag, rubbing it over his arms. “My alarm was set for another ten minutes.”
“Only because you hit the delay-ten,” Sideswipe retorted with a roll of his optics.
Sunny scooted behind the bar next to his associate, and only standing next to each other could Prowl read the similarities in their construction. Not identical, but perhaps built for the same task. Were they forged or constructed cold? Or were they, perhaps, kindled?
It didn’t matter. Prowl was not one to judge based on one’s origins. But they were intriguing enough that he wondered.
“I don’t need you nannying me,” Sunny snapped.
Sideswipe visibly sighed a ventilation. “Sunny–”
“Stop calling me that!”
Another optic rolled was followed by a correction. “Sunstreaker,” Sideswipe said with a look of utter aggravation. “I wouldn’t have to nanny you if you’d take care of yourself properly.”
While they argued, Sideswipe continued to mix and stir and gather items onto a tray. Apparently this, too, was common place.
“Missing one fuel serving is not going to hurt me. We both know that by now,” Sunstreaker retorted and scrubbed harder at his armor, attacking a spot with the kind of viciousness a mech reserved for their most loathed enemies.
Sideswipe hefted up his tray. “Why do I even bother?” he muttered, but whether or not his partner was meant to hear it, Prowl didn’t know.
He left Sunstreaker behind the counter, swabbing at his frame with utter dedication, though as far as Prowl could tell, Sunstreaker was spotless. His armor gleamed far brighter than any mech in here. One wouldn’t guess, given his appearance, that he called a place like Uraya home.
Sunstreaker looked down at himself, frowned, but tossed the rag into the bin with the dirtied dishes. He turned his back to the room, opening a cabinet to rummage around in it, only to withdraw a tall glass. Perhaps he intended to mix his own drink.
Like Sideswipe, Sunstreaker carried no badge of rank or affiliation. Prowl could see no weapons on his person either. He did, however, have some kind of booster apparatus on his upper back. Curious.
“See something you like?”
Prowl cycled his optics as a red presence appeared in his peripherals. He looked up to acknowledge Sideswipe as the mech set a glass down in front of him, along with a plate of treats, though both with a little more force than seemed necessary.
“Beg your pardon?” Prowl asked.
Sideswipe’s optics narrowed. “Stare any harder and I’m gonna have to start charging you,” he said, tone icy and far from the polite pleasantness he’d offered earlier.
Prowl tilted his head. “I don’t know to what you are referring.”
“Of course you don’t.” Sideswipe snorted and leaned closer, though if he meant to intimidate, he’d have to try harder. “Lookin’ better be all you’re doing, stranger. Understand?”
Prowl curled a hand around his energon, wondering if he ought to check it for poisons first. “Are you this polite with all your customers?”
“Just the ones who try to order off-menu.” Sideswipe smiled, but it was full of denta and as a friendly as a Sharkticon. “I know your kind, Elite, and Sunstreaker ain’t gonna be your new toy.”
Prowl frowned, his sensory panels twitching. He couldn’t help but be offended, even if Sideswipe did have good reason not to trust outsiders. Still, to be judged by his appearance alone. It was insulting. He’d been nothing but polite.
He would have retorted, but the main doors opened then, the cheerful chime announcing the arrival of more customers. Sideswipe straightened and brightened, planting a happy smile on his face.
“Welcome to–” He cut off with a scowl, his posture going stiff and defensive. “Oh, it’s you.” Sideswipe tucked his tray under his arm and stepped away from Prowl’s table.
Warning Prowl had apparently become the least of his worries.
Prowl’s frown lingered. He leaned out of his booth to watch as Sideswipe hurried to greet the mech at the door. Sturdy construction, taller than Sideswipe by a head, and armed by no less than two blasters. Visor and facemask, along with dark, muted colors suggested a former soldier and/or mercenary. Tank treads evidenced a military alt-mode. Worn spots on his chestplate and shoulder hinted he’d once worn badges.
He’d seen this type of mech skulking about Uraya, more often than not intimidating the small business owners or gathering in groups of two or three to chat in very public spaces. They were menacing, and the residents of Uraya tended to give them a wide berth.
Agents of the Regent, Prowl had presumed.
Sideswipe and the mech spoke in urgent, hushed tones. Sideswipe’s armor lifted and rattled, as though agitated, while the military mech was cool and calm.
Well, rumors that Color and Conversation were connected to the Regent in some way must have some truth to them. Sideswipe did not behave as a mech intimidated, only angered.
Finally, he growled and spun toward the serving counter. “Watch the shop, Sunny. I’ll be back in a sec.”
The pretty mech scowled. “Don’t call me that.”
Sideswipe threw up a hand and stomped out the door, following in the wake of the newly arrived stranger. The door chimed cheerfully as they departed.
Again, none of the other patrons seemed surprised by this. They continued chatting amongst themselves, drinking and consuming as if they had nothing better to do.
Prowl turned his attention to his own drink. Prudence reminded him, and he subtly tested the concoction for poisons. But, no. It was nothing more than a weak energon spritzer, dusted with rust flavoring.
Sweet, he discovered, but not poisoned.
The treats themselves looked utterly delectable, enticing Prowl despite not usually enjoying such frivolities. They were a variety of colors and consistencies, and he followed through with temptation, trying several before he was able to convince himself to stop.
There was talent buried in Uraya, he observed.
He refueled quietly and returned his attention to the counter, and the mech behind it. Sunstreaker puttered around, straightening up supplies, wiping the counter, and greeting one mech who walked up to him. He still scowled, but the mech was not visibly offended.
Another regular, perhaps used to Sunstreaker’s mood.
Prowl finished the engex and slipped the rest of the candies into his subspace. He feared if he stayed here too long, observing, someone might realize exactly what he was doing. Jazz would be furious if he managed to get outed by sheer negligence on his part.
The other patrons had left their dirtied glassware and trays behind, a mess for the owners to attend. Prowl, however, could not bring himself to do so. He gathered his items and approached the counter.
It was as much generous as selfish, he knew, because he had to admit, he wanted to speak with Sunstreaker. Both to see what he could find about Starscream, and because the gorgeous mech intrigued him.
“Can I help you?” Sunstreaker asked in a tone that strongly implied Prowl should actually just ‘frag off’ and be done with it.
Prowl set the dirtied items on the counter. “I’m finished for today, but thank you.”
Sunstreaker’s optics, a lovely shade of near-spark blue, flicked from Prowl, to his dishes, and back again. “You can leave those on the table, you know,” he said as he swept them into a tub with other dirtied items.
“Perhaps, but I was taught to be tidy,” Prowl conceded.
Sunstreaker snorted. “You might as well have ‘outsider’ stamped on that chevron of yours then.” He tucked the tub back under the counter, nudging it further in with his hip.
“I am that obvious?”
“Have you looked around you?” Sunstreaker arched an orbital ridge and gave Prowl an amused look.
“Only in passing,” Prowl admitted. “Strangely, my gaze only wishes to focus on one individual in particular.”
Sunstreaker’s optics narrowed. His scowl deepened, and whatever friendliness he’d been working toward vanished. The shift was startling.
“Sides’ll be back in a few,” he said coldly and started to aggressively clear the counter. “You’re not really his type, but he’s not that picky, so I’d say you have a shot.”
Prowl blinked. “Yes. Well, charming as your partner is–”
“He’s my brother,” Sunstreaker said, and loudly rattled the tub of dirtied dishes, lifting it and setting it on a narrow counter behind him. “Twin actually. And, no. We’re not a package deal.” The tub landed with a clunk, and he whirled back toward Prowl. “Are you going to buy something or not?’
Somehow, he’d lost his grasp on the conversation.
Prowl tried to smile. “I already have actually. I was more interested–”
“Look, I have a lot to do,” Sunstreaker said, showing Prowl his back as he sorted bottles of engex mixes, making a lot of noise but not actually accomplishing anything. “So if you’re not buying anything, then you’re not a customer anymore, so thank you, have a nice day, goodbye.”
Someone else stepped up to the counter, and just like that, Prowl was dismissed. Sunstreaker stalked down to the other end and greeted the mech with a pained smile, accepting a credchip in exchange for whatever the mech was ordering.
That… had not gone as Prowl intended.
He set a credchip on the counter, hoping Sunstreaker would find it and accept it as a tip, and took his leave. He suspected he would get no more information today.
Prowl glanced at the counter, where Sunstreaker was busy with another patron, and took an opportunity to investigate the open doorway. The room beyond wasn’t large, not compared to the huge dining area, and it was mostly windows, and open space.
Large and small canvases were stacked against the walls, some blank, some half-finished, some near-completion and a few that looked as if they were done. A cabinet was stocked with art supplies, and there was an easel and station with a chair set in front of it.
Sunstreaker was an artist. And a good one, at that, though Prowl was not truly equipped to judge. He could only state what his optics enjoyed, and Sunstreaker’s canvases certainly made his spark spin with emotion.
Prowl made himself turn away, before he drew undue attention. For both Sideswipe and Sunstreaker were right. He did stand out. He was obviously an outsider.
He took his leave of the cafe, but he knew he would be returning. Both because he suspected his mission would need the intel, and because Sunstreaker intrigued him.
It seemed like this mission would not be a complete nightmare after all.