Good things, it seemed, were not meant to last.
Sideswipe didn’t bother to knock or announce himself ahead of time. Instead he burst into Sunstreaker’s studio with all the grace of a rampaging bulldozer, his field a frenetic swirl that battered at Sunstreaker and stole his concentration.
He startled, sweeping a broad stripe of bright crimson in the middle of his painting where it did not belong. The thick paint immediately started to drip, smearing the image beneath it.
“What the frag!” Sunstreaker shoved his palette and brush down, whipping toward his brother. “You ruined it! What the slag is your–”
Sideswipe shoved a flimsy at him, right under his nasal ridge. “This,” Sideswipe hissed, rattling the flimsy. “He has to go!”
Sunstreaker snatched it from him, frown growing. “What are you talking about?” he demanded even as his gaze turned to the flimsy, skimming it quickly.
Dread plummeted into his tanks.
It was a statement from the Regent. Starscream had put a new law into effect. Anyone caught assisting or concealing an Empurata mech was to be arrested immediately and the Empura to be taken into custody. It did not say what the punishment would be for those arrested.
Normally, declarations such as these listed minimal fines. That there was nothing here was worrisome. It suggested a punishment worse than fines, worse than imprisonment.
“When did you get this?” Sunstreaker asked.
“Just now.” Sideswipe’s engine rumbled, his field still spiking with concern. “Starscream’s goons were handing them out. Gave me a whole stack to give to my customers.”
Sunstreaker shook his head, the flimsy rattling in his grip. “The Regent’s never cared about the Empuras before. That’s why they’re tossed down here. Cause no one cares. Why would he bother now?”
“I don’t know.” Sideswipe folded his arms. “And I don’t care. All I know is that your pet has to go. I’m not going to prison for him.”
Sunstreaker’s gaze moved to the doorway. Sideswipe was a bit too loud and if any of their customers noticed…
He pushed past Sideswipe to the small door that connected his studio to the apartment. “We can’t talk about this here.”
“Well, we’re going to.” Sideswipe grabbed his arm, his grip firm, but not enough to dent.
Sunstreaker half-whirled toward him as Sideswipe’s field collided with his. There was anger, concern… and beneath it all, fear. Was Sideswipe truly afraid of the Regent? Of what he could do?
Sunstreaker tugged on his arm. “Let me go.”
“No.” Sideswipe flexed his fingers, his optics burning at Sunstreaker. “Look, it was fun while it lasted. I get it, I honestly do. And I was fine with it while it was just a phase, a coping mechanism or something. Now, he’s just dangerous.”
Sunstreaker’s engine revved. “He’s not the one who’s dangerous!” he hissed, his spark throbbing in his chestplate. “I’m not going to just throw him out there. He’ll die.”
“He survived well enough before. He can do it again.” Sideswipe stepped closer, his voice quieting but no less urgent. “I will not let that Empura be what gets us killed.”
“And I’m not going to toss him out!” Sunstreaker shoved on Sideswipe’s chestplate, forcing him to let go. “I’m not afraid of the Regent!”
Sideswipe’s optics flashed. “Well, you should be. You have no idea how dangerous he is!” His field swept through the room, battering against Sunstreaker’s like a physical blow.
“I don’t care,” Sunstreaker hissed, denta gritting so hard he tasted sparks on his glossa. “I’m not making him leave.”
“Primus-be-damned, Sunstreaker!” Sideswipe snarled, his voice getting loud, too loud.
It drew the attention of some of their customers, who peered into Sunstreaker’s studio with gleeful expressions.
Sunstreaker and Sideswipe having a row wasn’t at all unusual. They tended to argue about the stupid things. But this topic alone was enough to get them unwanted attention.
Sunstreaker narrowed his optics, shifting so that his back was to the door, though it left his armor itching. “If you make him leave, then I will, too,” he said, his voice cold and low, only audible to Sideswipe.
“You can’t be serious.”
Sunstreaker lifted his head. “Oh, yeah? Watch me.”
He spun on a heel, stalking toward the door. The customers scattered once they saw him coming. Frequent visitors learned their lessons. Never get between the twins when they were disagreeing.
Sideswipe grabbed his arm, yanking him back. Sunstreaker’s engine raced. He didn’t hesitate. He spun into the pull, using his momentum to his advantage, his free hand balled into a fist. He punched Sideswipe, his brother too unprepared to dodge in time, the fist slamming into Sideswipe’s right cheek.
Sideswipe howled, jerking back and releasing Sunstreaker at the same time. He grabbed at his cheek, the dermal plating already beginning to swell, even as he stared at Sunstreaker, optics wide. His vents stuttered.
Sunstreaker tucked his arm back at his side, though his hands remained in fists. His own vents whirred, and his engine rumbled from the wildness of his emotions. He had struck Sideswipe before. Physical altercations between them were nothing new. This, however, had a different taste to it.
“No,” Sunstreaker said carefully, each word enunciated. “I’m not going to lose anyone else, Sideswipe. I refuse.”
Sideswipe stared after him, something bleak and hurting in his expression. Sunstreaker’s spark squeezed into a tiny ball. He hated to see that look on Sideswipe’s face. He hated knowing that he’d put it there.
Yet, he couldn’t bring himself to apologize. Not right now. Not with customers peering at them around the edges of the doorway, and the threat of Dent’s safety hanging in the balance.
Sunstreaker spun back on a heel and stormed out of his studio, the crowd parting. At least, those that hadn’t already abandoned the cafe altogether. Here on the edge of Uraya, there wasn’t much to be had in the way of entertainment. Some were probably disappointed that there hadn’t been any energon shed.
Sunstreaker ignored them all and headed for his shared apartment with Sideswipe. He’d leave Sideswipe to deal with the customers and the questions, give them some space. If he came back in later and spouted that same slag about Dent leaving, they’d have another chat.
Or Sunstreaker would pack a bag. He had enough in his savings to get a small room until he could sell another painting. He’d figure out something. He wasn’t helpless; he didn’t need Sideswipe to protect him.
He wasn’t going to let Dent go. He wasn’t going to lose another one. He wasn’t. He refused.
His spark squeezed tighter.
Sunstreaker closed the door behind him, letting the quiet of the apartment swallow him. His hands ached, and he forced them to unclench. He looked at his right hand, at the scrape of silver paint across his knuckles.
Sunstreaker bowed his head, gnawing on his bottom lip. He hated arguing with Sideswipe. He hated the clench of guilt, the squeeze of his spark. He hated that look in Sideswipe’s optics.
Sunstreaker scraped his hand down his face and cycled a shuddering ventilation. It took several of them before he managed to stop shaking.
He went looking for Dent. Sometimes, just being in the Empura’s presence was enough to bring him calm. There was something soothing about the Empura, something Sunstreaker still couldn’t explain, awkward moments aside.
He checked the washrack, the berthrooms, the storage-cum-Dent’s room, the main room. He looked in the closets, and it wasn’t until Sunstreaker looked under the berths, too, that he started to panic.
No signs of a struggle. Nothing in disarray. He hadn’t been taken. He must have left on his own.
Sunstreaker’s spark strobed panic. He rushed to the back door, shoving it open. It was enclosed by a tall fence, mostly as a deterrent and preventative. Anyone could climb over it if they were nimble enough.
Then again, Dent could have walked through the front door while he and Sideswipe argued, and Sunstreaker wouldn’t have noticed.
He went back into the apartment and searched again, just to be sure, but Dent was truly gone. He hadn’t even taken any of the pouches from the cabinet. Of course he wouldn’t.
This was insane! Sunstreaker was sure they’d convinced him he could remain. Unless…
Oh, Primus. Unless he’d overheard Sunstreaker and Sideswipe arguing. The side door from Sunstreaker’s studio into the apartment was right by a storage closet, the one Dent favored for cleaning supplies.
Sunstreaker whipped back toward the cafe, anger and frustration both building inside of him, strong enough to eclipse the fear. He stalked back into the main dining area, his field preceding him in a boil of anger, and causing no few patrons to quail away.
“Come to apologize?” Sideswipe asked, his tone cold.
“No.” Sunstreaker snapped, his plating fluffed out as his defense protocols activated, preparing him for a fight. “I’m leaving.”
“What? Sunny!” Sideswipe threw down his cloth and vaulted over the counter. “You can’t be serious? Where are you going to go?”
“Out.” Sunstreaker stormed toward the door, customers scattering in front of him like frightened turbofoxes.
Sideswipe intercepted him, skidding to a stop and planting his hands on Sunstreaker’s chestplate. “Do you even hear yourself?” he hissed as his hands impacted Sunstreaker’s armor with a loud chime. “You’re acting crazy.”
Sunstreaker stared at him, jaw set. “He’s gone.”
“He’s gone,” Sunstreaker gritted out, his hands forming fists. “He left because he heard you.”
“Am I supposed to be upset about that?” Sideswipe demanded, his engine revving. “Him being here was putting us in danger!”
“And he’s in danger out there!” Sunstreaker shouted, his field slamming into the room with all the subtlety of a hammer. “Get out of my way, Sideswipe.”
“No!” Sideswipe’s hands grew firmer on his chestplate. “I’m not letting you go storming off into the Wastes after some… some…”
Sunstreaker snarled. “Some what? Go on, Sideswipe. Why don’t you say it? Tell me exactly what you think of him.”
Sideswipe glared at him, vents heaving. “He is not Prowl,” he said, his voice oddly hushed. His cheek was still swollen, energon dried in the cut Sunstreaker’s knuckle had left behind. “And I need you to realize that.”
“I’m not stupid. I know that. I know that he’s gone. I know that he left.” It hurt so much to say. It came out in a strangled sound, something tore from his vocalizer. “I know that he’s not Prowl,” Sunstreaker repeated, as much for himself as much for Sideswipe. “But he is my friend, and that’s all the reason I need.”
Sunstreaker wasn’t Sideswipe. He didn’t know how to charm people. He didn’t know how to connect and carry a conversation. He got lost in the words. He couldn’t read others either.
Sunstreaker didn’t have friends.
Before Prowl, he’d never even had a lover.
It hit him just then. It occurred to him why he’d clung to Dent so tightly, why he’d wanted to protect Dent and give him a place to stay.
Sunstreaker’s vents hitched as he looked his brother in the optics. “I have to find him, Sideswipe. I have to.”
His twin’s shoulders slumped, his head hanging. His hands softened on Sunstreaker’s chestplate. “Fine,” he said, sounding tired. “I won’t fight you on this. I’ll even help you, but please, Sunny. Not tonight. Just trust me. Not tonight.”
Sunstreaker shook so hard he can hear his armor rattling. But Sideswipe’s plea struck a chord with him. There was something in his twin’s optics that spoke of more than his disdain for Dent and what he represented. There was fear.
“Fine,” Sunstreaker gritted out. “But only for tonight.”
He took a step back, forcing Sideswipe’s hands to slide off his chestplate. The anger rattled inside of him like a loose gear. He gave Sideswipe another long look and then stomped back toward their apartment.
He was painfully aware of their audience, of the customers who watched and spoke to each other in hushed words.
“Okay! Show’s over!” Sideswipe said in a fakely cheerful voice, clapping his hands together. “What say you to a free round of engex on the house, hm?”
The cheer that rose behind Sunstreaker was muted and lacked enthusiasm, but hopefully, Sideswipe could get them all drunk enough they’d forget this night happened. Honestly, Sunstreaker wanted to indulge in the engex himself.
Dent was out there while the Regent’s soldiers were distributing those flyers. He had taken nothing with him. Who knew how far he would go?
Sunstreaker worried. He worried more than he could express in words. He feared for Dent, alone in the dark, surrounded by the half-crazed Empuras and the hungry Empties.
Dent was clean and polished. He was in good repair. He would stick out like a noble in Uraya’s main square. He looked like an easy mark.
Sunstreaker gnawed on his bottom lip. His hands clenched and unclenched.
Tomorrow. Tomorrow he would look. Tomorrow he would bring Dent home.
Every moment. Every available opportunity. If he was not minding the counter for Sideswipe, Sunstreaker searched.
He thought he’d lived long enough on the edge of the Wastes to have a decent idea of the layout. He was wrong. The deeper he ventured, the more twisted and confusing it became. Roads simply ended. Rusting, decayed buildings collapsed to create shambling husks of dark hiding places.
Empties peered at him from the dim, denta clicking noisily. Other Empura hid when they saw him coming, as though they believed him to be one of Starscream’s goons.
None stuck around long enough for Sunstreaker to ask them a question. No one would help him. But Dent had to be here. He wasn’t in the handfuls of Empuras Sunstreaker had seen Starscream’s goons lead out day after day.
He’d lived for weeks on his own. He knew how to survive. Sunstreaker still didn’t intend to leave him out here.
Days passed. Then weeks. A month crawled by, agonizingly slow. The distance between he and Sideswipe grew frostier. They barely spoke.
Sideswipe offered to help. Sunstreaker told him not to bother. He had more important things to do.
Sunstreaker kept looking. He returned home dirty and exhausted, his tank pinging him for energon. He had to hide from Starscream’s goons more than a few times, lest he be caught associating with Empuras.
He looked. He vowed to never stop looking until he found Dent, or what was left of him. Until he found a clue that would either lead him to Dent, or to the Regent’s Palace.
Sunstreaker refused to lose anyone again.
“He won’t talk to me,” Sideswipe said, frustration spitting static into his vocals. He hit a corner, spun and kept going. “He barely even looks at me. I know he blames me, but frag, how was I supposed to know?”
Ricochet sighed, rubbing his forehead. “Sides, you’re makin’ me dizzy.”
He stopped mid-pace, spinning to look straight at his lover. Ricochet was perched in a chair, leaning forward on his elbows, visor dim.
“Sorry,” Sideswipe said with a cycled ventilation. “I just… I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. And you can’t tell me because you’re compromised or whatever.” He flopped a hand vaguely.
No mixing business with pleasure. He could talk about Dent with Ricochet and be reassured that Ricochet would never tell Starscream about him. But that also meant Ricochet wouldn’t tell him if Starscream had Dent, or what to do about it.
Ricochet leaned back and ran a hand over his head. “That’s one way ta put it. Seems ta me you’re doing everything ya can. All that’s left is ta wait for your brother ta get over it.”
“Right. Get over it.” Sideswipe snorted. “Sunny doesn’t do that. He dwells. He lingers. He already thinks he failed Prowl somehow. And now he’s equated the two in that fool head of his.”
“Is that such a bad thing?”
Sideswipe tilted his head, blinking. “What do you mean?”
Ricochet leaned his head against his fist, bracing his elbow on the arm of the chair. “You objected ta the Empura even before the declaration. Why?”
“Because he’s dangerous!”
Sideswipe stared at Ricochet. “… he’s an Empura,” he answered, and realized how stupid he sounded.
He sighed and scraped a hand down his face. “You don’t understand. It’s Sunny, okay? I just–”
“–are weirdly protective of him?” Ricochet’s lips quirked in a grin before his free hand gestured to Sideswipe, beckoning him closer. “It’s okay. I get it. My brother’s like that, too.”
Sideswipe blinked and moved closer. “You have a brother?”
“Mmm. An older one.” Ricochet captured his hand and dragged Sideswipe down into his lap, as amusing as it was given their height difference. The chair creaked beneath their weight, but held fast. “He’s a pain in my crankshift. Loves the rules. And he’s protective like you are. Took me forever ta convince him ta let me do what I want to do.”
Sideswipe arched an orbital ridge as he draped his arms over Ricochet’s shoulders. “Huh. I can’t imagine why he would object to you being a thug on the edge on the Wastes.”
“I am far better than a thug,” Ricochet said with a note of fake-offense in his tone. “But that’s beside the point.”
He tugged Sideswipe closer until their frames were flush. He tipped his chin up, putting their lips in proximity.
“There’s a point when ya gotta let go,” Ricochet murmured, his fingers teasing a gentle pattern up the ridges of Sideswipe’s spinal strut. “When ya let him make his own choices, his own mistakes.”
Sideswipe hummed in his intake. “I know that. I’m not his caretaker.”
Ricochet chuckled. “Sometimes, I’m not sure ya know that.” He leaned in, lips brushing over Sideswipe’s. “You’ll get through this. I’m sure of it. Just stop trying ta lead him and start standin’ beside him.”
“Heh. Since when are you so full of sage advice?” Sideswipe asked, tracing his nasal ridge over Ricochet’s cheek, just below his visor.
“Since always.” Ricochet’s engine purred, fingers dipping into Sideswipe’s transformation seams. “So how’s about instead of talking, ya let me distract you?”
Sideswipe’s dermal plating tingled. “Sounds good to me,” he breathed before dragging his mouth to Ricochet’s and capturing his lips for a glossa-tangling kiss.
He had only a few hours before he needed to return to the apartment and make sure Sunstreaker came back safely.
He wanted to make the most of every moment of it.
Sunstreaker was running out of places to look.
Granted, the Wastes were large, far more than Sunstreaker ever gave it credit. Given that it was a dumping ground for almost the entirety of Cybertron, could he be so surprised? He was at the point of daring to go underground, something even the desperate were reluctant to do.
Surely Dent wasn’t so foolish as to hide there?
Sunstreaker paused and ducked into an alley. He leaned against a decaying wall, ex-venting softly. He was exhausted. He needed to get home before Sideswipe started to ping him with worry again. He had the unfortunate feeling that someone or something had been following him…
Sunstreaker shuttered his optics, counted his vents. He could spare maybe twenty more minutes of searching before he’d need to start heading back.
He didn’t want to lose hope, but he wondered if maybe he ought to be realistic. Maybe it wasn’t that he couldn’t find Dent, but that Dent hid from him on purpose. Maybe, no matter how hard he looked, he’d never find his friend.
Sunstreaker sighed and pushed himself off the wall. Nothing to it. Once more, into the breach, he reasoned.
He would just have to keep on looking.
“You need to go home.”
Sunstreaker whirled around, his spark throbbing in his chest. There, in the dark and dim, he could barely make out the shape of another mech. But there was no mistaking that field, the familiarity of it, almost reaching for Sunstreaker’s own as if magnetically drawn.
“Dent?” Sunstreaker whispered, taking a step toward the dark shape. It immediately moved back a step and Sunstreaker froze.
“You need to go home.” The sound of pincers clicking together nervously filled the space between them. “It is not safe here.”
“I can take care of myself.” Sunstreaker worked his intake. “Besides, I’m not going home until you come with me.”
The single optic dimmed. “I cannot see you harmed,” he said, voice wreathed with static, the strong flare of his field abruptly dropping into something barely tangible. As though he’d expended what little energy he had.
“Pah. I’m not scared of the Regent.”
“You should be.” Dent slid away another step, until Sunstreaker could barely make out his shape. He wished he had more light so he could see Dent in full. “Dangerous.”
Sunstreaker closed his hands into fists. “You let me be the judge of that.” He cycled a ventilation and peered over his shoulder, out the mouth of the alley.
There was no one around. No prying audials. Well, save for the Empties and other Empuras. But they were as unlikely to betray Sunstreaker, as they were unlikely to offer aid.
“I want you to come home,” Sunstreaker said, his spark squeezing again. He tried inching closer to Dent, and was relieved when the Empura didn’t immediately shift away.
“Frag Sideswipe!” Sunstreaker hissed, perhaps a bit too sharply, because Dent cringed away from him, and Sunstreaker cursed at himself. “I’m sorry. I meant, Sideswipe’s dumb. Don’t listen to him. You belong with us. With… with me.”
Dent’s optic flared brightly. His vents stuttered. His pincers clicked together again. “With… you?” His field shivered where it gently touched Sunstreaker’s. “Sir, I can’t.”
Sunstreaker flinched. So it was back to that, was it? He gnawed on the inside of his cheek, wishing he was better at this, at talking. How could he help Dent understand?
“Because you don’t want to?” Sunstreaker asked, trying to keep his voice soft. “Or because you think you shouldn’t?”
Dent’s optic grew even brighter. His vocals lay a round of static and he pressed against the alley wall. “I… can’t.”
Sunstreaker’s spark ached. He took a small step forward, reaching for the other mech. “Dent–”
He hissed, dizziness cresting over him. Sunstreaker reeled, his shoulder hitting the alley wall as he clutched at his head.
Their bond flashed, fear and panic intermingled. Sunstreaker’s knees wobbled and he dropped. His focus turned inward, and both hands clutched at his head now. It felt like his processor was trying to split open, such was the volume of Sideswipe’s shout.
–It’s the Regent.– Sideswipe’s comm was strained and their bond sizzled again. –Please, for once, just listen to me, damn it. I need you to–
The comm cut off, leaving Sunstreaker with a static-laced silence. He could still feel Sideswipe on the other side of the bond, faint impressions of worry, of false bravado. But no matter how many times Sunstreaker pinged his twin, Sideswipe would not pick up.
Warmth. Comfort. Familiarity.
Sunstreaker blinked, looking up to find that Dent had approached him. One pincer gingerly lay on Sunstreaker’s shoulder as that single optic glowed down at him.
“It’s Sideswipe,” Sunstreaker gasped, his mouth dry, his legs trembling. “Something’s happened. I don’t know. I have to… I have to get back.”
He pushed himself back to his feet, bracing himself against the wall. His entire frame wobbled. Sideswipe hadn’t leaned this hard on their bond in centuries. Not since they were trying to scrap out a living in the Wastes.
“I will go with you,” Dent said.
Sunstreaker stared at him, vision wavering before it clarified. “But–”
Dent approached, sliding an arm around Sunstreaker’s waist and encouraging him to lean against Dent’s side. “You will need help.”
Sunstreaker leaned hard into him, his knees like gelatin but holding his weight. “Does this mean you’ll stay?”
Dent’s pincer twitched at his side. “I will see.”
It was enough.
“That’s fair.” Sunstreaker took one careful step, grateful for Dent’s support. “We can worry about Sideswipe first.”
After all, if the panic in Sideswipe’s voice was anything to go back, Sunstreaker might not have a home to go back to.
Sideswipe finished wiping down the display bottle of engex and returned it to the shelf behind the bar, fighting back another sigh. There was a certain degree of energy any good bartender knew to maintain. He simply found himself struggling to keep it up day after day.
Tense was too soft a word to describe the atmosphere between him and his brother. Sunstreaker was mad at him, perhaps rightly so, but he didn’t understand, damn it.
It was all Prowl’s fault, when Sideswipe traced everything to the roots. If Prowl hadn’t come here and swept Sunstreaker up into romantic fantasies, none of this would be happening now.
Sideswipe’s engine grumbled. He set his jaw and reached for the next bottle to dust. His cafe was already sparkling clean, but he needed something to do that wasn’t pacing back and forth behind the bar, anxiously watching the door.
Sunny was out there again, searching for that fragging Empura, and there wasn’t a damn thing Sideswipe could do to stop him.
The tiny bell dinged. Customers.
Sideswipe planted a smile on his face and turned. “Welcome to Color and– Oh.” He steeled himself, spark throbbing with anxiety as Starscream, Ricochet, and a handful of mercenaries crowded into his cafe. “What can I do for you, Regent? I didn’t know we had a meeting.”
Starscream grinned and sauntered toward the counter. “We don’t,” he said, something in his tone making Sideswipe’s spinal strut shiver. “I came here for another matter. An official one.” He tilted his head, resting a single clawed hand on the counter. “I hear rumors, Sideswipe, and I am very disappointed.”
“Rumors?” Sideswipe repeated, keeping up his grin. From his peripheral vision, he could see Starscream’s goons scaring his customers right out of the cafe.
“Of what sort?” Sideswipe asked even as he sent a ping to Sunstreaker’s comm, which predictably, was sent straight to his inbox. So Sideswipe sent another. And another.
Starscream leaned against the counter, only the space of it separating them. “I’ve been informed that you are hiding an Empura,” he purred, crimson optics bright. “Which we all know is an offense that demands an immediate arrest.”
Sideswipe very slowly set down the bottle of engex. “I don’t know what you mean. There’s no one here but you and me, your guards and well, not any customers though. Seems you scared them off.” He braced his hands on the counter and grinned.
Sunstreaker didn’t answer his ping. Damn it.
He only had one tactic left, and Sideswipe hated to do it. He had no choice. Sunstreaker couldn’t come back here. Especially if he’d found Dent.
Sideswipe leaned on their bond. He tapped on it. He beat on it. He shoved into it like he hadn’t in decades because it tended to send Sunny reeling.
Starscream grinned. “Perhaps. So I’m sure you won’t mind if I have a small look around, just to be sure.” He lifted a hand, making a gesture that prompted his squad of guards to make a beeline toward their apartment. Only Ricochet stayed behind.
“Sure.” Sideswipe shrugged nonchalantly. “The door’s unlocked. You won’t find anything.”
“I hope I don’t.” Starscream’s optics flashed and he moved, quicker than Sideswipe could have expected. His hand shot across the bar, snatching Sideswipe’s jaw and holding it firmly. “It’s unfortunate, really. You were my favorite supplier.”
Sideswipe’s spark rang with fear. He jerked back, away from Starscream, as Sunstreaker finally answered the ping. He shouted a warning at his brother over the comm.
“I still can be.” Sideswipe’s vents stuttered, uneven. “There’s no one here so you have nothing to worry about. We can quash that pesky rumor and get back to business.”
Starscream’s smirk showed too much denta for Sideswipe’s comfort. “Yes,” he said. “Business. As it turns out, I have need of you and your brother for a little venture.”
“Can I say no?”
Starscream’s smile widened. “That depends on what I find in your apartment.”
Sideswipe worked his intake. His glance skittered to Ricochet, but his lover was stone-faced and silent. He stood there like the silent but deadly guard he was, arms folded behind his back.
Right. Never mixing business with pleasure. Sideswipe could expect no help on that front.
“Then let me go ahead and turn you down gently,” Sideswipe said brightly, pretending to wipe down the counter and easing away from Starscream. “Because, as I said, there’s no one here but me and my business, which is sadly, now empty.”
The apartment door shoved back open. “He’s telling the truth,” one of Starscream’s hired guns said as he stepped out, another on his heels. “There is no one here.”
“But we did find these,” the second said as he tossed a handful of energon pouches onto the counter.
Sideswipe worked his intake. “So?”
Starscream walked to the end of the counter, dragging his clawtip along the top of it until he came to the pouches. “You have a mouth,” he observed idly. He picked up one of the pouches, examining it. “No need for these.”
“I run a cafe.”
Starscream thumbed the tip of the pouch, designed to accommodate an auto-injector. “This is specifically designed to fuel an Empura.” He gave Sideswipe a sideways look. “I don’t imagine you have too many paying customers of those, do you?”
Sideswipe set his jaw. “I make it a habit of stocking everything.”
“Mm. Sure you do.” Starscream tossed the pouch onto the pile, his wings flicking left and right. “Where is your brother?”
Starscream’s lips curved into a smile that Sideswipe had learned to be wary of. “Out the back, I suppose. Perhaps the moment you saw us walk in?” He shook his head, clicking his glossa. “I’m so disappointed, Sideswipe. I thought we had something special.” One hand lifted, gesturing toward Sideswipe.
The two goons rushed around the bar. Sideswipe held up his hands, hoping to forestall violence, thinking cooperation might gain him some slack.
Cooperation didn’t stop the two mechs from slamming him face first onto the counter and roughly cuffing his hands behind his back. Perhaps they’d been warned. Maybe they expected resistance.
Ow. Sideswipe started to think he should have started with resistance. His shoulders ached where they wrenched his arms back too suddenly. The cuffs were strong when he tested them, Enforcer grade if he had a guess.
The shipment he’d gotten for Starscream two months ago – courtesy of Swindle – was coming back to bite him in the aft.
“I didn’t do anything!” Sideswipe growled.
They hauled him back upright, each gripping him by the shoulder, as they mechhandled him around the counter.
“Harboring an Empura is prohibited,” Starscream said dryly as he watched his mercenaries drag Sideswipe to the center of the cafe. He strode closer, tilting his head. “Where is he?”
“He’s out!” Sideswipe snarled, grinding his denta. “Why are you so interested in my brother anyway.”
Starscream rolled his optics. “Not your twin. His pet.”
Sideswipe’s engine growled. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You’re not as good a liar as you think you are.” Starscream whirled on a heelstrut. “No matter. He’ll show up eventually. Let’s go.”
He strode toward the door, Ricochet preceding him and his guards dragging Sideswipe out behind him. His customers had all scattered, Sideswipe noticed sourly. Outside, he could see a few curious faces peering his direction, mostly from the position of onlooker. No one offered help.
No one wanted to cross the Regent.
Sideswipe should have known. At least he would be relieved to know that Sunstreaker was far, far away by now. He should have gone to their bolthole, grabbed the supplies and ran, if he knew what was good for him.
Because Sideswipe had the discomfiting feeling that he might not make it out of this alive.
He hated the roads, the clogged and cluttered pathways that made transforming impossible. He hated that he still felt weak, that his knees wobbled, but worry eclipsed all else. Worry kept him going, putting one foot in front of the other, ducking down alleyways and climbing over debris.
Dent was on his heels, surprisingly able to keep up, though his ventilations puffed and stuttered and he made as much noise as Sunstreaker did.
The main road back into Uraya came into view, but Sunstreaker skirted around it, coming up behind Color and Conversation instead. As he did, he caught a glimpse of what appeared to be the Regent and a handful of guards.
Sunstreaker skidded to a halt and ducked behind a pile of garbage, pulling Dent down beside him. His spark thudded in his chassis.
The Regent, a handful of assorted guards and – Sunstreaker leaned out long enough to look before ducking back – yeah. They had Sideswipe. Frag.
He muttered another curse under his vents and pulled out his blaster, checking the charge. Half-power. Not enough.
“I don’t know why Starscream wants Sideswipe, but he can’t have him,” Sunstreaker said, pushing back to his feet.
He kept to the shadows, to the cover offered by buildings and piles of refuse as he tried to plan his attack. Not that there was much he could plan. He was outnumbered and outgunned. All he had was the element of surprise.
“The Regent is dangerous,” Dent said as he followed along, keeping himself hidden far better than Sunstreaker did.
“Not as much as I can be.” Sunstreaker ducked into an alley, trying to ignore the tremors in his spark.
Why did Starscream linger? What was he waiting for?
No. That answer was obvious. This was a trap, and Sunstreaker was going to walk right into it. What other choice did he have?
“Stay here,” Sunstreaker said. His spark pounded in his chest. “I can’t do this and worry about you, too. Okay?”
Dent’s optic brightened at him. “You will need assistance.”
“I can do this on my own.” Sunstreaker gripped his blaster and cycled a vent. “It won’t be the first time. Just… stay here.”
Dent lifted his head in a nod, his single optic dimming. “Very well.”
Sunstreaker worked his intake and then pushed to his feet. He felt he should say something else, but there was nothing to say.
He crept to the edge of the alley and peered out. No one had moved, though Starscream had taken to pacing. Sideswipe looked obstinate. Two of the guards looked bored, their hands resting casually near their blasters.
It was most definitely a trap.
But it wasn’t the worst odds Sunstreaker had ever faced. He’d already lost Prowl. He wasn’t going to lose Sideswipe, too.
Sunstreaker flexed his grip around his blaster. Starscream spun on a heel, his back to Sunstreaker’s position. His wings twitched. He looked to be in the middle of some speech.
Now or never.
Sunstreaker emerged from his hiding place. He let his blaster announce his appearance, firing at the two guards who looked bored. One shot struck true, straight through the chassis. The other guard dodged and Sunstreaker took out his knee, firing again when he collapsed to blow up his blaster.
Two down, two to go, and Starscream.
Sunstreaker pointed his blaster at the Seeker, keeping his focus on Starscream and the guards in his peripheral. “I have no qualms about killing you,” he said, his voice cold. “Let my brother go.”
Starscream grinned, folding his arms over his cockpit. “Thank you for saving me the trouble of finding you,” he purred.
“Let him go!” Sunstreaker snarled, the blaster giving off a charging whine.
“No,” Starscream replied, in the same moment that Sideswipe threw himself forward.
“Behind you!” Sideswipe shouted as the two guards yanked him back.
Sunstreaker spun as a fist swung toward his face. No time to move, no time to avoid. It slammed into the side of his head, sending his processor into disarray. Strong fingers gripped his wrist, yanking him forward, off-balance. He dropped the gun, fingers lacking input, and Sunstreaker swung blindly.
He connected, heard the dull impact of metal on metal, and a low curse. Ricochet. He knew that voice.
Stars danced in his optical feed as another open-palmed smack struck the opposite side of his head. Static overlaced it all, audials ringing. Sunstreaker stumbled. Everything was a rush, a blur, until sensation snapped into sharp relief with the inhibitor cuffs that were slapped around his wrists.
Sunstreaker’s knees buckled and he slumped forward, knees hitting the ground. His arms were cuffed behind his back, numb from the elbows down. His tanks lurched as the disorientating pulse of the inhibitor cuff swept through his frame. How did Ricochet get hold of those?
“Now,” Starscream said, his voice as if from a distance. “Perhaps we can discuss this like civilized mecha. Ricochet, bring him here.”
“Yes, sir.” Ricochet hauled Sunstreaker back to his feet and dragged him across the ground, only to shove him down next to his brother.
Sunstreaker’s processor whirled. Lights danced in his optics. It was hard to focus on anything except the lurching of his tanks. This morning’s energon wanted to re-emerge.
Sharp pain echoed through his head, where Ricochet had struck him the first time. Sunstreaker groaned, his fuzzy vision clarifying into Starscream leaning over him.
“Pay attention,” the Regent said. “I asked you a question.”
Sunstreaker forced himself to focus, to look up at Starscream, building belligerence into his expression. “I’m not answering any questions,” he slurred.
The Regent held out a hand, one of their guards slipping a blaster into it. He flicked a thumb over the charging node. “I may be able to change your mind,” he said, and aimed the blaster toward Sideswipe. “Now where is he?’
Sunstreaker’s spark skipped an oscillation. His optics widened. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Of course you don’t.” Starscream rolled his optics. “Don’t play games with me, brat. Where is your pet, the Empura, the mech you’re protecting.”
“What? I’m not protecting anyone except my brother!” Sunstreaker said and wriggled beneath the grip of on his shoulder.
Starscream cycled a ventilation, his lips pressing to a thin line. “Then suppose you tell me how you found out,” he said, an odd shift of gears as he made a broad gesture with his blaster. “Did you realize it on your own, or is there actually something left of Prowl in there?”
Sunstreaker’s vents caught. He worked his intake, rebooting his audials. “Prowl? Prowl’s gone,” he spat, forcing anger into his vocals to hide the fear. “He left months ago.”
“I am not an idiot, Sunstreaker.” Starscream leaned closer, looming without trying, the tip of the blaster forcing Sunstreaker’s chin up so that their optics could meet. “You’d taken it into your home. You sheltered it, fed it, polished it. You’ve known it was Prowl all along, didn’t you?”
Sunstreaker’s optics widened. His world ground to a halt. He rebooted everything, his gaze sliding to Sideswipe before a tap of the blaster barrel redirected it back to Starscream.
“He’s… he’s Prowl?” Sunstreaker repeated, barely above a whisper, too small for his comfort. He swayed, processor spinning. “Oh, Primus. That makes so much sense now. But I don’t understand. How…”
“You didn’t know.” Starscream sounded disappointed. He spat a barrage of static at Sunstreaker and straightened. “Of course you didn’t. That would have been too easy for me.” He muttered something else, but it sounded like static to Sunstreaker’s audials.
Sunstreaker shook his head slowly, the realization crawling over him in a hot, burning wave.
Prowl. His Prowl. And Dent. Beaten. Battered. His sensory flats gone, the nubs on Dent’s back. Scorched off. Torn off. Did it matter which?
His face, oh his beautiful face. His hands. The same hands that had been gentle, that had coaxed Sunstreaker into overload, that had taught him to dance.
He’d thought. He’d thought Prowl had left him. He’d thought he’d been abandoned. But Prowl had been there all along, without even knowing it.
“You….” Sunstreaker’s engine raced as he dragged his gaze up, his entire frame going still, fury burning deep within his belly. “What did you do to him?”
Sideswipe made a distressed noise. “Sunny–”
“No!” he growled and shook his head, plating vibrating. “All this time, I thought… and then you… you mutilated him!”
Starscream stared at him, not an ounce of expression in his face. “Yes,” he said coldly. “Because his spark means nothing to me.” His wings twitched. “There’s only one spark I’m interested in saving, and it’s none of yours.”
Sunstreaker’s engine whined. He shook.
Prowl had been next to him the entire time, and he’d never known it, hadn’t recognized. How could he not know?
“I tire of these games,” Starscream said, sounding bored. “Is your little pity party over? Because there is still a question I have need of answering.”
Sunstreaker shook his head slowly, his processing capabilities still sluggish. “You think I would offer him up to you after this?” He dragged his gaze up, to Starscream, letting the fury blaze brightly in his optics. “You can rust in the Pit.”
“I thought you might say that.” The blaster returned, pointed at Sideswipe yet again, though close enough now that Sideswipe could probably feel the heat of the barrel.
“So let me make this abundantly clear,” Starscream continued as he hit the charging node again. “While I have use of you and your brother, I suspect the answers I need are within Prowl. You are expendable.” He tilted his head, crimson optics incisive. “Is one Iacon brat worth the life of your brother?”
Sunstreaker’s ventilations wheezed. His armor clattered. The taste of betrayal, he knew, would be bitter on his glossa.
“Decide quickly.” Starscream’s tone was cold, empty. “My hand grows weak.”
“I–” Sunstreaker faltered. It wasn’t that he couldn’t decide. In the space of a sparkbeat, he knew he would choose Sideswipe. He would always choose his brother.
It was in the idea of losing Prowl again that he faltered.
“Starscream.” Ricochet stepped into view, one hand landing on Starscream’s wrist and gently pushing it and the barrel of the gun away from Sideswipe’s head. “Look.” He tilted his head.
Sunstreaker followed the gesture as Starscream whipped around, the outrage in his field echoed by the loud snap of his wings. There, stepping out of the alley, each step measured and careful, was Dent. Or Prowl.
Sunstreaker’s spark sank.
“Well, now,” Starscream purred as he turned fully toward the oncoming Empura. “Isn’t this interesting? And here I thought you didn’t remember anything.”
“What are you doing, idiot?” Sunstreaker shouted, trying to move forward, but only effecting a dull shuffle on his knees. “Get out of here! Run!”
Dent’s single optic focused on him. “No.”
“Goddamn fool of an Empura,” Sideswipe snarled beside Sunstreaker, and then there was a blur of motion.
Sideswipe threw himself to the side, aiming at the guard to his right, tackling the mech to the ground. He slammed his shoulder into the guard’s chestplate, though it was Sideswipe’s plating that gave way. He howled, scrambling to get the upper hand, but the other guard was on him in an instant.
A blow to the head left Sideswipe reeling long enough for the guard to drag him back over and plop him into place beside Sunstreaker. His head hung and dents showed up in stark relief against the red of his armor. His bottom lip pulsed energon.
“Why would you do that?” Sunstreaker asked.
Sideswipe’s lips curved. “Because.”
Above them, Starscream huffed a ventilation. “That was pointless,” he said, wings flicking. “Ricochet, retrieve Dent.”
It was over. Not that it ever had a chance to begin. Starscream was right: pointless. Then again, much of Sunstreaker’s functioning had been a pointless rage against the machine. He’d fought for so many things he didn’t deserve, and all of this right here, right now, was proof of it.
“Ya know what, sir?” Ricochet pulled one of his blasters out of a thigh panel. “How about no?”
The blaster whipped up and Ricochet squeezed the trigger, faster than any of them could register. The guards to either side of Sunstreaker and Sideswipe crumpled, smoking holes in their chassis. The distinct scorched scent of expended spark rose thickly in the air.
Sunstreaker stared, sucking in a sharp ventilation. What in the name of Primus…?
“What do you think you are doing!” Starscream shrieked, whirling toward his bodyguard.
“What I should have done ages ago,” Ricochet growled as he advanced on Starscream, blaster leveled and steady. “Starscream, you are under arrest by order of the Enforcement Guild of Iacon.”
Arrest? Like Starscream was going to go quietly.
Starscream stared at him, frame taut, his wings hiked up. “No,” he said with a slow shake of his head. “No, I refuse,” he growled.
“It wasn’t a yes or no question,” Ricochet hissed as he stepped again to the side, firmly planting himself between Dent and Starscream. “For what ya’ve done to my brother, I should kill ya. Yer lucky that idiot infected me with somethin’ like moral principles.”
Starscream was distracted. Sunstreaker’s processor spun. His hands were numb, his tank unsettled.
He looked at Sideswipe, who was gathering himself up, getting one foot beneath him. He met Sunstreaker’s gaze and nodded.
“Drop the blaster,” Ricochet said.
Starscream laughed. It was a high-pitched eerie sound. His wings twitched. His flight engines spat fire from his thrusters.
“All of my work,” he said, in between hiccups of his vents. “All of it to be undone in this moment.” He cackled, the eerie noise echoing in the air. “And it was all because of you.”
The last was a snarl as Starscream shoved himself into the air with a pop of his thrusters, his blaster aimed unerringly at Ricochet.
No. Not at Ricochet. Behind him.
At Dent. At Prowl.
Sunstreaker snarled and lunged to his feet. He ignored the heat of Starscream’s thrusters. He ignored the lurch of his tanks, the pain in his chassis. He threw himself at Starscream, reaching with hands he hadn’t realized were released from their bonds until his fingers wrapped around Starscream’s ankles.
One thruster spat fire at Sunstreaker’s face. The other sputtered. The Seeker tilted, dropping in the air.
It was enough for Sunstreaker to get a hold of his knee, his hip, to pull and pull until Starscream growled and twisted toward him.
“You are grit in my articulators,” he snarled as Sunstreaker stared into the barrel of a blaster.
Spark pumping, he threw himself back, but it wasn’t enough to avoid the agony that exploded in his chassis. Heat lanced through his entire frame, errors streaking across his HUD.
He stumbled backward, legs feeling as strong as putty. Something ground in his chassis, wet and grating. His spark pulsed, erratic.
Starscream shouted. He dimly saw Sideswipe take him down, saw Sideswipe snarl as he pummeled fist after fist on the Seeker. He saw them struggling, saw the blaster waving about, saw Starscream’s claws rake across Sideswipe’s upper chestplate, dangerously close to Sideswipe’s main intake line.
Sunstreaker didn’t see red. He saw a kaleidoscope of colors that sparkled in his optics and tripped through his spark. He roared, a wordless sound, and threw himself into the fray. His ventilations staggered as he grappled with Starscream, trying to get the blaster away before it could do harm to any of the mechs Sunstreaker loved.
Starscream snarled beneath him, spitting obscenity and insults. It sounded like static, a buzz in Sunstreaker’s audials. His fingers shook. He felt weak, his distant sensory lines tingling. The warnings shrieked at him, louder, and louder.
Someone screamed his name.
Sunstreaker had a grip on the blaster. He wrenched it away, turned it around in his fingers. He had a knee on Starscream’s abdomen; he had a gun in his hand. He had it pointed the right direction.
Starscream went still beneath him. His fans spun. One wing was crumpled. One optic shattered. Energon bubbled around his sharpened denta. His glare was a challenge.
“Do it,” he rasped, his field pummeling Sunstreaker with too much emotion, more than he could hope to identify. “If I can’t save him, I’d rather die here.”
Sunstreaker’s ventilations heaved. His fingers shook. “It was you,” Sunstreaker said as his processor spun and wind rushed in his audials. “All this time.”
He dimly heard someone call his name. The blaster wavered.
He thought he’d been abandoned. He’d thought he’d been left behind. But no. Instead, his Prowl had been tortured, had been maimed, all because of Starscream. Who knew what else the Seeker had done?
“It was you,” Sunstreaker whispered.
Starscream’s energon-stained lips curved. He twitched beneath Sunstreaker, maybe intentional, maybe not given the way electricity crackled beneath his plating.
He would have killed Sideswipe. He would have killed them all.
They were in Uraya. No one cared about the Empties in the Waste. No one would care about this one either.
Sunstreaker shuttered his optics and squeezed the trigger. He heard the rapport of the blaster through the static in his audials. He squeezed until the charge ran dry, until the scent of scorched energon and metal became too much to bear.
He shoved himself away from Starscream, stumbling backward, dropping the blaster in his haste. He unshuttered his optics as pain returned to his awareness. As he realized the damp on his frame was not Starscream’s energon alone.
What… had he done?
Sunstreaker looked down, saw the energon spilling out of his abdomen. He touched the raw, ragged edges of the wound. He thought that it should hurt. No. It did hurt. His spark squeezed into a tight ball, smaller and smaller.
His knees hit the ground. He shuddered and tasted energon at the back of his throat, half-processed, gritty and sour. He tilted forward, catching himself on one elbow, the purge spilling out of his intake into a gross splatter beneath him. It contrasted mightily with the bright energon dripping out of his chassis.
A spark for a spark, he thought grimly. How poetic.
Energy fields assaulted him, comfortingly familiar. He felt hands on him, but his visual feed was a blur, a blur that clarified into a single bright optic.
Dent. No. Not Dent. Prowl. His Prowl.
“Prowl,” Sunstreaker whispered, reaching up to touch the side of Dent’s optic with energon-stained fingers. He managed a smile.
Prowl hadn’t left him after all.
And then the world went dark.