Sunstreaker scraped the last sweep of the skyline and sat back to give his newest piece a critical gaze. It wasn't done, not by a mile, but it wasn't a blank sheet of canvas either. It occupied that interesting in-between state where he didn't loathe it, but he didn't love it.
That could be fixed.
He cycled a ventilation and put the scraper down, only to realize that his break timer was blinking urgently in the corner of his HUD. And, apparently, had been doing so for the past hour.
No wonder his arm ached, and his backstrut twinged. Sideswipe was going to yell again. Sunstreaker was supposed to take regular breaks, refuel on time, and walk around so his joints don't lock up.
Sunstreaker rolled his neck to ease the strain in his cables and pushed to his feet, throwing a protective sheet over the canvas. He would come back to it after a break and, no doubt, a lecture.
Sunstreaker checked his finish in the full-length mirror by the entry, but all spatter and random dirt had been confined to his hands and lower arms. These blemishes were easily handled by a cloth pulled from subspace.
Sunstreaker stepped out of his studio and into the main room of the Energon house he and Sideswipe owned. Well, Sideswipe managed and operated, Sunstreaker mostly used it as a studio and art gallery. Not that there many art-hunters to be found here on the edge of Uraya. Mostly, Sunstreaker sold a few over the intra-net and shipped them out of province.
“There you are!” Sideswipe called out to him from behind the bar. He was currently wiping it down as they had few patrons this time of the cycle. “You're--”
“Late, I know.” Sunstreaker hoped to cut off the lecture. “Do you have my--”
Sideswipe plunked a cube of magnesium-spiced mid-grade on the bar, interrupting Sunstreaker before he could ask for it. “It's not fresh,” he said as he tossed the rag into the collection basket and leaned against the bar. “It would have been, if you'd listened to your break alarm.”
“I know.” Sunstreaker climbed onto a stool and grabbed the cube, taking a sip of it. He grimaced. All of the magnesium had sunk to the bottom. “It won't happen again.”
“Sure it won't.” Sideswipe's field nudged at his. Though his tone was irritated, the rest of it was concern. “I just worry about my little brother.”
Sunstreaker rolled his optics. “We're twins, dumbaft.” He swirled the cube, stirring it, and changed the subject. “Besides, I didn't miss anything, did I?”
Sideswipe's lips curved into a grin. He tilted his chin as though pointing behind Sunstreaker. “Just your pet.”
Sunstreaker swiveled in his stool to see the black and white Empura sitting in the small booth nearest the door. Calling Dent white was probably stretching it, however. He was so filthy that he appeared brown. His three digit clawed hands – pincers really – fiddled with the drink pouch on the table in front of him.
At least Sideswipe had fed him. Sometimes, he wouldn't no matter how much Sunstreaker fussed at him.
“He's not my pet,” Sunstreaker muttered, sliding off the stool.
Sideswipe pushed off the bar. “So you say. Just hurry up and get it in back before it scares off any potentials.”
Sunstreaker frowned at his twin, but saved that particular argument for another time. Dent looked up as though hearing their conversation, his single yellow optic eerie as it focused on them.
Sunstreaker had gotten used to it, but Sideswipe still shivered theatrically. There were a lot of Empuras around here. The edge of Uraya was home to the slums; the residents had given it the name “Wastes” because that was all that was left.
Sunstreaker approached the table as Dent scrambled to get out from the booth, moving awkwardly. There was something in the stubs of what could have been wings or sensory panels on his back that left him clumsy. How could Sideswipe look at Dent and not feel pity?
Maybe Sunstreaker had gotten all the compassion in their shared spark.
“I apologize,” Dent said, the edges of his words wreathed in static. “Do I need to leave?”
Sunstreaker cycled a ventilation. “The dining room, yes. The building, no. Come on. You look in need of a wash.”
“Oh, but I--”
“That wasn't a suggestion.” Sunstreaker snagged Dent's refueling pouch off the table, noting it was still half-full. “Ignore my stupid brother. He's overprotective.”
“Perhaps with good reason?”
Sunstreaker rolled his shoulders in a shrug. “The world may never know.” He tossed Sideswipe a glare, but his twin ignored him, attention fully on two customers entering the building.
Dent's pincers clicked together, a sign of anxiety. “I would hate to be a bother.”
“You say that every time.” Sunstreaker hooked an arm through Dent's, trying not to cringe as grime flaked down. Well, he'd take care of that soon enough. “If you were a bother, I'd have tossed you on your aft already.”
Dent made a noise, a blat of static, but didn't argue. His optic dimmed as he let Sunstreaker steer him to the back of the store, which doubled as his and Sideswipe's living quarters. It wasn't much, but they had a small washrack all their own, and a berth for each of them, when they didn't share.
“Washracks first,” Sunstreaker said as he steered Dent toward it, careful to avoid the furniture and making a mental note of the dust Dent left in his wake. “You're filthy.”
Dent ducked his head. “I apologize.”
“Well, it can't be helped, I guess. Where the frag are you recharging?”
Dent's armor drew tight, his field nonexistent. A topic he preferred not to discuss then. Sunstreaker wouldn't push. He knew how much he hated to be pushed when he didn't want to talk. Sideswipe was awful about that, pushing and pushing until Sunstreaker had to stomp away just to get some peace.
“Okay then.” Sunstreaker urged Dent into the washracks ahead of him, and gestured the Empura to the only stool they had. “Sit. I'll give you a hand.”
Dent startled. “Oh, but I can--”
“Nope. My rack, my rules.” Sunstreaker managed a small grin and pointed to the stool again. “Sit.”
Dent cycled a ventilation and obeyed, though stiff and uncoordinated. “You are a kind mech, Sunstreaker.”
He snorted as he turned on the solvent, setting it to a comfortable temperature which Sideswipe told him barely counted as lukewarm. Pfft. What did he know?
“Not many would agree with you there.” Sunstreaker grabbed his bucket of supplies, including a scrub brush, and directed the stream at Dent.
The solvent sluiced over dingy brown plating, washing away the first coating of filth. It was going to take a lot more than a little rinsing to get him clean. He had grime in his gears!
Sunstreaker shuddered. He looked down at his arm, and it was dusted in filth, too. How could a mech function like this?
“I've been told I'm damn hard to live with.” Sunstreaker took up position behind Dent and started to scrub, though he was careful to avoid the two ridges on his backplate. They looked raw, as though the excision had been done improperly. “But enough about me. I haven't seen you in weeks. Where've you been?”
Dent ducked his head, his pincers fiddling together. “I have been hiding.”
“Hiding?” Why would an Empura need to hide in the Wastes? It's not like regular mechs wandered down there. No one came to the Wastes except…
Sunstreaker felt like an idiot.
“From the Regent's Cleaners,” he guessed.
Dent's shoulders hunched. The little antenna on top of his head twitched. “The Wastes are much emptier as of late.”
“Me and Sides noticed that bots are going missing. But we didn't realize it was that bad.” Sunstreaker blew air through his vents and started scrubbing at Dent's shoulders. White and black started showing clean, sending a pang of longing through his spark.
White and black. Good colors. Classic. Clean. Familiar. Pretty common in retrospect. A dozen mechs passed by the cafe with such plain color schemes every day.
None of them were the mech Sunstreaker waited for.
“I guess you could say that the Regent's doing his job,” Sunstreaker muttered with a shrug. Not that they paid him or anything.
The Regent had been here as long as Sideswipe and Sunstreaker, maybe longer. He was the unofficial leader of the Wastes, and their corner of Uraya. He had a talon in every energon storage down here, not to mention what little they had for an economy. No one contested him. No one had the bearings to do it.
Dent made a noncommittal noise. His head bobbed.
“You should stay here,” Sunstreaker suggested as he took Dent's arm in hand, gently scrubbing around the joint and the raw area around his wrist. Whoever had done the surgery on him had done a slag-poor job of it. “I mean, instead of hiding. I'll clear it with Sides.”
Dent shook his head, easing his arm from Sunstreaker's grip. “No. It is not safe.”
“Pfft. We can take care of ourselves.” Sunstreaker reached for Dent's arm again.
Dent's optic seemed to gleam at him, his field reduced to a shivery, thin layer. “No,” he repeated, and his pincer trembled. “It is not safe.”
“You let me be the judge of that,” Sunstreaker insisted as he shifted to Dent's other arm. Beneath the grime and the Empurata, Dent might have been a handsome mech once upon a time.
Sunstreaker sometimes wondered what Dent had done to incur the wrath of the council and earn this punishment? To have his frame disfigured and to be dumped like so much trash into Uraya's Wastes. Dent wasn't like most of the others. He didn't seem one-step removed from violence and madness.
He was quiet. Calm. Contemplative.
He couldn't remember anything, he claimed. Now maybe that was true, maybe it wasn't. Empuras usually didn't forget their pasts, but some of the welding on Dent's frame looked substandard. Maybe the Empurata procedure was rushed. Maybe he did something bad enough to earn Shadowplay, too.
But he wasn't dangerous. Sunstreaker was sure of that.
“You know we sometimes go to Kaon to take a few bouts in the Arena, right? For extra creds?” That and the Regent occasionally asked them to fight on his behalf, and he would serve as their sponsor.
Sunstreaker hated it when Sideswipe agreed to do it. Then again, they'd already learned that you just didn't say no to the Regent.
The nubs on Dent's back twitched. “That is dangerous.”
“So's living.” Sunstreaker shrugged and flicked a finger. “Up. Gotta get your legs.”
Dent's field shied away from his. He reached out with his right hand. “I can do it myself.”
“Properly?” Sunstreaker arched an orbital ridge. “Without breaking my scrubber? Cause I'll be very put out if you do.”
Dent's optic dimmed. “I am… growing more proficient,” he said with a cycle of his ventilations, gusting a burst of steam into the air. “And I need the practice.”
Sunstreaker squinted at him. Dent held fast.
What the slag, eh? It was pretty cheap. He could always get another one. Besides, there was something desperate in the quiet request. A desire to be able to do something for himself perhaps.
Sunstreaker could understand that.
He handed over the scrubber and let Dent work on his legs while he grabbed the sprayer off the wall and aimed it at Dent. The floor beneath them was grey and brown from filth. Sideswipe was going to flip.
Sunstreaker kept one optic on his own actions, and the other on Dent, but the Empura was manipulating the brush pretty well. He hadn't been exaggerating when he said he'd improved. He no longer fumbled with the pincers, though the care he used might have been exaggerated.
“When you're clean, I'm going to give you a wax,” Sunstreaker said as pitted and dented armor came into view. Hmm. He'd probably pull out the dent-puller, too.
Dent stiffened and turned toward Sunstreaker, which resulted in him nearly getting sprayed in the face. “You do not have to spoil me so,” he said, twisting to avoid the solvent spray. “I could not ask you to--”
“See. That's the thing.” Sunstreaker plucked the scrubber from Dent's pincer and aimed the spray at the Empura's legs. “You didn't ask. I offered. And I'm told that when someone offers something, it comes without strings.”
Pincers twisted together, scraping noisily. Sunstreaker shut off the spray and reached out, gently laying his hand where Dent's claws had tangled. What was it about this Empura that tugged at his spark? Honestly. Sometimes, Sunstreaker couldn't explain it either.
“I mean it,” he said, and squeezed Dent's pincers, hoping he could at least feel the pressure of the grip.
Of course, that was the moment Sunstreaker's private comm buzzed loudly. --Stop playing with your pet and get out here,-- Sideswipe demanded without so much as a segue.
Sunstreaker's engine growled as his mood instantly plummeted downward. --He's not my pet, Sides! Primus!--
--Whatever. Starscream's here, so stick it in a closet or something and get out here before he thinks we need an inspection or some slag,-- Sideswipe retorted, and abruptly shut down the comm.
Well, if the Regent was here, then Sunstreaker supposed he could excuse Sideswipe's rudeness.
They were still going to have words about the way Sideswipe treated Dent and the other Empuras however.
He shook his head, shutting off the spray and snagging two fluffy cloths from the rack. He tossed both at Dent.
“I'd stay to help, but the Regent just showed up.”
Dent went stiff all over. His armor clamped tight, optic brightening. His field wildly flared, before he reeled it in to nothing.
“Relax,” Sunstreaker said as he backed toward the door. “I'm not goin' to turn you in and Sideswipe won't either. Just stay in here and don't come out until I come get you, okay?”
Dent nodded, half-buried beneath the fluffy towels. “Yes, sir.”
Sunstreaker paused in the doorway. His tank clenched. “Please don't call me that,” he murmured, and left, closing the door behind him.
He doubted the Regent would come into their personal quarters, but sometimes, Starscream did conduct raids if he thought anyone in his jurisdiction was hiding something of importance. Sunstreaker and his brother worked for Starscream, which offered them some protection.
But then Scoop had worked for Starscream, too, and no one had seen him in months.
Sunstreaker glanced down at himself, frowning when he found a few spatters of solvent. He absently wiped at them as he eased out of his and Sides' apartment, locking the door behind him. Starscream didn't usually take much notice of him since he found Sideswipe far more charming, but Sunstreaker didn't want to gather the Regent's attention either. He didn't know how to play the word games that Sideswipe did.
“There you are!” Sideswipe said brightly, the tone at odds with the anxiety rippling across their bond.
Sunstreaker's gaze skittered to their visitors, Regent Starscream and the armed guard he never went without, though today there was only the one. A small grounder with a blue visor – went by the name Ricochet. He was a smart aft and a half, which meant he got on well with Sideswipe.
Sunstreaker couldn't stand him.
“I was washing up,” Sunstreaker said crossly as he ducked behind the bar, giving Starscream and his guard a wide berth.
Sideswipe scowled at him. “Polish later. Work now.”
“Since when are you the boss of me?”
“Sparklings,” Starscream interrupted with a drawl, one orbital ridge raised. “As entertaining as I find your brotherly spats, I do have business to attend.”
Sunstreaker shot his brother a dirty look, but Sideswipe was already easing out from behind the bar.
“Good point. Cause we're all in the business of creds, am I right?” Sideswipe said, flashing one of his most charming grins. “Follow me, gentlemechs. My office is this way.”
“Yes, I remember,” Starscream said, his tone cool, as he flicked his wings backward. He moved ahead of Sideswipe, every inch the commanding Regent, and Sideswipe just shrugged and followed after him.
Ricochet trailed them both at a leisurely pace and took up a position just outside the door as Sideswipe and Starscream vanished inside. He folded his arms over his chestplate and managed to look just menacing enough to scare off half of their customers.
Great. Sideswipe was going to blame Sunstreaker for that, he just knew it.
“How are you supposed to guard him from outside the door?” Sunstreaker asked as he picked up the glasses Sideswipe had been cleaning and started wiping them dry.
Ricochet tilted his head, visor gleaming. “Are you telling me your twin is a threat to my employer?”
Ricochet smirked and rolled his shoulders. “Then I'm exactly where I need to be. I'm here to kick aft, not pay attention to numbers.”
Sunstreaker blinked. “Whatever,” he said, turning his attention to two mechs who'd just walked in the door. Sideswipe would fuss if he drove away business again.
He tried not to think about Dent hiding in the washracks. He hoped Dent didn't try to sneak out the back and take off. Sunstreaker was serious about offering him a place to stay. He didn't want Dent to disappear like the others.
Luckily, Ricochet was content to sip on his engex and leave Sunstreaker be. Which meant Sunstreaker could fret over Dent in silence, and glance at the office door, silently urging Sideswipe to hurry.
“So.” Sideswipe dropped into the squeaky chair behind his desk. “What brings you to my humble place of business?”
Starscream rolled his optics. “Spare me your games, Sideswipe.” He lowered himself into a chair with more grace than Sideswipe had shown. “I don't intend to be here all afternoon.”
“Fair enough.” Sideswipe grinned and folded his arms across his belly. “What, when, and how much?”
Starscream produced a datapad and set it on the desk. One taloned finger pushed it closer, shoving aside a cup of styluses in the process.
“Standard procurement fee,” Starscream said. “And as for when, the answer is the same as always.”
Sideswipe dragged the datapad closer before he picked it up. “As soon as possible then.” He flicked it on, only glancing at it to be sure it had a requisition on it. “Think someday you'll tell me why you need this stuff?”
“No.” Starscream's optics narrowed. “Your job is not to ask questions, remember?”
Sideswipe flashed a grin. “Can't help being curious.”
“I don't need your charm either.”
“Right.” As unfriendly as always. That was Starscream.
Sideswipe sighed and skimmed the contents of the datapad. Half of these items he had no idea what they were, but the identifying glyphs were clear as day – medical equipment. Rare medical equipment.
“This is grey cargo,” Sideswipe observed.
Sideswipe wiggled the datapad. “It won't be easy to get.”
Starscream's right wing twitched. It was always the first to go. “Are you saying you can't?”
“No.” Sideswipe lowered the datapad back to the desktop. “But it won't be cheap.”
“Fine.” Starscream tossed a cred chip onto the desk. “This should be more than adequate.”
Sideswipe pulled out his reader and inserted the chip, his orbital ridges rising at the amount on it. Starscream only gave him this high of a budget when it was something he had a desperate need to acquire.
“I'm guessin' this means you want the best,” he said as his spark throbbed harder in his chassis. Starscream wasn't playing games. “That or you gave me a nice bonus.”
Starscream stared at him, his optics flat and unamused. “I want the highest quality you can find,” he said. “Now. Can you do it?”
“Sure thing.” Sideswipe grinned and stowed both reader and datapad in his subspace. He rose to his feet. “Have I ever failed you before?”
“No. And if you wish to maintain functioning, you won't now or in the future.” Starscream rose more languidly, his wings high and rigid.
Sideswipe worked his intake, offering an uneasy smile. “Nothing like a little idle threat to grease a business deal,” he said as he eased around the desk, preceding Starscream to the door. “That's what I love about you, Regent. You're nothing if not blunt.”
Starscream gave him a sideways look. “So you say,” he said crisply and moved past Sideswipe, back into the business proper.
A shudder raced down Sideswipe's spinal strut. He allowed himself a second to regain his composure before he followed Starscream out.
The Seeker was already almost to the exit. Not one for lingering to socialize, that one. All of Sideswipe's other clients tended to take advantage of his engex, but not Starscream. Business, like everything else, was perfunctory.
Any other time, Sideswipe could appreciate that. But he thought about the datapad and the chip in his subspace, and his tanks lurched.
Starscream was dangerous. He began to wonder if he might even be in over his head, except it was too late to back out now.
Sighing, Sideswipe planted a smile on his lips and locked his office behind him. Time to get to work. Poor Sunstreaker looked harried and here came Huffer. Mech was might particular about his engex, and Sunny always mixed it wrong.
Sideswipe would worry about Starscream and what the Regent wanted later.
Ricochet, however, didn't, which prompted Sunstreaker to linger as well. He couldn't seem too eager to take off otherwise Ricochet might think he was hiding something.
“Uh, shouldn't you be watching your boss's aft?”
“I do that all the time. It's a fine aft,” Ricochet said with a flash of his visor. He pulled out a stool and sat at the counter. “But he's with Airrazor where I can't follow so I figure, I have me a sit down and taste what I'm told is the finest engex in all of Uraya.”
Sideswipe smirked and leaned against the counter. “The finest, huh?” Across the bond, Sunstreaker could tell he was flattered, though it wasn't like it was the first time someone had complimented him. “Who told you that?”
“Mmm. Everybody.” Ricochet folded his arms on the bartop and leaned forward. “So why don't you give me what you think is your best mix, and I'll tell you what I think.”
Sideswipe chuckled. “Deal.”
--You can go, bro. I can handle this.--
Sunstreaker shifted. --You sure?-- He didn't trust Ricochet any further than he could throw the soldier. Frankly, Sunstreaker didn't trust anyone who hung around with Starscream.
--Positive. He ain't nothing but a flirt. All talk. No action,-- Sideswipe replied as he spun around from the bartop and started mixing up his specialty.
“You want it sweet or spicy, mech?” Sideswipe called over his shoulder.
Ricochet braced an elbow on the counter, propping his bumper against the edge. “Whatever you think I like, hot stuff.”
Ugh. Yeah. It sounded like Sideswipe had this well in hand.
“I'm going in the back,” Sunstreaker muttered, failing to hide the disgust in his tone. Sides would take anything to berth, wouldn't he?
Sunstreaker spun on a heelstrut and headed toward the door, only to be drawn up short as Sideswipe rushed to catch him, one hand on his elbow.
“Come back out later, okay?” Sideswipe murmured, locking optics with him. “I gotta call Swin and you know he's really weird about when he's available.”
Sunstreaker frowned. “Can't you call Smokescreen instead? Swindle is a cheat.” Not that Smokescreen was much better, but at least they got what they paid for with Smokescreen, unlike Swindle, who always tried to pass off substandard materials with a high markup.
“Would if I could, but Screen don't have what Starscream needs.” Sideswipe squeezed his arm in a show of affection. “Besides, Screen is still mad at me.”
Sunstreaker sighed, pinching the bridge of his nasal ridge. “Maybe if you didn't frag him and run--”
“This and that are two different things,” Sideswipe interrupted loudly, with an askance look at Ricochet, who was watching both of them with evident amusement. “Just get you-know-who settled and come back out later. Please?”
He never could resist when Sideswipe did that. When he pleaded with large, bright optics and an earnest smile on his lips. It was that charm that got him out of so many scrapes and into so many berths.
“Fine,” Sunstreaker muttered and lowered his hand. “But you're calling Smokescreen and apologizing to him tomorrow.”
“Deal.” Sideswipe winked at him and let go of Sunstreaker's arm. “Now, shoo.” He spun around, all but strutting back to the counter where Ricochet waited. “One Special Swerve coming right up!”
Sunstreaker bit back another sigh and turned around, refusing to let anything else stop him from slipping into the back. He hoped Dent hadn't gone yet.
His and Sides' apartment was dim and quiet. All Sunstreaker could hear was the quiet ticking of the wall chrono, the numbers gleaming brightly at him. The door to the washrack was still closed.
Sunstreaker palmed the door open and the tension whooshed out of him, tension he hadn't realized he carried.
Dent was still there. He sat on the small bench tucked against the far wall, the towel lying in his lap, though it was wound around his pincers. His head snapped up as the door opened, and though his single optic couldn't convey emotion as much as a face, there was something fearful in the brightness of it.
Fear that whisked away into relief as Dent sagged.
“It's just me,” Sunstreaker said, trying for a smile. “Don't worry. The Regent's gone.” He gestured to the Empura. “Come on. Let's get you polished.” He'd have to take a damp cloth to Dent's frame, too. Some of the solvent had dried in ugly streaks.
Dent pushed to his feet, wobbling a little. His optic dimmed, as though he'd been running himself ragged with worry. “Is polish not a little excessive?” he asked as he inched out of the washracks, his armor still clamped tight.
“Not to me. Polish is necessary. Especially if you're going to stay here.” Sunstreaker fished around his subspace, producing the half-consumed pouch Dent had been working on earlier. “Here. Finish this.” He plucked the towel from Dent's pincers, replacing it with the pouch.
“You are kind,” Dent murmured, his field reaching out for Sunstreaker's, though it was jagged around the edges. Empuras always felt like that, as though whatever punished them this way made their entire existence one of pain.
“You say that often enough, I might actually believe it.” Sunstreaker grinned, though it was crooked.
“It is the truth.”
Sunstreaker made a non-committal noise and led Dent to his own room. He and Sides could double up for a night until they got their spare berth from storage. Unless Sideswipe offered Ricochet more than a special drink.
Sunstreaker sat Dent down on a stool and retrieved his spare polishing supplies from the cabinet, spreading them out on the berth. Dent, at least, had finally relaxed a bit more. He sipped on the energon pouch, his armor easing away from his protoform. Fully relaxed, Sunstreaker could see past the plating to the scars on Dent's protoform.
Sometimes, the sight of them made Sunstreaker angry. Dent seemed genuinely nice and respectful. What could he have done to deserve this?
“You really don't remember anything?” Sunstreaker asked, though he hesitated to break the comfortable quiet.
It was rare to find a mech who didn't loathe silence. Sideswipe could never stand for it. He insisted on filling quiet with noise, with chatter or music or some vid on the screen. Whereas Sunstreaker liked companionable silence. Dent's lack of fidgeting seemed to indicate he liked it, too.
“Shadows,” Dent answered, his vocals soft. His head dipped a little, pincers squeezing the pouch. “Echoes. I feel as though the memories are there, but I cannot access them. I do not know if I am being prevented from doing so, or if I lack the hardware.”
Sunstreaker inclined his head. “I can't imagine what that's like,” he said as the wax worked its way into Dent's plating, adding a thin shine that seemed almost ridiculous over the faded paint.
“Lonely,” Dent answered quietly, and the plating across his upper back shuffled, twitching the stumps of whatever had been on his back. “But I am finding it less so as of late.”
“Because,” Dent half-turned, the glow of his optic now visible to Sunstreaker, “you are kind.”
Sunstreaker's face flushed with heat. “I'm really not,” he murmured and ducked his head, trying to focus on the last stubborn smudges of wax.
Dent made a noise of disagreement, but said nothing further. They fell back into the comfortable silence. The tension was gone from his frame, however, and that was the greatest gift of all.
Sideswipe balanced the till; Sunstreaker straightened and cleaned. They'd been closing Color and Conversation like this together for decades. It was a process that worked. Sunstreaker had exacting standards; Sideswipe had the processor for numbers.
Sometimes, they talked. Sometimes, they didn't.
Today was one of the former. Only Sunstreaker should have anticipated this topic.
“So how long is your pet going to stay with us?”
Sunstreaker turned a chair upside down and sat it on top of the table with a little more force than was necessary. He glared at his twin.
Sideswipe held up his hands. “Fine, fine. He's not your pet. Even though he totally is.” He gave Sunstreaker a crooked grin. “Just answer the question.”
“I don't know,” Sunstreaker replied honestly and moved on to the next table, wiping it down. Honestly, that damn rust flavoring got everywhere. Why did Sideswipe insist on dusting everything with it? “I need you to help me get out the spare berth.”
“The spare?” Sideswipe's engine revved. “Sunny, that doesn't sound like temporary arrangements. That sounds like ya want to keep him.”
Sideswipe's stare prickled between his shoulders. “It's not like he has anywhere else to go, Sides.”
“Neither do the dozens of other Empuras out there, but I don't see you opening our doors to them.” Sideswipe flung a hand out at him. “And don't you dare start either. We're doing good, but not that good. We can't feed every stray that comes begging at the doors. We’re one emergency away from bedding out there with the Empties.”
Sunstreaker focused intently on stacking chairs. “I know that.”
“I don't really think ya do sometimes.” Sideswipe muttered something, numbers perhaps, and scribbled onto the scratched datapad he insisted on using for accounting purposes. “And how do ya know he's not going to kill us in our recharge? I like my spark where it is, bro.”
“How do you know?”
“Cause he's not dangerous!” Sunstreaker huffed and cast his brother a glare, but Sideswipe was doing a good job of not looking at him, pretending he was double-checking the receipts.
Sideswipe snorted. “You don't know that. Someone did that to him for a reason, Sunny. Mechs don't get taken apart unless they did something terrible.”
“Or maybe he didn't do anything,” Sunstreaker snapped, ex-venting a loud burst. “Sometimes, mechs are just inconvenient or in the way or in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Sideswipe planted his hands on the counter and stared at him. “Or they deserve what they get. Maybe even worse.”
Sunstreaker's ventilations were uneven. He folded his arms over his chestplate. “Did we?”
Sideswipe blinked, physically recoiling. “Sunny...”
“We were abandoned like they were,” Sunstreaker said, his shoulders hunching. It hurt his spark to talk about this, but ignoring the truth didn't make it any less true. “We were left for scrap, left to starve. Did we deserve that?”
Sideswipe vaulted over the counter, his field reaching for Sunstreaker even before he did. “Of course we didn't. That's different.”
“It's not at all.” Sunstreaker shifted away from his brother. “We don't know enough about him to say anything, Sides. So stop judging him by the way he looks.”
“Okay. Fine. I will.” Sideswipe held up his hands, only to tilt his head and peer at him. “Why do you care so much?”
Sunstreaker frowned, his orbital ridge drawing down. “I just do.”
Sideswipe tilted his head, optics narrowing. He stared at Sunstreaker for a long moment, his field probing at Sunstreaker's.
“You don't 'just' anything,” he said, and stepped close enough to touch, his frown deepening. “I can't believe it. You're falling for that Empura, aren't you?”
“I'm not! I'm just...” His engine screeched, ventilations stuttered.
Sideswipe stepped close enough that their armor brushed. “Hey,” he murmured, resting his hand on Sunstreaker's arm. “Prowl's not coming back, all right? You got to face that. I get why you're doing this with the Empura, I do, but don't let it be anything more than a distraction, okay? There's no future with it.”
Sunstreaker eased away from his brother and snagged the broom, focusing on sweeping up a clump of dust. “I don't need you to tell me that,” he muttered.
Sideswipe sighed and scrubbed a hand down his face. “If you say so.” He waved a hand of dismissal and went back behind the bar. “Dent can stay,” he added as he picked up his datapad. “For a little while anyway.”
Sunstreaker made a noncommittal noise. He didn't want to discuss this any further and neither did Sideswipe apparently.
They finished the rest of their closing duties in relative quiet, with the only the clatter and clank of Sunstreaker cleaning to break the silence.
“I'll help you get the spare berth tomorrow,” Sideswipe said as he met Sunstreaker at the door to their shared apartment. He handed over the financial datapad. “I'm not going to be home most of the night anyway.”
“What? Why not?” Sunstreaker took the datapad, but couldn't hide the surprise in his tone. Or the worry.
Had he made Sideswipe angry?
“Got a date.” Sideswipe grinned, crooked and handsome. “So don't wait up.”
The tension released from Sunstreaker's frame. “Oh.” He rolled his optics. “You keep on like this, you're going to wind up with a virus the clinic can't cure.”
Sideswipe patted him gently on the cheek. “You're so sweet to worry about me, Sunny.” He winked and spun on a heelstrut. “You can go on into the apartment. I'll lock up.”
Sunstreaker twisted his jaw. “You're going to be careful, right?”
“Have you ever known me not to be?”
Yes. More frequently than Sunstreaker would like. He cycled a ventilation and tossed the cleaning cloth into the bin with the rest of the dirty ones.
“Don't wait up either,” Sideswipe called to him just as Sunstreaker reached the door.
Sunstreaker rolled his optics. “I never do,” he said, and slipped inside, closing the door behind him. He'd learned his lesson ages ago though that didn't stop him from worrying.
Sideswipe could take care of himself. They both could. You didn't grow up on the streets without learning a trick or two. But still…
He was the only brother, the only family Sunstreaker had. Worry was part of the package.
Sunstreaker scraped a hand down his face, only to frown when he realized his fingers were still damp from cleaning fluid. He hated the chemical smell of it. Time for a quick rinse then.
As he passed the two berthrooms, however, he noticed that the door to his own was open. It hadn't been when he left, and the dim glow of an optic from within was the reason why.
Sunstreaker's frown deepened and he paused. “Did I wake you?” he asked.
The berth creaked as Dent rose and approached the door, though he hovered in the shadows of it. “No. I was not yet recharging.” He lingered there in the small opening, pincers twisting together. “All is well?”
“Why wouldn't it be?”
“Because I am causing disruption,” Dent said and his gaze dropped, optic focused on the floor. “I should leave.”
Sunstreaker blinked. “No, you're not. Why would you think...” He paused and squinted. “Wait, were you listening to us?”
Dent ducked his head, until Sunstreaker could only see the top of it. “I apologize. It was not my intent to eavesdrop, only your voices carry.”
“Yeah, Sideswipe can be loud.” Sunstreaker cycled a vent. “No, you don't have to leave. We got it sorted. Sides and me, we're brothers. We fight. It happens.”
“Brothers….” Dent's ventilations rattled a gust as a shiver raced over his plating. “I think… I believe I understand something of brothers.”
Sunstreaker's lips quirked. “You have one?”
Dent drifted backward a step, as though taking solace in the dark. “I think, perhaps I do.” He lifted his gaze back to Sunstreaker, his optic brightening by degrees. “Though I do not recall. I feel he was vexing.”
“Like Sideswipe.” Sunstreaker chuckled. “I'm not surprised.” He braced a hand on the doorway, leaning against it. “He can be an aft, especially when he thinks he's right or he thinks he's protecting me or some such slag.”
Dent laughed, though it was more of a rattling wheeze. “Yes. That does indeed sound familiar.”
Dent had never laughed before. It barely counted as a laugh, but Sunstreaker was going to note it anyway. There was something familiar in the laugh, the tone of it, but that familiarity was there and gone again.
How could Sideswipe think he was dangerous?
“Anyway, go back to recharge. I'm just going to rinse off and then climb into Sideswipe's berth since he won't be here tonight,” Sunstreaker said, backing away from the door. “I'll be that way if you need me.” He pointed.
Dent bobbed his head. “Good recharge, Sunstreaker.”
“And to you.” Sunstreaker smiled to himself and left Dent to recharge. He needed to rinse, and then lie alone in his berth and worry about Sideswipe.
Sunstreaker must never know.
Honestly, Sideswipe shouldn't even be thinking about his brother at a time like this, but given his berthmate, the subject came up. Because this wasn't a random encounter. This was a repeated visitor to the same berth. One Sideswipe could have never expected.
“Mmm.” Ricochet purred, stretching his arms above his head as his plating shivered from the last vestiges of overload. “You always know how to do me right.”
Sideswipe grinned as Ricochet resettled, blanketing Sideswipe's lower half with his weight. “You're not so bad yourself.”
Ricochet chuckled, his visor a deep violet. His engine purred, vibrating through Sideswipe's legs. “Practice makes perfect.”
Sunstreaker wouldn't understand this. He was wary of Starscream, he loathed the Regent's guards, and he definitely didn't like Ricochet. He wouldn't understand why Sideswipe had been sneaking around with Ricochet for months.
Sideswipe listened to the arrhythmic tics as Ricochet's plating cooled down, his vents cycling slower and slower. “I should leave soon,” he murmured, though Ricochet tracing odd patterns on the inside of his thigh armor was good incentive to stay.
“What? Sunstreaker can't tuck himself in at night?” Ricochet chuckled and curled his arm tighter around Sideswipe's left leg. “He's a full-grown mech, ain't he?”
“He is. He's just...” Sideswipe ex-vented, his right hand dropping to rest on Ricochet's head. He teased the mech's sensory horns with a thumb. “I don't know. He's got this weird obsession with one of the Empuras hanging around the cafe, and I don't want him getting hurt again.”
There were lots of Empuras in the Wastes. Luckily, it wasn't a crime to associate with one. The Regent didn't much care what you did with an Empura, but the fact that they were disappearing was concerning. Sideswipe trusted that Ricochet wouldn't bring it up to his boss, however. Ricochet had rules about keeping business and personal separate.
Though that didn't explain what he was doing here and now. Sideswipe was pretty much a clash of the two.
Ricochet rubbed his cheek on Sideswipe's thigh. “Again?”
“It's a long story.”
One of Ricochet's clawed fingers slid into a seam, scraping over the cables beneath. Sideswipe shivered, trying to fight off the rising arousal.
“If it'll keep ya here, then I got time,” Ricochet purred and slid his free hand down Sideswipe's leg.
Sideswipe grinned. “Well, with an offer like that, how can I say no?”
Ricochet pinched one of his inner thigh cables. “Oy. I'm not hearin' any story down here.”
Sideswipe peered at him, honestly confused. “You really want to hear about my brother's broken spark?”
“I could always use a good berth-time tale.” Ricochet rapped his fingers over Sideswipe's knee. “Besides, I like me a good drama.”
Sideswipe chuckled. “Okay then. Well, awhile back there was this mech hanging around, the kind you could tell didn't belong here. He was smart, scary smart, and clean and polite.”
“That says a lot 'bout your customers if he didn't belong.”
“Says a lot 'bout Uraya,” Sideswipe corrected. He shifted to get comfortable, finding that he didn't mind Ricochet's weight on his legs. “Plus, he was obviously from Praxus. He had those shoulder things, fake wings.”
“Mmmm.” Ricochet purred and wriggled against Sideswipe's leg. “Sensory flats. Fun to play with.”
Sideswipe laughed. “Yeah, those. Anyway, he kept coming around, and he and Sunstreaker hit it off. Love at first sight or some scrap.”
“You don't believe in it?”
“I think it's a cute story for sparklings.” Sideswipe shrugged and stroked the nearest of Ricochet's sensory horns. “Why? Do you?”
Ricochet tickled behind his knee, making Sideswipe shiver. “I think yer gettin' distracted from my story, Sides.”
“Okay, okay.” Sideswipe cycled a ventilation. “Anyway, they got close. Real close, and Sunstreaker fell hard. I've never seen him that happy.”
Frag, before Prowl, Sideswipe wasn't sure he'd ever seen his brother cheerful. He'd smiled often with Prowl. He would light up like a supernova.
He had, of all things, dared to hope in a city like Uraya where mecha came to suffer or die, sometimes both.
“I'm sensin' a but.”
Sideswipe shook himself out of the memory. “Yeah. One orn, Prowl up and vanished. His comm went dead. He was nowhere to be found, and believe me, I looked.”
Ricochet's field went weird and wonky. “You think foul play?”
“I think he got bored and went to find someone else to play with. Prowl was Elite, if you ask me, and came here to slum it.”
Ricochet made a noncommittal noise. “I'm sensin' some hostility.”
“Prowl better hope he don't come back.” Sideswipe's engine revved, his distaste for the flaky Praxian filling his field. “There's nothing that frags me off more than hurting my brother.”
Ricochet shivered, his field rising to meet Sideswipe's with an edge of heat. “Nnn. See, when ya talk like that, it makes me want ya more.”
“Is that so?” Sideswipe looked down with a smirk. “You got a thing for violence?”
Ricochet rolled onto his front, completely blanketing Sideswipe's lower half. His head rested on Sideswipe's hip. “I got a thing for you.”
Sideswipe rested his hands behind his head. “Oh? That sounds dangerously close to feelings.”
“Don't get ahead of yourself.” Ricochet pressed a kiss to Sideswipe's abdominal armor. “So are ya leavin' or stayin'? Cause now I have plans for ya.”
Sideswipe licked his lips. “Sunny will be okay without me for a night.”
Ricochet rose to hands and knees, crawling up Sideswipe's frame. “That's the good news I wanted to hear,” he murmured, their faces inches apart.
Sideswipe's hands skimmed down Ricochet's sides, resting around his waist. He grinned.
Besides, Sunstreaker had Dent to look after. He wouldn't even notice that Sideswipe was gone.
Sunstreaker woke up chilled, unexpectedly as he was supposed to be sharing the berth with Sideswipe. It looked like Sideswipe stayed out with his date. That was a first.
Sunstreaker leveraged himself out of the berth and headed for their energon dispensary. He drew himself a cube and filled a pouch for Dent.
That was, hoping Dent had stayed. Sunstreaker wasn't sure why it mattered to him. It just did.
It was still early. He assumed Sideswipe would be staggering home soon. He'd better. Sunstreaker wasn't going to open the cafe on his own. That was Sideswipe's pet project.
Sunstreaker rapped his knuckles on the door before keying it open. He sighed when he saw that Dent wasn't on the berth. He should have known. He almost turned to leave when he spot the glow of dim biolights in the dark.
Under the berth.
That should have been his first guess. He and Sideswipe had lived on the street once upon a time. It was always a matter of safety over comfort.
Sunstreaker cycled his vocalizer. “Dent?”
The shape under the berth stirred. A single optic lit as Dent unfurled.
“Sunstreaker?” Dent eased out from underneath the berth, his plating clamped tightly to his frame, one that was once again dusty. “I apologize. I did not mean to recharge so late.”
Sunstreaker shook his head. “You have nothing to be sorry for.” He handed over the pouch. “Recharge okay?”
Dent took the pouch, ducking his head. “Better than usual. Thank you. I will leave soon.”
“I meant what I said. You can stay.”
Dent's pincers tightened on the pouch. “I don't wish to be a burden.”
Sunstreaker leaned a hip against the doorframe. “Then we'll find something for you to do. I mean, we can't pay you, but energon and a berth…? We can do that.”
Sunstreaker stared at his own energon. “I don't know,” he answered honestly.
Dent's field reached for his, tentative and yearning. His optic glowed brighter.
“Sunny? Hello? Bro?”
Sunstreaker cycled a ventilation and turned away, the moment broken. “In here!”
Sideswipe staggered into view with a lazy grin, his paint visibly scratched and marked with lines of black. His field was a happy mess, his optics bright.
“Someone had a good time,” Sunstreaker commented with an arched orbital ridge. “Who was it?”
Sideswipe brushed at a scrape on his chestplate. “None of your business. You have your pets, I got mine.” He tipped his head toward the door. “C'mon. Let's get that spare before I have to open.”
Sunstreaker squinted at him. His suspiciously good mood and lack of protest was telling.
“That must have been some frag,” Sunstreaker observed.
“No comment,” Sideswipe replied in that sing-song voice Sunstreaker loved to hate. “Now c'mon.”
“What should I do?” Dent asked.
Sunstreaker made a vague gesture to the common area. “Make yourself comfortable. Storage is out back so it shouldn't take us very long.”
Sunstreaker flinched, but Sideswipe was bouncing on his heelstruts impatiently. Sunstreaker would address that later.
Sunstreaker joined Sideswipe at the door and followed him out back, to the triple-locked building they used for storage, supplies, and Sideswipe's questionable business arrangements.
“You need a repaint,” Sunstreaker said as he waited for Sideswipe to input the code.
“So does your pet.”
“Sides,” Sunstreaker growled.
“I know, I know.” The door clattered open and Sideswipe flicked at a scratch in his arm. “These're badges of pride, not flaws, bro.”
Sunstreaker pushed past him, wrinkling his nasal ridge as he caught a whiff of ozone. “You also stink.”
“Multiple overloads will do that to you. Maybe if you got out sometime, you'd know.”
“No thanks.” He edged past crates of unmarked content to the fold up berth in the back. “I have standards.”
“Ouch. Right in the spark.” Sideswipe slid to the other side of the berth. “You sure you want this? You and Dent could just double up.” He winked.
Sunstreaker groaned. “Just pick up your end.” He hated when Sideswipe was pleasure drunk. It made him ten times more obnoxious.
Sideswipe laughed but, luckily, didn't push it. Together, they lifted the berth out of the storeroom, narrowly missing a barrel of unknown content. Sunstreaker preferred that he didn't know, to be honest. Plausible deniability.
They wrestled the spare berth into the small room where Sunstreaker kept his art supplies and the canvasses that disappointed him. It would be cramped, but better than the streets Sunstreaker reasoned.
“Still don't know why you're going to all this trouble for an Empura,” Sideswipe grumbled.
Sunstreaker ignored him. Besides, he couldn't explain it anyway.
They returned to the common room, Sideswipe diverting to grab a cube of energon.
Sunstreaker drew to a surprised halt, cycling his optics in disbelief. Dent had cleaned, neatening up the clutter Sideswipe was prone to throw about, and gathering the trash. Even now, he had a dust rag in pincer and was carefully wiping Sunstreaker's first and last attempt at sculpting.
“Oh, look,” Sideswipe said as he swaggered in. “We've got a housemech.”
Sunstreaker elbowed him in the side, and took great delight in Sideswipe's grunt of pain. Sideswipe gave him a sour look, but Sunstreaker ignored him. He was being an aft and Sunstreaker wanted him to know it.
“I was trying to help,” Dent said quietly, the nubs on his upper back twitching.
“You're definitely doing that.” Sunstreaker looked around the room, surprised that not only was it clean, but Dent had alphabetized their collection of datatrax. “You did a good job.”
The Empura ducked his head and tucked his hands back at his side. “I am grateful,” he said, words sounding carefully chosen. “You are kind.”
Sunstreaker shifted his weight. No matter how often Dent said it, Sunstreaker couldn't quite accept the compliment gracefully.
“I'm not,” he muttered and swept a hand over his head. “So, yeah. You can clean and then you'll have earned your berth and energon, okay? No more of this talk of leaving.”
Dent nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“And don't call me that either.” Sunstreaker's back armor shuffled. “I'm Sunstreaker.”
“Or Sunny if you're feelin' brave,” Sideswipe said with a snicker. He draped himself against Sunstreaker's side, braced on Sunstreaker's shoulder. “You can call me Sideswipe though.”
Sunstreaker curled his lip and ducked out from under Sideswipe's weight, taking great enjoyment in his brother's yelp as he fought to catch his balance.
“Very well,” Dent said, something in the gleam of his optic suggesting a smile. “Thank you for your hospitality.”
Sunstreaker couldn't help but return his smile. “You're welcome.”