The meeting ran long into the night. Long enough for even Skywarp to get suspicious and cast Thundercracker a concerned look.
Were they worried about Starscream? Of course not! Or maybe just a little. Starscream’s track record when it came to other mechs in positions of authority was not a good one.
Did they think a soft-sparked Autobot was likely to send their Air Commander to the medbay? No. But Grimlock had scrubbed off his Autobot badge almost the moment he’d killed Megatron, and Thundercracker couldn’t blame him. The Autobots might like to sit in their high tower and pretend to be perfect, but they had their flaws.
Granted Megatron wanted to use the Dinobots for their strength and superior power, too, but at least he was up front about it.
Next to them, Swoop fidgeted. Thundercracker cast him a worried look, too. Swoop wasn’t bad for a Dinobot. Sure, he flew like a rock compared to a Seeker, but he had a quiet intelligence that Thundercracker could appreciate. Like the rest of the Dinobots, Thundercracker supposed. None of them had been given the chance to show they were anything but dumb brutes until now.
“We could always barge in,” Skywarp suggested with another sideways look to the door.
The baleful orange glow of the panel announced that it was locked. Just as it had been for the past twenty minutes. Thundercracker had pinged Starscream, but hadn’t gotten anything more than an automated response stating he was busy. If it was an emergency, they were to try his emergency line.
It wasn’t an emergency. Thundercracker knew very well how caustic their trine leader could be when interrupted for something unimportant.
“And suffer his wrath? I don’t think so.”
Starscream didn’t get physically violent like Megatron. But words could cut just as deeply, and Thundercracker had been on the receiving end of more than a few biting exchanges. He knew a defense mechanism when he saw one. That didn’t make it any more excusable.
They still waited on a proper apology.
“Me Swoop could interrupt,” Swoop said with a half-sparked smile. The way he still curled away from them made Thundercracker physically ill.
He didn’t know what Shockwave had done to the winged Dinobot, but Thundercracker was of the mind that Shockwave could rot in prison for the rest of his functioning. Thundercracker remembered Swoop to be bold and fearless. He did not like seeing Swoop as he was now, a shadow of the brave, flying Dinobot who used to be such a terror to them.
The guilt swamped him. Perhaps they should have taken an Autobot. They should’ve convinced Starscream to do so as well. They might have treated the Autobot like an unpaid laborer, but they wouldn’t have raped him or experimented on him. They’d missed an opportunity to be decent mechs there.
It was something Thundercracker would have to carry with him to the Pit, he supposed.
“Him Grimlock won’t mind,” Swoop added and he ducked his helm.
Thundercracker shook his helm. “That won’t be necessary, Swoop. We’ll wait a little longer, and then all three of us can barge in.”
Cyclonus was already gone. The meeting should have ended two hours ago for Primus’ sake. What on Cybertron were Grimlock and Starscream doing in there? Thundercracker hoped it wasn’t another battle for leadership. Starscream sometimes didn’t know the meaning of ‘quit.’
The door panel clicked from warning orange to ready green. Thundercracker straightened as a soft beep echoed in the corridor. The door slid open, Starscream emerging first and Grimlock after him.
Starscream was grinning, his wings raised in a flirtatious manner. His grin faded a little when he noticed the three of them standing around. “You didn’t have to wait, you know.”
“You said you’d go flying with us,” Skywarp pointed out. His wings flattened against his back, a shiver of unease tainting his field. “You’re not skipping out this time.”
Unlike all the other times, Thundercracker thought. Starscream could stand to be a little more grateful. They’d all risked their sparks rising up against Megatron. It was a combination of skill and luck that they’d emerged victorious.
Starscream sighed. “Yes, I know. We ran late.”
“Yeah. We noticed.” Thundercracker folded his arms.
“You Swoop come,” Grimlock said, gesturing to his Dinobot. “You fly good?”
Swoop dipped his helm in thanks to Skywarp and Thundercracker and hurried to catch up to his commander. “Me Swoop flew better!” he chirped, optics lighting up with happiness as Grimlock threw an arm over his shoulders. “Him Thunder and him Sky nice!”
Grimlock chuckled and glanced back at them, his visor unreadable. “Is that so?”
Thundercracker refused to squirm. His new lord and master did not intimidate him. Besides, they’d taken care of Swoop! They hadn’t bullied him at all. Grimlock should be happy that the surviving Conehead was in jail. Or that it hadn’t been the Rainmakers either. Sunstorm was perfectly respectful, but Acid Storm was a sarcastic aft.
“What’s going on, Star?” Skywarp demanded, pulling Thundercracker’s attention back to his trinemates. Skywarp frowned as he circled Starscream, leaning in as though sniffing their trinemate.
Starscream gave him a sideways look. “Nothing,” he said.
Skywarp’s optics narrowed. “Then why do I smell ozone?” he demanded and his wings hiked upward. He threw a glare down the corridor where Grimlock had already disappeared around the corner with Swoop.
Thundercracker knew Skywarp had struck home with Starscream grimaced and folded his arms over his cockpit. He stepped away from Skywarp, closing himself off to them. What little they could sense of his field became nonexistent.
“Probably because you two have been interfacing yourselves six ways to Moonbase,” Starscream said with a defensive hiss of his ex-vents.
“That’s not how we do and you know it,” Skywarp snapped, offense thick in his tone, though more for Thundercracker than himself.
Skywarp’s field flared, and Thundercracker was quick to intervene, stepping between them and putting a hand on Skywarp’s shoulder. It saddened him how often he took this role. Skywarp could be emotional, and Starscream always knew how to cut to the protoform.
“Are you and Grimlock facing?” Thundercracker asked. Because he hadn’t missed the lingering looks the first and second of Decepticon command exchanged. He also knew exactly how Starscream’s scheming processor worked.
Starscream’s lips formed a thin line and provided all the answer Thundercracker needed. Starscream knew he couldn’t lie to them, so as he always did when he didn’t want to answer something, he went silent. He went defensive. Even now his shoulders hunched, and he pulled away from them.
Damn it. Thundercracker’s free hand curled into a fist. Not this again. Not this all over again. Thundercracker refused. He would not allow himself to be led down a path of destruction because Starscream couldn’t control his libido.
Skywarp sighed and his behind his palm. “Star–”
“I legitimately do not want to hear it,” Starscream bit out, his field lashing through the corridor as sharp as a whip.
“It’s not a relationship, it’s just facing. It doesn’t mean anything,” Starscream snarled, and his shoulders hunched further. His optics brightened in the way they always did when he felt cornered. “And I don’t even know if it was more than a one-time thing.”
“That’s what you said about Megatron!” Skywarp snapped, and only Thundercracker’s hand on his shoulder kept him from charging forward.
Starscream’s wings whipped upright. His engine growled warningly.
Thundercracker put up a hand, warning Starscream with his gaze alone. Primus, he hated having to step between them. He thought they were over this. He thought Megatron’s death would be enough to fix things.
He should have known better.
Bad habits were almost impossible to break.
“He has a valid point, Starscream,” Thundercracker said, careful to keep his tone gentle and neutral. Starscream only got more defensive if he felt accused. “You have a type and Autobot aside, Grimlock fits it.”
“Except that Grimlock doesn’t beat his subordinates,” Starscream muttered.
Skywarp’s field flexed with concern. He drew back, and Thundercracker could all too easily read the hurt in his expression. “Megatron didn’t either. At first,” he pointed out.
Starscream sighed. He palmed his face. That he didn’t immediately lash out was progress. Usually the first mention of Megatron was enough to send him storming away in a huff, unwilling to listen further.
“You know what, no,” Starscream said with a flick of his other hand. “I’m not having this conversation here. Come on.”
It was a start, Thundercracker realized as Skywarp relented, and they both followed after Starscream, heading no doubt for Starscream’s habsuite.
It was a change for the better. Usually, Starscream would dismiss them and sulk in his own solitude. But the fact he wanted to talk was a start.
Maybe things were changing after all.
Skywarp bumped shoulders with him, as though trying to get Thundercracker’s attention. He shook his helm. No. Best not to speculate. Better to wait for Starscream to explain.
They followed Starscream back to his habsuite, which was on the same hall as Cyclonus’. Grimlock had chosen to quarter himself elsewhere, in a collection of rooms large enough for all the Dinobots to be housed together. They called it their ‘Den’.
Thundercracker supposed it didn’t matter since they still had Starscream and Cyclonus within shouting range of the command center, but it was a deviation from the norm.
Thundercracker was far from opposed. Deviations from Megatron were more than acceptable in his datapad.
Thundercracker and Skywarp shared a hab further away. Sharing wasn’t required, but after the close quarters on the Nemesis, Thundercracker had gotten used to have Skywarp around. He actually missed the little glitch’s noise and mess.
Starscream jabbed his code into the panel and stomped inside, leaving Thundercracker and Skywarp room to follow him, though he didn’t extend anything close to a polite invitation. He was agitated, all of his easy lassitude gone.
“I wasn’t trying to accuse you of anything,” Skywarp blurted the second they crossed the threshold, and the door slid shut. He never did understand the meaning of patience. “It makes sense to be worried. How many times did we have to help put you back together after Megatron was through with you?”
His hands formed fists. His wings twitched. He was as agitated as Starscream and Thundercracker sighed. Two high strung mechs in the same trine was never a good idea. But Primus, it hadn’t always been like this.
Starscream folded his arms over his cockpit, his shoulders hunched and defensive. “Grimlock is not Megatron. I wouldn’t have accepted his leadership if I thought, even for a moment, that we would be trading one maniac for another.”
Thundercracker rested a hand on Skywarp’s shoulder, squeezing to let his partner know he was there. “I know.” He paused, intending to say something along the lines of “I trust your judgment” but it would be a lie.
Starscream’s judgment, up until recently, had been rather poor.
“I believe in Grimlock, and I believe the good he’ll do for the Decepticons,” Thundercracker said. “We are just concerned that it’s too soon.”
Starscream snorted, his gaze wandering to the window. “I don’t know what you think is going on here. I wasn’t in love with Megatron, and I’m not in love with Grimlock, and there’s nothing too soon about a one time frag that meant nothing.” The last devolved into a hiss and a flicker of wings that was almost a challenge.
Skywarp fell back, his wings nearly resting against Thundercracker’s chest. “It had to mean something,” he said, with that occasionally frightening intuition of his. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t have felt the need to be secretive about it.”
Starscream sighed and covered his face with his hand. He turned away from them, and Thundercracker had no doubt he was rolling his optics.
“It was the one time. I wasn’t trying to keep it a secret, I just don’t think it’s any of your business,” Starscream said, and he sounded tired.
“Who started it?” Thundercracker asked.
Starscream’s arms folded again. His shoulders hunched.
Skywarp gasped. “Did he force you?” he demanded, jumping instantly to what Thundercracker suspected was the wrong conclusion. He doubted Grimlock was the sort to take what hadn’t been offered to him.
No, Thundercracker suspected the explanation here was pure embarrassment on Starscream’s part. He had always been a private mech, and Skywarp never learned the meaning of boundaries. But then, Starscream had been notorious about making the wrong decisions when it came to his interface partners.
Case in point: Megatron.
Though Thundercracker could hardly call that trainwreck a relationship. They weren’t even friends with benefits because Thundercracker didn’t seen any benefit for either party in that mess. It was mutually destructive, and sometimes, he couldn’t be sure that they both didn’t prefer it that way. They fed into each other, all of that hate and lust getting bundled up into a cataclysmic mess.
No wonder the Decepticons had found themselves defeated, again and again, by an army of civilians and oddities led by a Prime who was as close to a pacifist one could get, but still participate in battle.
“Of course not!” Starscream snapped, sounding personally offended. He whirled toward Skywarp, wings flicking left and right. “If anything, he was annoyingly polite about it.”
Thundercracker bit back a grin.
“Annoyingly polite?” he repeated. He leaned his hip against a nearby table. “Do tell, Starscream. What could that possibly mean?”
Their trine leader’s faceplate heated. “He asked, okay,” he muttered and scratched at his chin. “It was weird.”
Skywarp and Thundercracker exchanged a look. What that said about Starscream’s previous sexual encounters was more than a little appalling. And worrisome. Then again, considering one of his last partners was Megatron and considering just what Megatron had been up to with his Autobot toys, should they be so surprised?
But how to approach this without making Starscream angrier?
“Asking is supposed to be standard procedure,” Skywarp said softly. “Generally. Just means Grimlock was raised right, which I guess is lucky for him considering who he has for parents.”
Even Thundercracker had to hold back a grin. It was a miracle Grimlock was polite at all with Ratchet for a pseudo-caretaker.
“Then I guess that means he wasn’t entirely useless in the berth, right?” Skywarp asked, trying to lighten the mood. “Enough for a repeat performance?”
Starscream cut his optics toward Skywarp. “Did you miss the part where I said it was a one-time thing?”
“Is that what Grimlock said it was?” Thundercracker asked. Privately, he was already getting on board this particular connection.
Okay, so it asked for trouble to have the Decepticon leader and second-in-command engage in extracurricular activities. But if it brought that cutely embarrassed flush
to Starscream’s field, Thundercracker could get behind it.
It actually felt kind of nice to be supporting Starscream again, and to actually have a conversation with him without the accompanying waspish comments or Starscream refusing any kind of assistance.
“No,” Starscream retorted.
Skywarp’s wings flicked. A hint of eagerness danced in his field. “What did he say?”
Thundercracker half-expected him to clam up, tell them it was none of their business, and shove them out. That had been the standard procedure ever since they had all woke on Earth after their four million year stasis.
“Next time we’ll use a berth,” Starscream replied and his faceplate heated of all things.
He was blushing.
Thundercracker almost gaped. Only a moment of rigid self-control kept him from doing so. He looked at Skywarp, and Skywarp looked back at him with optics lit up with glee.
Okay. Thundercracker could get behind this after all.
“So it’s not a one off. Sounds like he wants something more.” Skywarp grinned with the light of a dozen suns. “Which means we’re going to have to keep an optic on him. The last thing we need is another Megatron.”
Starscream shook his helm, the color easing from his faceplate as he got hold of himself. “He’s nothing like Megatron. He’s better in every way.”
Skywarp clapped his hands together. “Well, that’s good to know.” He shared a glance with Thundercracker before returning his attention to Starscream. “Now there seems to be the matter of a flight you owe us.”
“You’re not going to let that go, are you?” Starscream demanded, but his tone was amused. The stress had gone from his field, and it opened to them. Even his wings fluttered, which was an improvement.
“Nope,” Skywarp chirped. He hooked an elbow around Starscream’s, steering him toward the balcony access. “You’re our Air Commander, Star. We can’t let you forget what that means.”
“As if I could,” Starscream snorted. He worked himself free of Skywarp’s arm and opened the door, giving them room to step outside. “Okay, you two. Let’s fly then. But I have an early morning so we have to keep this short. And no going near Nova Cronum.”
Skywarp hopped up on the railing, balancing with ease. “Afraid Metalhawk might want to join us?”
“More like I’m not sure he won’t try to shoot us down,” Starscream retorted and gave Skywarp a little shove.
Skywarp pinwheeled his arms as he tilted backward, only to transform in mid-air and shoot back upward in jet-mode. Theatrical moron. Thundercracker rolled his optics, and leapt up onto the railing as well, joining Starscream.
“Where you go, we follow,” Thundercracker said.
He tilted his helm toward his commander and dove off the railing, transforming mid-air like Skywarp, though with a lot less pizzazz. He spun into a tight spiral as he pointed his nose toward the sky. Wind rushed over his plating, his environmental sensors pinging data to him at a rapid-fire pace.
He heard thrusters pop as Starscream followed him over.
Three jets rose into the dark sky, stars spinning bright above them. It felt natural to slide into position at Starscream’s right while Skywarp wobbled into place at Starscream’s left. Thundercracker reached out with his field, and felt Starscream reach back. On the other side, Skywarp joined the loop.
It was so easy to follow Starscream’s lead, to plunge right into their usual maneuvers as though nothing had ever happened.
They cut through the air, Command Trine once again, and Thundercracker sent an internal thank you to Grimlock. Oh, he and Skywarp would still need to have a conversation with Grimlock, talk to him about the things Starscream would never bring up, and warn him how hot the blaze burned.
But so far, so good.
Peace was finally within reach.
“You Grimlock stink,” was the first thing he heard as he stepped through the main door into the massive apartment he shared with the other Dinobots.
The friendly observation came from Snarl, who folded his arms over his chest and stared at Grimlock as though his appearance had personally offended the Stegosaurus-copy. Then again, he and Snarl had clashed personalities more often than not.
Grimlock bit back a sigh. Next to him, Swoop chortled and nudged Grimlock with his elbow. He’d been making pointed remarks their entire walk back.
“Told you,” he said and snuck away, probably to their washracks. He was covered in grit and pollution from his flight with the Seekers.
Of them all, Swoop was the most particular about staying clean. It was an aspect of his personality that had been exacerbated by his time spent in Shockwave’s care. He had doubled the time spent in the washrack, and was almost obsessively meticulous about his paint now. He rivaled Sunstreaker in that regard.
If politics weren’t in the way, Grimlock would have made the scientist pay for that a thousand fold already. Damn Cyclonus for being rational and recognizing they might need Shockwave’s scientific mind in the future. Rest assured, the moment Shockwave’s usefulness came to an end, Grimlock vowed to make him pay for his crimes.
But watching Swoop saunter off, cackling to himself, well Grimlock supposed he’d take any kind of teasing if it meant he could see Swoop grinning again. It was like having the old Swoop back, and Grimlock would do whatever it took to see that again.
“What you Grimlock doing?” Slag demanded as he swaggered up, also folding his arms over his chest.
Now he and Snarl both stared at Grimlock, Slag’s nose twitching as though Grimlock’s odor offended him. Grimlock looked down, but there wasn’t a trace of transfluid or lubricant anywhere. He’d cleaned up well. Besides, it wasn’t any of their business what he did.
“I was busy working,” he said. “Which is what I do now.” He slipped past both of them and stepped further into the main room of their massive shared apartment.
It was big enough to have an open kitchen, an open office, and a seating area around a large monitor, along with a couple of sturdy video game systems. The scavenged furniture was even big enough for their comfort. Two bookshelves were loaded with datapads that Grimlock intended to read in his down time. The rest of the apartment was lacking in decoration right now, but just having appropriately sized furniture and private rooms to themselves was a luxury. Not to mention their private washracks.
It was a far cry from the rock closet they’d called home for so long. They each had a private room, though Grimlock’s was the largest. It had a berth big enough to fit all four of them, if they didn’t mind squeezing in. Sleeping in a happy pile of Dinobot was one of Grimlock’s favorite memories.
Snarl still insisted they should have taken the now-empty Prime penthouse. Sometimes, he was just dumb.
The only thing of Megatron’s that Grimlock wanted was the role of Decepticon Leader. Everything else could go smelt in the Pit.
Unless everyone counted Starscream as something of Megatron’s, because Grimlock wanted to claim him, too. Provided Starscream agreed. Provided he understood that Grimlock meant to keep him. That it wasn’t just a one-time thing.
He’d long thought Megatron both underused and abused his second. Starscream was brilliant and beautiful and deserving of far more than what Megatron gave him. Grimlock had read everything the Autobots had on Starscream. He’d studied mission reports and Jazz’s observations and Smokescreen’s unofficial ones and Ratchet’s diagnoses.
It had become something of an obsession, one tempered with genuine interest. Grimlock had long deduced that if Megatron ever decided to take Starscream seriously, or Starscream ever attempted to work with Megatron, the Autobots would lose the war. Lo and behold, he’d been right. Not that Optimus Prime listened to him.
“Him Starscream Decepticon,” Snarl said as he followed after Grimlock, each stomp heavy and loud. His field was a frazzled burst of discontent against Grimlock’s.
“So am I now.” Grimlock headed into the seating area and flopped down on the couch, only to be joined by Snarl and Slag on either side of him. “So are we.”
“Him loud,” Slag added.
“Stab you Grimlock in back,” Snarl felt it necessary to say.
Grimlock glared at both of them. “Don’t believe everything you hear.”
“What? It true!” Snarl insisted, bristling. “It no secret! Starscream always betray Megatron. Always say he leader of Decepticons.” He heaved to his pedes, energy field a pulsing whirl of anger.
“Him Snarl right,” Slag said, putting the two of them in agreement for once. “Him Starscream dangerous. You Grimlock be careful. Him Starscream sneaky.”
Grimlock growled a warning note, which shut them both up right quick. “That’s my decision to make. You think I can’t handle one Seeker?”
“Just sayin’,” Slag muttered, folding his arms. “Him Starscream traitor.”
“You Slag and you Snarl hush!” Swoop shouted as he poked his head out of the washracks, dripping cleanser everywhere and exciting the cleaning drones into a little beeping frenzy. “Him Starscream nice! And him Grimlock deserve to be happy!” He followed it up with a squawk of protest.
Despite himself, Grimlock chuckled. “It’s okay, Swoop. They don’t mean any harm.” Actually, given the menace radiating his direction, it looked like a fight was at hand. But what they didn’t need was for Swoop to get riled up right now.
He was still healing, Ratchet said. He needed time to get his systems up to their normal speed. Which meant, he needed to stay relatively emotionally stable.
Easier said than done considering he had horrible memory purges every night. He never recharged alone anymore. Not that it was a terrible thing to cuddle Swoop.
Swoop gave them all a suspicious look, but he ducked back into the washracks, hopefully with the intention of drying himself off.
Grimlock pushed to his pedes and whirled toward the other two, folding his hands over his chestplate. “Me Grimlock decide about Starscream,” he growled. “Not your business. Not your choice. You Slag and you Snarl can leave if want. Join Autobots. But me Grimlock stay.”
“No join Autobots again,” Slag grumbled, his plating drawing tight. His field shrank down. “No like Decepticons either. Just want Dinobots.”
“Want Papa Jack and Mama Ratch though,” Snarl said as his gaze fell, and his armor slicked down. “Make sure Mama Ratch okay.”
Grimlock nodded. None of them were fond of the Autobots as a whole, only considering them marginally better than the Decepticons. Some of the Autobots had tried to be friendly, and they would always adore Ratchet and Wheeljack, but for the most part, none of the surviving Dinobots were sad to walk away from the Autobots. He suspected Snarl and Slag kept their badges only because it hadn’t occurred to them to remove the brands.
Shockwave had removed Swoop’s, and Swoop had made no indication he wanted it back. The empty places on his wings didn’t bother him.
Grimlock had scrubbed away Autobot red and replaced it with Decepticon purple by necessity. Though it was his hope that given plenty of time, they could do away with badges entirely. Brands would only continue to divide the Cybertronians, not unite them. He recognized their necessity for now, but once the lines began to blur and the walls started to fall, Grimlock would propose to eliminate them.
It was on his large and ever-growing To Do List.
Grimlock had plans. He had goals. He was damn tired of seeing mechs die for a war that no longer had a purpose. If he had to bang some heads around to see peace, he would. Even if that head was Optimus Prime’s.
Megatron was a monster best left forgotten in the dregs of the Smelter’s Pit.
And Starscream had proven to be one of the best rewards of them all.
“Things complicated,” Grimlock finally said after a moment to cycle a ventilation. “Care necessary. Visit Ratchet and Wheeljack once things settle. Understood?”
Two sets of pedes shuffled. Two mechs ducked their helm. Two of his Dinobots muttered something like agreement, but not without a sullen hint to their vocals.
Grimlock swept them up into a hug anyway, and grinned to himself as Slag squawked and Snarl squeaked and they fought for the space of a second before returning the embrace.
Dinobots. They stuck together. Even when they disagreed.
“Trust me, all right?” Grimlock said once they worked their way free, plating ruffled and fields speaking of mingled affection and exasperation. “I’m always going to do what’s best for us.”
“Fine,” Snarl said as he rustled his spines. “We trust you Grimlock. For now.”
“Until me Slag beat you Grimlock and become leader,” Slag said and jostled Snarl with his elbow. “Come. Go spar.”
Snarl jostled him back, and Grimlock huffed a laugh. He dropped himself back down onto the couch as they started sniping at each other.
“You Grimlock take bath!” Snarl hollered over his shoulder right before the two disappeared into the adjacent training room.
Grimlock ignored them and settled into the couch, making himself comfortable. He hunted around for the remote to the entertainment console, though he kept Snarl’s comment in mind. He looked down at himself, but all he could see were a few scrapes of gray, blue, and red paint.
He didn’t stink.
The door to the washracks opened, and Swoop’s helm popped out again. “Them Snarl and Slag gone?”
Grimlock chuckled and gestured for the flyer to join him. “Yes. They’re gone. You clean?”
“You Grimlock aren’t,” Swoop said, but he fully emerged from the washracks, this time without dripping and his plating exhibiting a gleaming shine.
“Not you, too.” Grimlock groaned. He shifted over to make room on the couch and warmth swept through his spark when Swoop took the unstated invitation.
Swoop tucked his wing panels in close to his frame and sat down next to Grimlock. He tucked himself up under Grimlock’s right arm and stole the remote before Grimlock could see what he was doing.
“Me Swoop’s turn to pick,” he said with a wark of laughter.
Grimlock held up his free hand. “Sure, sure. So long as it’s not whatever the Decepticons are broadcasting.”
Swoop snerked. “You Grimlock Decepticon now.”
“Don’t remind me.” Grimlock settled against the back of the couch, Swoop a familiar warmth next to him, and comforted himself with that fact.
Swoop patted him on the thigh. “Him Starscream good match,” he said. “Ignore them Snarl and Slag. Them jealous.”
Grimlock barked a laugh. “You think so?”
“Me Swoop know so.” Swoop sounded smug.
The television settled on some kind of show from Earth.
Grimlock suspected they had Blaster to blame for filling the airwaves with pointless entertainment. Though it was better than the kind of shows Megatron put on. Grimlock made a mental note to ensure that no copies remained of those recordings. Jazz had, in all likelihood, destroyed them all, but it didn’t hurt to check.
“Him Starscream smart, not allowed to show it, like you Grimlock,” Swoop continued, craning his neck to look up at Grimlock. “Him Starscream underappreciated. Strong, too. Good match!”
Grimlock patted Swoop’s shoulder. “Thank you. I’m glad you’re on my side.”
Swoop’s field flexed against Grimlock’s, warm with affection. He’d always been the gentler of the five Dinobots, he and Sludge both.
Guilt swamped Grimlock then. It felt wrong to indulge in Swoop’s happy field, because he had failed Swoop so thoroughly. He hadn’t protected him. He hadn’t protected Sludge. He’d almost lost his entire team because of Optimus Prime and the Decepticons.
He had no right to demand trust of them, but Swoop offered it without question and Slag and Snarl backed down without hardly a fight.
He owed his brothers everything.
“Swoop,” Grimlock said, brushing Swoop’s shoulder to get his attention again. “Me Grimlock sorry you were taken. Sorry Sludge got killed.”
Swoop cycled his optics. He tilted his helm to the side. “Why you Grimlock apologize? Not you Grimlock’s fault.”
“Me Grimlock should’ve protected all of you. It me Grimlock’s job.”
Swoop patted him on the thigh again. “You Grimlock don’t know everything. You Grimlock tried. Him Shockwave enemy. Him Megatron villain. Never you Grimlock.”
“You Swoop best brother,” Grimlock said and squeezed Swoop against his side in the closest thing they could get to a hug right now.
Swoop warbled a laugh. “Me Swoop know. Now hush. Show is on.”
Grimlock chuckled and obeyed.
Optimus returned, and it didn’t take long for the whining to begin.
Starscream had already braced himself for it, so when his comm began to lit up with conference requests from Metalhawk, he wasn’t surprised. When Ultra Magnus started adding to the noise within an hour, he had to lean forward on the table and laugh.
At least Optimus’ second was polite about it. His carefully worded but concise request didn’t quite match the ridiculousness of the situation. He had even gone to the trouble of arranging a time for the leadership of all three factions to discuss use of the space bridge.
Buried in Ultra Magnus’ polite tone was a hint of aggravation, no doubt with Metalhawk. Starscream thought he had the monopoly on single-handedly irritating every single mech around him, but honestly, Metalhawk had him beat. He even had Ultra Magnus – notorious for being fair – gritting his denta and leaving frosty notes at the end of his communiques.
The icing on the oil cake, however, was sitting in the meeting and watching Optimus Prime start to get flustered. That almost made it worth Starscream’s own rising annoyance. If not for Grimlock constantly reminding him to keep calm and shut his mouth, he might have been the one to say something unfortunate.
Starscream had to give Optimus credit. He held his temper even when it was clear all he wanted to do was wring Metalhawk’s necks. At least there was one benefit out of it.
Autobots and Decepticons united over their mutual distaste for Neutrals. Probably not the effect Metalhawk had been aiming for. Sucked to be him.
Still, there was one thing Starscream knew for sure — he would much rather be on this side of the table with Optimus Prime than against him. Especially when it came to politics. Also that whatever it was blooming between Optimus and Soundwave was simultaneously adorable and horrifying. He couldn’t wait to see what came of that.
It gave him a kind of gleeful anticipation.
Starscream took his leave of the meeting as soon as possible and didn’t care that he left the others to deal with the unfortunate aftermath. Grimlock was there, and he’d fill Starscream in later if it was at all important.
Besides, Starscream had better things to do than listen to Metalhawk whine about not getting his way. He had construction inspections to carry out, parole requests to consider, and he’d promised Skywarp and Thundercracker he’d go flying with them later. With Megatron out of the picture, all three of them wanted to try and mend the cracks that had formed in their trine.
“If I hadn’t seen it for myself, I wouldn’t have believed it.”
Starscream froze, discomfort dripping down his spinal strut. He turned slowly, gathering his wits about him, as a familiar frame stepped out of the shadows behind him. He wondered how long Sky-Byte had been lurking. Had he waited for Starscream specifically? Or had he been playing the spy?
“You’ll have to be more specific.” Starscream inclined his helm. “Are you surprised that I’m alive? Are you surprised that Autobots and Decepticons are working together? Or did you never think you’d have to face the fact you abandoned your oath?”
Sky-Byte folded his arms over his ridged chestplate. “None of the above,” he said, his deep vocals echoing around the corridor. “Never thought I’d see the day when Starscream listened to his superiors and didn’t throw a fit to get his way.”
Starscream gnawed on the inside of his cheek and reminded himself that attacking Sky-Byte would result in a diplomatic incident. “Time has a funny way of changing mechs. Is there something I can help you with, Sky-Byte? You look lost.”
The Neutral second-in-command laughed. “I’m exactly where I want to be, but thanks. You’re the one who needs assistance. You seem to have a gross misconception of us.”
“Oh, please. Do educate me,” Starscream purred insincerely. He twisted his wrist whilst twirling a finger. “I would hate to offend.”
Sky-Byte stepped further into the light, illuminating the high-gloss to his finish and the complete lack of imperfection anywhere on his frame. This was a mech who hadn’t seen battle in quite some time.
Was it a small wonder he had abandoned the Decepticons to live in peace with the Neutrals? That didn’t give him the right to judge others for their determination to fight.
“You think because we are Neutral, we are weak,” Sky-Byte said, straightening. He was taller than Starscream, but only just. He definitely outmassed Starscream. “You think we don’t know how to fight, and that we won’t defend ourselves.”
“When did I ever say that?”
“You didn’t have to.” Sky-Byte chuffed a ventilation. “Cybertron is our home, too, and we’ll fight for the right to live here. Even if it means taking on you and your kind.”
Starscream had the feeling he didn’t mean the Decepticons alone.
Sky-Byte took a step closer, until his field crowded along the edge of Starscream’s own. “Metalhawk intends to ensure that Cybertron is safe for everyone.”
“Good for him,” Starscream said. “Though I’d like to see what he thinks he can do differently.”
“Are you worried?” Sky-Byte asked with a tilt of his helm and a slow, lazy grin that displayed a mouthful of sharpened denta. “You should be. Decepticon and Autobot alike. Do you even know how many of us there are?”
Starscream popped an orbital ridge. “Us?” He folded his arms over his cockpit and cocked a hip. “I didn’t realize the Neutrals were so organized.”
Sky-Byte chuckled. “There’s a lot about us you don’t know. You spent so much time shooting at each other and trying to kill one another, you never stopped to consider the collateral damage.”
Irritation flicked through Starscream’s processor. He fought it back. Sky-Byte was trying to get a rise out of him, and he wouldn’t give the discount Sharkticon the pleasure of a reaction. Starscream was Air Commander of the Decepticons. He’d put up with Megatron for millennia.
He could keep his cool around some useless layabout of a Neutral.
“You’re not so pure yourself,” Starscream retorted. “You can scrub off your badge, but you can’t hide the fact you used to be one of us. You’re just as guilty.”
Sky-Byte rested a clawed hand over his chestplate, where an empty plate of armor gave testament to the brand which had once been present. “I have repented. I am fighting to right the wrongs. What have you done?”
“Ended the war for one thing.” Starscream snorted and stared at Sky-Byte. “Did you come here to warn me or threaten me? Because I have little time for the former, and I welcome the challenge of the latter.”
Please. He survived Megatron. If a Neutral thought they could send a shiver down Starscream’s backstrut, they grossly overestimated their importance. Starscream did not fear anyone or anything.
Sky-Byte chuckled. “None of the above,” he said. “I thought we were having a friendly conversation.”
“Friendly my aft.” Starscream angled toward the former Decepticon, letting the overhead light catch a gleam on his null rays. “If you’re going to threaten me, you might as well do it properly. Just what should we be afraid of, pray tell?”
Starscream arched an orbital ridge. “I may not be Perceptor, but I can calculate.”
“Good.” Sky-Byte’s smirk widened. “Then when the Neutrals return, outnumbering both Autobots and Decepticons four to one I might add, you can count all the ways you and your kind are fragged to the Pit.”
Four to one? Even if Sky-Byte wasn’t exaggerating, Starscream knew damn well that more Cybertronians had attempted to flee the war rather than take part in it. Especially once the city-wide bombings started.
He also knew that over the millennia, both Autobots and Decepticons lost soldiers to going AWOL. He thought four to one was an overestimate, but then, given the increased rate of fatalities just in the past year alone, maybe Sky-Byte underestimated.
Didn’t mean Starscream was afraid though. The Neutrals were even more factionalized than the Autobots and Decepticons. They didn’t have a single unifying goal or a leader to keep them focused.
Starscream’s wings flicked. “I’ll keep that in mind,” he said dryly. “Now don’t you have work to do? Nova Cronum isn’t going to rebuild itself.”
“No, it isn’t. And you lot have left us a lot of work to do.” Sky-Byte straightened, not at all cowed. He waved a hand of dismissal and turned on a heelstrut. “See you at the next meeting, Air Commander.”
Starscream didn’t respond and watched Sky-Byte go with narrowed optics. The fingers of one hand drummed against his opposite arm.
It was unsettling. Not so much that Starscream was afraid, but that he was wary. Why would Sky-Byte warn him? Granted, it had come across as a threat, but really. All it did was encourage them to make preparations.
Starscream cycled a ventilation and shook his helm. He did have work to do. He would worry about Sky-Byte later. Though he did make a mental note to speak with both Optimus and Grimlock about the potential danger Metalhawk might become.
It seemed the Neutrals weren’t as willing to share Cybertron as they claimed.