Slow breath in. Slow breath out.
Ari relaxes her body as she continues to simply breathe. Everything rattling around in her head gets shoved to the side until she feels nothing but the bed beneath her and the cool air pumping into her and Sideswipe's bedroom.
Then on the next deep breath she delves into the AllSpark's doors, sifting yet again for the information she seeks.
She's been doing this every day since the battle with Thanos. Since she was left with a warning that chilled Death herself.
Unicron is awakening. And once he's strong enough, he's coming here. To Earth.
Ari has been searching her doors for any information she can find on him. Strengths. Weaknesses.
What she finds terrifies her.
Unicron is humongous. Size of the moon big. His battle with Primus stretched across galaxies and almost destroyed the entire universe.
They've faced a lot. Ari. Sideswipe. The Autobots and N.E.S.T. Her family and friends. They've done the impossible so many times before. How are they supposed to stop something like this? Can they? Or will the impossible finally win?
The only solution Ari can think of is to find Unicron before he gains too much strength. But no matter how hard she tries, the AllSpark won't let her see where he is now, or what happened to him after he lost his fight against Primus.
If only they could find Primus, maybe awaken him to fight his brother, but she doesn't know what happened to him either. The AllSpark will show her both of them floating through space when their fighting ends, in stasis lock but online. After that, she's not allowed to see.
Though maybe that's a good thing. If Primus and Unicron fight again, the collateral damage won't just be a few buildings or even an entire city. It'll be whole planets.
A chiming ding breaks through her concentration and she sighs, closing her doors for now.
No progress, still. Frustration builds in her chest like a vice and she struggles to push it away, stabbing a finger at her phone to turn the alarm off. She'd keep going at it but the alarm is to remind her that Sideswipe should just be getting off patrol. He'll be worried if he catches her still going at it, again. He thinks she's being obsessive.
She doesn't really see what choice she has. She has to do something. Before it's too late.
But she stops for now, making her way out of their room to the catwalk and through the D.C. base to the main hanger.
Soldiers greet her as she wizzes by, throwing out a smile or quick wave in return. They've grown a lot the past few months, opening two new bases in Europe. A lot of soldiers got sent to the new facilities, along with a couple of Autobots including Wheeljack, Mirage, the triplets, and the twins Skids and Mudflap. Ari thought the base would feel smaller after so many people leaving but it really doesn't. They refilled their lost numbers in just a few weeks, recruits graduating and even some new Autobots coming to Earth.
It's kept things lively and has made sure Ari has a lot of work to do. With their global operations expanding she hasn't had much in the way of downtime. But she keeps moving along, determined to keep N.E.S.T. running as smoothly as possible while trying to brace for what's to come.
She makes it to the main hanger just in time, spotting Sideswipe near the doors giving his report to Optimus. His optics flit over to her and he smiles, making a smile pull on her own lips as their bond fills with love.
Everything is so crazy right now. All of the pressure and worry and responsibility making that vice around her chest squeeze so tight sometimes it's hard to breathe. But Sideswipe is here with her though it all, helping her loosen that vice when it all gets to be too much.
The report only takes a few minutes, Optimus dismissing him with a nod. Sideswipe flings a jaunty salute before skating on his wheeled feet towards Ari, holding up a hand to her. She reaches for him, allowing him to pick her up to cradle her against his chassis.
"Hey, sweetspark," Sideswipe says along their sparkmate bond, his presence in her mind holding her close like he's doing in real life. "How's your day been?"
"Eh, not bad, but not great either," she hedges.
"Still no luck with Unicron then?"
A sigh escapes her, not wanting to dump all this on him but needing to vent. "No, which is fragging frustrating and I'm starting to think I'm never going to be allowed to see anything. Not until it's too late. But that's not everything."
"What else, then?" he asks aloud, heading back to their room.
She tries to relax against Sideswipe as he reclines on the bed with his back against the wall, but she just can't get rid of the tension that's been squeezing around her neck and shoulders for hours. "I had a conference call with the World Security Council and Galloway this morning."
"Is that when I felt you getting insanely frustrated?"
"Yeah. It's Galloway, and the American member of the Council. They keep pushing for missions that...that I don't agree with."
A sense of foreboding seeps into the bond. Ari is usually pretty amiable when it comes to helping out S.H.I.E.L.D. with missions. Sending N.E.S.T. usually means a minimal loss of life—if any at all—since going against humans is a cakewalk for the Autobots compared to the Decepticons.
But that's the problem.
"The missions they've been trying to get past me, Sides. They're...they sound like assassinations."
She can just imagine how the Council would want to use the Autobots. They can blend in to their surroundings without detection, able to get close to a mark effortlessly. They can take the shot without anyone suspecting the bullet coming from a driverless car. Or they can get up close and personal in their holoforms, disappearing without a trace before anyone notices.
They'd be the perfect assassins, a path the Decepticons would be eager for but one Ari isn't going to let the Autobots go down.
"We don't harm humans," Sideswipe says vehemently. "Not unless we can't avoid it."
"I know that. Which is why I've vetoed each mission, but they keep trying, coming up with new ways to ask for what they want." She snorts humorously. "Like I'm too stupid to tell what they're trying to make you guys do."
"Then it'll be okay. You'll keep telling them no until they get the hint."
"But what if they never do? What if they try to find some other way to make you guys do what they want, something even I can't stop?"
"Then Optimus will stop them. We don't do anything without his approval, and Optimus would never approve this, just like you. We're not turning into assassins. There's enough blood on our hands."
The bitterness in his words is crystal clear, even without the bond. They have enough regrets with the war with the Decepticons. Those bots used to be friends and family. Now, they're divided, at each other's throats and trying to kill one another. They already killed Cybertron. Bringing the war here, they've almost killed the Earth a few times, too.
Yes, there has been too much blood. And the war is far from over. The Autobots certainly don't need to be adding any more red to their ledgers.
"I know. This whole thing is just frustrating and time consuming and tiring. I have more important things to do than listen to a couple of toddlers with temper tantrums because I'm denying them new toys. I have enough on my plate as it is."
Concern flutters along the bond, a familiar feeling in the past few months. She tries to conjure a reassuring smile for him but it's gotten harder and harder to do so convincingly. And she knows it's not reaching her eyes now.
The concern flutters harder, like a flock of birds suddenly taking flight. His fingers delve into her hair and she closes her eyes, finally relaxing a little bit at the ministrations.
"Maybe we should get away for a bit," he mumbles softly, his voice rumbling in her ear where it's pressed to his chassis.
"Sides, I can't. If I don't have time to deal with Galloway, then I definitely don't have time to just take off for a vacation."
He huffs and she can practically feel him rolling his optics. "I'm not talking about some weeklong retreat. I mean for just one night."
She lifts her head, intrigued. "You mean like a date?"
He gives her that crooked smile of his that never fails to make her feel like she's flying. "Yeah. Seriously, when's the last time we went on a date?"
"Not…for a while," she realizes, guilt turning her stomach sour. She's been so caught up in work and Unicron lately, she hasn't really made time for just her and Sideswipe.
"Hey." He brushes a finger along the side of her face, leaving a fiery trail that makes her shudder. "Don't go thinking those thoughts. What you're doing is important. But if you keep going like this, sweetspark, you're going to burn yourself out. So let's just take a night to relax. Let me take care of you and show you a good time. And then tomorrow you'll be able to bulldoze any problems in your way."
A smile, a real smile, pulls at her lips. "Yeah. Let's do it. And maybe we can make it a weekly thing? Barring any emergencies, of course."
"Yeah, that sounds good," he says with a relieved smile. She cocks her head at him, raising an eyebrow, and his faceplates turn sheepish. "I…may have already made reservations for tonight. So I am very glad you said yes."
She chuckles, reaching up to press a kiss to his lips. Her happiness bounds across the bond and he holds her just a little bit closer. "I love you."
He grins. "I love you, too, Ari. Now let's go have some fun."
Ari isn't really sure what to expect when getting ready. A reservation means an upscale restaurant, so formal wear is a definite must. However, whenever they go out, they always do more than just dinner.
Sideswipe is being very tightlipped about his plans, though. His only clue is a request—wear the vintage dress Natasha gave her for the date they had during the Anti-Alien fiasco.
The burgundy swing dress fits just as well as when she first got it, though hopefully it won't come perilously close to being ruined from the rain like last time. She pairs it with the same kitten heels as before, looking at her reflection in the bathroom mirror for a moment as she takes herself in.
She doesn't look any different than that day, minus the makeup and her hair is still down, of course. She decides to forego them now—hating the long routine it takes to get it all perfect—but she continues to stare at herself for a few minutes.
The whole no-aging thing is still a bit surreal to her. She knows she should look at least a little older by now, but her face is the same. Even with everything that's been happening lately. She feels older, but there are no worry lines growing on her brow. The stress hasn't touched her skin.
Fifty years from now, a hundred years from now, more, she'll still be here. Just as young. Just as strong. Always standing between the Autobots and everyone else to keep them safe. Galloway won't always be here. But she will be. She will win, in the end, because time is on her side. All of this will pass. She just has to weather the storm.
Feeling a bit lighter than before, she puts on the last of her accessories—her Autobot pendant, anklet, and bracelets, because even though she's with Sideswipe that doesn't mean she can go without her failsafes. Once done, she then exits the bathroom, finding Sideswipe waiting for her near the bedroom door.
His optics light up, just like his human eyes did the first time he saw her in this dress. They rake over her slowly, admiringly. Even though he's seen her like this before, appreciation simmers along their bond, setting her belly on fire and along her cheeks. Why are they going out again? Why aren't they just staying in?
Next time, she promises herself. Next time.
Sideswipe smirks, hearing her train of thought and echoing his approval.
"Ready to go?" he asks, bending down and holding his hand out to her.
She bites her lip, tempted to say no and see what happens, but the anticipation is all part of the fun, right?
Taking his hand, Ari is lifted up to perch on his shoulder, deftly keeping her balance as he skates through the base. Once they're outside he transforms, his parts moving carefully around her until he's in his alt mode with Ari in the passenger's seat. She sighs in contentment, leaning back in the leather seat as the city passes them by.
Sideswipe's holoform appears next to her in the driver's seat, wearing a suit without the tie and the top few buttons of his white dress shirt open.
It's Ari's turn to hum appreciatively, barely withholding the urge to run her fingers through his wavy black hair. He likes the fancy yet casual look—the only time he's really ever dressed up all the way being on their wedding day—but she has to admit, she likes this look too. When her eyes wander over his face, catching on his bright blue eyes, that's when she notices his frown.
"What is it?" she asks, giving in to run her fingers through his hair, scratching his scalp lightly in comfort.
He leans into the touch but the frown doesn't fade. "They have valet service."
She glances through the windshield, noticing for the first time that they've already arrived. They're stopped outside the restaurant, a valet attendant sliding into the car in front of them and driving it off towards the parking lot.
"I can do that myself, thanks," Sideswipe mumbles, bottom lip pouting slightly.
Ari chuckles. "Sides, all you have to do is pretend to be a normal car and let him drive for thirty seconds. Is that so bad?"
"Yes," he deadpans.
"You did that a lot longer for me when we first met."
His eyes fill with a softness that's tangible along their bond, the corners of his mouth ticking up in a fond smile. "Yeah, but that was you."
He steps out of his alt mode before she can reply. She moves to follow him but her door doesn't budge, locked. She glares at him through the windshield as he rounds his alt mode, opening the door for her himself.
"So, you're not just being rude," she teases, taking his outstretched hand. "You're trying to be a gentleman."
"Trying?" he says, voice filled with mock hurt as he helps her out and closes the door behind her. "I am a gentleman."
She pats his cheek lightly, eyes twinkling with mirth. "Sometimes, yeah,"
He gives her a playful glare and then turns to the attendant, reluctantly handing over the keys and receiving a valet ticket in return that he stuffs in his jacket pocket.
Ari takes his arm before he can dwell on it, tugging him towards the restaurant and asking curiously, "Where did you even get those keys? I thought I lost your keys a long time ago."
"You did," he smirks. "Those are the spare. And I'm not giving them to you. Knowing you, you'll end up losing these ones too."
"I'm not that bad."
He bites his lips, holding back a reply she's sure would get him in trouble.
They're seated on the second-floor veranda, overlooking a garden area set up behind the restaurant. The night is just cool enough to be comfortable, the candle softly illuminating their table giving it a cozy atmosphere despite the other tables of people around them.
"This is amazing, Sideswipe," she murmurs, taking his hand on the tablecloth and twining their fingers together. "How did you manage to get a reservation?"
He hesitates and she can feel his deliberation, tempted to tell a small fib. She arches a brow at him, reminding him how futile it is to try to lie even though he doesn't mean anything bad by it.
"While I would love to take all the responsibility for it, I can't." He gives an exaggerated sigh, smiling sheepishly. "Pepper says hi."
Ari barks out a laugh. "I was expecting you to say Natasha."
"Nah, not this time. Apparently, Tony has standing reservations at all his favorite restaurants in all his favorite cities. We're just borrowing it."
"I'm surprised Tony's letting us. He usually doesn't like to share."
"No, Pepper's letting us. Tony tried to object but then it sounded like she hit him with something heavy."
Ari snickers. "I knew she loves us more."
Dinner goes over wonderfully. The food is excellent, almost as good as the company. By dessert, Ari's fully relaxed and laughing more than she has in months. She let everything get to her too much. Yes, something bad is coming. Yes, she wants to do something about it. But she can't. Not right now at least. Dwelling on it, living in a state of constant dread, it's not healthy.
She can't just stop her life because of what-ifs and could-bes. She needs to enjoy life while it lasts.
Just in case.
Sideswipe bundles her back up into his alt mode after dinner, a secretive smile on his face as he takes her somewhere else. She needles him the entire way there but he doesn't budge, his thoughts kept firmly in check along the bond.
A sharp ring from Ari's clutch purse interrupts her nagging, curiosity changing course as she digs out her phone. She blinks in surprise as Lina's name flashes across the screen.
"Huh, I haven't heard from Lina in a while," she muses, taping the answer button.
"Make it quick, we're almost there," Sideswipe warns her.
"No promises when Lina's involved," Ari jokes before turning her attention to the phone. "Hey, Lina, what's up?"
"Ari," Lina says breathlessly, like she's been running for miles. There's also an edge to her voice that sends ice down Ari's spine, something she hasn't heard in her friend since Egypt.
Desperation. Pain. Fear.
Sideswipe feels Ari's worry and pulls over without a word, slipping into a random parking space along the curb.
"What's wrong?" Ari asks, turning the call on speaker and trying to keep calm. "Are you alright? Are you hurt?"
"Ari, I'm in some serious fragging trouble," Lina breathes, keeping her voice low like she's afraid of being overheard. "Like, worse than freshman year."
Ari's eyes widen. That is saying something, coming from her. "What's happened? Where are you?"
"I-I don't know. Somewhere in D.C. but I don't know exactly where. I just kept running…."
"Since when did you get to D.C.?" Ari asks, brow shooting to her hairline. Lina should be in Nevada, still in college. She shakes that thought away, shoving it aside for the moment. "You know what? Never mind. You can tell me all about it when we get to you. Just stay on the line, alright?"
"I've got the signal of your call, Lina," Sideswipe says, eyes staring unfocused out the windshield as he concentrates but his hands are clenched white on the steering wheel. "I'll have your location in twenty seconds."
"Primus, I hope you're close." Lina's voice cracks, close to tears, and it makes Ari even more scared for her. Lina never cries. She didn't even cry during Egypt. Yeah, she was scared out of her mind, but there weren't any tears. "I don't know if I lost them or not."
Ari's tempted to ask who's them, worried she's talking about someone other than the Decepticons, but Sideswipe speaks before she can. "Got it! You're not far from us. We'll be there in ten minutes."
Sideswipe puts them into motion, weaving in and out of D.C. traffic with horns blaring in their wake. Ari doesn't pay attention to the trip much, trusting Sideswipe to get them there in one piece. "Just sit tight, Lina, we'll be there soon. Are you somewhere safe or are you still running?"
"I-I'm hiding in some sort of warehouse? I don't see anyone but I don't…they came out of nowhere. I don't know how they found us in the first place. We were so careful."
"We? Is there someone else with you?"
Lina swallows heavily, audible even through the phone. "Not…Not anymore. I think he's dead."
Ari feels her face drain of color as her stomach drops. "Nick Fury?"
"Yeah." Lina sniffles. "The head of S.H.I.E.L.D. You knew him, right? He was at your wedding."
"Yeah," Ari whispers numbly. "We knew him."
Tears prick at the backs of her eyes. How can he just be gone? Nick is one of the strongest people she knows. What could have possibly brought him down? What kind of trouble was he in? Why didn't he call her? If she had been there then maybe….
Sideswipe takes her free hand in her lap and squeezes gently. His jaw is set in a firm line, retribution burning in his eyes and in his spark. It ignites her own determination and she swears by Primus himself that someone will pay for this.
"Who did this, Lina?" Ari demands with a cold edge she hardly recognizes in herself. "Tell me."
"I don't know," Lina admits. "They weren't Decepticons, I know that much. They were human."
"Human?" That's not what she was expecting but, really, should it be so surprising? Fury's the head of a secret worldwide spy organization responsible for toppling tyrants and stopping terrorists in their tracks. Getting rid of Fury would be very good for any number of bad guys.
And it could also mean the beginning of a much larger attack.
Sideswipe suddenly comes to a jarring halt. It's dark out, no street lights illuminating the area for several blocks, and they're barely able to make out the huge warehouses around them.
"We're here, Lina," Ari reassures her, getting out of Sideswipe's alt mode, his holoform right behind her. "I'm going to hang up now. We'll be there in a minute."
"Okay," Lina answers meekly and then the line goes dead.
"The others know what's going on," Sideswipe says, placing a protective hand on her waist. "Backup's on the way."
Ari activates her bracelets, the bands constricting around her wrists as the blades extend. "We can't risk waiting for them. Whoever these people are, they could be close to finding her again."
Frustration dies just as quickly as it builds along the bond, Sideswipe giving a curt nod. "I know. Just…stay close to me."