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"Future Tense", chapter 5

Sorry this one's taken so long. :dies: I had lots of notes, it was just pulling them all together that was difficult. X) (Plus, getting in practice for the sponsored cycle ride I'm doing was wearing me out.)</p>

...I guess I should stop making excuses and just post the thing. Another talky one, sorry!





Future Tense - Chapter Five

"This has gotta be a trick," Skywarp groaned, softly, leaning his head into his hands. "There's no fraggin' way I can have been gone that long and not known about it." He cast a pleading glance at Thundercracker. "Please tell me it's a trick. You've made your point, I don't know where I am or what's going on and I'm in no position to fight or-or... look, I'll even go peacefully, if you just tell me this is all a big scheme to get me to do what you want."

"You have no idea how much I'd like to do that." Thundercracker vented stale exhaust in a long sigh, and added a bleakly humorous snort for good measure. "If only to help my own peace of mind! I just-... I'm sorry, Warp. I wish I could explain it. All I know is that you've been gone a long time." He vented a long, slow pulse of stale air. "A very fragging long time. Seeing you here today, it's like… seeing a ghost."

"But it-… it's like… three thousand times around the sun," Skywarp despaired. His wings were steadily sagging lower and lower. "How's that even possible? We weren't even on that nasty fragging dirt ball that long."

Thundercracker didn't bother correcting him. "At least you didn't spend all those orns wondering if you were going to stumble over your missing wingmate's long-dead body one day," he said, quietly.

Skywarp gave him a semi-reproachful glance, hurt by the idea they could possibly think he was dead.

"We looked everywhere for you," Thundercracker defended himself, quietly. "It's not like we just went 'oh well, he must have been his usual idiot self and entangled himself in the rocks, never mind, eh'. We spent every spare waking moment searching. We must have been through every last rubbish tip and derelict building in the entire district at least twice, trying to find you. Frag, it was only in the last vorn or so we'd started getting used to the idea that you might never be coming back."

Skywarp dropped his gaze, guiltily. "…didn't mean to mess up, TC," he explained, faintly. "I-I mean… I just… you know."

"Yeah, Warp." Thundercracker didn't need to hear the word 'scared' to know it was what his friend meant. He patted the leading edge of his wing, careful to avoid the burned spots. "I know. Underground, and all that."

"I-I mean, I didn't even freak out that bad," Skywarp agreed, quietly. "I just… needed to get out, and… it… happened."

He watched as the blue Seeker put up a hand to his upper arm and gave an invisible something a squeeze – his outline flickered, very briefly, and the excess mass faded out.

Skywarp gave him a distressed pout, eyeing the holoemitter strapped around the blue jet's upper arm. "Can't you put that thing back on?"

"The holograph?" Thundercracker arched a brow. "Why? You know it's me."

Skywarp gave him a brief visual once-over. "Because you look wrong, TC. Like a big plastic toy, or something." He gave him a tentative little poke in the arm.

"Well, you're going to have to get used to it sooner or later," Thundercracker soothed. "Might as well get it out of the way now."

Skywarp grunted unhappily, and folded his arms around himself, again. "Get used to it?" He studied his scuffed foot, distractedly, waved it aimlessly in the void. "I'd rather just wake up. I mean, this has got to be a dream, right?" he insisted, mostly to himself. "I must have… cracked my head when I fell in the junk, and I'm hallucinating. That's what it is." He cast a half-hearted glance at the blue jet perched alongside. "You're just a figment, or something."

The glitter of new silver caught Thundercracker's attention. "What did you do to your hand?" he coaxed, gently, examining the spar that jutted from the back of it.

Trying not to look too uncomfortable, Skywarp took his hand back, quietly, and tucked it into his lap. "Wasn't watching where I was going."

"…does it hurt?"

"Nah. It's just annoying." The teleport was obviously trying to carry off his usual old offhand manner, but his voice was still shaky. "Look." He demonstrated, flexing his fingers – the smallest two wiggled slightly, but the inner two, next to his thumb, were motionless. The metal must have gone clean through the actuators and frozen the cables in place. "Stupid… radio aerials. Who uses aerials, these days? Aside from those policedorks and their weird hairpieces."

Thundercracker let him take his hand back, and smiled gently. "Oh, we can fix that, easy. Not like it's the first time we've had to do it, right?"

Skywarp didn't smile back. "Stupid… teleporting fail," he mumbled, ashamedly. "Can't you make some excuse so I don't look like an idiot, again?"

"They're not going to laugh, Warp. You're somewhere unfamiliar, you're hurt… They'll understand. Mistakes happen. Just come back and let us get you fixed up, huh?"

"I guess," Skywarp agreed, reluctantly, picking at the aerial jutting from his hand, distractedly. "When-… when we get back, can you help me work out where I actually am?"

"What do you mean? You're here in Deixar-"

"No, no, I-I just-" Skywarp remained silent for a second or two longer, clearly deep in thought, and when he spoke up again, his voice was small. Uneasy. "You don't think I've maybe... swapped with your Skywarp, do you?"

Thundercracker gave him a funny look. "What?"

"Well I mean, I can't travel through time, come on. That's like… just happens in stupid sci-fi. This is probably some, some… parallel universe or something. I mean, look at you, all weird and skinny." Skywarp gestured with his good hand. "There's no way the TC I know would agree to look as stupid as that, so I must have teleported into the wrong universe. That's what it is. It's why everything's all strange."

The blue jet couldn't help a little smile, in spite of the insults. "…You are our Skywarp, Warp. Only you could possibly come up with the idea that time travel is impossible, but teleporting into a parallel universe is just fine."

"What makes you think that your 'real' Skywarp wouldn't have the same idea? Him and me might be the same. You're saying he's not exactly brainy, either."

"…we-ell, I suppose that's a reasonable guess, I just don't see how it's more likely-"

"Hit me," Skywarp interrupted.

His train of thought by now completely derailed, for a moment or two Thundercracker could only stare at him."...what?"

"Hit me," Skywarp repeated, seriously. "It'll prove whether this is just a dream or not. If you hit me hard enough, it'll wake me up out of this hallucination and, and-…" He shifted, awkwardly, and made an effort to perk up his sagging wings. "I'll be back where I'm supposed to be. You know? It'll all be okay, you won't have been stuck dealing with Screamer on your own, and I won't have, like... missed a giant chunk of my life."

The slight pleading edge to his wingmate's voice was painful to hear. "I don't think that's a good idea," the blue jet demurred. "It's not going to prove you're here in the-the future, or whatever you want to call it. Besides, it only ever worked in those TV shows you used to spend all your time watching, and we don't dream like squishies do anyway-"

Skywarp pursed his lips. "You're only saying you don't want to do it because you're a figment of my imagination, and it'll just prove you're a dream when I wake up," he challenged. "The least you could do is humour me."

"I'm not going to punch you, Skywarp. I mean, look at you; you're already falling to pieces." Thundercracker waved a hand at him. "You might finally self-destruct if I go adding to it."

"You were a Con, for Pit's sake, you wouldn't have had a problem back then." Skywarp's voice descended into a despairing growl. "Is that what these wibbly fraggin' neutrals have done to you? Turned you into some weird freaking wannabe-Autobot-"

A black fist came out of nowhere and exploded a brief flurry of stars through the teleport's vision. "Oww!" He flopped backwards, automatically curling his knees up, protectively, and clapped a hand over his nose. "Oh, ow, owww TC, that really hurt! You didn't have to punch me that hard."

"…sorry, Skywarp." Well, at least Thundercracker sounded genuine enough. "I forgot your talents included a knack for goading even the most unwilling mech into a fight." He ran a hand across his friend's wing, apologetically. "Your nose gonna be okay?"

A hairline fracture ran across the teleport's cheek, just under his right optic. "Yeah, you soppy limp-wrist. Call that a punch?" he joked, painfully, voice coming out muffled by his fingers. "Ow. This means I'm awake, doesn't it."

"...yeah, I guess it does…?"

"Well, fuck." Skywarp offlined his optics, defeated, and let his arms flop out to each side.

"…sorry, Warp. I know this is a lot to take on board, and-"

"You're gonna send me back, right?" Skywarp cut in, matching stares with his wingmate's tired crimson. "Right?" He scooted himself back to a halfway seated position. "You're gonna make sure I go back to the right time, and don't miss out on everything important that's happened?"

Thankfully, the pale features curved into a small smile. "Sure," Thundercracker agreed, gently. "Soon as we can figure out how you got here. Did you feel anything unusual when you teleported?"

"I-… well-… no." Skywarp pursed his lips. "I mean, my diagnostics didn't pick up anything. It was-… probably nothing, really. Maybe just…" Skywarp frowned and tried to recapture the sensation he'd thus far tried to forget had happened. "There was-… sort of a… cold feeling, I guess."

"Cold?" Thundercracker nudged him to elaborate.

"Well, like…" Skywarp frowned, seriously, and after several seconds of intense thought finally came up with; "like everything had just stopped for an astro-second or two. But it-it must have been nothing. My diagnostics don't even record anything happened." He gave his friend a glance. "What do you think that means? How… how did that put me here?"

"I don't know." Thundercracker shook his head, disappointed. "Screamer might have a better idea. Soon as we get you back to hospital, we can ask him."

Skywarp hunched his shoulders a little, and gave him a sidelong look, lips pursed. "Is he gonna be mad, d'you reckon?"

Thundercracker managed a faint, knowing smile. "What, do you need to pre-emptively prank him, you mean?"

Skywarp snorted. "Yeah, TC; I'll play zombie and throw body parts at him until I fall over again." His smile withered. "He's gonna really chew on my audios this time, huh. Not many mechs are skilled enough to break time itself."

Thundercracker patted his shoulder. "Listen, if it's worth anything, I wasn't the only one to have missed you," he reassured. "Our beloved wingleader's been a proper grouch without you around. Even inventing silly sciencey challenges for himself hasn't quite kept him from being in a permanent foul mood. The quietest he's been was when he was designing these refits."

"Screamer built them?" Skywarp gave him another look, and couldn't quite hide the doubt in his gaze. "Screamer, who has a knack for getting himself as smashed up as possible? What is he, suicidal?"

"It was only after he'd investigated every other avenue possible to get around the energy deficit. You know Seeker builds are notoriously energy-hungry, it started to become a choice between lighter, fuel-efficient rebuild, or go ground-pounding.

"It still looks ridiculous," Skywarp muttered, casting a critical glance over his wingmate's lean frame. "All... plastic-looking."

"Don't knock it. It's stronger than it looks-"

"...no, TC. You look like you're made out of polystyrene," the teleport argued, grimly, giving him a hesitant, very underpowered shove on the arm. "Primus. Even that useless teeny yellow Autobot could poke holes in you."

"You've already goaded me into punching you in the face, Warp, you know first hand that it's not that flimsy."

"Well you're still not getting me wearing it." Skywarp folded his arms, decisively. "You can just fix my leg." He waved his stump, meaningfully. "Then I can keep you bunch of skinny little gliders safe if anything actually dangerous comes along."

Thundercracker smiled, patiently. "…this 'silly skinny new refit' did help win the war for us."

Caught off guard, Skywarp's belligerence faded again. He studied his scuffed fingers, quietly. "…it's official, now, then?" he wondered, reluctantly. "War's over?"

Thundercracker picked up the subtle undercurrent of something else I missed in his friend's words. "Kind of. Mostly," he apologised. "Things still rumble on in the background, a little bit, but… it's been… quiet, the last dozen or so vorns, since we took ownership of the space bridge. Megatron's stuck on the wrong side of it, a-"

"Nono, don't tell me, don't tell me." Skywarp waved his hands, urgently, then planted his palms down over his audios, as best he was physically able. "La la la I'm not listening."

"Warp…?"

"Don't want to know what's happening. Bad enough I've seen you lot looking all skinny and weird, if you tell me anything else I can't go back, because I'll break history. So you can't tell me!"

"Well, you know, technically you've already broken history," Thundercracker reminded him. "But that's not such a big deal, right now, because when you go back, the future won't happen this way, any more." He echoed Skywarp's earlier words. "Because we won't have had to live without you for all those vorns. Right?"

Skywarp allowed his hands to drop back into his lap. "I still don't think you should tell me much. Just in case." He studied a dull scuffmark on his thumb, where Lucy – little Lucy, not strange green impostor Lucy – had crashed into him. "Just-… Did you find those fuzzy things?" He glanced up. "What are they? Did you work out what they wanted?"

Thundercracker shook his head. "No, we didn't and haven't." Sensing the disappointment that virtually rolled off his wingmate in palpable waves, he hastily added, before the dark Seeker could protest; "we were sort of preoccupied by you vanishing, if you remember? Then the Triplechangers came along to cause trouble and… well, your chasing gremlins down in the Rift just got lower and lower on our list of priorities."

Skywarp winced, in sympathy. Not knowing what they'd been up to didn't mean his wings didn't hurt. "Triplechangers? What did they want?"

Thundercracker gave him a tired smile. "Mostly? A fight, we figured." He shrugged, one-shouldered. "We're not sure if they were following orders, or just trying to improve their standing with Megatron by being self-directed. Either seemed pretty likely, given what else was going on."

"…uhh… what else was going on?"

"You don't want to know, remember?"

Skywarp pouted, and gave his friend a little resentful glare. "You can't give me tidbits like that then not follow up on it," he whined, petulant.

Thundercracker gave him an affectionate shove. "Well don't get mad at me if Screamer tells you off, eh?" he teased. "Lessee… we were already tight for fuel before you disappeared, remember? Which is why Screamer was near-on having a breakdown, trying to pay those overinflated prices our suppliers demanded to keep us all in the air-"

"Prices that Shockwave initiated," Skywarp reminded, waving a finger. "The one-eyed old slagger."

"Exactly. Well, Megatron finally told Shockwave to embargo all the supplies they were sending through, not even to let out those few little dribs and drabs at his usual extortionate prices. I think the hopes were that we'd get so starvingly desperate, we'd go crawling back to his mercy, you know? We'll do whatever you say, you win, just please feed us?" Thundercracker shrugged, amiably. "All it actually did was make his other loyalists rebel. His fleet didn't take too well to being grounded."

Skywarp wrinkled his nose, unimpressed. "How can a mech riot if he's too tired to do anything?"

"Ah, see. Never let it be said that Screamer's lost his edge since telling Megatron to go stick a fork in somewhere sensitive." Thundercracker smiled, and these was a flicker of that familiar old Decepticon guile in his expression. "He saw an opening, and chased it for all it was worth – approached all the grounded Seekers with an offer. If they fell in with us, promised their loyalty to us instead of Megs? We'd get them refit and back in the air. We knew what they needed, what was important, 'takes a Seeker to know a Seeker', and all that."

"Yeah, and I'm sure they were all overjoyed to end up looking like plastic toys," Skywarp snerked.

Thundercracker snorted and gave him another shove.

"You mean to say after all that, they actually went along with it? Didn't go straight back to Megs once Screamer had sorted Shocky out?"

"Hey, come on, some of us have a sense of loyalty." Thundercracker gave him an amused little shove. "It's hard to be exclusively loyal to a leader who'd been absent for thousands of vorns, and more interested in hounding the leader of the enemy faction than rebuilding what was left of the world when he finally returned." His lips quirked into a lazy half-smile. "Acid Storm's out co-ordinating the rebuild at Vos. Still takes his lead from Screamer, but seems to have kinda been bullied into a leadership role, himself – Primus only knows if he actually wanted it."

"They're rebuilding?" Skywarp straightened, surprised.

"Ehhhh, after a fashion. It's mostly ground clearance, at the moment." Thundercracker gave his wingmate a sad glance. "Still good and flat over there, you know? Be a prime building spot, once the ordnance has all finally been removed." He offered his hand. "Come on, Warp. At least lemme get you back to hospital and cleaned up, yeah? We can talk all you like, once you're feeling better."

Skywarp studied the proffered hand. "…all right," he agreed, hollowly. "I guess it'll be easier to bully Screamer into sending me back if I've got both legs to stand on. You're gonna have to get me some fuel, though. I'm too depleted to teleport any more."

"What do I look like, a courier? I'm not flying back and forth all orn," Thundercracker joked, gently. "It's all right. I'll carry you."

"You'll carry me? You, and that… that… polystyrene refit?" Skywarp involuntarily leaned backwards, away from him, brows arching, alarmed. "Like frag I'm gonna let you try it! I'm lost, not suicidal."

The blue jet made a gently chastising come-hither gesture with both hands. "Just trust me, all right?"

Trust me. Skywarp stared down at the dark palms for several long seconds, the words just hanging between them. When has TC ever let you down, huh? he reminded himself, and hesitantly slotted his own (strangely large) hands into his wingmate's. "If you crash us, I'm gonna kill you," he promised, quietly, allowing his friend to help him to his one unsteady good leg.

"Well, if we do, I promise to stand still so you can." Thundercracker made sure he had a good grip before engaging his primary drive. "All right? Secure?" he coaxed, poised to launch, the chilly backwash from his wings sending scraps of old detritus fluttering away.

We're so gonna crash. Skywarp winced. "No."

"It'll be fine." The blue Seeker gave him a reassuring smile. "Just hold on tight, eh?"

In spite of the ease with which Thundercracker lifted off, the unnaturally quiet roar of his engines left Skywarp feeling unnerved – as though his engines were running down and they may just... fall out of the sky, at any second. His fingers tightened, involuntarily.

They arrived back to find a scarlet-painted waiting party standing watching them from the street outside the hospital, a glare pinching its dark features, arms firmly folded, foot impatiently tapping.

"Well you two certainly took your time," a familiar glass-etching voice cut across the air between them, very distinct and classically screechy, even over the increasing pitch of Thundercracker's engines as he pulled them up for a landing. "What took you so long?"

"We were talking, for a while. It's still allowed, isn't it?"

"Well thank you so much for keeping me in the loop and letting me know you were sat out there timewasting." Starscream stabbed an arm in the direction they'd just come from. "I mean, it's not as though I was wondering if I should send for a search party, or anything."

Thundercracker just smiled, amiably, and helped Skywarp push past him. Somewhat deflated by the lack of response, Starscream muttered something huffy under his breath, and followed his wingmate.

"All right, Warp. Comfortable?" Thundercracker asked, once his wingmate was finally settled back in that private (horrible, small) cubicle.

Skywarp shrugged and pulled a semi-resentful face. "I guess." He waved his foot, aimlessly. "Not like I've got much choice in it, huh."

Thundercracker hesitated in the doorway. "We'll get to the bottom of it," he promised.

"And send me back home," the teleport reminded, waving a finger at his wingmate's departing back.

"Is he going to stay put, this time?" Starscream wondered, out in the main area, in an intentionally-loud voice. "Because he can find his own way back next time."

Skywarp sneered at the wall, and demonstrated his knowledge of Earthly hand gestures to whoever cared to be looking.

The voices outside his cubicle carried on at a more hushed level. Whether they didn't realise he could hear them, or just didn't care – or frag, maybe they wanted him to hear – Skywarp couldn't tell. He listened in regardless, feeling... small. Jittery, inside. He willed his pumps to shut off, but it didn't help as much as he'd hoped.

"...Well?"

"Well what?"

"Well, what's your opinion? Is it him?"

"Why are you asking me? You're the one who's been poring over the scans the hospital took before he made a run for it. What do you think?"

"…you're the one who just spent the last ten breems sitting on a roof and talking to him. A couple of isolated scans are useless, you know that. Especially scans like this wretched place takes. Look, TC... all I want is an opinion. If you don't want to put your money where your mouth is, then fine, just... stop making excuses. I'm not going to hold it against you if you're wrong."

Snort. "You said that last time, and how long did it take you to decide you were going to talk to me again?"

"Last time you made a stupid mistake."

"All right, all right." Sigh, pause. "I know you're going to yell, but I think it is him, this time."

Huff.

"See I knew you'd act that way. You say you want my opinion, but it turns out you only want it if it's the same as yours-"

"Okayokay. No need to overreact. Reasoning?"

"I just think it is! There's just too much that fits for it to be anything else. All the little things match up, for a change."

"They have had plenty of practice, Thundercracker. What is this, number three, now?"

"See, that's just it. I don't care how much practice they've had, he's too... too him... you know? If he's a facsimile, then he's a brilliant facsimile, absolutely perfect, right down to the little idiosyncrasies in his manner of speaking, and his special personal brand of non-scientific handwavium."

Another little huff. "Didn't we say that about the second one, to start with?"

"…yeah, but I think we were grasping at straws, too. Wanted it so bad we'd have believed anything."

"You're not doing so well at convincing me this isn't you indulging in re-runs."

"Then you go talk to him! Primus, anyone would think you're scared to."

A frosty silence took hold for a good few seconds.

At last, Starscream spoke again. "Maybe later. I have to go talk to a surgeon." The hollow thoks of his thrusters on the hard ground marked his departure.

A long-suffering sigh showed that Thundercracker hadn't accompanied him. Skywarp hastily directed his attention out of the window, hoping it made it look like he'd not been eavesdropping – and just in time, when the blue jet poked his head through the screen.

"Sorry about that," Thundercracker apologised, dryly.

"Sorry about what?" Skywarp lifted his head.

The pale face looked instantly relieved, for a fraction of a second before the expression was hastily swallowed up. "Eh, nothing. Just... Screamer being Screamer. You know."

"Pfft, I know better than to listen in when he's in a bad mood." The teleport poked out his tongue. "I actually value my auditory sensitivity."

If Thundercracker suspected him of lying, he didn't admit to it. Just... smiled, in a funny, vague sort of way. "Listen, I've got a couple of things I need to attend to," he excused himself. "How about you get some rest, huh? You need to relax, get your head in order, before we start thinking about getting you fixed. I'll get some energon sent down. Sound good?"

"Yeah," Skywarp studied the floor, quietly.

"...it'll be all right, Warp."

"How can it be, when I've missed out a great important chunk of my life?"

"It'll be all right, because we'll fix it. Somehow."

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