[TFP] Despicable Me 01

Starscream does not consider himself an Autobot. Nor is he a Neutral. He is a Decepticon, will always be a Decepticon.

They are more than just factions. They are symbols, choices made.

Starscream is a warrior. He is a Decepticon.

That he chooses to work with the Autobots is an entirely separate matter. He won’t even start considering the relationship he is cultivating with the Autobot CMO.

They are both choices he’s made, choices he would make again. They are a means to survive, even if Ratchet may perhaps be more.

It is unfair. As Ratchet is unnervingly drawn to Starscream, so it is the other way around. He puts on a solid front, but Starscream is as hopelessly attached to the surly medic as Ratchet can’t seem to turn his backplating on Starscream.

It’s as much a burden as it is a gift.

He doesn’t mind all that much. But he also never tells Ratchet that he’s still searching for Megatron. Not because he wants to revive the Decepticon cause. But because once upon a time, Starscream had admired Megatron and had believed in his vision.

He also knows that Optimus Prime had meant something to Megatron no matter how little he would admit it.

The war is over. The Decepticons are a factor in the annals of history. But Starscream refuses to let them become a footnote. He is Decepticon and proud and he will fight to ensure the truth has its day. He will fight for the Decepticons because no one else can.

“Where are we on reconstructing Shockwave’s half of the synthetic energon?” Ratchet asks as he comes into their medbay-slash-research lab, carrying a box stuffed to the brim with various bits and pieces of equipment.

Years of scraping around the scrap pile to create even a semblance of working equipment has turned the Autobot Chief Medical Officer into something of a magpie. And a hoarder. He refuses to throw anything into the rubbish if there’s a slightest chance it can be reused. He has also learned how to scavenge.

Sometimes, Ratchet disappears.

Starscream has learned to find him out in the war-desolated lands of Cybertron, pulling along a makeshift wagon as he picks up bits and pieces of the past, hoping to incorporate it into the future.

“Same place we’ve been for the past two weeks,” Starscream says, planting his hands against the desk as he stares down at an unmoving datapad. “Nowhere. Might I suggest that we–”

“No.” The box rattles as Ratchet drops it on a table, a piece of something falling off the top, hitting the floor, and rolling against a cabinet. “I will not ask Predaking what he did with his pet scientist.”

Starscream shrugs. “It was a suggestion. One that might get us further than trying to retrace his steps.”

Ratchet gives him a long look. “And you think you have what it takes to convince Shockwave to help us?”

“I think that Shockwave wants to see Cybertron restored as much as any of us,” Starscream answers truthfully. “As much as it pains me to admit, we are in need of his… expertise.” The word tastes like stale energon on his glossa.

Ratchet leans over to swipe the canister off the floor. “I don’t think Ultra Magnus will go for it.”

“We’re a democracy now. Who says you have to ask?” Starscream winks an optic.

“It’s not that simple.”

“It never is.” Starscream rolls his optic and returns his attention to his calculations. “Next you’ll be telling me it’s better this way.”

“Maybe it is.”

Starscream puts down his datapad with a sharp click and whirls toward his partner. “Beg pardon?”

We did this,” Ratchet says as he leans against the table, jarring the box behind him. “It’s our responsibility to fix it. We don’t deserve an easy out.”

Starscream grabs his datapad and waves it in Ratchet’s direction. “What about this incomprehensible piece of science is easy?”

But Ratchet gets that look on his face, that one of exasperated confusion that he always gets when their discussion is divided along the lines of faction. Where Ratchet’s idea of how the world works differs from Starscream’s because he is an Autobot and Starscream is a Decepticon.

“The only way we’ll keep ourselves from falling into bad habits is to do this ourselves,” Ratchet says. “Otherwise, we might be tempted to destroy it all over again.”

And wouldn’t that make Optimus Prime’s sacrifice a heap of useless?

Starscream huffs a ventilation and shakes his helm. “You Autobots. Always willing to do things the hard way.”

Ratchet passes by him, finger flicking the edge of Starscream’s wings. “You’re an Autobot, too, you know. No matter what these things claim.”

Starscream twitched his wings, the light above catching on his Deceptibrand. “Don’t insult me.”

“Hah. If I wanted to insult you, I’d be trying harder.” Ratchet offers him a grin, his field flicking out in a tease. “Come on. Break time. You stare at those equations any longer and they’ll start making sense.”

Starscream turns away from the datapad, falling into step beside his partner. “Isn’t that the point?”

“I don’t know. I was starting to wonder.” Ratchet cycles a ventilation, the sound a mix between resignation and exasperation. “There are a number of other projects we could be working on. Maybe we should shelve this one for now.”

“Or maybe we can stop wasting time tracing Shockwave’s footsteps and just ask him,” Starscream says though he loathes to make the suggestion.

Ratchet’s field sharpens with warning. “We are not going that route,” he says, a touch of growl in his vocals now. “I would sooner rebuild Cybertron sheet by sheet than seek out Shockwave.” His tone leaves no room for argument.

Starscream’s optics cycle down, but he doesn’t push. Beneath the anger is something else. And it’s not hard to remember what had happened last time Ratchet assisted Shockwave in completing this formula. The medic still wants nothing to do with the predacons and makes himself scarce whenever Predaking comes to make trade.

“And if there is any justice in the universe it won’t matter anyway because Shockwave is offline,” Ratchet adds and then whirls on a heel, abruptly heading the opposite direction.

Starscream pauses, turning to watch his exit. “Where are you going?”

“I’m fueled enough,” he throws over his shoulder.

Starscream sighs and buries his faceplate in his hand. Well. That’ll be a chilly reception in the berth this evening. Perhaps he’ll be better off on the fold-out in their shared lab.

Or…

Starscream checks the patrol logs. It’ll be Smokescreen this evening, and he’s known for paying Starscream little attention.

Perhaps he’ll have no need to recharge in a berth tonight. Perhaps Starscream needs to do a little search on his own. Ratchet may be unwilling, but Starscream isn’t. He’s tired of looking out a window and seeing nothing but destruction.

He wants to see his home again.
0o0o0

Shockwave is listed as missing-presumed-dead in the Autobot database. This is because there have been no confirmed sightings of him in any of his known laboratories and no one has found his empty frame either. A pity.

Unfortunately, this also means that Starscream has no leads in finding the scientist. None save one. And it’s that lead which gives him pause. Well, that and the niggling reminder from his conscience that he is only going to make things worse with Ratchet.

His last encounter with Predaking had not been pleasant, had left its marks in more ways than one. Ratchet is not the only one who makes himself scarce when Predaking drops by, though the medic is at least tolerant of Darksteel and Skylynx.

Predaking is not difficult to find. He’s built himself a home on the edge of the former predacon burial ground. Starscream doesn’t know what he or the other predacons do with their time and he doesn’t particularly care. But they are the best hope for finding Shockwave.

Whether or not they’ll help is another matter. Especially since Starscream has nothing to offer them. Not to mention that Predaking had done his level best to destroy Starscream when last they met.

He might not be too keen on seeing Starscream alive even if, tangentially, he is aware of it.

But Starscream is a Decepticon, and he has a duty. He also secretly hopes that he won’t have to use the distress beacon either. Ratchet won’t be happy if he has to come retrieve Starscream and put him back together.

He spends an hour searching, flying a criss-cross pattern across the landscape, his scanners working at max. Wherever Predaking and his minions are, it is not here. Starscream doesn’t know what they do when they are not poking around in the leftovers of a burial ground. The Autobots don’t seem so concerned about it either.

They are not here. How frustrating.

Starscream performs a tight turn and aims himself toward home, and that’s when something pings on his sensor. He pauses, hovering mid-air, orienting himself to the ping. It’s on the furthest edge of his sensor range, the reception too spotty to clearly identify the source.

It could be Shockwave. It could be a new arrival to Cybertron. It certainly isn’t a newly sparked mech, not this far out in the wilderness and away from the Well of Allsparks. Unless the technimals have returned, though Starscream is certain they would have seen signs of that sooner.

How curious.

Starscream considers investigating. It is further from the Autobot base than he is now. But with the ground bridge, back up is only a comm call away. He can defend himself if he is not outnumbered.

And he is not a coward.

Starscream turns toward the signal and locks on to it. There is a mystery here that needs solving.

He follows the ping toward the setting sun and the darkness on the horizon. It is, he remarks, not unlike the beginning of a cheap human horror film. Starscream chuckles to himself. Knock Out would have enjoyed the comparison.

He coasts over the Sea of Rust and just past the Sonic Canyons before the ping gets stronger. Below him, the landscape is pitted with divots and scars. There are deep, shadowy places where a mech can easily lose himself. The perfect location, perhaps, for a scientist to conceal a laboratory.

Starscream tracks the signal to a narrow crevasse and the yawing maw of a cave just beyond. He can make out nothing in the dark, not a sound or a whisper. But the ping is strongest here, and his energon sensors are chiming a soft sound. Something is down there.

He transforms and lands, readying a blaster. Ratchet is going to have his wings for a serving plate if Starscream gets himself injured. But he’s just curious enough to take the risk.

Starscream’s plating clamps down as he creeps into the cave. Past experience makes him wary, and his wings report the weight of rock above him, the lack of free-flowing air. But Starscream is a proud warrior, a Decepticon. He refuses to let his anxieties rule his actions.

His field probes the darkness ahead of him. Brief and frequent pulses keep a sensor on the possibility of scraplets or other unsavory beasts. Creatures that survived in the depths of Cybertron no matter what the sapient mecha had done to the surface.

His audials pick up the presence of another mech before anything else. He hears the hissing-rattle of clogged filters, a snuffling of vents that need flushing. And then he rounds a corner, the darkness lit by the dim glow of a small collection of low grade energon.

Starscream gets a whiff of the mech’s energy field and his sensors go haywire. He freezes, fighting down the automatic response of his defensive protocals.

That is not Shockwave.

Starscream dares step deeper into the cave, getting a better look at his once lord and master, draped over a makeshift berth. His armor is pitted and scored, likely damage from the last battle that never quite healed. There’s a hint of emaciation to his protoform – clear signs of a lack of quality energon. Megatron must also have taken his claws to himself because Unicron’s additions are either missing or visibly damaged.

Starscream moves closer, into receiving range of Megatron’s energy field, a brief scan reporting the once warlord’s condition. Lack of maintenance, repairs, and decent energon have left him in a poor state. Is he even capable of offlining?

“Megatron?”

Nothing. Megatron doesn’t even stir. Which is alarming considering that Megatron’s defensive protocols have always erred on the side of caution.

Starscream frowns and takes a moment to examine the ping that had alerted him earlier. He realizes, to his shock, that it had been automatic. The last gasps of a frame desperate to survive. Megatron hadn’t programmed this. Which means he must be in stasis, not recharge, and has been for long enough that his survival protocols had initialized.

Starscream frowns, laying a hand on Megatron’s shoulder. The vibrations of life are dulled. There is chill to Megatron’s armor. And that he doesn’t stir, doesn’t online to lash out for someone touching him, that perhaps is the most worrisome observation.

Megatron is dying.

Alone, in the near-dark, for whatever reason. It’s an unfitting end for a warrior. Better that he’d offlined at the hands of Bumblebee than this. Unicron had taken many things from Megatron, and now, also his dignity and the honor of a warrior’s death.

Somewhere, beneath all that, is the mech who had risen up from the chains of his oppressors to inspire a revolution that would free them all.

Starscream pities him and that, perhaps, is the most startling realization of all. Along with the secondary one: he can’t leave Megatron here. He can’t walk away. And there’s no way on Cybertron he can get Megatron out of here by himself. He’s going to need help.

Frag it all to the Pit. This is not going to be pleasant for anyone.

Starscream braces himself and makes the call.
0o0o0

“Are you out of your damned mind?”

Starscream winces and folds his arms over his chestplate. He didn’t know Ratchet was capable of reaching that decibel and frankly, he’d have been happier not knowing it.

“I am in possession of all my faculties,” Starscream retorts, keeping his tone mild but frosty. “I am also serious.”

Ratchet huffs a ventilation and starts to pace, his plating shuffling around his frame, betraying his agitation. “I know you are. That’s what makes this all the more ridiculous.”

Starscream refuses to reply to that.

He watches Ratchet pace some more, his hand rubbing his face. “Bad enough that I took the risk to bring you back home, but now you want me to show up with fragging Megatron? Why would I even want to?”

Starscream’s wings flick. “Because factions don’t exist anymore. And he’s still a Cybertronian.”

“Thanks to him, we lost Cybertron!” Ratchet snarls and he whirls on a pede, stalking closer to Starscream, his optics bleeding blue fury. “We lost Optimus. We lost everything.”

Starscream inclines his helm. “If I recall, it was Unicron who led to that mess. Megatron, after all, did not choose to be resurrected as Unicron’s puppet.”

Ratchet snorts. “And I suppose I should forgive him because he finally had a fragging epiphany? Hah.” He shoves his arms over his chestplate, everything about him pulling into a defensive posture. “I don’t know what’s more galling. That you would ask me or that you want to help him in the first place.”

“He’s dying.”

“Then I suppose we should throw a party,” Ratchet grits out. “Because the only mech who would have mourned his death is already gone! And Megatron’s got himself to blame for it.”

That hurts and Starscream isn’t entirely sure why it does. His wings drift back down, a concession.

“Then you’ll leave him to die,” Starscream says, careful to keep his tone soft.

Ratchet’s expression hardens. “Megatron died a long time ago. I’m not about to risk peace for the likes of him.”

Starscream cycles a ventilation. “Fine,” he says, and holds out his hand. “Give me your medkit.”

Now it’s Ratchet’s turn to balk. “Why?”

“Because I don’t have one of my own,” Starscream says, and it’s his turn to invade Ratchet’s personal space, barely able to keep his anger below the surface. “If I’m going to fix Megatron without your help, I at least need supplies.”

“You’re not even a medic!”

“And apparently, neither are you,” Starscream snaps and holds out his hand again. “Give it to me so you can go back to Kaon and wrap yourself in your hypocrisy.”

Ratchet bristles. “I’m not a… a hypocrite!”

“You are!” Starscream advances on him and Ratchet, impressively, stands his ground. “What are you telling yourself? That I don’t count? I’m just as responsible for what happened to our planet as Megatron is! And you’re only lying to yourself if you believe otherwise.”

Ratchet tears his gaze away and his hands form fists. “That’s not fair.”

“Nothing about any of this is fair.” Starscream rolls his optics. “You should know that better than anyone. Now are you going to give me the medkit or not?”

Ratchet’s ventilations are ragged, and all the louder for it in the silence surrounding them. His field is a fluttering tempest, no doubt a match to Starscream’s own. And Starscream knows it can’t be easy.

But he’s also not going to change his mind. If Ratchet doesn’t help, Starscream will still stay here.

Finally, Ratchet lifts a hand and points a finger at Starscream. “You’re going to explain this to the others,” he says, and shoves past Starscream, stalking into the open maw of Megatron’s hiding place.

Starscream stares after him. “What are you doing?”

“There’s a mech in need of repairs,” Ratchet growls and his vocals echo around the walls. “And a long time ago, I swore an oath. Maybe it still means something.”

Starscream hurries to follow. He won’t ask why Ratchet changed his mind. That can be a conversation saved for later, when Megatron is repaired and they all have time to ventilate.

“Thank you,” he says instead.

Ratchet appreciates gratitude and Starscream says it rarely enough that the medic should recognize how genuine he is.

“You’re going to explain to me why this matters later,” Ratchet says and produces his medkit from subspace, his strides sharp and purposeful. “Because I’m going to need a fragging good reason as to why you give a damn… about… Megatron…”

His words trail off as he comes to a halt, no doubt getting his first glimpse of Megatron and the cave Megatron calls home. The former warlord looks no less menacing for all that he is unconscious, though Ratchet can’t miss the self-inflicted marks on Megatron’s frame either.

“And you better hope to Primus he’s sane,” Ratchet finishes, shaking himself out of his surprise. He approaches Megatron with the kind of no-nonsense courage that had probably kept him alive during the war. “Otherwise we’ll both pay for our generosity.”

Starscream inclines his helm and perches on a crate to watch and guard Ratchet’s back.
0o0o0

The steady beep and pulse take Starscream back, way back to the early days after Megatron’s return. Megatron had been on life support then as well. A result of his failed attempt to utilize Dark Energon to make a zombie army.

The only difference between now and then is that Starscream isn’t plotting how to disconnect Megatron from the machines without any of his loyal subjects knowing.

He stares at the readouts, datapad lying forgotten in his laptop. Anxiety swirls in his spark. Half of him is ready for Megatron to awake. The other half dreads it.

Megatron begins to stir. Starscream’s wings go rigid.

“You, my once lord and master, have more lives than an Earth feline,” Starscream drawls as he sits up straighter.

Megatron’s optics flicker as his helm turns towards him. “Starscream,” he growls and attempts to roll over on the berth. “I told you that…” He trails off, as though noticing the restraints keeping him from moving.

Protection, Ratchet claims, for both the Autobots and for Megatron. The once warlord can’t afford for those lines to come loose yet.

“Where am I?”

“The Autobot base.” Starscream pushes to his pedes, idly skimming the readouts of the machines attached to Megatron’s frame. All seems to be in order. “I successfully petitioned for them to repair you.”

Red optics narrow. “Why?”

“Because there was once a time I admired you.” Starscream’s gaze shifts to Megatron, a mech a shadow of himself. “And no mech, not even you, deserves to offline in that hovel you claimed as home.”

Megatron sneers, but it is half-sparked as best. “Do not speak to me of what I deserve.”

Starscream’s lip curls in a smirk. “Ah, you now play the part of the victim, Master. Would you rather I end your life?” He curls one hand around the cable providing spark support. “It won’t take much, truly. A simple pull and I can set you on the path to the Allspark. No one will even try to stop me.”

The restraints creak as Megatron tests the strength of them. “If I were to die, it wouldn’t be at your hands.”

“Of course you wouldn’t.” Starscream doesn’t even take offense. Though he does release his loose grip on the cable. “The only mech you’d deign allow to kill you is Optimus Prime and we all know how likely that is to happen now. Tell me, Master, were you wasting away from shame or grief? Perhaps both?”

Megatron growls and looks away from him; the half of his expression Starscream can see is set in stone. “Why have you brought me here?” he asks, and no, it is not a demand. It is a genuine question.

And Starscream doesn’t fail to notice that he didn’t answer Starscream’s previous query. Which is fine because Starscream already knows the answer.

“Because as much as you infuriate me, Megatron, the thought of your death is distasteful,” Starscream says and he circles the berth, prepared to play this game all day if he must. Megatron will look at him. “And it accomplishes nothing.”

Megatron’s hand twitches. “I am to be a prisoner, then.”

“That’s not my decision alone.” Starscream works his jaw. “But I doubt it. They’re probably going to let you go. Or extend an invitation.”

“An invitation,” Megatron repeats, the glyphs flat as though distasteful to him. “To live with the Autobots. Perish the thought.”

Starscream shrugs. “I don’t see where you have any better options.”

Megatron’s silence is all the answer he needs. Starscream draws back from the medberth.

“You’ll be in recovery for a week,” he says. “I suggest you use that time to think about your future. And I wouldn’t antagonize the medics if I were you.”

Megatron sneers, but says nothing.

Starscream takes his leave, unsurprised to find Ratchet waiting for him just outside the door, having been watching through the observation window.

“Come to make sure he’s not a threat?” Starscream asks.

Ratchet gives him a bland look. “I won’t apologize for being concerned for your safety.” His gaze shifts back to the window and Megatron who hasn’t moved except to shift on the berth. “Those straps won’t hold him if he’s determined to be free of them.”

“Megatron’s not determined of anything anymore.” Starscream leans against the window, crossing his arms. “And you’re right. Megatron died a long time ago. That’s the shell Orion Pax left us with.”

Not Optimus Prime. Starscream makes the distinction on purpose.

Ratchet makes a noncommittal noise, his field thoughtful as it tentatively reaches for Starscream’s own. Starscream allows it, recognizing the gesture for the concession it was. And then the medic sighs and rubs his forehelm.

“I suppose I better tell Ultra Magnus to prepare for a new resident,” he says, sounding pained.

Starscream smirks. “Wonder how long Arcee’s going to squawk this time?”

“She accepted you. Eventually.” Ratchet turns to look at him, a touch of humor entering his field. “And she hated you more. I suspect, of all of them, Ultra Magnus will be the hardest to convince.”

“In other words, business as usual.”

Ratchet inclines his helm. “Yes.” He drums his fingers on the ledge at the base of the window. “Starscream, why do you care what happens to Megatron?” And there’s a hint of something in his vocals. Not jealous, but a close relative of it.

“Not for the reasons you think.” Starscream shrugs in an attempt to pass it off as casual and knowing that he fails. He looks through the window where Megatron is lying there, as passive as before, and it’s an image that strikes him as so intensely wrong.

“I know you think that because I’m here that makes me an Autobot, but I’m not. I’ll always be a Decepticon.” He pauses, frustrated with his own inability to articulate what he means by that. “When we started, there was a reason, there was a purpose. I want that back.”

Ratchet folds his arms over his chestplate, leaning a hip against the wall. “We never disagreed with your original goals, you know. Just your methods. Optimus always wanted peace. Megatron just wouldn’t listen.”

Starscream inclines his helm, having to agree. “Megatron got lost in the hate. He forgot what we were meant for.” He sighs, rapping his fingers on the window ledge. “I hate him for what he did to us, to our cause. All I ever wanted was for him to be the mech we followed.”

“Yes, well, that’s not entirely Megatron’s fault.” Ratchet gets his own faraway look, a touch of unease dripping into his field. “Optimus never could make the choice. They circled around each other, and dragged us with them.”

In this, Starscream can agree.

He spreads his hands. “And that’s your answer,” Starscream says. “Megatron is the Decepticons. He will always be the Decepticons. And I can’t be an Autobot, Ratchet. I can’t.”

There’s a sigh, one resigned enough to draw his attention to Ratchet. “I get it,” his partner says, rubbing his faceplate. “And I understand. He’s going to live, Starscream. After that, well, I guess that’s up to him.”

Ratchet drops his hand and turns away from Starscream. He has one hand on the panel, ready to input his security code, before Starscream speaks again.

“I loved him once,” Starscream says, or blurts rather. “The way you loved Optimus Prime.”

Ratchet gives him a look over one shoulder, and Starscream is almost surprised by the understanding lighting those blue optics. “I knew that, too,” he says, and then he vanishes into Megatron’s recovery room, leaving Starscream to watch them from the window.

He can’t hear what they are saying. But judging by the flare to Megatron’s optics and Ratchet’s smirk, Megatron is experiencing Ratchet’s special flavor of berthside manner.

Starscream smiles a little himself. Something within him, that had felt raw and aching and unsettled, finally begins to slot into place.

[TF] Houses of Cards

“What do you mean Megatron’s missing?”

It was not a shriek, even though it sounded dangerously close to one. Starscream refused to admit that his voice had gone into the higher register.

He stalked toward Reflector who did the smart thing for once and backpedaled. “I mean that no one’s seen him,” the pseudo-combiner said, all three of his components speaking in unison.

“That’s impossible,” Starscream snarled. “Megatron doesn’t just disappear!”

Reflector quivered.

Starscream whirled on a heelstrut and stomped away from him, well aware that every optic in the command center was focused his direction.

Megatron did not just vanish. He didn’t wander away on his own. He was always present, always terrorizing his subordinates or coming up with the next big scheme. And if he did leave, he never did so without one of his loyal lackeys at his side.

Which meant something had not gone to plan. Someone had skipped in line. Someone had done what they were not supposed to do.

“Find him!” Starscream commanded, barking the order to everyone within audial reach. “After all, we can’t defeat the Autobots without him, can we?”

Decepticons scattered, though whether it was because they intended to look busy or were actually interested in obeying, Starscream didn’t care. He had an idea of what might have happened, and didn’t need anyone paying too much attention to him.

Especially Soundwave.

The third in command planted himself down at the communications console, but Laserbeak on his shoulder was staring fixed in Starscream’s direction. Her beady optics didn’t so much as cycle.

Creepy slaggers.

Starscream sneered, his wings hiking upward, and turned his back to the staring cassette. He shoved a Decepticon away from the nearest console and planted his own aft in it. He pretended to run a search while he activated his private comm.

He pinged Onslaught not once, but thrice, in rapid succession. He ground his denta while he waited for an answer, and was not at all surprised when he received none. The Combaticons were logged as off-duty, but on-call. They should have responded.

That they did not made Starscream grind his denta hard enough to taste sparks on his glossa. He logged off, shoved back from the console and shot to his pedes.

“Keep looking!” he snarled when one too many Decepticons paid him attention. He pretended he didn’t notice that Soundwave had gone stiff.

Starscream stormed out of the command center, pinging Onslaught again. Nothing.

Those idiots!

He should have never trusted them.

~

Megatron onlined with a gasp, the sharp buzz-snap of electricity nipping at his circuits and startling him into consciousness. Megatron hissed as pain lanced his sensory net, but he couldn’t discern its origin. Everything around him was a haze.

Where? What?

Megatron tried to online his optics, his visual feed returning distorted, fuzzy images. Blurs of color and flickering light. His audials were much the same, full of static and screeching feedback that worsened the agony in his helm.

He tried to move and felt the tug of something around his wrists. He wasn’t standing; he knew this much. Instead, he was lying down, not on a berth, but on something cold and unforgiving.

Someone was touching him. Multiple someones. Proximity sensors registered the presence of other mechs surrounding him, their fields cut off from his. Or maybe that was the fault of the inhibitor clamped to his back, shutting off his comms, access to his internal weaponry, to his T-cog.

What the frag happened?

A growl built in Megatron’s vocalizer. He rebooted his sensory suites again. The spots of crimson above him clarified. The shapes and colors took form. There were five mechs, the nearest of them planted directly atop Megatron. His visor gleamed. His hands played in Megatron’s seams, fingers coiling around wires, tugging.

Megatron’s backstrut arched toward his attacker without his consent. His fans spun up at the spike of pain-pleasure. His interface array pinged for release, and Megatron ruthlessly denied it.

His vision grew clearer. Five sets of optics. Five frames. Five symbols of his own faction. Four sets of military grade armor, one civilian.

The Combaticons. Megatron’s engine growled. He should have known. What were they doing? And how! The loyalty coding should have prevented them from acting against Megatron in any capacity.

Yet, Vortex was atop him, casually playing under Megatron’s plating. The others were talking, no, they were all talking. Megatron’s audials recognized the murmur of their voices, but not the words. He rebooted them again, speech coming through the static.

“–just kill him!” Swindle exclaimed, throwing up his hands.

“To what end?” Blast Off asked, his emotionless tone one of the easiest to identify, as he loomed over all the others.

“Uh, so we can get rid of him?” Brawl ventured and scratched at his helm. “Isn’t that the point?”

Onslaught folded his arms over his chest. “And cause the entirety of the Decepticon empire to crash down on us?”

“Pfft. They ain’t that loyal,” Vortex argued as his fingers dug deeper into Megatron’s seams, as though trying to yank his chestplates open and get to his spark beneath.

Megatron swallowed down a cry of pain.

“Enough of them are,” Blast Off intoned.

“Then humiliating him will have to suffice,” Onslaught said as he looked down at Megatron, the light behind his visor completely flat. “As he has humiliated us.”

“Yes,” Vortex agreed and Blast Off echoed and even Swindle, the anger in their fields swirling and joining together.

“Won’t he just kill us afterward?” Brawl asked. He cracked his knuckle-joints, the nervous habit one Megatron had always loathed.

Vortex cackled and wriggled his fingers. “Not if he can’t catch us,” he said as he hooked an armor plate and finally yanked it free, tossing it casually over his shoulder. It clattered off into the dim.

Megatron ground his denta, biting back a cry of pain. He glared at them, his vocalizer grinding out static. He tugged again on his cuffs, but they didn’t budge. Which was unsurprising given Vortex’s occupation.

“We will take from you the freedom you stole from us,” Onslaught intoned, looming over Megatron, his optical band glinting darkly. “It is only fair.” One hand landed on Vortex’s shoulder, briefly squeezing. “Vortex, begin.”

The rotary tilted his helm. “Sir, yes, sir,” he drawled.

Fingers plunged into Megatron’s seams, as deftly as though they were sharpened. Megatron’s engine raced. He thrashed beneath Vortex, trying to toss the rotary away and get himself free.

It was a waste of energy. It was pointless. He couldn’t bring himself to stop.

This was a calculated assault. This was intentional. He didn’t know how they had surpassed the loyalty coding, but he would find out.

For now, he refused to give them his fear.

They would not break him.

~

Starscream dialed their comm, each of them in turn, a second time and then a third. Starscream continued to dial as many times as it took, so that the notification pings would be a constant and irritating buzz at the back of Onslaught’s processor.

He had no patience for this.

Starscream paced back and forth in his quarters, his spark flipping and churning in his chassis. This was not how things were meant to be. This was not what he intended.

This was a failure by all counts.

I should not be so surprised, Megatron’s voice whispered at him, lurching from the depths of his subconscious. Because a failure is what you are.

Starscream snarled.

The comm finally connected.

“Starscream,” Onslaught drawled, and he’d patched Starscream into his receiving feed because Starscream picked up ambient noise – the slide of metal on metal, grunts and moans, the slick sounds of lubricant. “I was waiting for your comm.”

Starscream’s wings went rigid. “What have you done, Onslaught?” he demanded, his vocals approaching a shriek, the pitch he and everyone else loathed.

“Is it not obvious? You must be slower than Megatron thought.” Onslaught chuckled, his dark humor a direct insult. “We’ve only done what you’ve asked of us.”

“This was not our agreement!” Now Starscream did shriek. If that eavesdropping drone was listening in, Starscream was ruined.

Vortex laughed in the background.

“You can have him when we’re done with him,” Onslaught replied, his tone so mild that it bordered on dull.

Starscream ground his denta, gritting out a response, “That is not part of the plan,” he snarled.

“What does it matter in the end, Starscream? It’s not like you were going to kill him.”

The comm went dead, cutting off the sound of metal impacting metal and another eerie laugh in the background. Further attempts to contact Onslaught were pointless. Rather than ignore Starscream, he sent all of his pings to a messaging system.

Starscream felt the rage boiling inside of him. He crossed his arms, shuttered his optics, and screamed into the ether.

He should not be so surprised. He should have known better than to trust those idiots. There were many things he should have done.

His armor clamped tightly to his frame. He knew he had to fix this. He couldn’t let things stand as they were. At best, he would suffer another beating. At worse… Starscream did not want to contemplate it.

The idea of bowing, scraping, begging for his life again – it left a sour taste in his mouth. Like curdled energon. Like all the other times he had tried and failed.

Perhaps, however, this could be turned to Starscream’s advantage somehow. If he rescued Megatron, it might earn him enough forgiveness to avoid the worse consequences. There was always the option of killing him as well, but that left an equally sour taste in Starscream’s spark.

Stealing away a damaged Megatron only to offline him in a moment of weakness? That was not how Starscream wanted to gain control of the Decepticons. It would not work besides. Starscream did not have a firm enough grip on any percentage of the Decepticons to ensure he would not have to fight for leadership.

No. When he defeated Megatron, it had to be grand, it had to be public, it had to be witnessed.

This would not do.

Starscream ground his denta and stormed to his weapons locker, digging to the very back for his secondary plan. He’d had enough sense to be prepared for this possibility, though he hadn’t thought the Combaticons would be stupid enough to make a move so soon.

It rankled that he would have to rescue Megatron now, but needs must.

He would not give up all opportunity to take what was his because the Combaticons decided to become suicidal.

Enough was enough.

~

Megatron expected a beating. He could endure pain. He was built to endure pain. And yes, they had given him pain.

Brawl pounded on him, fists leaving dents in Megatron’s plating, impressions of Brawl’s knuckles that would linger.

Vortex played in his cables, his lines, like he was a fine-tuned instrument. Vortex had mastered the art of pain.

Blast Off was precision, targeted strikes, meant to incapacitate, making the cuffs meaningless because Megatron couldn’t move anyway.

Onslaught watched.

Swindle recorded, a look of greedy glee on his face.

How much would his torment go for on the black market, Megatron wondered. He didn’t bother to taunt. He gritted his denta on insults.

He waited for them to grow bored. It would happen eventually. They were careless, like sparklings lashing out because they could. He half-expected more out of Onslaught, a brilliant tactician.

Then again, this had Starscream written all over it. Half-baked plans were his trademark.

“Enough,” Onslaught finally said, holding up a hand.

His minions fell away, though not without a parting shot by Vortex to Megatron’s substructure. His protoform rippled with pain where the energon prod had stung deep. His valve was a raw, aching mess. His mangled spike would no doubt require replacement.

Megatron reminded himself that it was only pain.

Onslaught continued, “There is one among us who has not gotten his opportunity for revenge.”

Megatron rolled his optics and spat up a glob of energon. He’d bitten his glossa more than once. “Have you forgotten how to count? Or is Swindle finally going to do more than observe like the coward he is?”

“So cheeky!” Vortex said with a little giggle. He pushed to his pedes, his rotors wiggling, and he clapped his hands together. “How long do you think that will last?”

Onslaught’s visor burned deeper. His fellow Combaticons clustered around him, looking down at Megatron. Swindle didn’t even have the courtesy to appear offended. His camera had vanished.

“Not long, once he realizes my meaning,” Onslaught replied. He lowered his arms. “Combaticons, it is time to combine.”

Vortex laughed as realization plummeted into Megatron’s spark. He stared in growing horror as the five mechs became one, as Bruticus loomed over him. The combiner’s hand was as large as Megatron alone, and the massive red visor glared down at Megatron.

“You,” Bruticus boomed. “You are the one.”

Megatron thrashed in his bonds, but there was no escape, no way to turn away from the hand that grabbed at him. It picked him up, snapping the chains like paper. Caught in the combiner’s grip, Megatron couldn’t work his way free.

“You hurt Bruticus,” the gestalt rumbled, as dim-witted as ever, but intent in every action. For once, all five of the Combaticons were thinking as one.

Pity it had to be now of all times.

“So Bruticus hurt you.”

Fingers squeezed. Metal shrieked in alarm and then dented. Pain shot through Megatron’s frame. His visual feed went red.

“But Bruticus not kill.”

The pressure eased. Megatron’s coherency slowly returned. He felt himself being lifted. His arms were gripped by a second large hand, pulled over his helm. He onlined his optics – when had he offlined them? – and found himself dangling from Bruticus’ right hand.

“Bruticus humiliate.”

The massive mech’s field slammed into Megatron, and only then did he feel the sadistic glee, the desire to break and bend, to make him suffer.

A finger as thick around as the barrel of his fusion cannon prodded at his lower half. It poked his abdomen, then nudged between his thighs. It rubbed hard against his exposed array, where lubricant, transfluid, and energon mingled.

A cold chill went down Megatron’s backstrut.

“No!” he snarled, trying to twist away, but there was nowhere to go that Bruticus could not reach.

The blunt pressure of an over-large finger landed on his spike, flicking it dismissively. And then it prodded at his valve again, the tip fitting against his rim and pushing inside, straining already abused calipers.

“Yes,” Bruticus intoned.

Megatron twisted his hips away, a gasp escaping his lips. His spark was stuttering; he could see the whirl of it reflected against Bruticus’ armor through the rends in his armor.

He could handle pain. But what Bruticus intended went beyond that.

“You’ll kill me,” Megatron gasped out as the finger pushed its way deeper and a second joined. He heard the creak and crack of metal, felt the pop of one of his hip joints dislocating.

Excruciating, nauseating pain sent white light lights dancing in his visual feed. His ventilations stuttered.

“You’ll wish we had,” Bruticus rumbled and his field crashed over Megatron with all the force of a sonic boom. It rattled against his armor, stole his vents, sent his thoughts spinning into an endless loop.

The fingers pulled free with a sickening squelch. Cold replaced heat. Megatron’s vision fritzed in and out, his audials reading static. His arms ached, shoulders burning. He couldn’t move his left leg.

He heard the distinct shunk of a panel opening. He forced his optics into a reboot, forced himself to look, as the full force of horror fell down on him.

Bruticus had a spike after all, and it was extending from his pelvic plate, easily as big around as Megatron’s thigh and more than half again the length.

It would destroy him.

“Don’t,” Megatron rasped as fluids dripped from his ruined valve and the remains of his spike throbbed in sympathy.

Bruticus laughed, a mocking sound. “The choice, not yours,” he said, and guided Megatron toward the head of his spike, already seeping with pre-fluid, and looking all the more menacing for it.

“Tell us, Megatron, how does it feel?”

~

Starscream did not want to interpret the noises floating to his audials. Or the smell that hit his olfactory sensors. Energon and transfluid and ozone and the stench of scorched metal and fluids.

There was a rumble, the noise of metal impacting against metal, the sick squelch of fluids. There were impossible sounds, broken sounds, noises that made him reluctant to turn the corner.

He expected torture. He expected for Megatron to be alive, but in pieces. He did not expect to burst into the warehouse and find Bruticus crouched over Megatron, a massive spike near-splitting Megatron in two. The Decepticon leader was limp in Bruticus’ hold as the combiner more or less used him as a toy, a means to an overload, without regard for his comfort or safety.

It took all Starscream had not to purge.

That was not the plan!

Defeat him, yes. Take him down, yes. Humiliate him, make him beg, make him realize how pathetic he was… yes, yes, and yes. But this?

No. It was unacceptable. It was so far beyond acceptable that it had crossed the line into abhorrent.

And Starscream had done this. He had freed the Combaticons, made this possible.

Well. Now he was going to undo t.

Bruticus hadn’t noticed him, yet.

Starscream didn’t bother to bark an order. He knew that it would be ignored. Instead, he lifted the blaster he’d brought with him – it didn’t fire bullets, at least, not the conventional kind – and he fired.

The first beam hit Brawl square in whatever formed Bruticus’ knee. It sent him straight into stasis lock, freezing up the limb. Bruticus staggered back and the second shot hit Vortex, causing his grip to fall away from Megatron’s waist.

The combiner let out a low growl of confusion, his helm swinging toward Starscream, but all it took was a third shot to Bruticus’ torso for the combiner to drop. It clattered, falling into its components, and in the process, dislodging Megatron.

Starscream winced as the Decepticon leader tumbled to the ground, falling to a heap. Two more shots took care of Swindle and Blast Off respectively before Starscream felt safe to approach the downed combiner. He didn’t look at Megatron, not until he’d plugged all five of the datasticks into the Combaticons’ cephalic ports to begin the upload.

Their respite from the control programming was over. If Megatron let them live after this, it would never be with any degree of freedom.

Only then did Starscream turn to Megatron, instantly glad that he’d disengaged his chemo-receptors and dialed back his electromagnetic field to a dull hum around his frame. Megatron was barely conscious, his arms still bound by stasis cuffs above his head, perhaps because his shoulders had been dislocated, preventing him from moving them.

His entire frame was riddled with dents and scrapes. Starscream had watched enough interrogations – and spent enough time in Vortex’s care – to recognize the work of an energon whip, an energon prod, and the telltale drip of acid. Plates of armor were missing, the cables beneath damaged and torn.

The worst of it was his interfacing array. Starscream’s tank squeezed as his gaze fell to it, Megatron’s panels unable to close. His spike had been extended, but not for the interest of pleasure, given the way it was crushed and the housing around it dented. His valve was a ruin, the rim torn and sluggishly bleeding, his exterior node was cracked and dark. Both of his hips looked to be dislocated. His bottom half was a mess of dents, energon, lubricant, and transfluid.

None of it was fatal. But unless he had managed to disable his own sensors, consciousness would bring on excruciating pain.

Starscream cycled a ventilation, and nibbled on his bottom lip. He had to get Megatron out of here on his own. The last thing he needed was one of the loyalists to stumble in here. Especially Soundwave.

At least, not until Starscream was out of the line of fire.

He crouched next to Megatron, the rattling whoosh of Megatron’s vents explaining why energon kept spattering onto his armor. If he wasn’t in stasis, he was going to be soon.

Megatron’s optics flickered. Starscream’s own widened.

He was conscious?!

“S-Starscream.” Glitched with static, Megatron’s vocals stuttered into the air. His field rose, weak at first, but gaining in strength until it attacked Starscream.

There was no precision in the agony that boiled over Starscream. It was pure, blunt force. If he hadn’t dampened his own field, it would have been dizzying.

“Once again, I come to your rescue, Master,” Starscream said as he folded his arms over his cockpit. He stared down at his leader.

Megatron’s optics flickered before suddenly brightening, burning with rage. He moved, however awkwardly, but enough to prove he still had some sense of self.

“You… you think I can’t see your hand in this?” Megatron spat at him, a labored attempt at speech, his words striped in static.

Despite it all, guilt rose up in his intake. “I had nothing to do with this,” Starscream retorted. Megatron was in no state to hear of unintended consequences. “But the way I see it, you have two options, my lord.”

Energon bubbled from Megatron’s lips. His optics burned dimly at Starscream. “Spare me your pontificating,” he rasped out, trying again to move, his limbs twitching. More fluid trickled from his valve.

Starscream leaned forward before he caught himself. He hated his own weakness, how he still somehow felt compelled to worry when Megatron was injured.

“Two options,” Starscream repeated, his wings flicking back. “You can wait for Soundwave to come retrieve you, or I can take you out of here myself, somewhere you can recover without half of your soldiers seeing you in such a weakened condition.”

Silence. Megatron’s vents continued to splutter, to spatter the ground around him with fluids. His jaw set. He glared.

Starscream ground his denta. “Quickly, Megatron. Or your frame will make the choice out of here.”

Megatron’s engine growled as he laboriously dragged his arms toward his lap – so, not dislocated after all. He managed to get an elbow beneath him, forcing him half-upright. Each motion was slow, grating, thick with pain.

“Chrono’s ticking, my lord.” Starscream sneered.

“Then get me out of here,” Megatron snarled, every effort to rise to his own pedes proving moot. They would not support his weight and Starscream would have laughed at his predicament, had the injuries been earned in battle. This was something else entirely. “And don’t touch me.”

Starscream’s wings flicked. “I can do one or the other, but not both,” he hissed and rolled his optics. “Make up your mind, dear master.”

Megatron’s engine whined. His ventilations rattled, coughing up energon and other fluids. His field was a vile sickly mess. He glared at Starscream, revulsion and anger pummeling Starscream at all fronts.

Finally, he lifted his bound hands. “Take me out of here,” Megatron seethed. “Now.” He clung to command, perhaps as the only thing keeping him together.

Starscream worked his jaw. “You could ask politely.”

“Or you could do as you’re told!” Megatron’s hands curled into fists. “Are you that much of a coward, to cause this, fail to complete the job, and then fail to fix it? You are a failure in every way.”

Starscream chuffed a ventilation. His engine growled and he stomped forward, grabbing Megatron’s arm and hauling him to his pedes. At once, his leader staggered and slumped against Starscream’s side. A raw mix of energon, lubricant, and transfluid splattered down.

Starscream’s tank churned. The stench of interfacing, of hot metal, made him want to purge.

“And where shall I take you? To the Constructicons, I imagine?” Starscream demanded even as Megatron tilted and landed against his side, dislocated hips preventing him from standing.

He had to sweep Megatron up into his arms – not for the first time he might add – and he pretended he did not notice how much lighter the Decepticon leader felt.

“I will not be seen in this condition by anyone,” Megatron growled. “You will, for once, clean up your own mess, Starscream. And then I will consider not blowing your fool head off.”

“What an inspiring promise.” Starscream sneered and powered on his thrusters, shooting them both into the air.

Megatron’s engine gave a rev of surprise. Starscream didn’t bother to hide his amusement.

“Save your strength, Leader,” Starscream added as they rose higher, toward the drop door in the ceiling. “You’ll need it.”

Mercifully, it shut Megatron up.

~

Starscream had over a dozen boltholes scattered across planet Earth. He had twice as many on Cybertron though whether any of those still existed, he didn’t know.

He couldn’t take Megatron back to the Nemesis. He did not want to use the space bridge and get anywhere within Shockwave’s optic. He opted to use one of his boltholes instead, even if meant abandoning it afterward. There were others.

Megatron slipped into a semi-stasis moments after they left the Combaticons’ warehouse. Which was a relief for Starscream. The rasp of his pained field had been disorienting, and Starscream needed his focus.

He didn’t comm Soundwave until he was safely in his bolthole. He kept the contact brief and uninformative. Megatron was safe with Starscream, but the Combaticons needed to be retrieved and imprisoned. The self-executing, self-wiping data slugs should take care of themselves.

Starscream was no medic, but he’d repaired himself enough to know the basics. He laid Megatron out on a tarp and got to work, crimping and patching torn lines, removing the bonds, and pulling out the worst of the dents. He plugged in to Megatron’s medical port – briefly, any longer made him shudder – and initiated a reboot of his motion circuits. Hopefully that would be enough.

Starscream disconnected quickly and returned to the rest of the physical damage.

His interface panels were gone, unfortunately, but Starscream cleaned around Megatron’s valve as carefully as he was able, noting the tears in the rim. He had no doubt that there were rips in Megatron’s valve lining as well. His spike was mangled and the best Starscream could figure, Megatron would need a replacement. All Starscream could do at this moment was numb the pain with both gel and a pain patch.

He saved relocating Megatron’s hips – and one shoulder it turned out – for last. The latter was nothing; the former grated into place with a screech of metal on metal that echoed in the silence of Starscream’s bolthole.

It also had the unfortunate side effect of rousing Megatron from his twilight stasis.

Damn it.

~

A flash of fresh, sharp agony jolted Megatron back online, his denta grinding down on a cry of pain. His entire frame jolted, optical shutters snapping open, his field sweeping through the room in one quick burst, telling him all that he needed to know.

He wasn’t on the Nemesis, but neither was he still in the warehouse. The Combaticons were gone. The only presence he detected was Starscream’s.

Megatron cycled a ventilation, one that wheezed more than was healthy, and turned his helm. Starscream knelt next to the low-slung berth currently housing Megatron’s supine frame, his face carefully empty of expression, but his armor clamped to his frame, and his wings pressed to his backplate.

If he was afraid, he didn’t show it. He had to know that Megatron blamed him for this, and yet, he was still here.

So he wasn’t a total coward then. Just most of one.

Megatron rebooted his vocalizer, but even so, his first words were wreathed in static. “What was your plan this time?” he asked. “You honestly believed you could trust them to be your obedient lackeys?”

Starscream rose to his pedes, wings twitching. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, whirling on a heelstrut.

He watched Starscream stalk to a nearby crate and rummage through it before producing a large cube of what seemed to be medical grade energon.

“Am I to believe the Combaticons – a purely military team with the exception of Swindle – taught themselves how to alter their own obedience coding without any assistance?” Megatron demanded as Starscream returned.

The Seeker tilted the cube toward Megatron, but he turned his helm away. As if he would trust anything Starscream offered him.

“You can believe whatever you like,” Starscream said crossly and shoved the cube at him again. “You’re low. Drink it.”

“You’re in no position to give me orders!” Megatron snarled, his frame tensing, but try as he might, he could not give himself the command to move. His hip joints had been re-located, but they weren’t responding. The circuits must still be damaged.

Starscream rolled his optics and snatched at Megatron’s helm, forcefully turning it back toward Starscream. Megatron tried to lash out, only to realize at the last moment that his wrists had been tied down, perhaps to prevent him from killing Starscream the moment he onlined.

“Release me!”

“No. Open your mouth,” Starscream insisted, his thumb pressing at Megatron’s bottom lip, a firm pressure that demanded rather than requested.

Megatron clamped his mouth shut, defiant, but Starscream worked the tip of his thumb into it and then pried his mouth open. He was weak, too weak if Starscream could do that with little effort, and the sludgy, bland medical grade trickled into his mouth. He could choose not to swallow and let it flood his vents, but the idea of coughing out energon for the next several hours held no appeal.

He swallowed. There were, he assumed, better ways for Starscream to poison him. Besides, Starscream had a point. His fuel levels were pitiful, which explained in part the fatigue that settled over his entire frame like a leaden weight.

“There,” Starscream said, once he’d upended the entire cube and released Megatron’s jaw. “That could have gone a lot easier if you’d cooperate.”

“With the mech who nearly got me killed?” Megatron snarled, and tugged at the wrist restraints again. “You delude yourself, Starscream.”

The Seeker turned away, but not before Megatron caught the brief flicker of guilt in his expression. “If I wanted to kill you, you’d be dead,” he retorted.

“Your current rate of success suggests that is not the case.” Megatron grimaced, the taste of the medical grade lingering on his glossa. “Release me.”

“No.” The Seeker’s wings hiked upward as he set the empty cube off to the side and returned with a cleaning cloth, damp with solvent.

Despite Megatron trying to lean away from him, he applied said cloth to the spatters of fluid on Megatron’s abdominal armor. Fluid Megatron recognized sourly as a mixture of lubricant and transfluid.

His frame was numb, and the last several hours were hazy, but Megatron knew all he had to do was access his memory core to remember. Not that he wanted to. The echo of agony was enough for him.

Agony. Helplessness. Rage. And in the wake of it all, despair. Because he hadn’t known if the Combaticons – if the mindless Bruticus – would kill him. But worse was the idea of rescue.

Decepticons should not be rescued. They should return on their own power, or not at all.

“Are you attempting to earn forgiveness?” Megatron demanded.

Starscream did not look at him. “Is it working?”

“There are not enough apologies in the world,” Megatron hissed and looked away from his second, trying to distance himself from the soft, almost gentle touches of the cloth to his frame.

It was anathema to him, to his relationship to Starscream, to everything that he stood for. He didn’t know if he preferred it to the assault or not. It felt a different kind of attack, though he couldn’t put words into why.

“Should I have left you do die then?” Starscream’s tone was so mild that it bordered on indifferent.

Megatron ground his denta. “Better that you hadn’t been such a failure in the first place. I’d ask you, again, what you were thinking, but I know you, and I’m quite certain you weren’t.” He turned his helm back toward Starscream, glaring as though he could shoot lasers from his optics. “You are as predictable in your mediocrity as you are in your failure, Starscream.”

Starscream stared back at him, jaw set, his plating clamped so tightly he had to be overheating. “And you, dear master, are as full of compliments as ever.”

“I tend to be less complimentary when a Combiner has taken his entertainment of me,” Megatron hissed, lurching toward Starscream, only to be brought up short by the restraints again. “Especially when it is the fault of the mech who is supposed to be my loyal second in command.”

Starscream gripped the cleaning cloth; it dripped solvent onto Megatron’s plating. “Perhaps if you hadn’t insisted on installing obedience coding and stripping away their autonomy, they wouldn’t have been angry enough to exact vengeance.”

Megatron’s optics narrowed. “It would not have been an issue if you hadn’t been stupid enough to free them of it.”

Starscream drew up as though indignant, his mouth opening in preparation to deliver a scathing retort. His optics flashed.

Nothing emerged.

His mouth closed slowly. He deflated.

“That,” he said carefully, choosing his words with evident precision, “I mean, what happened, that was never my intention.”

“Of course it wasn’t.” Megatron snorted. “That would imply you actually plan that far in advance. You don’t have the taste for torture, Starscream. You’re too soft.”

Starscream worked his jaw. His armor clamped tightly to his frame. “I am far from–”

“Spare me the argument, Starscream. I’m not here to soothe your battered ego. You’re lucky I’m not plotting your demise as we speak,” Megatron interrupted, careful to effect a bored tone.

Starscream retracted his hands, bracing them on the side of the berth near Megatron’s hip. “And why not?”

“It is your fault, but I don’t blame you. That comes dangerously close to giving you credit.” Megatron tilted his helm, managing to look down at the Seeker leaning over him. “Besides, I have no interest in finding someone to replace you right now.”

“This… This doesn’t change anything!” Starscream sputtered.

Megatron rolled his optics. “Of course it doesn’t.” He cycled a ventilation, his gaze wandering to the ceiling. “After this, you will go back to your fruitless attempts to depose me, and I will continue to try and make use of you. Because that is the status quo and I don’t expect it will ever change.”

“I could kill you,” Starscream retorted, but there was little heat behind it. Only exhaustion, perhaps a touch of bitterness.

“You could try.” Megatron looked at him again, searching his spark for what he felt for his second, and finding a maelstrom of conflicting emotions as usual. “And we both know you’ll fail.”

Starscream’s jaw set. His field flickered, finally loosed from his control, but only so that Megatron got a brief taste of his anger, his despair. “I should have let them finish the job,” he hissed, but he reached for the bonds around Megatron’s wrists instead.

Megatron’s lips curled into a smirk. “You and I both know you’d prefer that glory for yourself.”

“Will you kill them?”

The last binding fell free and Megatron pulled himself upright, ignoring the sharp ache at the base of his spinal strut. “No,” he said as he rubbed at his wrists. “There are worse things than death.”

Starscream muttered something, which might have been disagreement, not that it mattered. He was as petulant as a sparkling, his arms crossed over his cockpit and his wings hanging low against his back.

Megatron rubbed his wrists for a second or two more before he lunged, moving faster than Starscream could anticipate. He gripped his second’s face, pulling the squawking Seeker toward him.

“I have not forgiven you.” The abrupt action jarred something loose inside of him, something painfully grating, but Megatron ignored it for now. “Keep that in mind the next time you concoct another plot. Do you understand?” He squeezed, hard enough to hear the metal in Starscream’s face creak alarmingly.

Crimson optics flashed at him. Starscream bared his denta in a snarl, but he neither aimed his null rays at Megatron, nor lashed out at him.

“Yes,” he gritted out.

Megatron leaned closer, until their faces were inches apart. “Yes….?”

Starscream’s optics narrowed. A shiver rippled across his armor. “Yes, Leader,” he forced out, though his engines growled his displeasure.

“Good.” Megatron released him with a push, shoving Starscream back. “Now tell me where we are so we can return to the Nemesis. I need repairs that you are incapable of providing, and the Combaticons are due their punishment.”

He pushed himself to his pedes, ignoring the jags of pain striking through his frame. He did not know if he had ever felt worse, but he did know he wasn’t going to linger here.

Megatron headed toward what he assumed was the exit, earning a confirmation when Starscream fell into step beside him, at his left.

He didn’t mention that Starscream hadn’t evaded punishment either. Megatron simply wanted time to think of something creative.

After all, if he killed Starscream now, then he wouldn’t learn a thing.

[Bleach] And With This Hand

Ukitake Jyuushirou was nearly a thousand years old. He had been captain of the thirteenth division for almost as long and his name was both recognized and occasionally feared by those who had enough sense to recognize his power. His reaitsu could swamp an entire area, bringing those of a weaker constitution to their knees. His wisdom stretched far and wide. He feared nothing.

And yet, here he sat, knees folded beneath him and hands carefully placed on his thighs, trying not to tremble. Here he sat, before his kouhai no less, hoping that he didn’t look as anxious as he felt.

The tea that sat between was going largely untouched as Jyuushirou’s request hung in the air between them. Byakuya stared at him, without so much as blinking, and Jyuushirou tentatively believed that perhaps Byakuya had not understood his question.

Jyuushirou took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. “With your permission, Kuchiki-san,” he began, as perfectly formal as he could manage, “I would like to ask Rukia to marry me.”

Silence swept through the sitting room.

Byakuya stirred, but it was only to reach forward and pour his tea. He didn’t look at Jyuushirou as he readied his cup, and brought the slightly steaming liquid to his lips. He seemed to consider the aroma and the color, faintly frowning, before deeming both acceptable.

“No,” he said, and took a delicate sip.

Jyuushirou blinked. “No?”

His kouhai appeared to savor the flavor of his tea, and then lowered the cup, giving Jyuushirou a firm, unyielding look. “No.”

Jyuushirou’s palms scrubbed down the flat of his thighs, wiping away the sweat that dampened them. “I can provide for her,” he said, hoping that perhaps Byakuya just needed to be convinced.

Most fathers preferred that, didn’t they? Though in this case, Byakuya wasn’t so much as a father as he was an overprotective older brother.

“Though considering her recent promotion, the issue of providing isn’t really necessary,” Jyuushirou added thoughtfully. “She’s really quite talented, you know. No one deserved this promotion more than she did.”

“Rukia is a Kuchiki, after all,” Byakuya agreed, though there was no inflection in his voice. He blinked slowly. “The answer is still no.”

Jyuushirou worked his jaw. It couldn’t be that Byakuya thought him not good enough. Who in Seireitei would be more worthy? Who else in Seireitei could boast being a senior captain with decades of experience and a reputation for being a kind, honorable man?

Jyuushirou contemplated a cup of tea, and decided it would only be a distraction. Meanwhile, Byakuya continued to sip his as though he were completely at peace and he hadn’t just shot his senpai through the heart.

“I would treat her well, Byakuya. You know that,” Jyuushirou said, recognizing that he almost sounded pleading and that was something that would not do. “I would never hurt her and I would give her anything she asked of me.”

Byakuya tilted his head in a noncommittal manner, a very noble-like gesture. “Perhaps,” he said. “But that is not the issue here.”

For all his patience, Jyuushirou was growing frustrated. “Then what is?” Jyuushirou asked, trying not to sound demanding but his voice carrying his annoyance anyway.

“She’s my sister,” Byakuya replied, as though that should be all the answer Jyuushirou needed and he should just bow gracefully and abandon his hopeless quest.

Jyuushirou’s brow crinkled. “Yes, I understand that. Which is why I came to ask for your permission, as any proper suitor would.”

Byakuya leaned forward, tea cup replaced on the tray with the faintest of noises. “She’s my sister,” he said again, with greater emphasis this time.

The elder captain was coming to a slow realization. Oh, dear. Was this another one of Byakuya-kun’s possessive bits coming into play? The same he’d shown when he reluctantly released Renji as his vice-captain, only after Yamamoto-sensei informed him that it wasn’t his decision to make? That he couldn’t deny Renji’s ascension to captain because Byakuya didn’t want to select another vice-captain.

Which, by the way, he still had yet to do.

Jyuushirou’s kouhai was nothing if not stubborn. And quite the possessive one as well. Jyuushirou supposed it had something to do with being an only child and heir to a noble house. Byakuya-kun was used to everything falling under his ownership. The Kuchiki holdings were his. The sixth division was his – even if technically it wasn’t since it had been granted to him, but try explaining that to Byakuya and see if he understood it. Jyuushirou had made one attempt, but after getting that cold grey Kuchiki stare he had wisely backed away.

Byakuya had also considered Renji his – not in a romantic sense since poor Kurosaki-kun had claims in that regard. But Renji was his vice-captain and had been his second for quite some time and Byakuya was loathe to surrender his connection to Renji when he already considered Renji as belonging to him. After all, the sixth division did so didn’t anyone within it fall under his domain by proxy?

So perhaps what this whole matter boiled down to was that Byakuya considered Rukia his sister, and therefore was unwilling to surrender her to anyone for any reason. Even someone like Jyuushirou whom Byakuya respected – at least Jyuushirou assumed he did.

Jyuushirou inhaled slowly. “I know that I am a little old for her,” he began, wondering if perhaps Byakuya wanted him to admit his faults as well. “There is also the fact that I am not of the best of health and I am at times distracted by the rigors of running a division.”

“Do you honestly believe those are the reasons?” Byakuya asked, a touch of hurt in his tone, one that must have echoed his own.

“I’m merely stating what I know to be facts,” Jyuushirou replied, hoping that he hadn’t offended his kouhai. “Any father would see those as a reason I would not make a good match.”

Byakuya fingered his tea cup, looking contemplative. “I never said you weren’t a good match.”

Jyuushirou’s heart skipped an excited beat.

“But the answer is still no,” Byakuya added a moment later, crushing Jyuushirou’s hopes as though they were dried rose petals, scattered all over the ground.

His shoulders sagged, his reaitsu settling around his body like a dull blanket. Jyuushirou honestly couldn’t believe this, that Byakuya would be so unreasonable.

Jyuushirou started to wonder if there was anything he could say to convince Byakuya otherwise. His shoulders sagged, his fingers again rubbing anxiously over the top of his thighs. He felt quite stumped.

He’d covered all his bases, hadn’t he? What else could Byakuya expect from him? What else could Jyuushirou provide?

At a loss for words, Jyuushirou’s mouth opened and closed several times. He didn’t want to concede defeat, and certainly Byakuya’s permission wasn’t absolutely necessary, but Jyuushirou would feel better about the whole matter if Byakuya didn’t prove to be a deterrent. Rukia would probably dismiss her brother’s disapproval and suggest they flit off and elope, but Jyuushirou was – at heart – a traditional man.

Suddenly, the feel of familiar reiatsu swarmed through Byakuya’s manor, preceding Kurosaki-kun’s arrival as he threw open the door to the sitting room and invited himself inside. His expression was a mixture of amusement and annoyance as he stormed across the floor, and fixed a rather impressive glare on his lover.

“Stop fucking with him, Byakuya,” he says, tilting his head to indicate Jyuushirou. “We all know you’re going to say yes.”

Jyuushirou blinked.

The smallest of smiles curved the corner of his kouhai’s lips. “Perhaps I only wanted him to work for it first.”

Kurosaki-kun rolled his eyes and dropped down next to Byakuya, sniffing cautiously at the tea cup. “That’s just cruel.”

“Wait,” Jyuushirou said, holding up a hand. “I am not sure I understand what is going on here.”

“Easy,” Kurosaki-kun said, reaching for one of the untouched sweets on the platter and munching on it. “Byakuya was showing off his rare sense of humor.”

Jyuushirou glanced at his kouhai to confirm. “Is this true?”

Byakuya didn’t even have the good grace to look abashed. “I would be honored, senpai, if you were to join my family.”

Jyuushirou had kind of thought about marrying Rukia into the Ukitakes but if Byakuya preferred it the other way around, well, Jyuushirou supposed he would take what he could get. It didn’t really matter to Jyuushirou in the end.

Fingers unfurling from their near death-grip on his hakama, Jyuushirou managed a thin smile, still unsure if he liked this humorous side of his kouhai. “Thank you for your permission,” he said, voice a little weak, and reached for a cookie, stomach finally settling enough that they looked appetizing. “And thank you, Kurosaki-kun, for preventing me from further apprehension.”

The substitute Shinigami – who truthfully spent more time in Seireitei nowadays than he did in the Living World – inclined his head, shooting his lover a warning look. “You’re welcome,” he replied. “So… how are you planning to propose?”

It was a question that considered much more delicate thought than asking Byakuya for permission. While Jyuushirou was certain that Rukia would say yes and that their feelings were mutual, he also couldn’t fathom a proposal that was anything less than perfect.

Rukia deserved the best after all.

o0o0o

Jyuushirou had it all prepared, every trapping of the perfect proposal, from the candlelit dinner to the bouquet of roses and the sweet serenade of a privately hired trio of violinists. The night was clear, the stars bright and shining like perfect jewels in the sky. It was warm, the perfect temperature, and Jyuushirou’s lungs were feeling healthy and free, certainly not likely to interrupt him with a fit.

His romantic senses were tingling. Tonight was going to be perfect.

Jyuushirou surveyed his work, and felt a small treble of satisfaction travel through him. He double and triple checked, making certain that everything was prepared. Now all he had left to do was wait on the woman of the hour. Once she arrived, he could then uncover the dishes and serve their romantic dinner.

A ring was tucked discreetly into his pocket, carefully chosen with the greatest core. It was a simple thing, not grand and expensive, but something that would suit Rukia’s taste. It reminded Jyuushirou of her zanpakutou, the small diamonds like twinkling snowflakes.

He couldn’t wait to see her reaction.

Humming a soft tune under his breath – one that the violinists would be playing later – Jyuushirou lit the candles and watched their flames flicker in the light evening bruise. Rukia should arrive soon. She had stayed late to finish up some paperwork, giving Jyuushirou ample time to prepare.

It was then that the jigokuchou floated across Jyuushirou’s line of sight, prompting him to lift a hand and accept the butterfly’s landing. Almost immediately the message came pouring through, news of a Hollow attack on one of Seireitei’s far borders. An attack that required the presence of a captain. An attack that Jyuushirou was needed to repel.

Of all the…

Gritting his teeth, Jyuushirou quickly pulled off his well-crafted kimono and shrugged into his shihakushou, determined that this should only take a moment. The Hollow – or multiple Hollow it seemed, including a possible Vasto Lorde – would come to regret the day it had interrupted Jyuushirou’s romancing.

o0o0o

It turned out that not only had a possible Vasto Lorde attacked, but a whole horde of them decided to try and make a run at Seiretei. Why? Jyuushirou had no clue. But it had taken the combined might of four divisions to cleanse the area, a feat that lasted well into the night and on into early morning. In fact, the sun was just peeking over the horizon as Jyuushirou swung his zanpakutou and destroyed the last of the smaller Hollow that were more or less a nuisance and distraction from the three – yes, three – Menos Grande that accompanied the Vasto Lorde.

If Jyuushirou didn’t know any better, he’d think Aizen had something to do with it. Only Aizen was dead, had been for years. So perhaps there was something else going on. Perhaps not. Frankly, at the moment, Jyuushirou didn’t care. He ached, he was tired, he was covered in blood and ash and a lucky Hollow had ripped his captain’s haori. He had a half-dozen others, yes, but this one was his favorite. Also, his dreams of a romantic proposal had floated right down the drain.

Jyuushirou was not happy.

In fact, his only saving grace was that Yamamoto-sensei had declared the four participating divisions to take the rest of the day off, leaving protection and surveillance to the remaining eight. Jyuushirou, aching, dirty, and hungry, didn’t protest. With a weary shunpo, he trudged on home, Rukia right beside him as her division had also been called.

She looked just as tired and worn as he did, her shoulders stooped and circles lining her eyes. She offered him a small smile, taking his hand, squeezing his fingers. Jyuushirou squeezed her hand back.

“Well, that was fun,” Rukia joked as they arrived back at Jyuushirou’s manor, setting their zanpakutou in the special stands Jyuushirou had commissioned someone to craft for them.

He liked the way they resonated when they were positioned together, a pleasing hum that brought a smile to Jyuushirou’s lips. “We should do this again sometime,” Jyuushirou replied, a small curve to his lips.

“Just not anytime soon,” Rukia said, pulling a face as she rubbed at her shoulder.

Jyuushirou remembered seeing her take a backhand from one of the Menos Grande. But he trusted in Rukia, trusted in her abilities, so he didn’t immediately rush to her side. He had been intensely relieved when she’d gotten back to her feet and exacted her vengeance in a rush of blizzard-cold air that froze the Menos in its tracks.

Jyushirou nodded. “Bath?”

“By the gods, yes,” Rukia said with a brighter smile. “Even better. Join me?”

Despite his fatigue, Jyuushirou’s belly did a little flop of pleasure. “Of course. Give me a moment?”

She squeezed his hand and smiled, wandering off toward the private path in Jyuushirou’s home, giving him time to head back toward the engawa overlooking his back garden. The table was still set up for a romantic evening, though the candles were half-melted and had blown out during the course of the battle. The roses were starting to wilt. And Jyuushirou was sure the food was sitting cold in his kitchen, the rice hard and inedible.

He sighed. It seemed his romantic endeavors would have to wait.

Jyuushirou salvaged what he could of the meal, and dumped the inedible portions into the garbage. He put away the half-melted candles and the fancy dishware and stripped the table of the fancy cloth. The engawa was restored to its former furniture-less glory. Clean up complete, Jyuushirou hurried toward the baths, already peeling off his spattered and torn clothing.

The fragrance of soap and steam filled his nose as he pushed open the door. Rukia had started the bath for them. Jyushirou smiled, dropping his dirtied clothing into a pile by the door, next to Rukia’s own smaller pile. He grabbed a tie and pulled his hair up into a messy coil on top of his head. It was too late to wash it and wait for it to dry.

“Took you long enough,” Rukia said, glancing over her shoulder at him from where she was soaping up her arms, long strokes of her hand leaving white suds behind.

Jyuushirou licked his lips, fatigue warring with the arousing sight in front of him. “I had something to take care of,” he explained and pulled up another stool, reaching for water and soap. “Shall I wash your back for you?”

Blue eyes glittered invitingly. “Only if you let me do the same.”

“My dear, that is hardly a request I would deny,” he replied, and despite his fatigue, took Rukia up on her generous offer.

It was nice, Jyuushirou thought, to sit like this and enjoy each other’s company. Even if his romantic plans fell by the wayside, he could always try again. Today wasn’t a complete failure.

His hands roamed over Rukia’s body, stroking down her arms and her sides, tracking sudsy soap all over her pale flesh. His fingers explored a few scars and tickled at her ribs, making her chuckle. Her skin was warm and soft and Jyuushirou leaned forward, sweeping aside her damp hair to press a kiss to the back of her neck. She smelled sweet, like the roses that had been left to wilt.

Jyuushirou pressed closer, one hand roaming over her flat belly, for a moment playing in her belly button, but only briefly as he knew how much it tickled her. His free hand wandered upward, teasing at her breasts, covering them in the white suds of the soap. She sucked in a heavy breath, leaning into his embrace, her head tilted to provide him more room. He cupped her breasts, rolling her nipples in his fingers, breath warm and soft over her ears.

Rukia sighed in pleasure. “Weren’t we tired?” she teased, one hand lifting to cup the back of Jyuushirou’s neck, fingers gently massaging.

Jyuushirou chuckled, nibbling on her ear as his hands continued to roam on the pretense of helping her wash, one dipping to the apex of her thighs teasingly. “I think I may have a little energy left in me.”

“Men,” she replied, and he just knew she was rolling her eyes, her tone filled with humor.

He reached for the water, pouring it over Rukia and rinsing away the worst of the soap. Watching the suds slide down her body made his insides tighten with heat and Jyuushirou couldn’t resist touching, his hands stroking down her sides and lightly gripping her hips.

Jyuushirou pressed against her, his half-hard arousal nudging against the base of her spine. Her skin was slick and soft, a perfect sensation that sent his senses on a slow slide into arousal. Another bucket of water and Rukia was mostly rinsed clean of the soap.

She turned in his arms, a challenging smile curling her lips. “My turn,” she said, and lifted a hand, twirling her finger. “Turn around.” Rukia was already reaching for the soap, a certain gleam in her eyes.

Jyuushirou bit back on a groan and obeyed, immediately feeling her slick body press against his from behind, her nipples against his shoulderblades. A shiver wracked his body as Rukia leaned forward, breathing hotly over his ear. Her arms encircled his body, her soapy fingers pressing against his chest and abdomen.

His fingers clenched over his knees as he fought to whirl back around. He should have known it wasn’t going to be a simple bath.

Delicate hands roamed over his body, one stroking down his arms as the other ventured lower, teasing at his thighs. Jyuushirou sucked in a breath as soapy fingers dipped between his legs, sliding slickly over his growing length and cupping his balls. A moan caught in his throat and Jyuushirou’s eyes slid closed, knowing from Rukia’s dark chuckle that she had to be grinning wickedly behind him.

Each touch was fleeting however, nothing more than a teasing slide of soap-slick flesh. It made Jyuushirou’s blood pump heatedly through his veins and his belly twist with desire.

Rukia chuckled again. “I can’t tell if I’m getting you clean or just making you dirtier,” she teased, her fingers sliding around his shaft and giving him a light stroke that made him throb in her grip.

Jyuushirou opened his mouth, determined to reply with something witty and provocative. Instead, his stomach growled noisily, a sound that echoed in the bathing chamber and alerted both of them to the fact he had missed dinner last night. In fact, both of them hadn’t eaten yet.

“I suppose that shows what my body is voting for,” Jyuushirou said after a moment of humorous silence and a soft sigh.

Rukia outright laughed, her hands moving to settle innocently on his shoulders, fingers massaging his muscles. “A rinse and then dinner?”

He turned his head, placing a kiss to the back of her left hand. “Sounds good to me.”

o0o0o

Dinner was hastily gobbled onigiri and glasses of water before they climbed into a futon that seemed to embrace them perfectly. Jyuushirou had thoughts of rolling over, kissing Rukia, and continuing their bathtime teasing. But a yawn cracked his jaw and the fatigue pinching the skin around Rukia’s eyes had them both reconsidering.

He managed a fumbling grope or two, and Rukia peppered a kiss on his jaw, but sleep called too heartily. The only thing that saved him from sheer embarrassment was that Rukia fell asleep first, curled against him, all warm and soft skin that lulled him into falling asleep soon after.

o0o0o

Jyuushirou woke the next morning to pleasant sensations rippling down his spine as the brightness of afternoon gleamed through his window. He peeled open his eyes, biting down on a gasp as Rukia ground down above him, her lips curled with mischievous delight, her palms flattened on his abdomen.

“Good morning,” she said cheerfully, her fingernails lightly scratching at his muscled belly.

Jyuushirou licked his lips, hands moving to settle on Rukia’s hips, thumbs rubbing over her hipbone. “And a good morning to you,” he murmured, another gasp escaping him as she rolled her hips and teased his waking arousal with her damp folds. “I see your energy has recovered.”

A hint of scarlet blossomed in her cheeks. “Don’t remind me,” she said, abashed. “I can’t believe I fell asleep in the middle.”

Jyuushirou chuckled. “Rest assured, I followed not long after so I wasn’t left hanging.”

“Even so,” Rukia said, and leaned forward, her naked breasts bouncing enticingly on her chest. “I thought I should make up for it.”

For his part, Jyuushirou was not going to protest. His hands slid up her sides, tickling over her ribs. He watched as Rukia shivered, blue eyes darkening with arousal. Her tongue slid over her lips, slowly, sensuously. Her pale skin was flushing, her black hair a messy tangle around her head that Jyuushirou found simultaneously adorable and sexy.

“If you insist,” Jyuushirou said, prompting a chuckle on Rukia’s part.

Her hips shifted backward, body poised over Jyuushirou’s rigid length. “I didn’t think you would mind,” she replied and sank down, enveloping Jyuushirou in exquisite wet heat.

He sucked in a sharp breath, biting down on his lower lip as his hips arched toward her, pushing himself deeper. His fingers flexed around her sides, pressing against her skin, and he felt Rukia shiver, watched the delight dance across her features.

Her hands smoothed up his abdomen, tickling over his bared flesh, teasing touches of her fingers and nails. Her thighs clamped his hips as she settled on top of him, her inner walls gripping him.

“I can’t think of a better way to wake up,” Jyuushirou murmured, a gasp slipping from his lips as Rukia moved her hips in a sensuous roll that made heat skitter down Jyuushirou’s spine.

Rukia smiled. “So am I forgiven?” she asked, tilting her head to the side, body rising and falling in a steady rhythm that seemed determined to wrench noises from Jyuushirou’s throat.

Jyuushirou licked his lips, fingers clenching and unclenching in their hold on her hips. “Apology accepted,” he replied, the teasing hint in his voice chased away by a gasp as Rukia slammed down and swiveled her hips.

Conversation stuttered to a halt as desire replaced the need for words, Jyuushirou’s hands performing a groping sweep. He stroked down her sides, teased at her ribs, plucked at her nipples until they were hard, pink nubs. She shivered, eyes slipping closed as she rose and fell over him in perfect rhythm. Her tongue swept over her lips, moistening them, and Jyuushirou wanted to kiss her.

One hand slid lower, teasing at the apex of her thighs, fingers slipping through a dewy wetness. He touched her gently, and was rewarded with a throaty moan and swift intake of breath, her eyes popping open in startled arousal. Jyuushirou grinned wickedly, fingers rubbing circles in just the way he knew she liked, ways that made her breath quicken, her movements quicker and more erratic.

She was beautiful like this, body moving in perfect, sensuous rhythm. Her skin flushed with arousal, eyes bright and hungry. Small moans fell from her lips with every flick of Jyuushirou’s fingers, her hands massaging his abdomen, nails lightly scoring Jyuushirou’s flesh. Muscles tensing and flexing as she moved over him, lips wet with saliva.

Rukia pulsed around him, dragging Jyuushirou closer and closer to ecstasy. But he wanted to see her come first, feel her come undone around him. His fingers rubbed circles over her tiny nub of pleasure, and he watched as she chewed on her bottom lip, breath coming in sharp little pants.

His free hand slid up, ghosting over her abdomen, tickling at her ribs, before taking one breast in hand. His thumb and forefinger rolled over her nipple, and she clenched around him in response, motions more erratic. Jyuushirou’s hips arched, pushing deeper into her, and his fingers circled and pressed, firm touches that demanded pleasure.

Rukia moaned, head falling forward as she rocked her hips, motions frantic and hungry. Her inner walls clamped around him rhythmically.

Jyuushirou licked his lips, knowing she was close. “Come for me,” he murmured, keeping his voice soft and husky. “Rukia.”

As if the sound of her own name on his lips were a commandment, a whine of desire echoed in her throat. She arched, body trembling, and he felt her shudder around him, her orgasm causing a ripple of movement that made Jyuushirou’s own desire shoot toward the sky. He grasped her hips, rocking up into her, each sharp thrust making her gasp. She gripped his arms to steady herself, and ground down against him, bottom lip clutched between her teeth.

Sweat painted a line across Jyuushirou’s brow as he abandoned all attempts to hold back, giving himself over to the pleasure. Rukia’s hips danced over his, clenching slick and hot around him, and Jyuushirou stopped fighting it, surrendering to the inevitable outcome. He bit out a gasp and thrust upward, body shaking with his release. His fingers held her hips in a grip probably hard enough to leave behind bruises, she was so delicate, but Rukia didn’t mind, a small moan passing her lips.

Her palms slid from his arms back to his abdomen, sliding up his front as she lowered herself forward. Their bodies slid together, damp with sweat, and Jyuushirou slid out of her as she crawled up his body, latching their lips together in a fierce kiss. Her tongue plunged into his mouth and he wrapped his arms around her. They shared several quick breaths, the kisses darting and brief.

Rukia’s tongue lapped at his lower lip. “Mmm,” she murmured, wriggling atop him and sliding her fingers into his hair. “I can’t think of a better way to start a day off.”

“I don’t now. Breakfast is always nice,” Jyuushirou teased, hand sliding down her back, fingers pressing against her spine. She arched toward his touch much like a cat.

Rukia leaned back, dotting a kiss over her collarbone. “You and your stomach,” she retorted with a chuckle and sat up, straddling waist. Judging by her wandering fingers, Jyuushirou knew she wasn’t adverse to a second round.

“Or maybe I’m hungry for something of a different sort,” Jyuushirou said with a pointed look at Rukia, his eyes roaming over her nude body, painted with sweat and flushed from her earlier orgasm.

Her lips pulled into a mischievous grin, fingers interlocking with his. “I think if your subordinates heard you talking like that, they’d be scandalized.”

“It’s hardly the epitome of dirty talk,” Jyuushirou retorted dryly. “That is more Shunsui’s department than mine.”

Rukia looked down at him, her blue eyes bright with humor and something else, something that seemed to make the atmosphere shift just a tad. And not in a bad way, but rather something that made Jyuushirou’s insides warm. He loved how comfortable they were with each other like this, he loved how well they fit together.

“Jyuushirou,” she said softly, bringing his knuckles to her lips and kissing them, completely attaining his attention. “Will you marry me?”

For a moment, Jyuushirou’s world seemed to pause. He blinked at the question that had come from seemingly nowhere.

“I… what?”

She chuckled, humor peeking through the gleam in her eyes. “It’s an easy question. Yes or no will suffice.” Her lips pressed to his knuckles again. “Will you marry me?”

“I thought I was supposed to ask you.”

Rukia arched a brow. “Does it really matter?”

“Well… no.” And Byakuya had made some mention of Jyuushirou becoming a Kuchiki rather than Rukia becoming a Ukitake.

“Then what’s your answer?” she asked, performing a sensuous roll of her hips that threatened to reawaken Jyuushirou’s vigor.

He felt his cheeks burn, expectations turned completely upside down. “Well, of course it is a yes,” he said, reaching up and cupping her cheek, pulling her face closer to his. “I would be a fool to say otherwise,” he murmured, and drew her down for a kiss.

Their lips touched, tongue tangling. Her palms were flat and warm on his chest, fingers lightly scraping and making him shiver. His thumb rubbed across her cheek, stroking soft skin, and he swore that a purr vibrated in her throat.

By the gods, he loved her. And he was going to be marrying her.

It might not have happened in the deep and romantic manner Jyuushirou had been envisioning, but he could live with that. This alternative was much, much better.

 

[Bleach] Slow Dance

Jyuushiro can’t remember being so nervous in his entire existence. Not in all the centuries he’s lived and served as a Shinigami.

Sure, there have been other women. Other relationships. Other liaisons. But none have meant as much to him as the one he shares with Rukia. None of them have been half as important. And none of them had brothers with the ability to not only make Jyuushiro completely penniless but also rip out his testicles and force feed them to him. Not that Byakuya-kun has made such a threat. It’s simply been implied by the steely glance in those Kuchiki grey eyes. A wordless statement that says all he never will.

That Kuchiki Byakuya loves his only sister and that Jyuushiro better think long and hard about what he’s doing.

Only, he’s not really sure what he’s doing anymore. Not the relationship part. Never that. More the physical realities of what that entails.

All of that explains why he’s so nervous. Jyuushiro wonders if it’s truly possible for someone forget these things after abstaining for so long. He wonders if he’ll manage to meet her expectations. He wonders why he’s as eager and hungry as a young man.

By the gods, she makes him so young again.

They’ve had dinner. They’ve been to the theater. They’ve walked through a park in the midst of a warm spring evening. Admiring the flowers, holding hands, listening to the wind breathe through the trees.

And now, they are here. In Jyuushiro’s home. In Jyuushiro’s bedroom. Standing at the foot of his futon and looking at each other expectantly. Rukia’s eyes are somehow both bright and dark. Eager and just as nervous as Jyuushiro’s own.

She blushes ever so lightly when he cups her neck, strokes her throat with his thumb, and leans in to kiss her. She tastes sweet. Like caramel and cream. Her mouth is warm and wet, and her reiatsu is a kiss of winter against his summer storm.

His hands fumble at her obi, peeling back the layers of her yukata. She looks beautiful in it. The same yukata she wore on their first date, one that Ishida-san embellished for her. But Jyuushiro is sure that she is beautiful beneath as well. And he confirms this as he peels back the dark fabric and reveals the pale, smooth cast of her skin.

She moans when he cups her breasts, caressing her firming nipples and stroking fingers over the silky-softness of her skin. Her head tips back, revealing the elegant length of her throat. Jyuushiro tastes her because how can he not? Her throat is warm against his lips, skin carrying a gentle fragrance of some flowery soap.

Her hands reach for his clothes then, and Jyuushiro is quick to help her disrobe him. His skin is paler than hers, the pallor of the sick, but judging by the look in her eyes, she doesn’t see the same man who Jyuushiro sometimes glimpses in the mirror. There’s heat and hunger in her gaze that grow when her palms flatten against his chest and her fingers splay across muscle.

Jyuushiro’s breathing quickens. He arches into her touch, own hands roaming. Tracing the curve of her shoulders. The swell of her breasts. The slim lines of her hips. Hands moving slowly, gently. Dipping lower. Teasing briefly at the dewy wetness between her thighs.

Rukia gasps, a breathy moan, and Jyuushiro’s belly tightens. He is as aroused as a boy first discovering women. Wanting, wanting, wanting. So much that he wonders how he can even stand, how he can hold back.

Ironically, she’s the one who steps back first. Who pulls him toward the futon and on top of the mattress. Flushed bodies meet cool sheets, and Jyuushiro nearly purrs at the contrasting sensation. Rukia’s hands tangle in his hair, fingers curling around long white strands. She pulls him down for a hot kiss where tongues tangle and their breath mingles together. She tastes so sweet, and Jyuushiro’s intoxicated. His hands run over and over her hips and sides when she cradles his hips with her knees as if goading him on. Urging him.

Jyuushiro loses himself as he kisses her. Sucking on her tongue. Tracing his over the curve of her lips. Nibbling on her jaw line. Tasting her throat. Desire coils tighter and tighter within him with each sound she makes. Each whimper and mew. Each desperate press of her fingers to draw him closer.

He’s had visions and fantasies of things being perfect. Slow and sensual, gentle and smooth like it should be. But that’s not what Jyuushiro’s body wants, not what it’s begging for. And not, it seems, what Rukia desires either.

Her eyes are blue, big and bright. Her motions hungry and all but begging. She’s tired of waiting; she just wants. Wants in the same manner as Jyuushiro.

Too many years of unrequited feelings. Too many years of holding back for the sake of… for what, really? What and why? Age? Circumstance? The sorrow that still sits shared between them like a wet blanket?

Jyuushiro doesn’t know. He doesn’t want to ask. In fact, it’s the furthest thing from his mind as he buries his face in her throat and nudges between her thighs. As he pushes inside of her. As she moans, low and long. As fingers dig into his shoulders. As knees urge him deeper.

He thinks romantic thoughts. Slow and steady. Kissing her all over. Whispering sweet nothings. Jyuushiro thinks of worshipping her skin with his hands, thinks of teasing her for hours with gentle kisses and touches. He thinks of doing all kinds of things that in no way resemble what he is actually doing.

He slides into her, feels Rukia rhythmically pulsing around him. Her thighs clasp around his waist, the heels of her feet setting an urgent pace. Her fingers lock around his upper arms, squeezing, encouraging. She’s making these noises in her throat. Needy and hungry. Demanding with her eyes and her lips that Jyuushiro get with the programming and stop trying to be picture perfect.

Whatever anxiety Rukia may have suffered is long gone now, vanished in the blink of an eye. Leaving behind this beautiful, sexy, alive creature who seems to hunger for Jyuushiro and Jyuushiro alone. The thought itself is intoxicating, is enough to make him rumble in his chest. It’s enough to make him thrust a little harder, bury himself inside her wet heat and listen to her moan and watch her writhe for him.

He wants to hold onto this moment forever because it’s supposed to be poignant and romantic and important. But all Jyuushiro can think is finally and delicious and more, more, more. Rukia seems to echo the sentiment if her wordless noises and bruising fingers are any indication.

And Jyuushiro is never more pleased with himself than when Rukia peaks first. Clenching around him. Body twitching and moving sinuously. She makes happy cries in her throat, breathes his name. Blue eyes so dark with desire and other emotions that they are nearly black.

All thoughts of making things last, of slow and sensual romantic love as they stare into each other’s eyes for hours, fly out the window and are promptly tromped in the dirt. Right now, Jyuushiro wants. And Rukia is so gracious to let him have.

Jyuushiro indulges as he steals her lips for another sweet kiss. Fire rushes through his veins, building first in his belly before bursting through his limbs. He gasps like a land-locked fish as his release washes over him not unlike a tidal wave. And Rukia buries her hands in his hair and jabs her tongue into his mouth.

She murmurs something to him, and Jyuushiro thinks he murmurs something just as stupidly sweet and romantic in return.

He falls asleep wrapped in her arms rather than the other way around, but Jyuushiro finds he doesn’t mind that at all. And when he wakes up in the morning to a dull grey, stormy morning and a slight chill in the air, he really doesn’t mind at all. Rukia’s wrapped all around him like she has twice as many limbs as the obvious person. Her hair is a mess. And drool paints Jyuushiro’s shoulder.

It’s adorable. It’s sexy. It’s all that Jyuushiro could have wished for. And more.

[Bleach] Dancing with Death

It started out subtly. And then, it became distinctly obvious. And worsened to the point that Ichigo was sure something had to be done about it soon, or they would actually succeed.

And by succeed, he meant that Ichigo would find himself a permanent member of Soul Society rather quickly without ever properly finishing out the extent of his human life. And then, he doubted he would last long before they would find some way to usher him onto his next life.

The Kuchiki were out to get him. And his damn boyfriend – also, coincidentally, a Kuchiki – didn’t believe him.

The first time, Ichigo chalked it up to a coincidence. A disastrously cliché coincidence but one all the same. Walking down the street, a flower pot barely missing his head by a few inches. He looked up to see someone giving him an apologetic smile, and well, Ichigo just sort of shrugged it off. No big deal.

The second instance was a little more obvious. He was having tea with Ukitake-san, and they were having a pleasant time of it. The captain was suggesting that he teach Ichigo a few of the more advanced kidoh, while Ichigo stirred a few cubes of sugar into his tea, never able to drink the stuff without it. A strange sound had traveled to his ears, and when he looked down and pulled out his spoon, Ichigo noticed that half of it had melted away. Seconds later, liquid spilled all over the saucer and table as the cup itself dissolved. Acid ate through the saucer and then a large portion of the tabletop, dripping down to the floor where it preceded to eat through several inches of wood before losing strength.

Both he and Ukitake-san were left gaping at it. Especially since nothing at all had happened to the older man’s tea.

“Who… who made this?” Ichigo demanded with a thick swallow.

Ukitake-san edged away from his cup, pushing it from him with one long, elegant finger. “Kiyone perhaps? Or Sentarou?”

Ichigo shook his head. “Did I do something to offend them?”

Ukitake-san could only stare in wonder. And when later questioned, both third-seats adamantly denied trying to poison Ichigo, and well, he was inclined to believe them. He’d done nothing to either of them, and really, it seemed a little out of their league to try something like this.

The third attempt approached ridiculous and was when Ichigo really began to consider that someone was trying to kill him. He had been walking down some stairs in Seireitei, attempting to get from one place to another and foregoing shunpo because he was in no rush, when he’d been pushed him from behind. And then subsequently tripped by someone.

Fortunately for Ichigo, his reflexes were superb, and a quick manipulation of spirit particles had him standing on empty air. But by the time he turned, the perpetrators were gone. Not even their reiatsu was traceable. Che, cowards.

That was also the first time Ichigo began to get an inkling that someone was out to get him. Though he hadn’t yet decided to blame it on the Kuchiki.

Until the fourth attempt.

Wandering around in Rukongai because his two guides – Ikkaku and Renji – had gotten drunk and arrested and thereby leaving him to find his own way back to Seireitei, Ichigo had been mugged. Well, he had assumed it was a mugging as the guy sort of attacked him and grappled very uselessly at his shoulders. It had only taken a few punches and kicks on Ichigo’s part to lay him flat, and his three following friends.

Of course, Ichigo could have taken that for the mugging were it not for the fact that none of his attackers even looked like residents of Rukongai. Oh sure, they wore the clothes of the oppressed, tattered and somewhat stained. But with hands that weren’t calloused and skin nice and moisturized, they didn’t look desperate enough to be on the wrong side of the law. Of course, the fact that one of them wore a bracelet with the Kuchiki symbol etched into the metal might have been his biggest clue.

And the most recent attempt gave him his largest indication of all. It had been pure instinct to dodge those darts flying at him out of nowhere. And after he’d retrieved them from being stuck in the wall, he noticed the symbols that danced in the metal. The Kuchiki clan.

It was at that point Ichigo decided they really were trying to kill him though he had no clue why. Possibly because he was dating their heir and they weren’t too happy with that. He knew they had dozens of nice young woman lined up for Byakuya’s perusal, and the man just wasn’t bowing to their every whims. Maybe they blamed that on Ichigo.

Still, that didn’t give them the right to try to assassinate him. Try being the operative word here since they weren’t anywhere close to succeeding. However, it still made Ichigo tiptoe around everything in his life, wondering what absurd method they would try next.

“Would you please stop pacing,” Byakuya stated mildly, his voice cutting through Ichigo’s thoughts as he idly flipped the page in the book he was reading. “It is very distracting.”

He turned towards his older lover with a snarl dancing on his lips. “Distracting?” Ichigo repeated sharply and waved one hand wildly through the air. “Would you be able to relax if someone was out there, plotting your demise?”

Byakuya eyed him over the edge of a page. “I am the heir to a noble family. There is hardly a day that goes by without someone seeking my death.”

“Why didn’t you warn me this would happen?”

“I did not believe – and I still don’t – that it would ever be a problem,” the Kuchiki heir answered, shifting his gaze back to his book. “And I was under the impression you were capable of taking care of yourself. As evidenced by the fact you are still alive and well in front of me.”

The substitute Shinigami snorted. “Not for long, if your family has anything to say about it.”

“Ichigo, they would never harm you,” Byakuya retorted in a tone one would use when speaking to a particularly slow child before dropping into something a bit more seductive. “They would never dare. They know what you mean to me.”

It was bait, but Ichigo didn’t bite.

“I don’t care what you say, Byakuya,” the teenager snarled, steps carrying a frantic pace across the floor of a stately study of the Kuchiki manor. “Your damn family is out to get me.”

The noble looked at him and arched one well-manicured brow, face placid but his eyes betraying his amusement. “I assure you, Ichigo, the Kuchiki have made no great effort to assassinate you.”

Frustrated, Ichigo glared at his lover, feeling just a bit twitchy. “I didn’t say it was great,” he stated through clenched teeth before throwing his hands up into the air. “They fail spectacularly every time!”

“Then what are you complaining about?” Byakuya returned mildly. His lips twitched as though trying to hold back great mirth.

“Argh!”

Ichigo turned on one heel, stalking away from the captain before he followed through with the urge to commit some violence. He loved this man dearly, but sometimes, Byakuya could be quite impossible. Case in point.

“Forget it!” He threw over his shoulder, vibrating with annoyed tension. Zangetsu and Shirosaki weren’t too happy either. “I’ll survive on my own.”

Byakuya didn’t seem to realize his leaving for what it was. He set his book to the side, rising to his feet.

“Are you sure this isn’t some cry for attention?” he posed, following after Ichigo with that annoying scarf a pale trail in his wake.

Ichigo ground his teeth, refusing to answer the sheer ridiculousness of that question. He was not insane. He was not imagining things. Something strange was going on, and if it wasn’t the Kuchiki attempting the assassination, then it was somebody. And he was going to find out who.

“I can definitely tell the honeymoon’s over,” Ichigo muttered under his breath, ignoring Byakuya’s absurd accusation.

“Tell me why you think they would try assassination,” Byakuya started to say, pulling up beside Ichigo and taking on an expression that proved he was only humoring his lover. “The Shihouin would know better than to anger their head. The Kasumioji are far too fond of you, as are the Shiba. And the others are far too afraid of the Kuchiki, you, and your variety of friends. So tell me again why you think your life is in danger.”

Ichigo whirled sharply, glaring at the slightly taller man. And boy didn’t that still burn.

“I am not imagining things,” he hissed, body shaking with a rising anger.

“I did not say that you were,” Byakuya returned too soothingly for Ichigo’s comfort. And he lifted a hand, reaching for his lover and attempting to draw the younger man into his embrace.

Ichigo allowed it because he’d rather not be angry. Even if Byakuya was being both patronizing and unreasonable.

“Then what are you saying?” he demanded, just wanting a little support rather than an aura of complete and utter denial.

“You may be… misinterpreting the facts,” Byakuya breathed into his neck, moving his mouth to nibble on the skin there.

Ichigo huffed. And tilted his head away.

“You have an idea in mind, and you are reinterpreting the circumstances to fit that particular belief.”

Ichigo’s jaw dropped. “That’s just another fucking way of saying I’m imagining things, just in prettier words.” He turned away then, unwilling to listen to it any longer. “Fine. But if I get trampled by a random herd of cows in the next few days, no sex for a year.”

“A herd of cows?” Byakuya’s voice held a note of incredulity.

“It doesn’t make any less sense than the other stupid shit I’m imagining,” Ichigo all but snarled and flicked his hand through the air, well aware that he was causing a scene. “And while I’m at it, no anything else either. No kissing. No cuddling. No hand-holding. In fact, no touching! Nothing! How’s that for losing my mind?”

He whirled on his heels with the last proclamation and went out the door. Anger blazed in his veins as Ichigo stalked down the corridor, fully intending to leave the Kuchiki manor as it made him quite twitchy. Who knew what enemy lurked around the corner, just waiting to trip him or impale him or accidentally spill boiling hot water on him or set him on fire with a candle or any other number of mundane things that had the capacity to kill him? Purely by accident, of course. Since the Kuchiki would never stoop so low as to take the blame for purposeful homicide.

Byakuya didn’t chase after him, which was probably a good thing because Ichigo was seriously considering violence of his own. He had thought, of all people, that his own boyfriend would believe him. Ukitake-san definitely did, but then, he’d been there for the whole cup-melting incident. Kenpachi believed him because he’d been the one to help Ichigo get out of Rukongai. The geta-boushi believed him because he’d identified the ninja darts… and kept a few for safekeeping.

But Ichigo couldn’t even convince Byakuya that he wasn’t losing his mind. It frustrated him to no end.

Ichigo stopped in the middle of the street then, a new annoyance growing inside of him. In fact, he was pissed. Byakuya hadn’t gotten nearly the tongue-lashing he deserved.

He whirled around yet again, stalking back towards the manor. Only to halt in stunned surprise, catching sight of his lover leaving through a side entrance. Purpose in every step. Where in the world was Byakuya going on his day off? A day that they had intended to spend together?

Ichigo’s eyes narrowed, and without a second thought, he set to follow Byakuya, beyond curious. He was too angry to wait and simply ask for an answer. And so, shielding his reiatsu to the best of his abilities, Ichigo trailed along at a safe distance. Wondering if Byakuya would have ever known that his help in training Ichigo would come back to bite him on the ass.

The manors grew more elite, and Ichigo could tell that he was garnering quite a few disapproving stares. It didn’t help that he had the feeling he headed into deeper noble territory, which worried him just a twinge. After all, wasn’t it the nobles who were trying to kill him? He’d have to be on his guard.

He followed Byakuya to one of the larger and more ornate buildings, the nameplate answering all the questions Ichigo carried. Kuchiki. So much for Byakuya not really believing him. Why else would he come here?

Ichigo scowled, taking up a position across the street where he could watch the gate. He would wait for Byakuya to emerge and demand answers then. His eyes tracked over the large structure, practically screaming old money and affluence. Places he had never been very comfortable at or inside.

Time crawled, the sun passing overhead and making Ichigo sweat, pulling at his collar to relieve the stifling heat. People passed by, wrapped in their fine robes, and tossed occasional disgusted glances at him. Ichigo just offered a scowl in return. He wasn’t leaving until Byakuya came out.

Which coincidentally, he happened to be doing at this exact moment. Ichigo rose to his feet, swiping a hand over his sweaty forehead, effecting a lazy stride as he moved to intercept his lover.

“Didn’t believe me, huh?” he said, the moment the captain came into view and causing Byakuya to nearly startle in his surprise. “Just imagining things?”

Byakuya worked his jaw, unwilling to immediately admit defeat. “Perhaps things were worse than I initially believed, but the matter has been dealt with I assure you.”

Ichigo snorted. “We’ll see. As for me, I’m not drinking or eating anything that I haven’t made myself anytime soon.” He fell into line beside Byakuya, who looked to be beginning a slow trek back towards his own home. “As well as avoiding jaunts into Rukongai, windowsills, and long stairs.”

“I have been informed that you had best avoid the Seikaimon for the next few days as well,” the older male added softly.

What?” Ichigo was embarrassed to admit that the sound leaving his mouth had better resembled a squawk than an actual word.

Byakuya slanted his eyes at him, a touch of apology in his gaze. “It is a good thing you weren’t planning to do so anyway.”

A low growl escaped Ichigo’s lips, only to die on the end of a resigned sigh. “Your grandmother’s a piece of work,” he muttered but held a hand out anyway, capturing Byakuya’s wayward fingers.

He could tell that the captain was startled by the move, considering Ichigo’s proclamation of earlier. Let him consider that the teen’s silent appreciation for a much deserved gesture.

“Midoriko-sama still trusts in outdated times,” Byakuya conceded, his way of admitting that Ichigo’s frank assessment of her character was rather accurate. “She understands now, however, and that is all that matters.” His fingers gave a squeeze in return.

Feeling a bit mischievous, Ichigo tugged them back, eyes glancing around briefly before turning towards Byakuya. He leaned in for a kiss, lips gentle but warm. There was no one in immediate sight to witness the moment of affection, but he was certain some Kuchiki goon lingered in the shadows trailing them. Well, let them take that back to Miss-High-and-Mighty-Kuchiki-Sama and see what she had to say about it.

He ended the kiss, his mouth a few scant inches from Byakuya’s. “Well, I suppose they won’t try anything so long as I’m with you.” He gave a playful nip.

“Oh?” Byakuya asked, trying and failing to conceal the interest in his tone.

Ichigo shrugged nonchalantly. “So I guess that means you’ll be seeing a lot of me for the next few days.” He guided the man into heading back towards his manor and out of sight of prying eyes.

“I’d like to see a lot of you right now” was his low and heated response. Grey eyes flickered over him, and Ichigo could just see his lover undressing him in his mind. Of course, the hand sliding beneath at his collar certainly helped that illusion, fingers warm and smooth against his neck and trailing ever downward.

Ichigo rolled his eyes, a touch of amusement pulling at his lips. “What is with you and those cheesy lines?” Not that they didn’t work very well.

“I learned from the best,” Byakuya replied, mouth so close to Ichigo’s ear that his lips brushed skin.

Ichigo pretended to ignore that as he considered. “Who? That drunk guy? The one who always wears pink?”

“No, actually.” Byakuya’s hand slid down a bit further. “Ukitake-senpai.”

“The guy who’s dating your sister.” Ichigo was incredulous, having thought Ukitake-san to be a bit smoother than that.

Byakuya’s hand froze, a vaguely disappointed cast to his face, still not entirely pleased with that particular relationship. But not voicing his opinion for the sake of Rukia’s happiness. Not to mention the fact that it kept her otherwise occupied and from prying into his own affair.

“Unfortunately yes,” he commented, fingers resuming their wanderings.

Ichigo squeezed his hand, stepping back and giving him a tug. “Just think, soon you’ll have him as a brother-in-law.”

“He’ll be yours as well,” Byakuya reminded him smugly, allowing himself to be pulled along.

Ichigo let the comment fall by the wayside. “Is that a proposal, Kuchiki Byakuya-sama?”

It took a moment for him to reply. He was too busying running his thumb over Ichigo’s knuckles. Not even bothering to pull away as they walked by several other people. Lips curling faintly at their nearly scandalous expressions and muted whispers.

“Small steps, Ichigo. Small steps.”

Not an affirmation. But not a negative either.

Ichigo could live with that. For now.

 

[Bleach] Chocolate Temptations

Byakuya was confused, and for him, that wasn’t an emotion he was used to harboring. Frowning, he looked down at the box in his hands, hoping it would make sense with a second glance. Brightly colored and wrapped with a bow. It didn’t suddenly change.

“Ichigo,” he began with all the patience that he could muster. “Why have you given me chocolates?”

His lover shifted in front of him, scowl firmly in place. “It’s a celebration in the living World. you’re supposed to give them to your… you know on this day. And since you’re mine…” he trailed off with a shrug, scowl deepening. “Just take the damn things.”

Blinking, Byakuya’s gaze shifted between the teen and the box. “But chocolates?”

“Would you prefer a stuffed animal?” Ichigo demanded, pushing at the box and shoving it further towards the noble’s chest. “Besides, I had Yuzu make them.” He tapped it with one finger. “Be grateful.”

The frown of confusion never left Byakuya’s face. “I… honestly don’t know what to say.” He felt completely speechless, having little understanding of this human custom.

What was he supposed to do? Did one gift deserve another? And was he required to do something in return? What was the significance of the gift? And why was Ichigo’s blush only deepening?

He watched as Ichigo shrugged and buried his hands in his pockets, looking off to the side as though Byakuya’s wall was far more interesting. He freed one hand long enough to rake it through his hair before returning it to the safety of his pants. It was almost cute.

Deciding to humor him, Byakuya pulled the ribbon off the box and opened it, the smell of chocolate wafting to his nose. Despite never having a taste for it before, he found himself interested and carefully selected one of the small, dark squares. Sniffing it cautiously, he popped the candy into his mouth and lifted his eyebrows. It was actually rather palatable, robust and bittersweet, not overly sugary like he would have expected.

He rolled the flavor around in his mouth, letting it settle over his tongue. The chocolate melted rather easily, and he swallowed the first square, already contemplating a second one. These things were dangerous Byakuya decided as he licked his lips. A man could easily get addicted to them.

And then, it felt as if eyes were watching him. In the midst of bringing another piece of chocolate to his lips, he looked up to find Ichigo staring at him. Brown eyes had darkened with interest, seemingly locked on the piece of candy in his hold.

Byakuya arched one brow. “Something wrong?”

Ichigo shook his head and closed the distance between them. “No. I just want a taste, too.” And though the blush on his cheeks seemed to belie his actions, Ichigo took that moment to swoop down and steal Byakuya’s lips.

He slid his tongue into the noble’s mouth, tasting both the rich chocolate and a flavor that was uniquely Byakuya. A sound echoed in Byakuya’s throat beneath the lusty onslaught, fingers carding through his hair and tilting his head back. The one chocolate he held dropped from his fingers as he curled them in the front of Ichigo’s shihakushou.

A sense of rising lust filled the entryway of Byakuya’s manor, where they had gotten no further than when Ichigo shoved the chocolates at him. He was suddenly reminded of how long it had been since he’d last seen his lover. At least a week, if not more, since Ichigo had been able to come to Seireitei and Byakuya had been able to leave for the living world.

The kiss ended with much reluctance, Byakuya finding a smirk curving at his lips. “I apologize. I didn’t realize to get you anything in return,” he murmured as Ichigo released his hair and grabbed the box from his hands, dropping it indiscreetly to the floor. His other hand settled on Byakuya’s hip, pulling them closer together.

“Che,” he snorted, burying his face in Byakuya’s throat and licking a line across his Adam’s apple. “Surprised Rukia didn’t bash you in the head to do it.” He nipped gently at the noble’s neck and caused Byakuya’s blood to pump with heat. “I’ll forgive you this once.”

Byakuya’s skin prickled as he felt Ichigo ground against him. “Perhaps you can forgive me in the bedroom,” he suggested, finding the hallway a rather conspicuous place.

Chuckling against his throat, Ichigo brought his mouth back up to Byakuya’s, covering his lips. “Perhaps,” he muttered against pale skin. Still, he slowly backed down the corridor, pulling the noble along with him.

Byakuya was inclined to agree.

 

[Bleach] My Pace

He was not a man skilled in comforting. Byakuya didn’t know how to soothe those inner aches and pains of those close to him. He could barely understand his own emotions, couldn’t even begin to handle his own aching heart. When faced with someone else’s pain, Byakuya drew a complete blank. Maybe that was why he never could communicate with Hisana. Perhaps that was why he had been unable to help Rukia after Kaien’s death.

Maybe, maybe, maybe.

Then, he met Ichigo.

Byakuya wanted to believe that his lover was a man capable of taking care of himself, that he didn’t need silly things like comfort. That Ichigo understood just how much of a social and emotional failure his lover was and didn’t expect anything. And that was probably true. Ichigo didn’t really expect anything from him. Byakuya expected it from himself.

There were times when he knew without even having to ask that Ichigo was hurting. He drew away, became quiet, lost some of his bluster. He sought solitude and even brushed off attempts by his friends to talk. He didn’t train, he didn’t practice. He just sat and thought.

He didn’t understand why Ichigo did that at first. Byakuya even considered it a personal affront, that perhaps it was him Ichigo was growing tired of. That the boy couldn’t think of a way to end it. But slowly, the realization dawned on him that this was an old pain haunting his lover, not something that could readily be healed.

Ichigo had told him once about the Hollow that had taken his mother’s life. About his own inability to destroy Grand Fisher. He hadn’t said it, but Byakuya had received the distinct impression that he still considered it his own fault, even if everyone told him otherwise. Byakuya could only recognize it because he held some of the same feelings himself for his own regrets.

Thoughts of his mother usually brought about the distance, brought about the sudden need to be alone. It would come, and it would pass. And when Ichigo returned, Byakuya was there, keeping normalcy. It was the best he could offer. If his kisses were a little gentler that night or his touch a bit softer, neither noticed. It might have even been unconscious.

And then, there were the scars.

Byakuya himself had very few, most of them from recent battles and from Ichigo himself. He hadn’t been a captain very long before he had met Ichigo, and even then, he hadn’t been in a position where he would have had to fight a difficult enemy. Hollows were never strong enough to get a single strike against him, and he was a Kuchiki, he didn’t go on routine patrols.

But Ichigo had many scars. Byakuya had traced them with his fingers, had followed their path with his eyes. Had even measured the length and breadth of some with his tongue. Each was a testament to a battle his lover had survived, a battle in which Ichigo had proved victorious.

All except one.

Neither of them spoke about that particular scar, a bare impression of injury against Ichigo’s darker skin. Neither spoke of what it represented. Byakuya already knew that Ichigo had vowed to never face such a loss again. Even if Aizen’s strength was ten times his own, Ichigo was determined to defeat him.

Byakuya believed sometimes that everyone conveniently forgot just how human Ichigo was. That though he could pull a miracle from thin air, prove victorious against improbable odds, to make the impossible possible, he was still just a boy. One suddenly thrust into the life of a Shinigami. Even Byakuya himself was guilty of forgetting.

He couldn’t help but wonder how Ichigo coped with everything. All of the blood he had lost, the wounds he had suffered, the pain he had endured. The sudden and abrupt change from normal teenager to Shinigami to Vizard to a hero who everyone depended upon without even asking if he wanted it in the first place.

The answer always came to him at night, the heavy hours before morning and not long after midnight.

There were times when Ichigo had nightmares, ones that were vivid enough to cause him to break into a cold sweat and shake. Byakuya always woke when the first broken noise pierced the quiet and had quickly learned just what had produced the pained murmur. He would reach over, laying his hand gently against Ichigo’s bare shoulder. Sometimes, his touch was enough to soothe Ichigo back into quiet sleep. Other times, Byakuya was forced to wake his lover, just to end whatever haunted his night.

The look in those brown eyes, once so young and lacking knowledge, never ceased to put a chill on Byakuya’s heart. They were eyes far too old for someone Ichigo’s age, eyes that were far too distressed for a teenager. One who should have had no bigger worries than which occupation he wished to follow or which university would better suit him.

Ichigo never talked about whatever pains he held inside, and Byakuya never goaded him to speak. He knew that with all things, Ichigo would do this his own way and in his own time. At some point, Byakuya knew that his lover would come to him. And then, it would all come pouring out, everything that made him ache, everything that troubled his sleep.

Byakuya wasn’t the best at comforting; he didn’t have the right words or the right reactions. He didn’t know how to deflect worries or make false but hopeful assurances. But he supposed that really didn’t matter since it wasn’t what Ichigo wanted or needed in the first place.

Just simply being there was enough. And that, Byakuya could do.