[IDW] Uncover

Blurr found the datapad at the bottom of his crate of usual supplies, buried under a tin of iron shavings and a box of tiny, decorative umbrellas that some of his patrons favored in their drinks. Blurr had assumed that it was an invoice of some kind, so he tucked it into his subspace, choosing to ignore it, and continued distributing his supplies.

It wasn’t until later, when business was slow, the bar was stocked and as clean as he could make it with customers still present, that Blurr could escape to his small office and pull out the datapad. Now was as good a time as any to balance his accounts while he left Bluestreak in charge up front. Jazz was there, too, and between the two of them, Blurr was sure they had it handled.

The datapad, as it turned out, did not contain an invoice. It did, however, have a single, large file and a note from Swindle.

Found this and thought my best, most favorite customer would like it. Enjoy! He even had the audacity to sign it with a kissing emoticon.

Blurr shuddered. He was half-afraid to click on the file, but curiosity won out.

Inside was nothing but a string of image captures, all of them featuring Starscream. Posed images, for that matter, of Starscream decorated in organic-based clothing.

Blurr’s optics widened. They were odd outfits. Gauzy things. Soft colors. Thin straps. Peeks of armor. Stuff meant to conceal. Others meant to highlight. Teases really.

Primus. In this one, Starscream wore an apron, a fringed piece of fabric that covered him from cockpit to mid-thigh, with straps over his shoulders and a tie around his waist. The look on his face was almost demure, his optics downcast, his smile shy.

It was both adorable and intriguing.

Blurr’s comm pinged.

“Could really use your help out here, boss,” Bluestreak said. In the background, Blurr could hear loud laughter and someone shouting for another refill.

No more time to indulge then.

Blurr pinged an affirmative and powered down the datapad. He tucked it into his subspace, his processor churning on the images, drawing up all sorts of scenarios. He couldn’t get the picture of a demure Starscream out of his head. He couldn’t stop imagining lifting the corners of that frilly fabric and discovering what was hidden beneath.

He hurried to help Bluestreak with the crowd, but mixing drinks and offering smiles to his customers was something he could do without real thought nowadays. His processor was elsewhere, his spark spinning, his lines throbbing with heat.

He wanted to see Starscream in that apron. Some of those other outfits, too. But definitely that apron. He wanted it with the fire of a thousand suns.

He wanted it badly enough that the first chance Blurr had, he commed Swindle. If there was anyone who knew how to acquire such an unusual item, it was Swindle.

Blurr had a mighty need.
~

Blurr could not keep still.

Times like these, he should be on the couch, snuggled up next to Starscream. Or better yet, on the berth, ‘facing the life out of his Seeker.

Starscream had opted to go into the office late, which meant he was still in the penthouse when Blurr onlined. This was optimal cuddling and/or interfacing time, and Blurr wasted it by pacing in the main room.

Starscream sat on the futon, delicately sipping at a cube of mid-grade, while he browsed through the contents of a datapad. Blurr didn’t know what was on the pad and assumed it was related to something in New Iacon, perhaps a communique from the Council. If he noticed that Blurr was all but vibrating, his field full of restless energy, he didn’t say so.

In fact, he wasn’t even pouting that Blurr wasn’t cuddling and/or interfacing him. Which was odd in itself.

Perhaps he was ignoring Blurr a-purpose.

Blurr hustled another cycle around the perimeter of the main room. He chugged his energon quickly and tossed it into the recycle bin as he passed the storage room. Knowing Starscream, he’d have to retrieve his mate’s empty cube later. Star was likely to leave it lying there on the table, the slob.

Blurr’s engine rumbled.

Starscream’s wings twitched.

“Are you waiting for me to notice you, Zippy?” Starscream asked with a demure sip of his energon and without lifting his optics from his datapad. One thumb continued to sweep through whatever was on the screen.

“No,” Blurr retorted. He forced himself to stop pacing. He thought, again, of the datapad and the wrapped package in his subspace. Now or later?

Starscream seemed in a playful mood at the moment.

Now?

“Are you sure?” Starscream’s lips curved, his optics twinkling with amusement.

Definitely now.

“Not waiting,” Blurr corrected, and leaped over the small cushioned chair. He planted his aft on the table in front of Starscream as the Seeker straightened to look at him, resting his empty cube on the table. “But now that I have it…” He grinned.

Starscream lowered the datapad, giving Blurr his full attention. “Well, spit it out,” he prompted with a flick of his wrist. “I don’t have all morning.”

Aw. Someone was a little miffed Blurr wasn’t paying attention to him, wasn’t he? Blurr would have to fix that. But first…

“I found something a couple days ago,” Blurr said as he fished around in his subspace, pulling out both the wrapped package and the datapad.

Starscream arched an orbital ridge. “And?”

Blurr cycled a ventilation. Here went nothing.

He powered on the datapad, flicking it to his favorite image, it of the ever-so-carefully wrapped apron in his other hand.

“This,” he said before he thrust it toward Starscream, nearly bouncing off his mate’s nasal ridge in the process. “Look familiar?” He grinned, wriggling with delight.

He could not have anticipated Starscream’s reaction.

“Where did you find this?” Starscream shrieked as he leaped to his pedes and snatched the datapad out of Blurr’s hands so fast it left streaks of paint from his fingers.

Blurr cycled his optics. “It was in my supply crate,” he said as Starscream’s field flashed like fire throughout the room, and there was no humor in it. The wrapping paper in Blurr’s other hand crinkled noisily.

“Swindle,” Starscream hissed, and his wings went rigid as his plating drew in tight. Defensive. “That two-bit Con. Of course he has a copy of this.”

Blurr leaned back from the vibrating Seeker. “What is this?” he asked. Starscream’s reaction seemed outrageous, to be honest.

“A mistake,” Starscream snapped and now his wings flicked upward, a clear sign of agitation. “A necessary one.” The discomfort in Starscream’s field was palpable, like a bite on Blurr’s dermal net.

He looked at the brightly colored paper in his free hand and frowned. “Necessary?” he repeated.

Starscream cycled a ventilation. He glared at the screen in front of him as though he could burn through it with laserfire optics. “I was starving. I needed the creds. And when you get that hungry, dignity goes for cheap.”

Blurr’s frown deepened. “What’s so bad about a few pictures?” He’d lost count of the number of image captures he’d posed for over the decades. Every one wanted some shiny pose of Cybertron’s greatest racer. It came with the territory.

They were just pictures.

“It’s not the images. It’s what I’m wearing in them,” Starscream declared, throwing up his hands and nearly tossing the datapad in the process. “Do you realize how obscene that is?”

“No…?” Blurr ventured, and then shrugged. “I actually kind of think it’s hot.” He lifted his hand, waving the wrapped package. “Which is why I bought one.”

Starscream snorted a ventilation. “Of course you did.” He snatched it from Blurr’s hands, the paper crinkling loudly. “Deviant,” he snipped, and spun on a heelstrut, away from Blurr.

“Where are you going?” Blurr pushed to his pedes as Starscream stormed toward the storage room.

“To destroy this,” Starscream threw over his shoulders, optics dark, and armor clamped tight. “If I’m at all lucky, it’s the last copy.”

“But–”

“I’m not wearing it!” Starscream all but shouted, and vanished into the supply closet, going so far as to key the door shut behind him.

The part of Blurr not feeling guilty was a little impressed Starscream actually remembered where the supply closet was. Primus knew he never found it enough to do some cleaning around here.

Like the empty energon cube he left on the table.

Blurr sighed and scraped a hand down his face. Well, that hadn’t gone to plan at all.

It looked like there was going to be neither cuddling nor interfacing today.
~

A week passed. Long enough that Blurr had pushed the memory of those images to the back of his processor. He was smart enough not to bring them up to Starscream again. Instead, he daydreamed about the roleplay that could have been while he was at the bar.

He resisted the urge to punch a smirking Swindle in the face, especially when the conmech came swaggering up to the bar.

“So,” Swindle said with a cock of his hips and flash of his visor. “Am I responsible for some very saucy interfacing or what?”

Blurr scrubbed at a new stain on his counter. “You’re not,” he said curtly.

“Come now, Blurr. You can’t tell me that you and our glorious leader are that plain in the berth.” Swindle leaned an elbow on the counter, his smirk a mile wide. “Don’t tell me you weren’t interested. We both know that’ll be a lie.”

Blurr tossed down the rag and braced his hands on the bar. He gave Swindle his firmest stare. “Was that the only copy you had?”

“What kind of businessmech do you take me for?”

Blurr narrowed his optics. “That wasn’t what I asked.”

Swindle huffed a ventilation. He pushed himself off the bar. “Those datapads aren’t cheap, you know.” He planted his hands on his hips and stared at Blurr. “That one was an original! Only maybe a half-dozen that haven’t been smelted.”

“I want them all,” Blurr said.

“Did you miss the part where I said they weren’t cheap?”

Blurr shifted his weight and idly scratched at the stain on the counter. “Did I stutter?” he asked, giving Swindle a sidelong glance.

Swindle’s visor flashed. He scratched at his chin. “You know, you’re eventually gonna run out of what I owe you.”

“And I’ll let you know when that is.”

Swindle’s engine growled. He heaved a sigh and dug into his subspace, producing a handful of datapads. “You are a horrendous taskmaster, Blurr old buddy.”

“You’ll find me the rest?” Blurr demanded as he grabbed the datapads and shoved them into his subspace. “And I mean all of them, Swindle. I don’t want to hear about anyone making copies or you keeping one for yourself.”

“Sure, sure.” Swindle held up his hands and grinned. “You can trust this face, can’t you?”

Blurr rolled his optics. “If I could, you wouldn’t be in the position of owing me so much, now would you?”

“Touche.”

Blurr patted his subspace. He hoped showing these to Starscream tonight would earn him a more cuddly Seeker, rather than the one made of talons and fangs who had been living in his berth for the past week.

Sometimes, actions were a far better apology than words.
~

Blurr opened the door to their apartment, fully expecting it to be dim and quiet. Starscream had mentioned earlier that he intended to go to berth early since he had a before-dawn meeting, and Blurr had been forced to conceal his disappointment. Blurr’s early shifts were usually their date nights. It was one of the few nights a week they could fall into recharge together, rather than separately.

But he could no more ask Starscream to change his schedule than Starscream could ask Blurr. So he’d smiled, said he understood, and slouched off to his early shift, resigning himself to a cold berth.

So when he opened the front door, and found the apartment brightly lit and a soft music playing from their entertainment system, Blurr was more than a little surprised. Maybe the meeting had been canceled?

“Star?”

There was no one visible in the front room, though Blurr could see the doors to the berth room and Starscream’s office were open. The balcony door was shut and there was no one on it.

“Welcome home, sweetspark!”

Blurr blinked at the overly saccharine vocals, and then his jaw nearly dropped as Starscream stepped out of the refueling room. He carried a tray, balancing a cube of energon and a plate of goodies, and he smiled brightly at Blurr as though he hadn’t been the chilliest Seeker in the world over the past week.

But that wasn’t the astonishing part.

“You’re… you’re wearing it,” Blurr said dumbly.

Because yes, Starscream was wearing the apron. A large purple heart stretched across his cockpit, and it was frilled with black lace. Black straps were decorated with purple lace, and the flap of fabric that covered Starscream’s hips and upper thighs was a lattice of lace in strips of purple and black.

“Of course I am, sir,” Starscream said, still in that syrupy sweet tone. “You told me I’m always to wear it.” His gaze cast to the side, as if demure, his faceplate taking on a rosy hue. “I’ve prepared your energon for you. I made these goodies also. I hope you like them.”

Blurr worked his jaw. He stared at Starscream as though he’d never seen the Seeker before. What kind of game was Starscream playing? And should Blurr play along?

“I’m sure I will,” Blurr said and cautiously approached Starscream, who moved forward to set the tray on the table in the center of the main room.

The empty table. Had Starscream cleaned? Usually there was a handful of empty cubes, abandoned datapads, and a used armor cloth piled on the table.

Starscream beamed at him, an expression that was patently un-Starscream-like, and then flounced – yes, flounced – away. Blurr dropped down into the futon, watching Starscream warily, while he blindly grabbed one of the goodies. He popped it into his mouth, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it was delicious.

Wait.

Scientist Starscream might be, but cook he was not. Blurr wondered if he went into the storage room, if he’d find an empty box from Mixmaster’s shop.

Again, he wondered what kind of game he’d been ushered into.

He leaned back in the futon, cube of energon in one hand and another goodie in the other, and he watched Starscream. The seeker had pulled a microfiber cloth from subspace and was dusting off the large vidscreen. He had a jaunty bounce to his step, wings all a-twitter, his faceplate still holding that rosy glow.

He glanced at Blurr every now and again. Askance looks. Downcast optics. Shy, if Blurr had no other word, except Starscream was many things but not shy.

“The trophy shelf could use a dusting,” Blurr said idly. He lifted the cube to his lips, giving it a sip.

If Starscream wanted to play, then Blurr would participate, too.

Starscream’s wings twitched. He dipped his helm. “Of course, sir. Right away.”

He moved to the shelves, briefly popping his thrusters to reach the highest shelf, before stretching out to reach the one below it. The apron continued to swish across his thighs, the lace ruffling with his movements.

He was certainly committed to this game, Blurr mused. But not entirely. He laughed quietly to himself as he noticed that Starscream’s attempts to dust were half-sparked at best. He really hated to clean.

Blurr took another long sip of his energon, popped a third goodie into his mouth, and resolved to enjoy the show. He sat back and admired Starscream from behind. His Seeker had obviously taken time and effort to polish himself to a stunning gleam. The purple and black were a good contrast against the crimson paint.

Starscream didn’t have much of an aft, this was true, but those legs. Blurr had a fondness for his legs. Especially wrapped around Blurr’s waist.

Starscream leaned to the left, flopping the rag over a holo-cube, leg shifting to adjust his balance. Something shimmered in the light.

Blurr cycled his optics. He leaned forward. There was a sheen of lubricant on the inside of Starscream’s thighs. It was only a few dribbles, but clearly visible.

Were… Were Starscream’s panels open?

The fragging tease.

Blurr leapt to his pedes and set his half-finished cube onto the tray. “I trust you’ve scrubbed the washracks already,” he said as he approached Starscream from behind. This close, the lubricant was more obvious.

Primus, his panels were open.

Blurr’s mouth went dry. His spark throbbed with want.

“It’s next on my list, sir,” Starscream chirped without turning around. The cloth went swish-swish as it brushed over a shelf edge.

Blurr was close enough to touch now, and so he did, pressing against Starscream’s back, feeling the heat of the Seeker against his chestplate. Starscream stilled, though he kept lightly waving the dust cloth back and forth.

“Sir?”

“You’re such a naughty maid,” Blurr murmured as slipped a hand between Starscream’s thighs, feeling for himself the damp slicking Starscream’s plating. The heat of Starscream’s valve wafted against his fingertips. “You’re dripping everywhere.”

The need growing within Blurr blazed higher.

Starscream shivered, as did his wings, and they vibrated against Blurr’s chestplate. “Am I?” he asked as his legs shifted slightly apart, giving Blurr more than enough room to slide his hand further up, until his thumb brushed over the swollen rim of Starscream’s valve.

Wet. Hot. Pulsing with need.

Blurr licked his lips.

“How clumsy of me,” Starscream added. “I will clean it up immediately.”

Blurr made a low noise in his intake. He pressed harder against Starscream’s back, his fingers curling into the damp of Starscream’s valve. The Seeker truly was dripping, and his hips twitched as Blurr rubbed his palm over Starscream’s rim, fingers tapping briefly over Starscream’s anterior node.

Starscream’s ventilations stuttered. Blurr’s echoed him. He wondered. Was Starscream’s spike exposed, too?

Blurr slipped his other hand around Starscream’s waist and under the apron, seeking out Starscream’s spike. Sure enough, it was half-pressurized, the damp tip poking against the apron, tenting the flimsy fabric.

“You’ve been cleaning with your panels open,” Blurr purred as he pinched the tip of Starscream’s spike, rubbing the pre-fluid between his fingers.

“Of course I have, sir,” Starscream replied, his vocals husky now. His helm tilted, his optics looking at Blurr sidelong and demure. “As you require of me.”

Primus.

Blurr’s engine revved. He rubbed the tip of Starscream’s spike again, and the Seeker’s hips bucked. They rocked slowly, canting down to grind against Blurr’s hand, and tilting forward into the teasing pinches of Blurr’s fingers.

“You are very obedient,” Blurr observed. He leaned in, ex-venting damp heat against the edge of Starscream’s wing.

He shifted back behind Starscream again. He abandoned Starscream’s spike – savoring the small whimper of protest Starscream made – and gripped Starscream’s hips with his hands. Fluid-sticky fingers left a streak in polished armor as Blurr ground his pelvic array against Starscream’s aft.

“Except you’ve stopped cleaning.” Blurr’s gaze flicked to Starscream’s hands, both of them braced on the shelving. “How insubordinate of you.”

Starscream pushed back against him, his field tickling against Blurr’s, warm and drizzling with arousal. “Well, that’s because you’re distracting me, sir,” he said, his tone a bit tight, betraying the depth of his arousal.

Every time Starscream said ‘sir’ a little zing went straight down Blurr’s spinal strut. Heat cascaded through his lines as his spike popped free, pressurizing in an instant. The head of it nudged against Starscream’s aft, leaving a streak of pre-fluid behind.

Starscream made a low sound of need. A shiver raced across his plating, and his field pulsed with desire. Even more so when Blurr tightened his grip, adjusted, and slid his spike between Starscream’s thighs. The head of it skimmed over the swollen rim of Starscream’s valve, heated lubricant dripping down onto the length.

“Are you telling me you can’t work through distraction?” Blurr asked.

Starscream’s talons rent a scratch in the shelving. He groaned as Blurr rolled his hips, spike gliding over and over the rim of Starscream’s valve. He throbbed, eager to sink into Starscream’s valve, felt the dermal mesh twitching as though inviting him. But no. Not just yet.

“Not – hnnn – not when I’d rather serve you,” Starscream purred, and the syrupy sweet and cheerful tone of earlier was gone, replaced by a soft, needy growl. Blurr preferred the latter.

It was much more of the Seeker he loved.

Blurr leaned forward, his denta catching the top edge of Starscream’s wing. Such a light scrape was little more than a tease, but Starscream’s wing stilled for him to nibble nonetheless. He thrust even more slowly between crimson thighs, Starscream dribbling enough lubricant to ease the way.

“Sir?” Starscream panted. His hips canted backward, aft rubbing against Blurr’s groin, his posture nothing short of invitation.

“Hm?”

Blurr rocked forward, shivering as the head of his spike caught the lip of Starscream’s valve before popping free. It skimmed over Starscream’s anterior node, and Starscream shuddered in his grasp. The shelving creaked.

“You’re not dusting,” Blurr pointed out, his lips curving into a wicked smirk that Starscream couldn’t see.

Two could play this game.

Starscream’s engine roared. One hand gripped the shelving as though he needed to brace himself. His fingers twitched around the dust cloth, moving awkwardly.

“That’s because…” Starscream trailed off, back arching as Blurr stroked over and over his rim, exciting those tinier sensors buried in the plump mesh.

Blurr resisted the urge to chuckle devilishly. “Because?” he prompted.

“Because I want you to frag me!” Starscream said all in a rush, and Blurr knew only part of it was an act. There was a growl on the end, a demand, and that was pure Starscream.

Blurr’s engine rumbled. “Do you now?” he asked as he rolled his hips, grinding against Starscream’s aft and valve. “But is that any way to ask your master for something, pet?”

Starscream growled at him.

Blurr’s lips curved. He loosed one hand to slip around to Starscream’s front again, sliding beneath the apron to curl his fingers around Starscream’s now fully-pressurized spike. The tip left wet marks on Starscream’s apron, and Primus if that wasn’t the hottest thing.

“You’re getting your pretty apron dirty, Starshine,” Blurr teased.

“Your fault.” Starscream sucked in a deep vent, his field pulsing needfully against Blurr’s. Charge rocked his frame.

“Is that so?” Blurr pinched the tip of Starscream’s spike, feeling the Seeker jerk in his arms. He was nearly smacked by a twitching wing as well, but dodged at the last second.

“Yes it is!” Starscream insisted, and the shelving creaked alarmingly.

Blurr’s glossa swept over his lips. He wanted nothing more than to sink into Starscream’s valve here and now, take him against the shelves, and who cared what they broke in the process.

He still made himself pull away, his fingers wet with Starscream’s pre-fluid, his spike glossy from Starscream’s lubricant.

“S-sir?”

“You have work to do,” Blurr said in as much of a stern tone as he could manage given the way his spike ached, and his spark throbbed. “The berthroom is filthy.”

Starscream shifted to look over his shoulder. Crimson optics gleamed with mischief. “Is that so?” he purred, coy. “Then allow me to attend to that immediately, sir.”

Blurr worked his intake. “Yes, get to it,” he said, and swatted Starscream’s aft for good measure, the light slap of metal on metal barely audible over the music still playing in the background.

Starscream’s optics flashed, but his field still pulsed that warm, vibrating need. It slid silkily over Blurr’s, both inviting and heavy with lust.

“At once, sir,” he said and walked away, a sway to his hips, and lubricant slicking his thighs.

Blurr’s optics tracked the rivulets of lubricant as they trickled down Starscream’s armor. He eyed the tenting of Starscream’s apron, and the damp spots in the front of it. His internals tightened with heat, spike twitching.

And yes, there were indeed drips on the floor. Blurr looked down to see a small puddle where Starscream had been standing. Some maid.

Blurr chuckled to himself. He opted to keep Starscream waiting a few moments more, and quickly tidied up the main room. He turned off the entertainment center, put the half-finished energon and goodies back into the refueling room, and switched the lights to dim.

Thus tidied, Blurr followed Starscream into the berthroom, bracing himself for anything. Even so, he was not prepared.

Starscream stood in front of the berth, pretending to neaten the covers and cushions they preferred to recharge with. But as Blurr entered, Starscream half-turned and dipped his helm in a respectful bow.

That wasn’t the surprising thing. It was the gleam of sparklight peeking through the lace of Starscream’s apron.

The fragging Seeker had cracked his chestplates, revealing his naked spark beneath the apron as surely as he’d exposed his interface components.

Blurr’s array throbbed.

“The berth is clean, sir,” Starscream said, his glossa flicking over his lips. He abandoned the sweet tone of a maid, and all that was left in his voice was invitation.

“Good,” Blurr growled. He crossed the room in three swift strides, his hands finding Starscream’s hips.

He spun Starscream to face him and pressed his mouth against Starscream’s, moaning as he felt the first tickle of Starscream’s spark energies against his chestplate. His glossa plunged past Starscream’s lips as Starscream made a low noise of need, his hands clutching at Blurr’s shoulders. He felt the press of Starscream’s spike against his abdominal armor, and the delicate rasp of the apron.

Blurr shuddered.

He couldn’t wait any more.

He broke away from the kiss. “Berth. Now,” he said, hands gripping Starscream’s hips and assisting in hoisting him onto it.

“Yes, sir,” Starscream said, his faceplate warm and dark, his fans spinning noisily. He scrabbled backward, hands scraping at the berth, until together, he was hoisted onto it.

Blurr crawled after him, his intent predatory, his lips finding Starscream’s again, with fiercer need. He tugged on Starscream’s lower lip with his denta, plunged his glossa into Starscream’s mouth, and claimed. He worked his way between Starscream’s thighs, rutted his spike against Starscream’s valve, and felt the silky brush of the apron’s lace against his belly.

Blurr moaned and sought out Starscream’s hands, pinning them above the Seeker’s helm. He pressed his chestplate to Starscream’s, felt the whorl of Starscream’s spark against his armor, as the purple lace heart lit up with a pale green glow.

Starscream’s backstrut arched, pressing his chest harder against Blurr’s. A moan spilled from his mouth, vibrating against Blurr’s lips.

“Keep the apron on,” Blurr said as his spike rutted against Starscream’s valve, head occasionally slipping past to slide over the silky lace. “And don’t you dare overload before me.”

A low keen rose in Starscream’s intake. His optics were wide and bright as he drew in desperate pants through his intake.

“Yes, s-sir.”

Blurr kissed him again as Starscream’s legs wound around his waist, thrusters kicking at the back of Blurr’s thighs. Blurr shifted, the angle adjusting with him, and on the next thrust, he plunged into Starscream’s valve, sinking to the hilt in one smooth push.

Blurr moaned as Starscream clamped down around him, calipers tightening and rippling, charge erupting between sensor nodes. He thought about going slow and steady, but the heat between them, the pulling snap of Starscream’s field, was too much.

Starscream bit at Blurr’s lips and made all of those desperate sounds. His valve dribbled lubricant, so hot and wet, desperate as it clutched at Blurr’s spike. He’d been riding the hard edge of arousal for far longer than Blurr, and yet he held back, frame trembling as he did so.

Primus he was beautiful.

Blurr broke off from the kiss and nosed his way to Starscream’s intake. He pinned cables between his denta, and laved them with kisses as Starscream whimpered and thrashed beneath him. His thighs trembled around Blurr’s waist, thrusters pressing harder, forcing him deeper.

It was the noises which did Blurr in.

Starscream whimpering and moaning beneath him, making such hungry sounds in his intake. His fingers wrapped around Blurr’s, despite being pinned, and he writhed beneath Blurr. His valve cycled restlessly as though trying to milk the overload out of Blurr, and there was no holding back from it.

Blurr covered Starscream’s mouth with his, grinding his spike deep, against Starscream’s ceiling node, as he was pulled into overload. He spilled helplessly, filling Starscream with his transfluid, hips jerking in little spurts.

Starscream moaned and wriggled beneath him, valve twitching as charge rattled through his nodes. But he’d obeyed. He hadn’t overloaded.

Perfect.

Blurr broke off from the kiss, his entire frame thrumming, and let go of Starscream’s hands. He pawed at the apron, unable to get his fingers on the knot which kept Starscream’s spark from view. He gave up and settled for tearing through the lace, until the tiny part in Starscream’s chestplate was revealed to him.

Starscream shivered, his optics so dark they bled crimson at him.

Blurr dragged in a ventilation and bent forward, his lips dragging up the edge of one of Starscream’s chestplates. The taste of Starscream’s spark leapt to his glossa, all charge and heat. It defied description.

Starscream’s hands lifted, pawing at nothing, and Blurr grabbed them, pinning him at his sides. He wanted nothing to keep him from worshiping the trust in front of him.

“Open?” Blurr asked, his lips tracing the edge of Starscream’s chestplate as he looked up at his Seeker.

Starscream’s expression was a heady mix of hope and uncertainty, all overlain with desperate need. He said nothing, but the sound of his chestplates parting further was all the permission Blurr needed.

And what a sweet gift it was.

His engine purred as Starscream’s spark came fully into view, the pale whorls of it bathing Blurr’s face in a soft warmth.

“Beautiful,” Blurr murmured. He loosed one hand so that he could trace his fingers around Starscream’s spark casing.

Starscream’s backstrut arched, chest pushing toward Blurr’s hand, a low whimper escaping his intake. His freed hand flailed before wrapping around Blurr’s upper arm, grip so tight Blurr felt the stressing of his armor.

“Don’t stop,” Starscream gritted out, his spark pulsing fitfully, his valve cycling down tight on Blurr’s semi-pressurized spike.

Charge erupted from beneath Starscream’s armor, dancing over his plating in a brilliant show of sparks. More beautiful was the light of his spark, pulsing within the confines of his casing.

“I won’t,” Blurr murmured and freed Starscream’s other hand so that he could slide an arm beneath Starscream’s waist, tilting Starscream up just enough his lips could caress the outer corona of Starscream’s spark.

The sound Starscream made was electric. It was just shy of a shriek, his free hand cupping Blurr’s helm as though to push him closer as he drew in desperate ventilations. His valve squeezed and squeezed as his frame writhed and his spark flickered and flared.

Blurr shivered as Starscream’s valve fluttered around his spike. Starscream pushed his helm closer to the Seeker’s spark, and Blurr was more than happy to oblige, his glossa tracing around the edge of the casing. He tasted coolness and light, heat and charge, a taste wholly indescribable. His fingers teased toward the secondary corona, feeling the cool snap of the spark against his fingertips.

Starscream seized upward, frame vibrating, field rising before it crashed down over Blurr and swallowed him whole.

Blurr purred against Starscream’s spark, watched the pale green light flare in response to him.

“My starshine,” Blurr murmured. He kissed Starscream’s spark casing again, his finger daring to dip into the tertiary corona, but still far from the electrifying core. “Overload for me, Star. Now.”

Starscream tossed his helm back, his thighs tightening to the point the metal of Blurr’s hips creaked. The pain, however, was secondary to all else. Secondary to the gorgeous sight of Starscream coming undone beneath him, spark erupting in overload, flaring bright enough to force Blurr to shutter his optics in self-defense.

Starscream writhed beneath him, valve fluttering, spike spurting a strip of transfluid against Blurr’s abdomen. Blurr groaned and shoved his chest against Starscream’s, laying his weight atop Starscream as he sealed their lips together. He tasted Starscream’s pleasure on his lips, as the surge and push of heat from Starscream’s overload battered his chestplate.

Blurr’s cooling fans screamed in tandem with Starscream’s. The kiss was fierce, biting, as Starscream trembled beneath him, clutching at his frame as though he needed something solid to cling to.

Starscream made little noises in his intake, small little whines, and Blurr’s own spark fluttered. He gentled the kiss, sweeping his lips over Starscream’s in little caresses before he pressed their forehelms together. They exchanged ventilations as Starscream’s chestplates gently closed, protecting him once again.

This was not at all how Blurr expected his night to go. He was not at all disappointed.

Starscream’s hand on the back of his helm eased, less of a clamp and more of a caress. His fingers slid up, teasing the caudal edge of Blurr’s helm crest.

“Okay?” Blurr asked as their ventilations slowed and their cooling fans calmed from a rapid whirr to a soothing hum.

Starscream hummed low in his intake. “More than,” he said, and unshuttered his optics, looking up into Blurr’s. “Were you surprised?”

Blurr chuckled. “I think my reaction speaks for itself, don’t you?” he asked as he leaned back a little, just enough that he was no longer resting his weight on Starscream and therefore, on Starscream’s wings. “I thought you hated the apron?”

Starscream’s gaze shifted away. “I hate those pictures,” he muttered, his faceplate coloring. “I hate why I needed to do that.”

Blurr shifted to the side, slipping out of Starscream as he did so. They could always clean up later. “I can understand that.”

“No, you can’t,” Starscream said, but there wasn’t any heat behind it. “You’re Forged. You were born to be what you were. You never had to want for anything.”

Well.

He had a point.

Blurr cupped Starscream’s face, scrubbing his thumb over his mate’s cheek. “You’re right,” he said. “I can’t understand. But that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize what you did tonight, and I’m not grateful for it.”

“Pah. It wasn’t that difficult,” Starscream muttered.

“Yes, it was.” Blurr gently tilted Starscream’s face back toward his. “And whenever you want to talk about it, I want to listen.”

Starscream squirmed. “There’s nothing to talk about,” he grumbled.

“Even so,” Blurr conceded. His lips curved in a soft smile. “Thank you for wearing the apron.”

“You’re such a pervert. You loved it,” Starscream said, shaking his helm. “I don’t get the appeal of a bit of organic frippery, but…” He trailed off and lifted his shoulders in a shrug. “If it inspires this in you, maybe it’s doable every now and then.”

Blurr tilted his helm. “Are you saying I’m a stale lover?”

“Well, if the gearbox fits…” Starscream’s gaze wandered away, but the tease in his tone was all too audible.

“Hey!”

Starscream hooked a hand around Blurr’s helm and pulled him down into a kiss, muffling his indignation. Humor vibrated in his field, along with affection, and that was enough for Blurr.

He melted into the kiss, his glossa tangling with Starscream’s, as his Seeker purred into the kiss. Starscream’s field wrapped around him like a secondary embrace, a thread of lust winding into the warmth of it.

Blurr purred against Starscream’s mouth. Round two? Why, yes, he was quite interested, thank you very much.

Pity he had ripped the apron. It had been very inspiring.

Well, Blurr supposed he’d just have to acquire another.

[Crown the Empire] Reign 10

The only thing Grimlock hated about his alt-mode was that it was not mobile. He was faster in his root mode, but that required an alternate form of transportation to travel between Polyhex and New Iacon.

If not for the political maneuverings, Grimlock really would have made Ultra Magnus come to Iacon. Magnus, at least, had wheels of his own.

Grimlock had to borrow his. And while the Decepticons owned a few non-sentient vehicles for transportation, it was something of an irritation that Grimlock needed one. Especially since the roads connecting the two cities, three if he counted Nova Cronum, were barely cleared, much less smooth.

It made for a bumpy ride. But Grimlock was not inclined to change his alt-mode either. He preferred to be a Dinobot. He enjoyed being a Dinobot. He didn’t want to be anything other than a Dinobot, no matter what fascination he had with his Intended’s wings.

The tallest tower of New Iacon was in sight when his comm suite pinged. Grimlock looked up to see Swoop soaring above him, gliding on an air current. He was surprisingly alone.

Grimlock sent back an acknowledging ping as he slowed down. Swoop flew above him, matching his speed and then spiraled downward. He performed an aerial maneuver he had to have learned from the Seekers, which culminated in a midair transformation before he landed neatly in the empty seat next to Grimlock.

Well, next to neatly. He sprawled a bit as the buggy bounced and the movement of it tossed Swoop against Grimlock’s side.

He laughed, however, and surprised Grimlock further. This was the happiest Grimlock had seen Swoop in weeks, and the fact that he flew alone warmed Grimlock’s spark.

“There you Grimlock are,” Swoop said as he caught his balance and shifted to get comfortable in the bucket seat. “Me Swoop look all over for you. Where you Grimlock been?”

“Polyhex,” he answered as he picked up speed again and trundled back toward New Iacon, mere minutes away. “Where you Swoop been? You Swoop flying!”

Swoop warked at him. “Yep! Thanks to him Sky and him Thunder.” He looked both smug and proud. “They good teachers.”

“Is that so?”

“Mmm.” Swoop made a non-committal noise. But there was something of mischievous humor in his vocals. Enough that Grimlock gave him a second and then a third look.

“There something me Grimlock should know?” he demanded as he pressed the pedal and steered them toward home. It was a bumpy ride, making him envy both Swoop and Starscream for their ability to fly.

Swoop grinned. “Nope. Not yet.”

Grimlock narrowed a look at the youngest Dinobot. “Me Grimlock not like sound of that.” Perhaps he should have a talk with Skywarp and Thundercracker.

All Swoop did was laugh. He leaned in against Grimlock’s side, in something like a hug, which was difficult considering the way the terrain tossed them around inside the transport.

“Tough. You Grimlock have to wait. Me Swoop will tell when ready.”

“You Swoop being sneaky. Me Grimlock not like it,” he grumbled.

Swoop’s field nudged against his with gleeful humor, which made Grimlock melt and at once not care for whatever secret it was that Swoop held. Clearly, it made him happy and chased away the lingering shadows from his time spent in Shockwave’s care. That was enough for Grimlock.

“But me Grimlock wait,” he conceded.

Swoop’s smile was worth it. “Good,” he said and reached over, patting Grimlock on the shoulder. “Me Swoop proud of you Grimlock.”

“Proud?” Grimlock repeated, glancing at his youngest brother. “Why you Swoop proud? Me Grimlock is proud! You Swoop done more.”

The flyer laughed at him, sounding so relaxed that Grimlock’s spark spun with warmth. “Me Swoop still proud. You Grimlock done good things. We all proud of you Grimlock.”

Grimlock’s visor brightened, heat flushing through his frame. “Me Grimlock proud of everyone,” he declared, squirming inside at the unexpected praise.

“You Grimlock embarrassed!” Swoop warked a cackle and patted Grimlock on the shoulder again. “It’s cute!”

Grimlock tried to protest but, well, Swoop wasn’t wrong. Praise was often in short supply. Ratchet and Wheeljack had done as best they could, but given the way the rest of the Autobots had treated the Dinobots, acceptance and gratitude were few and far between.

Good thing they had such thick plating.

“You Swoop hush,” he said, though the affection in his field belied the warning as he reached out with it.

Swoop grinned at him.

They arrived at the transport dock, Grimlock screeching to a halt and kicking up a cloud of particulate dust. He disembarked, handed over the keycard to the Decepticon soldier on duty, and gestured for Swoop to come with him. Though Swoop probably could have flown the rest of the way faster.

“Don’t you Swoop have work to do?” Grimlock asked.

“Need a job first,” Swoop countered with an elbow jostle. “You Grimlock give everyone else job, why not me Swoop?”

Grimlock’s comm chimed before he could answer, coming through on an emergency frequency, from Thundercracker of all mechs. This was doubly odd because Thundercracker wasn’t on shift. He was supposed to be on a trine-flight with Starscream and Skywarp.

Grimlock paused mid-step as he accepted the comm, holding up a hand to indicate Swoop should wait for him as well. “Grimlock here.”

“It’s Starscream!” Thundercracker all but shouted at him, the transmission coming through laced with static. “Something happened, I don’t know what. But you need to come to the medical center now.”

Grimlock’s spark dropped into his tanks. Thundercracker was not the sort to play a prank. Nor was he the type to panic. Yet, there was nothing less than fear in his voice.

“Understood,” Grimlock said, careful to keep his tone tight and controlled. “I will be there as soon as possible.” If he ran, he could be there in less than ten minutes.

He cut off the comm, his hands pulling in and out of fists. His world narrowed down to a thin point.

Starscream. Something had happened to Starscream. He was in the medical center. Something had put Starscream in the medical center.

No.

Someone.

Megatron was dead; Grimlock had seen to that himself. He’d crushed Megatron’s spark with his fist while Megatron boasted that he didn’t have the struts to do so. He’d been there as they melted the frame.

It could not have been Megatron. But someone was to blame.

Who?

A low growl rose in Grimlock’s intake.

A hand rested on his arm, followed by the warm push of a concerned energy field. “What is it?” Swoop asked.

“I have to get to the medcenter,” Grimlock said, his own voice vibrating back to his audials as if through a fog. “It’s Starscream. Something happened.”

Swoop’s fingers tightened on his arm before he let go. “Go. Me Swoop follow.”

He didn’t need the permission, but Swoop saying it got his pedes into gear. It got him moving, slow at first, and then he broke into a run, cursing his alt-mode yet again. The open-top transport couldn’t fit into the narrow streets of New Iacon – a purposeful design, but one Grimlock now regretted.

Behind him, he heard Swoop transform and take to the sky. He would get there before Grimlock.

Grimlock’s ventilations shifted into overdrive. He passed others, he didn’t know who. New Iacon was a blur of color and noise, all of his focus turned outward.

What happened? He wanted to know.

Why? He needed an answer.

But the darkest of them, the one that caused rage to bubble up and boil, was who?

Oh, he suspected he only needed one guess. It could have been a Decepticon. Any free Decepticon who had a well-hidden grudge against Starscream. Or maybe it wasn’t personal, maybe it was convenience. Someone offering a tidy sum to take Starscream out.

Maybe it was coincidence. Maybe it was an accident. But would Thundercracker comm Grimlock for an accident?

No. He wouldn’t. Because Starscream would have commed Grimlock himself.

It could have been a Decepticon. He supposed, if he were Megatron, he might have thought it was an Autobot. His blame would have immediately gone to the mech he’d been fighting for millennia.

Grimlock was not a fool.

It was Metalhawk. There could be no other explanation. The thinly veiled threat he’d given? Was more of a promise.

And when Grimlock had the proof he needed, he would storm into Nova Cronum and show him how much of a mistake that had been.

He burst into the medbay with all the subtlety of a raging train, moving quickly through the receiving room and into the medbay proper, his energy field preceding his arrival. He barely noticed Skywarp and Thundercracker in the receiving room, his visor seeking out Knock Out or Glit or whoever was on duty.

“What happened?” Grimlock demanded as Knock Out came into view, his hands clean but a few stray spatters of energon on his upper arms and chest.

“That is still unclear, my lord,” Knock Out said, sounding harried though without the usual supercilious tone. “All I know at this time is that he collapsed mid-flight, and I am now doing everything possible to keep him alive.”

Grimlock stopped mid-stride and whirled toward Knock Out. “What do you mean? What is his condition?”

Knock Out stared up at him. “Critical.”

He had spent enough time around Ratchet to know what that meant. “Explain,” Grimlock growled.

Knock Out’s field flickered but he nodded and turned back down the hall, leaving Grimlock to follow him. “I have managed to stabilize him, but only because I had the necessary equipment to do so. As near as I can tell, all of his primary systems are failing at a rapid pace.”

Grimlock’s spark squeezed into his intake. He felt like he couldn’t ventilate, and he was seeing through a very narrow tunnel. Knock Out spouted technical terms at him, but all Grimlock could pick out was: critical, failing, severe, urgency.

Starscream was dying, and Knock Out was picking all the diplomatic ways to say it.

“I want to see him,” Grimlock said, interrupting something Knock Out was saying about fluid levels and coding patches, stuff Grimlock didn’t understand.

Knock Out paused in front of a private patient room, his hand covering the panel. “It’s a clean room, my lord. And besides all that, you won’t fit.” He gestured with his free hand to the adjoining wall. “Here is a viewing window. There is one final test I need to run and perhaps I can give you a better idea of what is happening to him.”

Grimlock nodded, not trusting his words. Knock Out was quick to vanish into the room, leaving Grimlock alone to approach the window, his spark squeezing tighter and tighter. He almost didn’t want to look, but knew he had to. His ventilations caught in his intake as his gaze fell on Starscream, so small and hidden beneath the equipment keeping him alive.

Grimlock had seen all of these machines in his functioning, usually tucked into dusty corners of the Ark’s medbay, things that Ratchet rarely had call to use. Or if it he did, it was only one at a time. Some of them barely functioned. A few didn’t work at all, but Ratchet kept them so Wheeljack could have a Project and maybe one day, if the war was on pause, they could fix them.

Grimlock had never seen all of the machines attached to an individual. There were so many wires and hoses and monitoring devices attached to Starscream, that he could barely see his Intended beneath the machinery. Knock Out wouldn’t have used so many if they weren’t required to keep Starscream functioning.

Grimlock’s ventilations turned ragged. His hands pulled in and out of fists.

He heard footsteps and looked up to see Swoop coming down the hallway. He should have gotten here before Grimlock, but something had delayed him. Grimlock made a mental note to ask later.

“How him Starscream?” Swoop asked.

Grimlock shook his helm, turning his gaze back to the window. “Alive. For now.” The words felt wrong on his vocalizer, like he walked in a dream and he would wake from this nightmare soon enough.

On the outside, Starscream looked fine. He could see a few scratches, a few dents in his armor. Perhaps caused when he shut down in the middle of a flight and his panicking systems caused him to auto-transform. Thundercracker and Skywarp had caught him before he hit the ground, but it wasn’t pretty.

If he’d been flying alone, Starscream would have crashed. Depending on where he landed, he wouldn’t have survived.

Grimlock wanted to take Starscream’s hand, reassure himself that Starscream lived, but even in that massive room, Grimlock wouldn’t fit around all the machinery. It was all Knock Out could do to scuttle around the wires and cables and hoses. Even now, Knock Out gingerly eased his way free of all the equipment.

“What happened?”

“I don’t know,” Grimlock replied, a shudder rippling across his armor. He performed a systems check to get his flickering field under control. “No one knows.”

The door opened, Knock Out emerging, this time wiping down his arms and tucking a mesh cloth into a subspace pocket.

“I have the results,” Knock Out said as the door closed shut behind him, but not before Grimlock could hear the terrible rattle-clank-roar of all of the machinery keeping Starscream alive.

“What’s wrong with him?” Grimlock demanded. He couldn’t bring himself to tear his gaze away from the window.

If he looked away, he might miss something important.

“I don’t know for sure, my lord, but–”

Grimlock’s engine raced. “If you don’t know, then he needs to go to Polyhex.” He didn’t want excuses; he wanted answers. If Knock Out couldn’t provide them, then Grimlock would go to someone who could.

“I’ve only just managed to stabilize him,” Knock Out said, his tone a touch sharp. “If you move him, I can’t guarantee he’ll survive the trip.”

Grimlock’s plating clamped tightly.

Swoop edged closer, his field nudging at Grimlock’s. “Call Mama Ratchet,” he said softly. “He come.”

Politically, Grimlock knew he shouldn’t. The last thing he should do was make a call to the Autobots and ask for a favor, even though he knew they would be willing to provide it without demanding one in return. He knew Optimus Prime would be the first to insist that he provide aid.

However, it would make Grimlock look weak in the optics of the Decepticons. It would make him appear to have no faith in his own medical staff.

He didn’t want to lose Starscream over politics.

Grimlock drew in a ragged ventilation and tore his gaze away from Starscream’s limp frame. He turned toward Knock Out, and for once, he allowed himself to loom. He allowed his field to roll out, heavy and demanding.

“I want the truth,” Grimlock growled. “No lies. No posturing. Can you repair him?”

Knock Out, his faceplate already pale, blanched even further. His gaze skittered about, and he gnawed on his bottom lip. Grimlock knew that Knock Out could be something of a vain idiot. That he postured and he prided himself on his skills. Whether or not he would be mech enough to admit he couldn’t do something, Grimlock didn’t know.

“Because if you claim that you can,” Grimlock continued, pushing more weight into his field, until it had to feel like Knock Out was being buried in it, “and he dies because of your pride, I will blame you no matter who is actually at fault. Do you understand?”

Knock Out stared up at him as he folded his arms over his chestplate. “I could repair him,” he said, though it was with less self-aggrandizing flair than he usually produced. “But that relies upon me knowing what is causing the failures. Since I do not have that answer, I cannot confirm or deny my capability.”

Grimlock cycled a ventilation. He drew back and looked at Starscream through the viewing portal again. That many machines… surely time was of the essence. Whatever had gotten to Starscream had been meant to kill, not merely incapacitate.

He refused to take any chances.

Grimlock activated his comm and dialed the direct line to Ratchet. Protocol strongly suggested he make this a formal request, through Soundwave and then Optimus. But no. Grimlock wasn’t going to ask on behalf of the Decepticon Army. He intended to ask for a favor from his creator, all factions aside.

It was the only way to circumvent the political hurdles.

Ratchet answered, but Grimlock feared he woke Ratchet from recharge, given the sleepy cant to the medic’s vocals.

“Grimlock? Is something wrong?”

He worked his intake. He ignored Knock Out’s insulted huff and leaned into the comfort of Swoop at his side.

“Me Grimlock need help,” he said, his focus torn between the dialect he first remembered using, and the proper dialect he’d effected as leader of the Decepticons. “Him Starscream is… sick.”

Earth term. But Grimlock had been created and raised on Earth. He still considered it home more than he considered Cybertron.

“What do you mean ‘sick’?” Ratchet demanded, immediately sounding more alert. “No. Never mind. That’s not important. I’m on my way.”

The comm clicked off. Grimlock wasn’t the least bit offended. Ratchet was on his way and that was what mattered to him.

He cycled a ventilation, struggling to cling to a calm that rapidly evaded his grasp. He tilted his visor toward Knock Out, who looked as though he fought his own losing battle between gratitude and outrage.

“You will cooperate in full with the Autobot Medic,” Grimlock ordered, leaving no room for discussion. “Am I clear?”

Knock Out lifted his chin. “As Praxian crystal,” he replied. “Then if you’ll excuse me, I will tend to the commander until Ratchet arrives.” His helm tilt and departure was stiff, perhaps even offended.

Grimlock would worry about soothing hurt egos later. He was more concerned with Starscream surviving.

And who had done this.

He had three messages waiting in his queue, contacts he’d received on his frantic run to get here and after his arrival. Two were from Cyclonus. The third was from Sunstorm. He needed to attend to them. He needed to lead. He needed… He needed to do something more than stand here and feel his spark shrink smaller and smaller in his casing.

“You Grimlock come.”

Swoop tugged on his arm. It wasn’t enough to force Grimlock to move, but it roused him from his stupor. He watched long enough to see Knock Out re-enter Starscream’s room, and then he let Swoop tug him down the hall, around the corner, to the waiting area.

Thundercracker and Skywarp were here, the former perched on a stool, braced forward on his knees, the latter pacing back and forth in sharp, jerky motions. They looked up as Grimlock entered, fields spiking with alarm.

“Is he…?” Skywarp trailed off as though unable to finish his statement, unable to even contemplate the worst.

Grimlock shook his helm. “I’ve called Ratchet. Knock Out’s with him now. He’s critical, but stable, for whatever that is worth.” The definition of stable varied.

Grimlock had watched Ratchet enough that stable could turn to severe and then critical in the space of a spark beat. Stable only meant the mech was alive and unlikely to suddenly crash. Unlikely, but not impossible.

“What happened?” Grimlock demanded, though he’d already heard portions of the story, in the stuttered bits and pieces Thundercracker tossed at him over the comm.

Skywarp’s wings went rigid. His hands tangled in front of his frame. Thundercracker pushed to his pedes, dragging his palm down his faceplate.

“We were flying,” he said. “Nothing difficult. We weren’t even practicing maneuvers. We were talking and then he… dropped.”

“Dropped,” Grimlock repeated. His tank flipped. He felt himself going still, like a statue, flat and emotionless. All the while rage boiled inside of him like the volcano the Autobots had called home.

“He wouldn’t answer his comms,” Skywarp continued, his field a wavering burst that only eased when Thundercracker stepped up beside him. “He didn’t respond when we called his name. He just dropped.”

“When we caught him, he was burning up and shaking. Delirious,” Thundercracker continued where Skywarp left off, though he rubbed at his forehelm over and over. “His field lashed out as if attacking us, and his cooling fans were rattling at full spin, though he was still hot to the touch.”

Grimlock performed a systems check. “Knock Out thinks it is a virus.” Which meant someone deliberately infected Starscream. Someone had crossed cables with him and transmitted it to him. Or sent it to him in a message or through a datapad he had accessed.

“No doubt something that is attacking and shutting down his autonomic systems,” Thundercracker murmured as his gaze tilted toward the floor. “Otherwise, Knock Out wouldn’t need so much external machinery to keep him stable.”

Grimlock’s field burst before he could rein it in, a failure noted by the way Skywarp flinched, and Thundercracker cringed. Swoop weathered it with the ease of familiarity, and his hand on Grimlock’s arm tightened.

“I want answers,” Grimlock growled, struggling to keep himself under control and knowing he had no chance of maintaining it. “What. Who. When.” He already knew why. If he didn’t have the tiniest sliver of restraint, he’d already be halfway to Nova Cronum.

“I want the answers as soon as possible. Every second will count. I want to know who to blame if…” He clenched and unclenched his fingers, his visor burning. “When Starscream is fully repaired.”

Thundercracker nodded. “Yes, sir,” he said in a tight tone. He’d gone rigid, his wings pressed flat to his backplate. “We’ll do what we can.”

“You’ll keep us updated on his progress, right?” Skywarp asked, his own wings flicking in constant motion, as if unable to keep up with his emotions. “We want to be here if…”

He didn’t finish his sentence. Grimlock didn’t want him to.

He inclined his helm. “I will instruct the medics to contact me and then you if anything should change,” Grimlock replied and shifted his attention to Thundercracker. “I will be calling for a staff meeting shortly. Be prepared to step in as interim commander.”

Grimlock knew Thundercracker didn’t want it, but Grimlock didn’t trust Acid Storm or Sunstorm enough to temporarily give them the job. He needed Thundercracker to step up for the time being. They would worry about everything else later.

Thundercracker cycled a ventilation. “Yes, sir. I’ll inform the rest of the division of the temporary change.” His shoulders sagged, but he gestured toward Skywarp. “Come on. We’ve got work to do.”

They left, though there was no energy in their movements. They no more wanted to leave than Grimlock did, but on top of needing to repair Starscream, he needed to know who to blame. Whoever it was, if Grimlock could find them, he could make them talk. He could get answers and perhaps find a cure.

Left alone, only now did Grimlock allow himself to sink into a chair, showing a weakness he could not allow his Decepticons to see. Swoop remained with him, squeezing in beside him, the warmth and vibrations of his fellow Dinobot offering Grimlock a strength he desperately needed.

“Him Starscream strong,” Swoop said as he curled his hand around Grimlock’s and tangled their fingers together. “Him Starscream never die.”

Grimlock lowered his helm and hid his visor behind his palm. He leaned on Swoop’s optimism, and turned his worry, his concern into fuel for his anger.

“I hope you are right,” he said, clinging to Swoop’s hand. “When I find the mech responsible, he will learn why I am to be feared as the Decepticon leader,” he added with a growl.

Swoop made a quiet warble in the back of his intake, an oddly soothing sound. But he didn’t protest or argue otherwise.

Sirens preceded Ratchet’s arrival. Grimlock heard them echoing in the corridors, along with a few short-lived shouts. He’d already pinged the front gate to let them know the Autobot Chief Medic was coming and to let him through without pause, but the Decepticons in general hadn’t gotten the memo. No doubt a few had protested Ratchet strolling into their command center.

Grimlock would have to do something about that in the future, arrange for an emergency protocol all of his soldiers would know. But for now, there was a more important issue.

Ratchet strode into the medbay as though he owned it, though given the way his energy field was clamped tightly and his armor equally so, Grimlock knew it had to be a struggle for him. This was a place of sour memories for Ratchet, and Grimlock was deeply grateful that he’d still agreed to come, without even a second question. He pushed to his pedes, but Swoop beat him to it.

“What happened?” Ratchet asked as Swoop stole his attention for a brief hug before Ratchet could concentrate on Grimlock. “And what do you mean Starscream is sick?”

“I don’t know what happened,” Grimlock said, tension creeping back into his struts. “According to his trinemates, everything was fine until he started to glitch in the middle of a flight and went offline. Knock Out has him on spark support.”

Ratchet nodded. “I know that much. I had Knock Out brief me on my way here. Do you have any idea who or what could have caused it?”

Grimlock shook his helm. “Not yet. But I will.” The last emerged as a snarl, one he hadn’t intended, but Ratchet didn’t blink. He was used to it. “Thank you for coming. I know it’s hard for you to be here–”

Ratchet waved a hand as if to cut him off. “I’m not going to let myself be bullied into not performing my function,” he said, and then his gaze softened, affection shining through the mask he’d put on. “You needed me. That’s what matters.”

His ventilations hitched. Screw propriety.

Grimlock opened his arms, and Ratchet came into them, which also was an improvement considering how touch-avoidant he’d been before. He listened to the sturdy purr of Ratchet’s engine, felt his creator’s field wrap around him, and some of his own tension eased. He wasn’t so foolish as to think the world was rainbows right now, but it wasn’t ash and spilled energon either.

Ratchet patted him on the back and then stepped back. “Now, let me see what I can do for your Intended.”

“I never told you he said yes.”

Ratchet snorted and slipped past Grimlock, heading for the medbay proper. “I figured that out for myself, bratling.”

They followed Ratchet into the medbay proper, where he made a beeline for the critical patient ward. If he was bothered by returning to the place of his imprisonment, Ratchet didn’t show it. He was nothing but business as he strode down the hallway, finally pausing in front of Starscream’s room.

He peered in through the window first and his frown deepened. “This much equipment…” he murmured. “It’s worse than I thought.” He squared his shoulders and looked up at Grimlock. “Knock Out knows to expect me?”

“He’s been instructed to cooperate with you in full. If he doesn’t, be sure to let me know,” Grimlock said, though he’d hoped the warning he’d issued would be enough.

He wasn’t above demoting Knock Out and promoting Glit if that was what it took for Knock Out to understand how important obedience was.

“I should hope that’s not a problem.” Ratchet rubbed his faceplate and then audibly cycled a ventilation. “All right. I’ll let you know as soon as we have something to go on. Until then, get some rest.”

“Yes, Ratchet,” Grimlock said as Swoop echoed him with, “Yes, Mama.”

Ratchet gave Swoop a quirked grin, patting him on the shoulder, before he braced himself and entered Starscream’s private room. The door swung shut behind him and Grimlock moved to the window to watch the proceedings. Ratchet had to move carefully, stepping around all the wires and equipment, but he made it to Starscream’s berthside.

He and Knock Out exchanged a few words, with Knock Out rolling his optics, but Ratchet didn’t look angry so Grimlock assumed that meant Knock Out was cooperating. Good.

Ratchet joined Knock Out over Starscream’s limp frame. They bent their helms together, skimmed data, and Ratchet navigated the maze of wires and cables and hoses to examine Starscream for himself.

Grimlock watched it all from the window. He told himself that everything was going to be all right. Ratchet could fix anything. There was nothing the combined might of all the surviving medics on Cybertron couldn’t repair.

“Mama Ratchet right. You Grimlock need to rest,” Swoop said, dragging Grimlock’s attention though he didn’t look away from the window.

Grimlock shook his helm. “I couldn’t.”

“Staying here won’t help,” Swoop replied and put a hand on Grimlock’s shoulder, his field offering comfort. “You Grimlock need be strong. For him Starscream.”

He would have to force his pedes to move. He didn’t want to walk away. He feared if he went too far, something would happen, and he wouldn’t be here.

The machines all exhibited positive colors and numbers, Grimlock could tell that much. Ratchet looked concerned, but not agitated. Knock Out seemed confident, but when didn’t he? The two of them were talking, exchanging data over a pad at a rapid pace, but neither of them plugged into Starscream. Instead, there was a datapad connected to his systems.

The virus was likely contagious. It could probably leap systems. Whoever had infected Starscream had probably hoped he would connect to Grimlock before the virus could take Starscream out. They hadn’t been particularly secretive about their relationship.

How? Who?

The questions burned in Grimlock’s cortex.

He whirled away from the window as the anger rose in him all over again. Swoop was right in this much. Standing here accomplished nothing.

“You Grimlock rest now?”

“No. I couldn’t.” He cycled a ventilation. “But there is work I could do. You should rest though.”

Swoop shook his helm. “Me Swoop tell other Dinobots first. Then go find him Thundercracker and Skywarp.”

Grimlock stared at the other Dinbot. “Why?”

“Because they need comfort, too.” Swoop cracked a small smile, squeezed Grimlock’s hand again, and then drew away. “Me Swoop be back. You Grimlock call me Swoop if need, yes?”

Grimlock nodded, still confused, not that Swoop gave him an opportunity to ask. He was gone before Grimlock could properly parse whatever it was Swoop had implied.

No. He would have to worry about that later. Right now he had to go… somewhere. He wasn’t accomplishing anything standing here at the window, watching the two medics work. He needed to at least pretend he wasn’t falling apart inside. He was the Decepticon leader. He couldn’t afford to show weakness.

He didn’t know where else to go. So he went to his office. He should probably hold that command meeting, but if Ratchet pinged him with an answer, he didn’t want to leave midway through. He’d rather have all the facts before he brought up what they should do next with his staff.

Grimlock lowered himself to his chair and stared blankly at his console. It was powered down for the day. His inbox was neatly stacked with paperwork, no doubt delivered by one of Cyclonus’ mechs. He had the better trained staff so Grimlock had recruited them for some of the more delicate work.

Speaking of… Grimlock attended to all three of the messages in his queue. One of the two from Cyclonus weren’t important, but the second one was a simple query. Grimlock sent him a notice of the pending meeting and promised to answer his questions later. Sunstorm’s message expressed his concern and politely asked for an update.

Grimlock chewed on the request for several seconds before he responded with an invitation for Sunstorm to attend the command meeting when it was called. Thundercracker was still his interim air commander, but Sunstorm’s input might be helpful.

There. He’d worked.

Grimlock sagged lower in his chair. He offlined his visor, sinking into the silence and darkness of his office. It offered little comfort.

He ought to go to recharge. Grimlock could feel himself dragging, and tomorrow wasn’t planning on being any shorter. He needed to rest and refuel, perhaps get some work done as well. He’d made a promise to himself that he wouldn’t let his relationship with Starscream interfere with his leadership of the Decepticons. While he now led a mismatched army of mechs he did and did not like, Grimlock refused to be selfish.

He ought to go do something more than sit helplessly at Starscream’s berthside. It didn’t matter it was the only place he wanted to be. Even Ratchet would take one look at him and tell him to recharge.

The thought of his empty berth, however, was unappealing. Starscream hadn’t spent that much time in it, but Grimlock had already grown used to the Seeker’s weight on his frame, talons extended and hooked into Grimlock’s armor. He always recharged as though he thought Grimlock would slip away in the night.

It was both alarming and endearing, and it made Grimlock loathe Megatron more and more, deep in the Pit of his spark. If he could revive the mech to kill him all over again, it wouldn’t be enough.

Grimlock sighed and covered his face with one hand.

His comm pinged. It was Ratchet’s ident code.

Grimlock straightened, reaching up to activate his comm. “Grimlock here.”

“You should be in recharge,” Ratchet said, his voice thick with fatigue. “But I also knew you wouldn’t be. Come on down to the medbay. We need to talk.”

That was never a good sign.

Grimlock cycled a ventilation. “I’ll be there shortly.” He pushed to his pedes, gathered up his datapads, and tumbled them into his subspace.

This would be the moment of truth.

“I’ll be waiting,” Ratchet replied, and the comm clicked off.

Grimlock refused to admit he was shaking, but there was a trembling in his frame he couldn’t cease. He locked his office door behind him and headed for the medical bay. He didn’t let himself ruminate on the possibilities.

Ratchet would fix it. He could fix anything.

Ratchet met him at the door, his expression neutral of emotion, and Grimlock refused to take that for an answer. He ignored the way his spark dropped into his tank and followed his creator to a small room, what appeared to be an unassigned office. Grimlock hadn’t seen Knock Out, so he assumed the medic was either resting or watching over Starscream.

He forewent the offer of a rickety chair. Grimlock would rather be standing for this.

“Can you fix him?” Grimlock asked before Ratchet could even start. He focused on his speech-patterns, clinging to that need to concentrate to keep himself from falling apart.

Ratchet audibly cycled a ventilation. “That is a complicated question, and the answer is much the same.” He leaned a hip against the desk, folding his arms over his windshield. “I know what’s causing the system shutdowns.”

Grimlock inclined his helm. “Knock Out suspected a virus.”

“He is a halfway decent medic, and he was correct. It is a virus,” Ratchet confirmed, and there was anger beneath the softness of his vocals. “It is unlike anything I have ever seen before. It is neither Autobot nor Decepticon, and like Knock Out said, it is slowly shutting down his autonomic processes. We’ve managed to halt its progress, but that’s a temporary measure.”

Grimlock locked his knees, if only to keep his legs from crumbling beneath him. “What happens next?”

Ratchet sighed and palmed his face. “If we can’t find the antivirus, it will continue to shut down every system until he is living on the machines alone. After that, it will go after his coding, systematically deleting everything. He’ll be a blank slate, a non-functioning blank slate. After that…”

Ratchet lowered his hand and cycled a ventilation. He stared up at Grimlock, meeting his gaze in full. “I could, theoretically, keep him alive indefinitely with those machines. But once his cores are wiped, it won’t matter. There won’t be anything of Starscream left.”

He would be a shell of a Seeker. A frame without function, without presence. He wouldn’t be the mech Grimlock loved, except a dim echo. A fraction of core memories stored in his spark.

That was the worst case scenario.

His spark squeezed. He unlocked his knees, blindly groping for the rickety chair and sinking into it.

“Options?”

“I’m not a programmer,” Ratchet said, and there was reluctance in his tone. “I’ve already called Wheeljack and Perceptor both, but I can’t bring either of them here. They’ll do what they can in Polyhex and send me the results.”

Grimlock braced his elbows on his thighs and clasped his hands. “I’m sensing a ‘but’.”

There was a creak of old hydraulics before Ratchet crouched in front of him, resting his hands over Grimlock’s. “We’re going to need help,” he admitted. “Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t even suggest it, but we’re running short of time. And there are few scientific minds left alive.”

Ice frosted around the edges of his spark. Grimlock raised his helm, meeting the reluctant gaze of his creator. “You want Shockwave.”

“I suspect the only reason he’s still alive is because he can be of use,” Ratchet said, which was an admission in itself. His hands tightened over Grimlock’s. “I don’t like it anymore than you do, Grimlock. We tried to work around it, but the truth is, Starscream doesn’t have the time, and I need every mind I can.”

Grimlock’s engine rumbled. His tank churned. He doubted Shockwave would offer his assistance for free. Could he justify that to himself, to Swoop, to the other Autobots who had suffered under Shockwave’s scalpel?

Was one spark worth their pain?

Grimlock bowed his helm, visor dimming. He knew Ratchet would not have even mentioned it if he did not have any more options. But that was another consequence of this war – there were too few Cybertronians educated in anything useful but killing everyone.

“And the Constructicons?”

“No. They are builders first, medics second,” Ratchet said. “They know very little of coding. The only one I suspect would be of any use is Hook, and I wouldn’t trust anything that comes out of his mouth. Shockwave has no morals, but he won’t lie. He values science, not faction.”

Grimlock cycled several ventilations. This was his decision to make. He couldn’t pin it on anyone else. He knew what Cyclonus would say. He knew what Thundercracker would say.

He needed Starscream. Grimlock couldn’t do this without him.

A warm hand pressed to the side of his face. Grimlock looked up, meeting his creator’s optics.

“Optimus will understand,” Ratchet said gently. “First Aid will, too. I will handle the rest.”

“Shockwave hurt Swoop,” Grimlock said and was ashamed that his voice crackled with static. He felt at once small, like a newspark in an unfamiliar frame that was too big, too ungainly, and his processor not-quite-right.

“He hurt a lot of mechs,” Ratchet agreed. “And we both know he’s never going to feel guilty enough to apologize or make things right. But if he can help us make an anti-virus, then letting him live won’t hurt as much.”

He knew Ratchet was right. He still felt selfish for wanting this, for wanting Starscream. He hadn’t set out to take control of the Decepticons. He’d only wanted revenge, to hurt the one who had hurt him in return.

He hadn’t been prepared for this burden, but he accepted it because to do otherwise would cause more pain in the process. He hadn’t expected to enjoy himself. He hadn’t expected to thrive here. But he’d known, buried in all the accomplishment, it would come to this. The hard decision.

The Decepticons needed Starscream. That much he knew. Cyclonus was a competent third in command, and while Grimlock was certain one of the other Seekers could step into Starscream’s place as air commander, he didn’t know who could succeed Starscream as his second. There was no one competent enough, who understand the Decepticons and what they originally stood for.

The Decepticons needed Starscream, but… Grimlock did, too.

He worked his intake and rebooted his vocalizer, clearing the static. “I will go talk to him immediately and bring him here once we reach a compromise I’m willing to accept,” Grimlock finally said.

Maybe it was the selfish thing to do. But Grimlock couldn’t imagine a world where he decided otherwise. And he realized, probably too late for his own comfort, that it was a distinctly Optimus decision, too.

Perhaps he was more like the Autobot leader than he thought.

[G1] Misconstruction 05

This was a bad idea.

Sunstreaker navigated around their couch, an end table, his brother, a game controller, and a chair. He clenched his hands to keep from wringing them, though the urge tugged at him.

“This is a bad idea,” he said aloud, or mumbled rather.

“Calm your hydraulics, bro. It’s gonna be fine,” Sideswipe said. His attention was focused on the screen where a quick flick of his finger sent one of the competing cars into a tailspin, immediately followed by a loud crash.

“No, it’s not, Sides,” Sunstreaker said. “We’re idiots. What do we know about dates or… talking… or normal mechs.” His ventilations sped up. “We don’t. That’s what.”

Sideswipe paused his game. “Sunny–”

“No.” Sunstreaker shook his helm, drawing in a ragged ventilation. “No. I changed my mind. I can’t do this.”

He really couldn’t. It was too much. It wasn’t what he signed up for.

Slag. There his hands went. Tangling together. Fragging nervous tic. Was weakness was what it was. Kind of slag that got you pounded on. He felt too safe if he thought it was okay to be this kind of shaky, useless slagger.

“Yes, you can.” Sideswipe leapt to his pedes and interrupted Sunstreaker before he could dive into their berthroom and slam the door. “It’s not like you’re doin’ it alone, dumbaft.”

Sunstreaker folded his arms and hunched his shoulders. “I’m going to frag this up for us,” he bit out, his spark squeezing and squeezing into the tiniest of balls. He pushed all of his uncertainty into a long pulse at their bond.

Sideswipe responded with a bright burst of reassurance. “No. You’re not.” He rested his hands on Sunstreaker’s shoulders, giving them a squeeze.

Sunstreaker nibbled on his bottom lip, denta instigating a harsher pressure that edged toward pain. “What’re we even trying to do, Sides? Seriously. We’re not cut out for normal stuff like this. Like… like…”

“Romance? Affection? Connection?” Sideswipe finished for him, his voice softening into that low register that always seemed to calm Sunstreaker’s spark. “Maybe it’s time we tried, huh? You ever thought about that?”

Sunstreaker couldn’t meet his brother’s gaze. He nibbled hard enough to taste energon. “I don’t want to ruin it.”

“You won’t.” Sideswipe’s hands slid inward, cupping Sunstreaker’s neck and the bottom of his face. “Just follow my lead. We’ll be fine!” He smiled, and it was so earnest, so optimistic, that Sunstreaker wanted to believe him.

He worked his intake and nodded. “Okay,” Sunstreaker said.

Follow Sideswipe’s lead. Keep his mouth shut. He could do that.

Couldn’t he?

Their door beeped.

Sunstreaker outright panicked.

“Deep breaths, bro,” Sideswipe said, briefly pressing their forehelms together. “We got this.”

He pecked Sunstreaker on the cheek and then let go, striding confidently toward the door. Sunstreaker told himself not to snatch at Sideswipe like some kind of terrified sparkling.

He could do this. He was a frontliner, a fearsome warrior for the Autobots. Minibots trembled in his wake. Surely he could manage something as simple as… as a date.

Sideswipe keyed the door open.

Skyfire stood in the hallway, stooping a little to be seen. He had a smile on his face, he looked freshly waxed, and in one hand he was clutching a clump of wildflowers. Organic wildlowers. They looked very tiny in his hands, their long stems drooping sadly toward the floor.

What the frag?

Skyfire’s smile faltered. His mouth snapped shut.

Sunstreaker realized, too late, that he’d exclaimed that aloud. His faceplate burned. He thought maybe he should say something but he had no words. He floundered. Oh, he hadn’t meant it like that!

“Are those for us?” Sideswipe asked brightly, into the awkward silence. “Thanks!”

“The Autobots as a whole seem fond of human customs so I thought these would be appropriate,” Skyfire said, his ducked helm making him appear smaller. He glanced at Sunstreaker, but then his gaze returned to Sideswipe. “I won’t be offended if you choose to discard them instead.”

“No!” Sunstreaker all but shouted and lurched forward, snatching the bouquet from Sideswipe’s hands. Petals fluttered madly in his wake as he backed away from both his brother and the shuttle. “We’re keeping them.”

They were gifts. Skyfire had brought them purely to be nice, to offer them to Sideswipe and Sunstreaker, and he didn’t have to. At this point, he could have brought a bag of garbage and Sunstreaker wouldn’t have been offended.

Okay. That stretched it a little. Garbage would not have been acceptable. But flowers most certainly were.

Skyfire blinked. “Well, you are more than welcome to them then.”

Sideswipe whirled and stared at Sunstreaker as though he’d grown another head. And maybe he was right.

Sunstreaker felt out of sorts, and foolish. He spun on a heelstrut and went to his corner, where he kept his art supplies. He pulled out an old, solid-state energon cube for a vase and used a leftover bucket of paint water. It would work temporarily.

He busied himself with arranging the flowers just so, that way he wouldn’t have to look over his shoulder and see the look on Skyfire’s face. He was probably asking himself what madness he’d gotten himself into. He probably tried to imagine ten different ways he could excuse himself.

“Anyway,” Sideswipe said loudly, and Sunstreaker heard his pedes snap against the floor as he turned back toward Skyfire. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Pistons hissed as Skyfire shifted his weight, probably to make himself smaller again. “I thought we might share energon atop the volcano.”

They were on high alert right now, after all, Sunstreaker thought despairingly. He’d wanted to leave the Ark so no one could see them and taunt them. But now they were forced to stay close. All off-Ark activities had been suspended. Even Jazz had pouted. Apparently, there was some concert he would miss.

“Sounds good,” Sideswipe chirped. Sunstreaker imagined he was offering one of those charming smiles of his.

People liked Sideswipe’s smiles.

“Sunny, are you coming?”

He didn’t turn. He thought he’d made an idiot and a fool of himself already. He fiddled with the flowers instead, pretending he could turn their bent petals and crushed leaves into something beautiful again. The fragrance seeped into his nasal sensors, too sweet, too cloying.

Even Sunstreaker wasn’t so stupid as to not recognize the gesture for what it was. What did Skyfire think they were? Soft mechs? Innocent ones?

Sunstreaker didn’t dare ask. He didn’t dare speak. He couldn’t trust himself not to frag this up further. Better he not go at all.

“Bro?”

Sideswipe pulsed a query across the bond, and followed it up with encouragement.

I won’t go without you.

Oh, that was low. Sunstreaker didn’t want to frag this up. But if Sideswipe denied himself the chance because of Sunstreaker, he would never forgive himself.

Sunstreaker whirled around and stormed past them both, his shoulder clipping Sideswipe’s in the process. “Let’s go,” he huffed as his armor drew tight, clamping close to his protoform.

“Okay then,” Sideswipe said with a forced cheer, and followed Sunstreaker out.

He paused long enough in the hallway to make sure they were both following before Sunstreaker continued on. He was here. But he was going to keep his fragging mouth shut from now on.

“By the way, Skyfire, how are you today?” Sideswipe asked.

Small talk. Ugh.

“Fine, I suppose,” Skyfire said. He sounded confused. “I, uh, took the liberty of acquiring energon for all three of us already.”

Probably doesn’t want to be seen with us. Not that I can blame him, Sunstreaker muttered across their bond.

Hush.

“Thank you, Skyfire,” Sideswipe said aloud, so bright he was a shining star in his own right. But that was Sideswipe. The special one. The smart one. The one who deserved. “That’ll save us on travel time.”

“The rec was on my way. It was no trouble.”

How in the Pit was Skyfire so nice? It was unreal. Anyone else in his position would have already called Sideswipe and Sunstreaker all kinds of rude names. Anyone else would have fragged off already. Mechs tended to want only one thing, not go through all this trouble as a prelude.

“Next time it’ll be our turn then,” Sideswipe said.

“Next time?” Skyfire repeated.

Sunstreaker’s spark sank toward his tank. He didn’t know how to interpret Skyfire’s tone. Skyfire didn’t sound excited, but he didn’t sound displeased either. He should turn and look at Skyfire, but not like he’d be able to read the shuttle’s expression. That was what Sideswipe was supposed to do.

“I mean, uh, if there is a next time,” Sideswipe said as he coughed his vents. “We wouldn’t want to assume or anything.”

“Experience does suggest that is a bad idea,” Skyfire replied, his tone very mild, but his words cut to the spark.

Sunstreaker cringed. His armor pressed so tight to his frame that his HUD sent alerts. Yes, that was all the reminder they needed. How much they were idiots. Mostly Sunstreaker, to be honest.

“Right.” Sideswipe dragged out the glyphs. He poked Sunstreaker along the bond as if prodding him to contribute. “So… um…”

Sunstreaker snarled internally. Keeping his mouth shut was the better course of action, though it seemed Sideswipe wasn’t doing that great either.

“It was a joke,” Skyfire said, and Sunstreaker almost labeled his tone gentle. “I only meant to tease.”

Sideswipe chuckled, but the slither of unease in their bond didn’t fade. “Oh, we know. It’s just we kinda still feel guilty and all.” Sunstreaker just knew his brother was rubbing the back of his neck. He always did that when he felt uncertain.

Thank Primus there was the exit. Sunstreaker didn’t bolt for it, but it was a near thing. Could this “date” be any more awkward?

It was pleasantly warm outside, a late afternoon in mid-fall, where the trees still carried some grasp of greenery, but turned to shades of red, orange, and yellow, too.

Sunstreaker stopped outside the bay doors, waiting for Skyfire and Sideswipe both, not that they were far behind. He turned to face them, folding his arms across his chestplate.

What had Skyfire said? He wanted to go to the top of the volcano?

Wait.

Sunstreaker blinked.

“There aren’t any ramps or lifts,” he pointed out as his twin and Skyfire caught up with him.

Skyfire blinked. “Yes?”

“How are we going to get to the top?” Sunstreaker asked.

Skyfire shifted his weight. His wings twitched behind him. “I assumed I would offer a lift.”

“Isn’t it too soon for us to get inside you?” Sideswipe asked with a smirk.

Skyfire’s optics widened.

Sunstreaker growled and smacked his brother on the back of the helm. Even he knew that was tasteless and inappropriate.

Sideswipe scowled and rubbed his helm. “Ow.”

“If that is unappealing, I could always carry you,” Skyfire ventured. “Though I admit I am not as skilled as the Seekers in root-mode flight.”

Sunstreaker rolled his shoulders. “I have some dignity,” he sniffed.

“I… see,” Skyfire said.

Sideswipe pinched Sunstreaker in the side. He hissed and glared at his twin. It didn’t hurt, but it was embarrassing.

“The rear engines are unoccupied. Would that better suit?” Skyfire offered.

“It’ll do,” Sideswipe said with a sour look at Sunstreaker.

Sunstreaker bared his denta at his brother, his armor fluffing out away from his protoform. He was not going to be chastised like some kind of sparkling. It wasn’t his fault Skyfire forget they couldn’t fly, and it wasn’t his fault Sideswipe was being a jerk either.

Skyfire coughed a ventilation.

Both Sideswipe and Sunstreaker looked at him. He shifted his weight. He cycled his optics. His wings twitched.

It was almost as though he wanted to remind them he was standing right there.

Oh frag.

They were on a date.

Skyfire cocked his helm. “Are you both sure you want this?” he asked, his lips twitching for some reason.

“Yes!” Sunstreaker blurted out, lurching forward. He could only imagine Skyfire storming away from them, his patience run out. He gave a panicked look to his brother. “Only…”

“What exactly this is we don’t know,” Sideswipe said, explaining what Sunstreaker couldn’t put into words.

“Or understand,” Sunstreaker added.

“It’s new,” Sideswipe sighed, and he moved closer to Sunstreaker, until their shoulders touched. It helped him stand a little straighter. “And we’ve fragged it up.”

Like I knew we would, Sunstreaker internally muttered.

Skyfire stared at them. “I apologize, but I was under the impression you two were… ah, how shall I say… popular?”

Sunstreaker looked at his brother who tilted his helm in encouragement. “Well, yeah if it’s a berth,” Sunstreaker answered.

Sideswipe grinned and his smugness radiated from him in waves until it infected Sunstreaker, too. Yeah, he didn’t get social nonsense. But he was damn good in the berth and proud of it. No one ever walked away unsatisfied.

Weak-kneed, comfortably sore, and exhausted, but never unsatisfied.

“We’re good at what we do,” Sideswipe boasted.

“Except the berth only goes so far…” Sunstreaker said, his pride quickly evaporating when he remembered how cold their berths got afterward. He could cuddle Sideswipe all he wanted, and he loved his brother more than life itself, but both of them admitted… something was missing.

They didn’t know what that something was.

Until Skyfire looked at them, and forgave them and suddenly, their sparks couldn’t stop aching.

“It’s not real,” Sideswipe supplied as Sunstreaker faltered on the rest and promptly forgot where he was going.

Skyfire cycled his optics. “Oh.”

Sunstreaker didn’t know how to interpret that. Was it a good sound? A bad one? Skyfire wasn’t running for the Ark like his aft were on fire, but he was keeping a safe distance.

“I mean everybody wants to frag us,” Sideswipe said, babbling now, like maybe he floundered, too.

“Fragging’s easy,” Sunstreaker said, because that much was true. Fragging was very easy. Knowing how to touch someone and make it hurt, meant you also knew how to make it feel very, very good.

“You don’t gotta like someone to frag them,” Sideswipe added.

Sunstreaker scowled. “Fragged Gears once even,” he muttered, and felt his face heat.

That had been the first and last time. Because not even several good overloads could keep the minibot from being an absolute waste of time and space and energon.

Sideswipe rubbed the back of his helm. “But fragging and dating aren’t the same. We’ve never dated anyone.”

“Don’t know how,” Sunstreaker said.

“I mean, we guess fragging’s all we’re good for,” Sideswipe said with a sigh. He spread his hands as though surrendering.

Sunstreaker’s shoulder slumped. He glanced at Skyfire, and had to swallow down the urge to throw himself into alt-mode and race toward the horizon.

Skyfire’s optics were wide, and Sunstreaker had no idea what expression on his face meant, it couldn’t be a good one.

If Skyfire was interested before, he surely wasn’t now. No one wanted to go on a date with the rusty Ark bicycle, even if there were two of them. Mechs that were good for fragging, weren’t good for courting.

Frag Ratchet for making them apologize.

“Well,” Sunstreaker said, ready to get the humiliation over with. “Aren’t you going to say something?”

Skyfire shifted his weight. His mouth opened.

The proximity alarm went off with a wild shriek, startling the shuttle into a jump that would’ve cleared a minibot.

Sunstreaker and Sideswipe’s offensive protocols went from zero to sixty in the space of a spark beat. A Decepticon attack was imminent. They didn’t have time to slowly cycle up.

They never got to hear whatever it was Skyfire was going to say.

Saved by the alarm.

[Flights of Fancy] Take Me Home

There were many tasks better suited to the Flock’s Liege Consort. But Rodimus enjoyed the simple ones from time to time.

Carrier had taught him that a leader should understand his subjects, from the lowliest laborer to the highest educator. No one Harpy should ever be ignored or misunderstood, no matter their duty.

It helped that Gathering was fun.

And tasty.

No one wanted the tiniest berries left behind anyway. Technically, Rodimus was making sure that they wouldn’t go to waste.

Rodimus popped two more blackberries into his mouth, humming with delight as the tart flavor burst over his tongue. He’d also made sure to save some of the juiciest, plumpest ones for Drift. He hoped he could wheedle the Fencemaster into making jam.

Rodimus licked his lips, already imagining the sweet treat slathered onto a seed bun. His belly rumbled approvingly. His mouth watered.

A jam-slathered seed bun would also be a good peace offering to a very grumpy, very gravid Starscream.

And, Rodimus thought with a wicked smile, jam would be quite delicious when licked from Megatron’s talons.

A shiver raced down his spine. Yes. He would have to work very hard to convince Drift indeed.

Rodimus chuckled and plucked more berries from the vines, shoving them into the woven sack tied at his waist. All of the bushes nearest the Aerie were picked clean so he’d been forced to fly further out to find more. He’d been lucky to spot this little copse in a small valley. The bushes here were barely touched.

Not for long, Rodimus suspected.

Chirp.

Rodimus paused. He cocked his head, listening intently.

Chirrup-click-click.

There it went again. It almost sounded like a hatchling.

Rodimus shoved a blackberry into his mouth and leaned back from the bushes so he could better peer into the tangle of greenery. Something rustled in the branches, too large to be a squirrel or a small bird.

Chirrup-chirrup-click-hiss-click.

Rodimus responded with a low whistle and a chirp, like he’d heard Starscream do countless times before. He swore that sound was a hatchling, albeit one barely out of the shell.

The bushes rustled. Chirp-click-click.

A small shape barreled out of the bramble, making a beeline for Rodimus’ left leg. He jumped in surprise, peering down at a mess of… well, it was something. He was sure it was a hatchling, the feathers gave it away, but it looked so odd. It had wings, leathery ones, and big amber eyes, and its featherdown was so sparse.

“Well, hello there,” Rodimus said as the bitty thing attached himself to Rodimus’ leg. Little talons scratched at his feathers. “Where did you come from?”

The hatchling looked up at him and clicked again. Rodimus’ core throbbed. Was he out here alone? Had he been abandoned? He was an ugly little thing.

Rodimus crouched and scooped up the hatchling, which made a tiny squeal of delight. Little hands clutched at Rodimus’ thumbs as the hatchling met his gaze firmly. He had a rather large crest, though the feathers were slim and sparse.

He was so thin, and his feathers so scraggly. Maybe he was abandoned.

Rodimus frowned. Who could do that to a hatchling? He knew it happened. More than a few Harpies had come to Kaon because they’d been left behind or abandoned. It was what happened to Sideswipe and Sunstreaker after all.

Still…

Okay, so this little guy wasn’t pretty. He had weird colors, like a bara, and barely any feathers and ragged wings. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t worthy of being loved.

The hatchling chirped again and leaned down to bite Rodimus’ finger. He hissed as significantly sharper teeth than he was used to broke the skin, drawing blood.

“Ow,” Rodimus said and shifted the hatchling to one hand. He fished around in his satchel for a few berries and shoved one in the bitlet’s mouth. “Eat this instead,” he grumbled as he peered at his finger.

Yes. Actual blood.

First Aid’s bitten him many times. He never drew blood.

Rodimus peered at the little hatchling again. He had fangs, now that Rodimus was paying attention. Sharp ones, too. Only the Raptors had fangs like that, as far as Rodimus knew, but the Raptors were less feathery than this.

“Well, you’re certainly different,” Rodimus sighed as he pulled the hatchling in close, tucking the little bit against his chest. “I think I’ll take you with me. Is that okay with you?”

He looked down at the little hatchling, who chirped around a mouthful of blackberries. Juice stained his lips and teeth. Those big eyes seemed even bigger.

Aww. He was adorable.

“Guess it’s okay,” Rodimus said and gave the beeplet a little scratch on the tummy. It made First Aid giggle all the time when he was this size.

Sure enough, the little scraggly hatchling giggled.

That settled it. The little one was coming home with Rodimus. Only how to carry him? First Aid always clung to Starscream’s chest like a little gremlin, but… this little one had some sharp fangs. Rodimus didn’t fancy getting bit mid-flight.

He looked down at his blackberry satchel. He chewed on his bottom lip. To get bit? Or lose the jam?

He could always get more blackberries, he supposed. Rodimus tickled the hatchling again and pulled up the satchel.

“I’m going to put you in here. It’s dark, but there are plenty of blackberries, okay?” he said as he eased the little one inside.

The hatchling clicked at him – such an odd sound – but made a squeal of delight as he tumbled inside. Little squishy noises meant he’d discovered his berry padding.

Good then.

Rodimus made sure the ties were extra tight, gave the bag a little pat, and then rose into the air.

Megatron was not going to believe this.

~

Megatron absolutely did not believe this.

“What do you mean he’s missing?” Megatron demanded, his eyes narrowing as he bore down on Blurr and Sideswipe, the two smols staring up at him with equal parts anxiety and apology.

By Adaptus this was a nightmare, and the second time he’d had this particular nightmare for god’s sake. Was there never going to be any peace now that he’d mated Rodimus? Was he ever going to stop worrying?

“He was supposed to be at the blackberry bushes,” Blurr blurted out, his hands tangling together in a way that had to be painful.

“I told him to stay there,” Sideswipe added with a scowl.

“Rodimus never stays where he’s told. You both should know this by now,” Megatron snarled. His hands curled into fists, talons pricking at his palms. These two, after all, were commonly part of Rodimus’ Gathering crew.

“We’re not his guards!” Sideswipe snapped, his feathers fluffing aggressively. He had the audacity to lean forward. “The little prince got himself lost on his own!”

“Sides,” Blurr whispered, something urgent in his voice, as he tugged on Sideswipe’s arm. “He didn’t mean that, sir. He just meant that we don’t really have the authority to make Rodimus do anything.”

Megatron forced himself to step back and take a deep breath. “Which is why you are supposed to stay with him, not go frolicking off on your own.”

“He’s not a hatchling,” Sideswipe huffed. His eyes narrowed, feathers lifting more and more defensively.

Megatron’s head started to hurt. All he needed now was for Sunstreaker to come charging to his Twin’s rescue.

“What’s all the ruckus?”

Megatron whirled just as Rodimus landed behind him with a soft tap, a bright smile on his face, his eyes big and happy.

“Did I miss something?” Rodimus asked as he looked around, oblivious to the angst and tension he had caused.

Again.

“I am never going Gathering with you again!” Sideswipe snapped from behind Megatron before he stormed off into the nearest hall, toward the nest he and Sunstreaker shared with Soundwave.

Rodimus blinked, and then his face reddened. He palmed his face. “Oh, Adaptus. You thought I was missing again,” he said with a groan. “Sorry. My bushes were empty. I moved on.”

“You could do with informing your gather-mates of such,” Megatron said, barely above a growl as he stormed toward his mate. He put his hands on Rodimus’ shoulder, looking him up and down.

He could see no indication of injury, though a bit of purple stained his mate’s lips. Rodimus had been sampling the blackberries, to no surprise. He had a preference for the tarter berries.

“And I’ll remember that for next time,” Rodimus said with a solemn nod which was betrayed by the sparkle in his eye. “But never mind that. You’re never going to believe what I found.”

Megatron sighed and rubbed at his forehead. “Rodimus, I am trying to have a serious conversation with you here.”

“So am I.” Rodimus wriggled close and pressed a kiss to the tip of Megatron’s nose, shameless little thing that he was. He didn’t seem to care that they had an audience. “Close your eyes?”

The only thing worse than embarrassing himself in front of his flock was disappointing Rodimus and seeing that pout on his lips.

Megatron dropped his hand. “Very well,” he said, and closed his eyes. He folded his arms over his chest, trying to effect some sense of control. “But you are not feeding me in public.”

“I would never!” Rodimus said.

Oh, the lies.

Megatron heard a rustle. Rodimus hissed quietly, and then he heard a muttered, “ow, what is with you and biting?” He smelled something sweet and tart – blackberries, but of course. Rodimus’ third favorite treat.

“Okay, you can open them now.”

Megatron opened his eyes. And stared.

“Look what I found!” Rodimus said gleefully, holding a purple-stained wriggling creature up toward Megatron. “I wanna keep him. Can I?”

It was… perhaps a hatchling, judging by the chirps and clicks it made. There were feathers on the bitlet’s body, but its wings were very thin and leathery. It had large eyes, and… fangs? Yes. Those were certainly fangs.

The poor hatchling was unlike anything Megatron had ever seen before. Where was the fluff? The thin layer of featherdown? The feather tufts? Why was the poor thing so thin and malnourished looking?

Rodimus shoved it toward Megatron and he lifted his hands, cradling the small bitlet without thinking twice. In his own hands, the bitlet looked even smaller. It rolled about in his palms, making little chirps, only to abruptly make a grab for Megatron’s right thumb.

“Careful, he bites,” Rodimus said, just as teeth began gnawing on Megatron’s talon.

Megatron worked his jaw. “Rodimus, this is a hatchling.”

“I know that.” Rodimus’ hands cupped Megatron’s, warm and small, his thumbs stroking over the tip of Megatron’s fingers. “He was out there, all alone. He came right up to me. He’s pretty weird looking, I know. But he’s cute, right? We can keep him?”

Megatron swallowed thickly. The little bird rolled around in his hand and gnawed a little harder on his thumb. He left sticky blackberry seeds on Megatron’s palm.

“Rodimus, we cannot keep some random hatchling,” Megatron began gently. “Surely he has parents who are very worried about him.”

Rodimus rolled his eyes. “He was out there all alone. I’m betting he was abandoned.”

“Did you even look for the carrier or sire?”

Judging by Rodimus’ fidget, the answer was ‘no’. “He’s so scraggly though. Whoever they are, I’ll bet they don’t feed him.”

Megatron fought the urge to sigh. He tipped the hatchling back into Rodimus’ hand, and his core twinged as Rodimus instantly cuddled the little one against his chest, spreading more of the sticky blackberry juice everywhere. There was a look on Rodimus’ face, one that did not bode well.

“We still have to make an effort. Hatchlings are curious things. He could have wandered away, as little as he is,” Megatron said, though he had to admit there was reluctance in his tone.

Rodimus looked good with a hatchling. He looked so genuinely delighted as he scratched at the bitlet’s belly and lifted the babe up to his face, rubbing his cheek against the hatchling’s face. The bitlet chirped and nipped at his nose.

“You really like to bite, huh?” Rodimus murmured and tickled the hatchling again. He dissolved into happy clicks.

“Rodimus, are you listening?”

His mate sighed and rolled his eyes. “Yes, I heard you. We have to actually look for his parents. Fine then. You do that.” He looked up at Megatron, his eyes pleading. “But until you find them, if they do exist, we can take care of him, right?”

Megatron offered the hatchling his forefinger, rubbing his knuckle against the back of the hatchling’s head. He chirruped, butting his head on Megatron’s knuckle. Amber eyes half-lidded. Tiny fingers tangled together.

“Yes, we’ll take care of him until then,” Megatron said, swallowing over a sudden lump in his throat. “But try not to get attached.”

He had a feeling, however, that warning came too late.

“Megatron!”

The shrill shout was all the warning he had before a sharp pain raced through the back of his left leg. Megatron hissed and whirled, bearing his fangs in a snarl, only to wobble when eyes and instinct both recognized the swollen abdomen of a Harpy mid-carry.

“How dare you yell at Blurr?”

Ah. Starscream.

By Adaptus, as if today wasn’t chaotic enough. Megatron sighed and rubbed at the bridge of his nose.

“Starscream, if your mate is going to be a member of this flock, he must bear the same responsibilities as everyone else,” Megatron said as his leg throbbed. Starscream had only kicked him, but it still hurt. “Which includes, yes, consort-sitting.”

“Hey!” Rodimus said, indignant.

The hatchling chirp-clicked in agreement.

Starscream’s eyes narrowed, but they were no longer focused on Megatron. Instead, they slid right past him, or perhaps through him, and seemed to locate the tiny creature in Rodimus’ hands without any effort at all.

“Rodimus, how do you have a hatchling?” Starscream demanded.

It was as if Megatron wasn’t even there. He moved aside, and no one paid him a bit of attention. Starscream half-stormed, half-waddled his way toward Rodimus and peered at the bitlet in his hand.

“I found him!” Rodimus chirped, his eyes lighting with delight. “He looked so lonely. I had to bring him home.”

Megatron rubbed his forehead. Adaptus save him from consorts and gravid smols.

Well, this battle was lost, not that he ever had a chance. Starscream, mid-carry with every one of his instincts come to bore, would not be dissuaded. At least he could be trusted to assist Rodimus with looking after the little one.

“Nibbles? Rodimus, you cannot name a hatchling ‘Nibbles,’ I don’t care how often he bites you,” Starscream said, exasperated.

Yes. He had Rodimus well in hand. At least far better than his once-human mate did. Blurr, admittedly, was still learning. But by Adaptus, it had been several years now. He shouldn’t require Starscream to come storming to his rescue.

At any rate, Megatron had a search party to assemble.

He did not look over his shoulder at his adorable mate cuddling a hatchling. He did not remind himself he could not offer such a thing to Rodimus. He told himself that Rodimus had known from the beginning and still chose him.

He told himself many things.

He hoped they weren’t all lies.

~

Three search parties were sent in three different directions. Megatron went ahead and sent a message to Professor Shin at the University as well. He doubted a Harpy would go to the humans for help, but on the off-chance one did, Megatron wanted Professor Shin to be aware. And also prepare for a potentially furious carrier who was all too willing to blame the humans for their little one’s disappearance.

There was nothing left to do but wait.

Wait and watch his core quiver in quiet despair.

Someone had brought Rodimus a wide bowl. Megatron suspected it was Starscream’s doing as the gravid smol had also spent the better part of an hour lecturing a very attentive Rodimus about all the things he’d need to do to care for Nibbles.

Yes. Rodimus had won that argument. Much to Megatron’s disbelief.

The bowl was filled with water from the hot springs, though much cooler now, and Megatron suspected Blurr had been the one to haul it up here for Starscream. Ratchet had supplied Rodimus with a light cloth and right now, Rodimus was daintily dabbing it at Nibbles’ tiny body. The little hatchling clicked and splashed, burbling happily as he scooted all around the bowl, and Rodimus chased after him.

Rodimus chuckled. “You are such a silly thing,” he said as he finally caught the wayward hatchling and managed to give him a good wipe with the cloth. The water was already turning purple from berry juice. “You act like you’ve never had a bath before.”

“Would have been quicker to dunk him in the hot springs,” Megatron commented from where he stood back, watching Rodimus care for the bitlet.

“Yeah, but he’s so little.” Rodimus chewed on his bottom lip, giving Megatron a sidelong look. “I didn’t want him to get hurt.”

“Hatchlings swim.”

“I know that.” Rodimus huffed and tickled under Nibbles’ chin, making the hatchling click excitedly. “But maybe he doesn’t. I mean, he doesn’t even look like a proper hatchling, does he?”

Rodimus had a point.

“Still adorable though,” Rodimus added and leaned closer to Nibbles, though not within biting range, Megatron noticed. “Aren’t you, sweetie?”

Nibbles chirruped and reached for Rodimus with dripping fingers, topped off with rather sharp claws. None of the hatchlings in Megatron’s flock had talons like those. Their talons were dull, rounded. This hatchling looked as though he had been born to hunt, and not for nuts or berries, but flesh creatures.

If it weren’t for all the feathers and his huge crest, Megatron might have thought Nibbles a Raptor.

“Yes, you are,” Rodimus cooed and lifted Nibbles out of the bowl, patting the hatchling dry with another cloth Ratchet had brought for him.

Megatron’s core squeezed again. “Kaon takes all kinds,” he admitted, and straightened, moving to peer over Rodimus’ shoulder.

The hatchling looked up at him with big amber eyes and grinned toothily, showing off those sharp fangs that loved to bite Rodimus so much. Nibbles clicked and wriggled, settling into the curve of Rodimus’ hand.

“I suppose we can make room for this one,” Megatron added and rested a hand on Rodimus’ shoulder. “That is, provided he is indeed an orphan in need of a home.”

Rodimus looked up at him, his smile bright and hopeful. “I knew his cuteness would sway you eventually.”

“I always intended to offer him a place here, Rodimus.” Megatron gave his mate’s shoulder a squeeze. “I only suggest caution. We are obligated to try and find his parents.”

Rodimus’ smile wobbled around the edges. “I know.” In his arms, Nibbles clicked before his mouth opened in a large yawn, attracting Rodimus’ attention. “I guess it’s bedtime, huh? This one’s had quite the day.”

“Haven’t we all?” Megatron bent down and pressed a kiss to the crown of Rodimus’ head. “You two get settled. I will extinguish the lanterns.”

“Such a good sire you are,” Rodimus purred.

Megatron opted to ignore him. Rodimus hadn’t meant the comment to be an insult after all. He’d only been teasing.

Megatron moved around his Nest, dousing the lanterns and flicking shut the thick covering for his door. Soundwave would still invite himself inside come the morning, but at least no one else would dare disturb them.

Except, perhaps, Starscream.

Megatron hesitated. Times like these, he wondered if maybe the humans didn’t have the right idea with permanent, locking doors.

Shaking his head, Megatron turned and joined Rodimus in the nest-bed. Rodimus had moved pillows around, making a little hollow in the middle for himself and enough room for Megatron beside him. Nibbles was already sprawled on top of Rodimus’ chest, making little warble noises.

“Asleep already?” Megatron asked as he eased down into the fluffy mess of coverings and pillows. Rodimus was a creature of comfort.

“Yeah.” Rodimus looked down at Nibbles, stroking the back of his fingers down the hatchling’s back. “Think my core beat soothed him.”

“It generally does in hatchlings that young.” Megatron shifted to get comfortable, and was not at all surprised when Rodimus wriggled in against his side.

One hand carefully cupped Nibbles, keeping him in place, as Rodimus tucked his head against Megatron’s chest. He looked so happy, so content. He looked right with a hatchling in his arms.

Megatron swallowed thickly. He stroked a hand down Rodimus’ back, listening to the soft purrs of his mate’s breathing.

“Goodnight,” Rodimus murmured. “Don’t roll over on us, okay? I mean, I don’t mind. But Nibbles bites.”

Megatron, despite himself, chuckled softly. “I won’t. I promise.”

It was an easy promise to make. Megatron, for his part, wasn’t sure he would be able to sleep at all.

His core ached far too much.

~

Morning came and with it the start of a new day.

Rodimus was woken by a very excited, very energetic hatchling bouncing on his chest. He jerked awake with a yelp as tiny fangs sank into his thumb, not enough to draw blood, but definitely enough to leave their mark.

Megatron, for his part, was already up and about for once. He laughed at Rodimus’ predicament and tossed him a handful of oranges.

“You have inventory duty today,” Megatron said as he watched Rodimus peel the oranges and attempt to feed each sliver to Nibbles. “You can take him to the daycare.”

“I should probably keep him with me,” Rodimus said as he barely saved his fingers from a nip.

Honestly, Nibbles had no manners. He chewed with his mouth open, getting orange juice everywhere. Silly thing.

“Rodimus–”

“He bites!” Rodimus laughed and bopped Nibbles on the nose, though it barely counted as a tap. Amber eyes focused on his talon before Nibbles clicked and devolved into giggles. “You want I should put him in the daycare and have Starscream on my ass when he takes a nip at First Aid?”

Megatron frowned. “You have a point,” he conceded and tilted his head. “Are you sure you’re up to it? I could take him.”

Rodimus shook his head. “No, I can do it.” He smiled down at the hatchling, who gave him a goofy grin in return. “He likes me best.” He fed Nibbles another section of orange.

“If that’s what you want.” Megatron exhaled quietly, something in his eyes turning dim. “Send someone for me if you need help.”

“Or Starscream,” Rodimus chirped. The gravid smol had all but twisted his ear and Rodimus promised to call Star if he wanted assistance.

“Or Starscream,” Megatron conceded. He dipped his head toward Rodimus. “I’ll see you for lunch.”

“It’s a date!”

The cloth swished shut behind Megatron. Rodimus stared after him for a moment more. There’d been something guarded in his expression. It wasn’t anger. Rodimus knew Megatron’s anger. No, this was something else.

A small frown curved his lips. Perhaps he’d ask Starscream to take Nibbles later so he could have a private moment with Megatron.

Until then…

Rodimus sucked the last of the orange juice from his lips and hopped to his feet, nudging Nibbles against his chest. “It’s time for us to go to work, too,” he said, tickling the hatchling’s belly. “Ready to earn your keep?”

Nibbles chirrup-clicked.

By Adaptus, he was adorable.

Rodimus tucked Nibbles against his chest, but the hatchling wriggled free. He hooked his talons in Rodimus’ feathers and started to climb until he perched on Rodimus’ right shoulder with a happy click.

“You silly thing,” Rodimus said with a shake of his head.

He winced as Nibbles dug in his tarsals and chirruped in Rodimus’ ear.

“Just don’t bite me again,” Rodimus said.

Nibbles clicked and nuzzled Rodimus’ head. All was forgiven.

Rodimus slipped out of his and Megatron’s nest and moved to the central walkway. Storage was down on the lowest level, and Rodimus didn’t fancy the long walk. He peered at the lowest floor, only to frown.

There was a crowd gathering at the ground entrance. This early in the morning, that was unusual. The Aerie tended to be deserted first thing in the morning as all of its residents dispersed to their various tasks.

Megatron was there, too. He was pushing his way through the crowd, heading to the entrance. His feathers weren’t fluffed aggressively, but that told Rodimus very little. There could be a new arrival, or an old, familiar one.

Rodimus circled the lip of the edge, getting a better view. There was a massive Harpy standing in the doorway. From this distance, Rodimus couldn’t tell anything about him save that he was large and not as fluffy as the brightly colored Harpy standing next to him. Though, he did kind of look like one of the Raptors. They were all dull and barely feathered, if at all.

On his shoulder, Nibbles click-chirruped. He wriggled, talons digging into Rodimus’ shoulder.

Realization trickled in. Rodimus reached up, stroking a finger down the hatchling’s back. “You want to go down there, huh?”

Nibbles nipped on his ear and triple-clicked, making all kinds of urgent noises.

Rodimus sucked his bottom lip into his mouth. Disappointment flooded his belly. Somehow, he’d forgotten that the Scavengers had started taking feathered mates.

“Well, all right then,” he sighed. “Hold tight.”

Tarsals dug in, and Rodimus suppressed a wince. Well, at least Nibbles was good at listening. Bracing himself, Rodimus tipped off the edge and threw out his arms, gliding down several levels to the ground floor.

He had no more set two feet on the woven matting before Nibbles leapt from his shoulder and took off across the floor. Rodimus’ core leapt into his throat, and he threw himself forward, shoving his way between Rung and Cyclonus to give the hatchling chase.

“Wait! Nibbles, come back here!”

Rodimus darted around Drift and Perceptor, neatly skirted by Tracks, and saw Nibbles’ featherless little wings. He made a lunge forward, only for a firm grip on his wrist to abruptly tug him back.

Rodimus whirled with a snarl, but Megatron looked back at him, his grip on Rodimus’ wrist tightening. He didn’t know what to call Megatron’s expression, save that there was apology in it.

“Let me go,” Rodimus said. “I have to–”

“Do nothing,” Megatron interrupted as he squeezed Rodimus’ wrist warningly. “He is not yours to keep.”

A loud hiss made Rodimus jump and spin, despite his wrist being caught in Megatron’s hold. His eyes widened as a large Harpy descended on him – Grimlock. He recognized Grimlock now. The massive predatory Harpy was a creature of menace now, his lips pulled back into a snarl, his eyes as red as blood, and clinging to his right arm was Nibbles.

Oh.

It all made sense now. Just as he’d feared it would.

Rodimus shrank back, pressing himself into Megatron’s side.

“Thief!” Grimlock snapped in that pidgin language he and the other Raptors had created. “Egg stealer!”

“I didn’t steal him!” Rodimus hissed back, though where he found the courage he had no idea.

He jerked his wrist free of Megatron, balling his hands into fists. His core thumped madly in his chest, and he didn’t care that his flock was watching.

“I found him!” Rodimus shouted up at the massive bara, even as Grimlock’s mate surged into view, grabbing Grimlock’s other arm as if trying to hold him back. “He was alone. You lost him! It’s not my fault!”

“Him Swoop mine!” Grimlock roared with another menacing step forward.

Rodimus hissed, his feathers fluffing out. He might not be a bara, and everything within him warned him to submit, but no. Grimlock was not his Liege. Grimlock was not even his Mate.

Absolutely not.

“Then you should have been taking better care of him,” Rodimus snapped. His core squeezed so small, he wondered if it was extinguish. “What kind of sire are you, to let your hatchling wander off? I ought to–”

“Rodimus.”

He clamped his mouth shut so fast he bit his bottom lip. The warning growl made the feathers on his back lift.

He could not ignore Megatron, his Liege and his Mate.

The hand that rested on his shoulder next was warm and gentle. It tugged him backward, eased him toward Megatron’s side, tucked in against Megatron’s warmth and the familiar thump of Megatron’s core.

“Swoop was not lost,” Grimlock’s mate – Misfire, Rodimus thought he remembered – said. Both of his hands were around Grimlock’s arm, trying to tug him back. “It is pack custom that hatchlings be allowed to roam. We were nearby.”

“You need not justify your actions to us,” Megatron said, and he squeezed Rodimus’ shoulder as though warning him not to voice a protest. “What happens within your pack is your business. I am glad, however, that no harm came to Swoop.”

Grimlock growled, his eyes focused on Rodimus as if in challenge. Rodimus refused to look away. He glared back. He was heir-apparent to the Magnate of Iacon for a Adaptus-be-damned reason.

“You took good care of him,” Misfire said with a big smile. He reached around Grimlock and wriggled a talon at Nibbles – Swoop.

The hatchling snatched at it, giggling happily.

“Me Grimlock demand apology,” Grimlock huffed on a low growl.

“No,” Rodimus bit out. “I’m not going to. I saw a hatchling alone, and I did what I thought was best. I won’t apologize for that.” He twisted his neck, looking up at his mate. “You can’t make me either.”

Megatron sighed and palmed his face. “I am well aware of what I can and cannot make you do, Rodimus.”

“Oh, no apologies are necessary,” Misfire said with another one of those bright smiles. He moved in between Grimlock and the Kaon flock, his near-magenta feathers a rather solid barrier. “Thank you for taking such good care of him. I’m glad that if anyone found him, it was you.”

“We are neighbors here in Kaon. It is both our duty and our responsibility to watch out for each other.” Megatron diplomatically tilted his head, his feathers smoothing out from the aggressive flare they’d obtained.

He’d been ready to fight Grimlock, if necessary, to protect Rodimus. To protect his Flock honestly.

Rodimus loved him even more for that.

Misfire chuckled lightly. “This is very true.” His eyes shifted to Rodimus, and there was gratitude in his gaze.

Sympathy, too. Or perhaps Rodimus should call it pity.

Frag that. He didn’t want or need their sympathy.

“Just… take care of him,” Rodimus said, forcing out the words, forcing them to be kind and diplomatic as the Liege Consort ought to be. “He’s a special bitlet.”

If Misfire or Grimlock said anything, Rodimus chose not to hear them. He spun out from under Megatron’s hand and moved past his mate, plunging blindly into the crowd. He was grateful when they parted for him, and made it a point not to make any eye contact with anyone.

He didn’t dare admit how much it hurt.

Instead, at the first open ground he found, he launched himself into the air, climbing high as fast as he possibly could. A tightness was growing in his chest, a mixture of grief and disappointment and anger.

The last two were directed at himself. Because in less than a day, Nibbles had crawled into his core. He’d looked up at Rodimus and made him realize that maybe, he wanted a hatchling after all.

And if Megatron’s hurt, resigned expression meant anything, Rodimus had just wounded his mate both deeply and terribly.

Rodimus was a selfish ass. He was glad Grimlock and Misfire reclaimed Swoop. Clearly, he wasn’t fit to be a parent. He certainly wasn’t fit to be a mate.

He wasn’t fit to be much of anything at all.

~

Mate instinct told him to give Rodimus chase.

His responsibilities as Liege required that Megatron remain and sooth tensions over with an increasingly growly Grimlock. He did not fear the Raptor, and Grimlock had little chance of taking Kaon over from Megatron, but he still preferred to settle this peacefully. Megatron didn’t want to worry about his gathering parties in the field. He had enough worries about human raiders.

“My consort may act without thinking on occasion, but I assure you he only had the best intentions,” Megatron said, forcing Grimlock’s attention on him rather than on Rodimus’ departing form.

Misfire chuckled uneasily. “I’m sure he did. I believe he did. Unfortunately this one doesn’t react to panic very well.” He tilted his head toward his mate. “He’ll get over it.”

Megatron nodded. “That is understandable. I simply want to be sure that we have settled matters amicably. I do value our flock’s relationship.”

“Oh, we’re fine.” Misfire waved a dismissive hand. He half-turned toward Grimlock and their hatchling, one hand tickling the little one’s belly and making him giggle in Grimlock’s hold. “Aren’t we, Swoop?”

Swoop chirrup-clicked and abruptly climbed out of Grimlock’s hand, using his talons and tarsals to clamber up Grimlock’s chest. He perched himself on his sire’s shoulder – or at least Megatron assumed Grimlock had been the sire – and click-chittered.

Grimlock turned his head, looking directly at his sparkling, who planted his hands on Grimlock’s cheeks and continued to click. Megatron didn’t understand a bit of it – none of the hatchlings in his flock clicked – but Grimlock reacted as though his little one spoke actual words. His eyes narrowed before softening. The growling turned into a purr, what sparse feathers he did have slicked down against his body.

“See?” Misfire chirped as Swoop continued to chatter at his sire. “All is fine.”

Movement in Megatron’s peripheral vision alerted him to Soundwave’s arrival, Laserbeak perched on his shoulder today. Megatron did not take his eyes off Grimlock and Misfire, though the former seemed to be calming.

“Inform Maximus he can call off the search,” Megatron said as he folded his arms over his chest. “The little one’s parents have been found.”

Soundwave inclined his head, his visor catching a glint of sunlight. “The Scavengers have unique parenting customs,” he said quietly. “Truly, the fault is ours.”

“I know.” Megatron fought back a sigh. “Rodimus?”

“Roof.”

He should have known. His second guess would have been Starscream’s or Perceptor’s Nest. Rodimus often sought their counsel. Though given Starscream’s current grumpiness and Perceptor being nose-deep in some new project, no wonder Rodimus had not gone to them.

Megatron turned his attention back to Grimlock. The large Harpy clicked back at his hatchling, and Swoop giggled. He leaned forward and nipped at Grimlock’s nose before abruptly turning and leaping toward Misfire, who scrambled to catch him. Alarm shone in Misfire’s eyes, his feathers going taut, but all Swoop did was giggle.

“I hate it when he does that,” Misfire grumbled as he nudged Swoop up to his shoulder, the hatchling chittering away nonsensically.

“Heh.” Grimlock laughed and smiled and tipped his knuckle under Swoop’s chin. “Him Swoop want fly.”

“Yeah, well, I want to not have a core attack. We can’t always get what we want,” Misfire retorted with a roll of his optics. But it was with good humor. He leaned in closer to Grimlock and said something that Megatron could not hear.

It did, however, cause Grimlock’s gaze to shift to Megatron. He sighed loudly, gave Misfire an indulgent look and shook himself.

“Everything fine,” he said gruffly and curled an arm around Misfire’s waist, tucking the smol against his side. “Him Swoop safe. That what matters.”

Megatron dipped his head in a gesture of respect. “I am glad to hear it. And please, do know that you and the rest of your pack are welcome to stop by at any time. I am sure my consort would love to see Swoop again.”

“Nibbles,” Misfire giggled. “I’m going to have to start calling him that.”

Grimlock growled, his eyes narrowing at Misfire.

“What? He bites me all the time,” Misfire said defensively, though it was with an affectionate nuzzle at his hatchling. “The name suits.” He stuck out his tongue at Grimlock.

“Hatchlings bite,” Grimlock said.

“Just yours,” Misfire retorted.

Grimlock chuckled, bearing his fangs in amusement. “Good behavior for hatchlings,” he said, and nuzzled Misfire’s head. “Now come. Others wait.”

“I will see them out,” Soundwave said before Megatron could move to follow the Scavengers. “You find Rodimus.”

Megatron rested a hand on Soundwave’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “Thank you, my friend.”

“You are welcome,” Soundwave replied, only to add a little growl to the end of his words. “Though there is the matter of Sideswipe.”

Adaptus save him from over-protective mates.

“You will have to get in line behind Starscream,” Megatron said with a shake of his head. “Since clearly, I am less Liege of this flock and more its keeper.”

Soundwave laughed at him, quiet and raspy though it was. He gestured Megatron on and turned toward Misfire and Grimlock.

Trusting the Raptors to his second, Megatron stepped back into a clear space, lifting himself into the air with a powerful pull of his wings. Luckily, most of his flock had dispersed once it seemed the tension had lifted. He hoped they were off to their duties. And was sincerely glad that Starscream had not emerged from his Nest. The gravid smol was oddly protective of Rodimus at times.

Soundwave had said Rodimus was on the roof, so Megatron climbed to the very top of the Aerie where branches had been woven together to create little private alcoves. They were only large enough for one or two Harpies at a time, but were perfect for privacy. Up here, one could see all of Kaon, all the way to the University and the distant border they shared with Crystal City.

At night, the sky was a carpet of stars, and the landscape peppered with multitudes of lightning bugs. If someone wanted to sulk, it was not a bad place to do it. This early in the day, however, only one of the alcoves were occupied, and by a crimson and orange smol with drooping feathers and downcast eyes.

Megatron’s core squeezed all over again.

He landed carefully on the alcove next to Rodimus. As his mate had chosen one meant for two, Megatron assumed he was welcome to it.

Rodimus did not look at him as he landed, but the moment Megatron lowered himself into the woven seat and dangled his legs over the edge, Rodimus all but threw himself into Megatron’s arms. He buried his face against Megatron’s chest, his body trembling.

Megatron swallowed thickly. He stroked a hand down Rodimus’ back and tilted his head to rest against his mate’s.

“I am sorry,” Megatron murmured, for what else could he say. And it was not only because it turned out Nibbles had parents after all.

Rodimus rubbed his face on Megatron’s chest, but his eyes were dry, despite the hitching of his breathing. “You warned me. Why are you sorry?”

Megatron drew in a quiet breath. “That is not why I apologize.”

Rodimus squirmed free, enough that he could look up at Megatron, his face pinched with confusion. His eyes were rimmed in red, as though he had been weeping, but his face was dry.

“Then why?”

“I cannot give you a hatchling,” Megatron answered and gently tucked a knuckle under Rodimus’ chin so that their eyes could meet. “And it is plain to me that you would make an incredible carrier to a very lucky hatchling some day.” Or sire, even, if Rodimus so desired. It didn’t matter. Megatron could not provide either.

Rodimus’ wrinkled his nose. “I’m not getting your point.”

Sometimes, he could be deliberately obtuse.

“Rodimus, I love you,” Megatron said and stroked under Rodimus’ chin. “But I would let you go for the sake of your happiness.”

Bright blue eyes widened. Rodimus jerked back as though he’d been struck, his feathers lifting aggressively.

“I’m happy with you!” he declared, hands landing on Megatron’s chest, talons curling inward enough to scrape at Megatron’s skin.

“But you are unfulfilled.” Megatron pulled him back close, pressing their foreheads together. He closed his eyes, letting himself indulge in this. The warmth of Rodimus in his arms. The sound of Rodimus’ core-beat. He memorized it all as he spoke words that seemed to claw at his core.

“You are still young. You can find a better mate.”

Rodimus hissed. “I don’t want a better mate. I already have the best one.” His talons disengaged from Megatron’s chest and hands wrapped around Megatron’s head.

His eyes snapped open, and he found himself staring directly into Rodimus’. Blue fire flashed at him, as determined as the moment Hot Rod had climbed into his Nest, and Rodimus had claimed him as mate.

“I don’t need a hatchling to be happy,” Rodimus insisted, his thumbs pressing hard against Megatron’s cheek. “I just need you!”

He pulled, and Megatron was helpless to it. To the slant of Rodimus’ lips over his, fierce and claiming, as a low sound of need rose in Rodimus’ throat. His tongue plunged into Megatron’s mouth, his denta leaving a nip behind.

Megatron’s core throbbed. He crushed Rodimus against him, his kiss as needy as Rodimus’ felt. A deep rumble rose in his chest as their bodies came together, and he swore he could feel the thump of Rodimus’ core against his own.

“I love you,” Rodimus said against his lips, only to repeat again, with emphasis. He pressed a kiss to the corner of Megatron’s mouth, and then another to the curve of his jaw.

“I believe you,” Megatron murmured. He cupped Rodimus’ face gently, allowing their eyes to meet. “But I saw you with the hatchling. I saw the longing in your eyes. Do not tell me it wasn’t there.”

Rodimus’ lips wobbled. “It was there,” he admitted, and it was with a long sigh. “But that doesn’t mean having a hatchling is more important to me than being with you.”

“You say that now, but–”

“But nothing.” Rodimus shook his head and leaned back, cupping Megatron’s neck with his hands. “I am Liege Consort. To start, I have a whole flock to parent. And if that’s not enough, Starscream keeps shoving First Aid at me, and I know soon enough, he’ll tumble the new bitlet into my hands, too.”

Megatron huffed a laugh. “That is not the same thing.”

“No, it isn’t. But it’s close.” Rodimus tilted forward, rubbing their noses together. “And we just have to be vigilant. Sooner or later, another orphan or abandoned hatchling will come our way, and we have to make sure we snatch him before Mirage can. He shouldn’t get to have them all.”

This time, Megatron laughed out loud.

The bara Harpy from Crystal City was known for being the first to loudly and aggressively volunteer to adopt any hatchlings in need of care. Mirage had two fledges of his own, and two adopted. Tracks, his mate, seemed more amused by the hatchling hoarding than anything, and he supported Mirage in it.

“He has become quite the hoarder, hasn’t he?” Megatron mused aloud. But his amusement faded. “There is one option you have yet to consider.”

“Because I don’t consider it an option.” Rodimus leaned back again, his expression determined. “I don’t want a surrogate. I want a bitlet who’s ours, or not at all.”

Megatron sighed. “Rodimus, that’s impossible.”

“Not if we adopt,” Rodimus said firmly. “Look, if you don’t want to, if you’ve got enough on your shoulders being Liege, I understand. We don’t have to. I’m just saying, quit feeling guilty. All I want is to be with you. Everything else is secondary.”

Megatron worked his jaw. Rodimus’ expression was earnest, as was the press of his body, the gentle cup of his hands. Everything in his voice was truth.

Megatron pressed their foreheads together again, and breathed in the scent of his mate. “I only want you to be happy.”

“Then it’s a good thing I’m happiest with you,” Rodimus said. He tightened his embrace, as if he could somehow fold Megatron into his arms. “I’m still going to miss him. Even if he did bite me so much.”

Megatron laughed. “Like sire, like hatchling apparently.” He tucked his arms around Rodimus and nosed into his mate’s throat, breathing deeply of Rodimus’ scent. His lips found one of many claiming bites – he’d been a tad overzealous that night.

“I love you.”

Rodimus’ fingers stroked the back of his head. “And I you, my liege,” he purred, nosing his way back to Megatron’s mouth, his lips leaving a soft caress behind. “My forever mate.”

Rodimus’ lips claimed his again, and Megatron surrendered gladly to it. This, right here, was enough for him. He could not ask for more.

[Crown the Empire] Salvage 10

Soundwave was not a mech prone to indecision or uncertainty. Yet, he found himself lingering outside of Optimus’ private room, wondering if he dared go inside.

He’d been gone for most of the day, attending to the duties that Ultra Magnus and Jazz could not cover. He’d made it a point to be as productive as possible, so as not to spend too much time worrying about things he could not change.

Now he’d returned, with Ratchet’s permission of course, and logically, he knew a day was not long enough for Optimus to think about what Soundwave had said. Just as he knew, logically, that if it took any longer, it was because Optimus was trying to think of a way to let him down gently.

He was not going to get any answers if he lingered in the hallway. He found himself continuing to do so anyway. Long enough that he caught some strange looks from First Aid, the young medic Ratchet had left in charge since the medic had finally left to get some rest of his own.

Soundwave cycled a ventilation, double-checked to ensure that he still carried the datapads that would serve as shield and excuse if all this visit merited was business, and rapped his fingers on the door. He ignored Frenzy and Rumble snickering at him from afar, and welcomed Laserbeak’s soothing encouragement. Buzzsaw, asleep in Soundwave’s dock, had no opinion to offer.

“Come in!”

Now or never.

Soundwave braced himself and opened the door, stepping into the private room Ratchet had arranged for Optimus’ use. Ratchet was being a most vigilant medic as well, monitoring how many datapads Optimus was allowed at any given moment, and ensuring that his Prime was not overworking himself.

Optimus was hooked up to several machines, and the sight of him as such gave Soundwave pause. It reminded him of that night, that spike of panic from Laserbeak, and the moment where he’d stepped out into the courtyard and found Optimus collapsed like a house of cards.

Laserbeak chirped a greeting at Soundwave. She remained perched at the head of the berth, unwilling to leave Optimus’ side for even a moment. Soundwave could not express how grateful he was for her persistence. Her gaze was one of knowing, though she did not leave Optimus to return to Soundwave.

Optimus looked up and though he wore his face mask – an ever present thing as of late – his optics brightened in greeting. “Welcome back, Soundwave,” he said and gestured to the chair at his berthside. “Is this a brief stopover or were you planning to linger?”

Momentarily taken aback, Soundwave was at a loss for words. Given the discomfort present in their previous conversation, he’d expected Optimus to be awkward as well. But perhaps that was only because Optimus had been taken by surprise. He’d since had time to gather his wits.

“I would stay, if I am welcome,” Soundwave said, hoping that his nervousness did not show in his vocals. Times like these, his modulator was more than useful.

Optimus’ helm tilted. “You are welcome,” he said and tapped at the datapad in his lap, sending it into standby. “There is, after all, a small matter that we need to address.”

This was it. The moment of his dismissal.

“Understood.” Soundwave stepped fully into the room so that the door could shut behind him. At least there would be privacy for his sparkbreak. “Though if more time is needed, I am patient.”

“It would feel cruel to do so,” Optimus replied.

Soundwave retracted his field as much as he was capable. He did not want to accidentally guilt the Prime into kindness. He wanted honesty.

He took the chair offered to him, seating himself without any ease. He clutched at his datapads like a lifeline. If he had made Optimus uncomfortable, what would happen then? Would they send him back to the Decepticons? Would he be sent to serve under another? Would Optimus give him a task far away from Optimus’ side?

His code thrashed at the very idea of it. His spark flickered, on the edge of panic, and Soundwave wrestled with himself, forcing his inner dialogue into submission.

“Besides, I do not need more time,” Optimus continued as he shifted his weight and looked directly at Soundwave. “I already know what I want to do.”

Soundwave nodded. “I am listening.”

There was a quiet click as Optimus’ facemask retracted, a gesture of trust that Soundwave did not take lightly. A small smile graced Optimus’ lips, though he still looked wan and tired. He’d spent barely a day in Ratchet’s custody. It would take much longer than that until he was at full health.

“I have spent the better part of the afternoon thinking how I can put this into words,” Optimus began with a cycled ventilation. “It is odd how I find a speech so much easier than speaking from the spark, but here I am. And here you are.”

Soundwave tried not to squirm. “A difference of vulnerability perhaps?”

Optimus inclined his helm. “Perhaps,” he agreed with another soft smile. “The truth is, Soundwave, that I never thought of romance. It never seemed an option. I have those I am close to, who I dearly adore, and I was content in it and considered myself lucky to have it. As Optimus, as Prime, I assumed that was the best I could hope for.”

It sounded terribly lonely. And it explained the shadows behind Optimus’ optics, at least in part. The life of a leader was often one of solitude, and Soundwave’s coding and spark called to soothe that feeling of isolation. All the better that it was for a mech he found attractive in mind, frame, and spark.

“Prime is meant to stand alone,” Soundwave commented quietly.

“That is what I believed,” Optimus confirmed with a quiet cycle of his ventilations. “But a lot is different now. Those old structures are gone. The Matrix is gone. And perhaps clinging to the old ways is only going to set us down another dark path.”

Soundwave’s spark dared quicken. Was Optimus circling around to the sort of answer he wanted to hear?

“Support is offered,” Soundwave replied as he found himself leaning a bit closer, though he still kept a polite distance. “No matter what Optimus decides.”

Optimus’ smile gentled. “Yes, I know. That is why I find this so strangely easy.” His hands tangled together before he rested them in his lap. “I do not know whether or not I am suited to a relationship or if I can even sustain one right now, but I would be willing to explore it. With you, to clarify.”

Soundwave’s visor brightened and as much as he wanted to wallow in his excitement, the practical side of him was suspicious. “Because of convenience?”

Optimus’ optics widened. “No, of course not!” he said without so much as a hesitation. “I already considered you a friend. That you are attractive to me was the deciding factor.” His faceplate visibly heated, and he sagged a little, coughing into his palm. “I only ask that we take it slowly.”

“Speed determined by Optimus,” Soundwave reassured. He debated quickly, and then offered his hand to Optimus. “Slow, also, preferred.”

Optimus’ gaze dropped from his face to Soundwave’s hand. He steadied himself, cycled a ventilation, and then reached back. The warmth of his palm against Soundwave’s was worth more than a bucket of high grade. That he could accept the touch, welcome it even, was a massive improvement.

“I would know you first, before anything,” Optimus murmured, his thumb sweeping over Soundwave’s palm as he focused on Soundwave’s hand. “I suspect there is much we could learn of each other.”

Soundwave disengaged his modulator with an audible click. “Optimus may ask me anything,” he said without hesitation. “I have nowhere else to be.” And nowhere he’d rather be.

The faint heat that touched Optimus’ faceplate was charming. “I would appreciate the company,” he said, though it was with a sideways look in the direction Ratchet was known to haunt. “That is, if my physician allows it,” he said with a wry chuckle.

Soundwave’s lip curved. “I have snuck out of worse places than Ratchet’s domain, should the need arise.”

Optimus’ laugh was genuine and rich. “Then I will trust in your skills.” His thumb swept another path over Soundwave’s palm, igniting a wave of heat. “Just as I have learned to trust in you.”

Soundwave’s spark throbbed. He almost wondered if he had dreamt this moment, because it didn’t feel real. But the weight of Optimus’ fingers against his was undeniable, as was the first tentative push of Optimus’ field.

Trust.

Few mechs trusted Soundwave. Even fewer did he trust in return.

There was a time, he had offered such to Megatron. There was a time he might have believed Megatron returned that trust.

But the way Optiimus looked at him, spoke with him, treated his symbiotes, Soundwave believed in it again.
~

Jazz, for the record, hated paperwork.

He’d do it, if necessary, but this was what he’d always foisted off on Mirage. His second had taken great pleasure in writing mission reports, often using the most poised language possible, and as a result, he’d been Prowl’s favorite. Jazz hadn’t minded at all.

So he let Mirage do his paperwork. He let Bumblebee manage stock. And he let Smokescreen make sure their entire team was as sane as they could be, given their occupations. Smokescreen, after all, knew that Spec Ops was measured against different parameters than the average soldier despite Ratchet’s insistence that he wasn’t a real therapist.

Pfft. Real enough for Jazz’s purposes.

Still that was the set up. And it worked. Now… now Jazz did it all.

Mirage was never coming back. Even if he said he wanted to, Jazz wasn’t going to allow it. His head was no longer in the game. He’d lost too much, and Jazz couldn’t blame him. Besides, Spec Ops in peace-time had a different flavor than Spec Ops in war-time. All of his mechs deserved the chance to enjoy this peace.

As for Jazz, well, he couldn’t enjoy his peace until he was certain it was going to stick around. Sure Grimlock had Starscream well in hand, and Shockwave was in a Decepticon dungeon. But there were other terrible Decepticons still roaming the universe. Metalhawk was a pain in everyone’s aft, and Cybertron remained unstable.

Jazz couldn’t relax until the shadows were gone from Optimus’ optics. And if that meant he was on his own, well, he’d been in worse straits.

He still had Bumblebee sometimes. He borrowed Smokescreen when he could. He told Trailbreaker to stay with Hound, now and forever, so both of them were out. But maybe if he was lucky, Jazz could borrow a cassette or two. He caught Buzzsaw grumbling about how boring things were, and Frenzy was the third wheel on the Brumble bike, so maybe he wanted a job, too.

None of these mechs, however, wanted anything to do with Jazz’s paperwork. Now he had part of Optimus’ on top of his own. Which, okay, he was fine taking on some of Optimus’ load. He’d taken a peek at Ratchet’s report when Ratchet wasn’t looking and honestly, Jazz was surprised Optimus hadn’t dropped before now. He was in bad shape.

Forced rest and recovery could only do him some good. Jazz fully supported Ratchet’s decision and so did Ultra Magnus. With all three of them in agreement, Optimus couldn’t protest. He had no choice but to get better. Which was what Jazz wanted.

It still left him with a lot of paperwork, even after dumping half of it on Ultra Magnus.

Jazz sighed and put down his stylus, slumping in his chair. He removed his visor temporarily and rubbed his faceplate, feeling an ache building at the back of his optics. What he ought to do was send half of his half to Soundwave. Let him do it. He was always up Optimus’ aft anyway. Surely he knew more about this than Jazz, and he had more help than Jazz did.

Except that he probably shouldn’t disturb Soundwave right now.

Jazz leaned on his desk, propping his helm up with his fist as he snapped his visor back on. The last thing he wanted to do was interrupt whatever cute little interlude was going on between Optimus and Soundwave.

Jazz never thought he’d see the day when he was encouraging Megatron’s most loyal lieutenant to pursue Optimus. But here he was. Encouraging it. So long as Soundwave was sincere which of course he was. Soundwave didn’t do anything by halves, and he would have never betrayed Megatron if Megatron hadn’t betrayed him first.

A mech like that, he’d be good for Optimus. He’d keep an optic on him and treat him the way he deserved to be treated, and well, Optimus would be good for Soundwave, too. Poor Sounders needed a mech who wasn’t going to take advantage of him.

They needed each other.

As for Jazz?

He needed to get this damn datawork done so he could call it a night.

Jazz groaned and shifted his attention back to his paperwork. He shuffled the half-dozen or so datapads on his desk, searching for one that might capture his interest, at least for a little while. One of them was labeled “Search for Natives.” Jazz squinted at it before dragging it closer.

He powered it on and skimmed the introduction before wriggling in his chair. This was Hound and Ravage’s report! Why wasn’t it at the top of the stack? Why wasn’t it in Jazz’s stack to begin with?

Maybe he’d need to have a word with Ultra Magnus about the proper distribution of mission reports. Hound was clearly in Spec Ops, even if his mission was determined by Optimus. This was obviously Jazz’s jurisdiction. Hmph.

He went back to the report, which was classic Hound, heavy on the details and observations, almost to the point of detriment. But observation was kind of Hound’s thing. Smokescreen was the one who picked apart the observations to find the truth behind them. Mirage was the one who could get into places no one else could, but Hound? He was about details. He sniffed them out.

And, apparently, he sniffed out the humans, too. Or at least, he thought he had.

Jazz’s grin widened.

Trailbreaker had found a signal. They’d tracked it down to what appeared to be an underground bunker somewhere deep in the Rockies. Not government issued, thank Primus. Jazz really didn’t want to deal with a surviving human government. He wanted to deal with real people, not bureaucracy.

Ravage got close enough to tell there was some kind of human presence, but short of breaking in, they weren’t able to establish contact. Unless they wanted to announce themselves through the radio signals they picked up.

They waited for further orders.

Optimus was going to be ecstatic. The death of the native species on Earth had been one of the things that weighed heaviest on his spark. Boss bot took on too much as it was, and while yeah, their crash-landing on Earth had brought the Cybertronian war to the planet, they’d done the best they could.

Anyway. Hound needed orders.

Jazz rapped his fingers on the top of the desk. He needed a liaison. Someone to make contact with the humans who wouldn’t frighten them. Someone they saw as a friend, perhaps someone who didn’t look dangerous, at least to a human.

Hound and Trailbreaker were nice enough, but they were big, Trailbreaker especially. Ravage was an overlarge black cat and had become something of a celebrity amongst the humans as a Decepticon.

And just like before, Jazz knew who would be perfect for the job.

He leaned back in the chair and pinged his favorite organic liaison. “Bumblebee? Got a new mission for ya, and it’s non-negotiable.” He paused, his visor catching the headline for another datapad – something regarding Red Alert. “Two missions actually. All in the same place. Ya can even bring Rumble if ya want.”

This would work, Jazz decided as he started putting together the mission parameters. Plus, Bee had been missing Earth, and while there wasn’t much to see over there now, maybe it would help him out.

Jazz wouldn’t recall Hound and ‘Breaker though. Hound wasn’t ready to come back to Cybertron, and maybe he never would be. Jazz didn’t know. He would leave that up to Hound and not push.

They weren’t at war. Not anymore. Jazz didn’t need all the soldiers he could get. And he definitely didn’t need soldiers whose heads weren’t in the game. Those kinds of spies got themselves killed.

So what if he only had Smokescreen anymore? He’d worked with less before. He’d make do. He’d figure it out.

He was Jazz.
~

He was nervous.

It was an emotion Vortex was unaccustomed to enduring. At least, not for millennia. Before he was a Combaticon, before he was an Interrogator, before he’d been given an assignment… he used to be anxious. He used to be uncertain.

All of the above had rather quickly and ruthlessly stripped his anxieties from him. He couldn’t survive if he indulged in that flavor of weakness so he’d buried it deep. He built another Vortex on top of the fragile one, and locked the gentle Vortex away.

Gentle Vortex would get him killed.

But now, he dared dip past the mask. He peeled back the layers, slowly, slowly. Gentle Vortex had taken one look at Bluestreak and tried to claw his way to the surface. There was a longing there, a desperation to be something more than survival had made him.

If Brawl could do it, why couldn’t he? If Soundwave could court Optimus Prime and succeed, if Starscream could be happy in a non-fragged up relationship, then there was hope for Vortex. Not Interrogator Vortex, but the Weak Vortex.

He could do this. He believed he could. He just needed the weak half of himself to be strong. He needed to keep the learned instincts buried. He needed to not look at Bluestreak and imagine how pretty he would be if he screamed.

Vortex cycled a deep ventilation. He could do this. He would do this. He recited a calming technique he learned ages ago.

I am who I want to be. I am not what I was made but who I want to become.

And then he stepped out into the main square of Polyhex, in the shadow of the obelisk that served as a memorial for the fallen Autobots. He didn’t question why Bluestreak wanted to meet here. Everything they had chosen was for Bluestreak’s comfort. Vortex didn’t want to fail before he even started.

He wanted whatever it was his spark longed for in Bluestreak, and if there was even the slightest chance that Bluestreak might return the interest, Vortex wanted to try. That was the hardest part, wasn’t it? The trying.

It was a mission he couldn’t fail.

Bluestreak was already waiting, his posture reading tense and distracted, a touch unsure. A dark side of Vortex could easily read his frame language, from the minute twitches of sensory panels to the exact tautness of his plating. But he pushed that side down and focused on the positives.

Bluestreak had come. He hadn’t required an armed guard. He’d said yes. It was a start. It was a good start.

Bluestreak turned as Vortex approached, perhaps sensing his field, perhaps hearing the deliberate scuffs of pedesteps Vortex had made. His plating shone in the street lighting. He’d gotten himself polished, probably Mirage’s doing. He had a smile on his face, taut though it was.

“You’re early,” he said.

“So are you,” Vortex replied. “Not that, uh, it’s a bad thing. Just an observation. I hope you weren’t waiting long, I mean.” Great. He was babbling.

Weak Vortex in action. The babbler. The one who gave away too much.

Bluestreak calmed a little. His armor relaxed. His smile deepened. “No. I was early on purpose. You can probably guess why.”

Probably. Was he going to try? Nope. That was the dark Vortex. Dark Vortex wanted to read everything, know everything. Dark Vortex didn’t understand the joy of finding out naturally.

“I can. But I won’t,” Vortex said, and then almost smacked himself because that was creepy, and he knew it. “I mean, are you sure you want to do this? You didn’t just say yes because you were afraid to say no?”

Bluestreak tilted his helm. His sensory panels drifted down by a fraction, a motion of subtle relaxation. “I was a prisoner in your compound for the better part of six months. You never once touched me. Was that on threat of Onslaught or did you restrain yourself?”

Vortex snorted on instinct. “Pfft. I obey Onslaught because I want to. He can’t make me do anything,” he scoffed. He didn’t even have to think about the answer ’cause it was true.

He obeyed Onslaught because he respected Onslaught. But even if Onslaught hadn’t, Vortex wouldn’t have done anything. What fun would that have been? What would’ve been the purpose?

“That’s what I thought,” Bluestreak said and he lifted his chin, a light entering his optics that gave hint to a quiet strength, something deeply inward, that he let few see. Maybe, a little bit like the weak Vortex that he couldn’t let others see. “And that’s why I wasn’t afraid to say yes. Curious. But not afraid.”

“Curious?” There was still the space of five mech strides between them. Vortex didn’t dare cross it. He hadn’t been invited.

He was a threat. He knew he was a threat. He didn’t want to come across as a threat. He wanted whatever his spark sensed in Bluestreak’s.

Bluestreak grinned, genuine this time, and scratched at the side of his nose. “Cause if there’s anyone I’d guess you’d go after, it’d be Smokescreen, not me. He seems, um, more your type?”

Vortex tilted his helm. “My type?” He didn’t know why he asked. He already knew the answer. Mechs looked at him and they just saw the Vortex who survived. They never wondered if there was another Vortex underneath.

“Oh.” Bluestreak’s face heated. “That’s rude, isn’t it? To assume you have a type. I should know better.” His orbital ridges drew down, his gaze sliding to the side. “Assumptions are annoying, aren’t they? People make their judgments of you at first glance and that colors the rest of their observations. After that, it doesn’t matter what you do or say. You’re forever painted that color.” His tone flattened, but beneath it, a lingering sense of annoyance.

Ah. There it was. The reason Vortex’s spark had throbbed an extra beat. Bluestreak understood.

“It happens,” Vortex demurred, his spark spinning with joy. “But that you’re here proves that people don’t always keep that first impression, right?”

Bluestreak’s optics slid back toward him, brightening. “Right.” He nodded and planted his pedes. “So let’s get this date started. You. Me. And whatever it is you have planned.”

Vortex stared at him. “You trust me to decide?”

Bluestreak stepped closer, until their fields were close enough to touch. “Sure,” he said, looking up at Vortex with a genuine smile this time. “Why not?”
~

“Yes!”

Bumblebee watched as Rumble did a little dance and pumped both fists into the air. He looked far too excited to be on Earth.

“Why?” he had to ask, because Bumblebee himself was having trouble working up any kind of enthusiasm.

What he saw before him resembled a barren wasteland. The forest was gone, the mountains barren as though laid to waste. It was too quiet, except for the occasional chirp of the rare insect. It was nothing like what Bumblebee remembered.

“Because Frenzy didn’t come with us,” Rumble replied with a large grin. He bumped shoulders with Bee. “And now we can finally get some alone time. I love my twin, but Primus-on-a-pogostick he’s a nuisance.”

Bumblebee managed to dredge up a chuckle. “Then lucky for you he and Eject seem to be striking up a friendship.”

“Lucky for both of us,” Rumble corrected, and he reached for Bumblebee’s hand, tangling their fingers together. “You gonna be okay. Ya kinda look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

Bumblebee sighed. “I didn’t think it would be this hard. Coming back here.” They started toward the temporary-now-permanent station that Kup and his team had built. “I don’t think I ever realized how attached I was to this planet.”

“Sorry. I forgot, too.” Rumble squeezed his hand. “Earth wasn’t much fun for us so I was glad ta leave. But you had friends here.”

Friends.

Bumblebee’s spark squeezed.

He remembered their human friends asking them not to leave. Sparkplug had insisted the American government had no right to force them out. He’d actually asked that they go to a different country if they had to. Carly was certain that the Decepticons couldn’t be gone; she begged them to reconsider. Spike had said nothing, only looked at Bumblebee as though they’d all broken his heart. Chip made them promise to try and return.

He didn’t know if any of them had survived.

“They are probably dead,” Bumblebee said as he drew to a halt, not ready to face Kup’s crew at the moment. “I tried not to think about that before, but now that I’m here…” He shook his helm and cycled a ventilation. “I wouldn’t even know where to begin looking.”

Rumble shifted in front of Bumblebee and took his other hand. “Then let’s do it.”

Bumblebee cycled his optics. “Do what?”

“Look for your friends. We can ask for a transfer here, work under Kup, and look for ’em.”

Bumblebee worked his jaw. “But you hate Earth.”

Rumble stepped closer, until he looked up into Bumblebee’s optics, his lips curving in an oh-so-familiar smirk. “Don’t hate it. Not really. Just hate being underwater and cramped quarters. Besides. I’d be with you. Isn’t that what it’s about?”

Sometimes, he looked at Rumble and saw the mech he knew from before the war, the one who pulled him out of the gutters and helped turn his life around. Sometimes, he saw the Rumble who’d hurled insults and grenades at him during the course of the war. And then there were times he saw Rumble presently, a mech who was determined to make things right, and who loved Bumblebee fully and honestly.

“We should see what information Kup has to offer before we make any plans to stay,” Bumblebee said as he squeezed Rumble’s hands. “Plus, we do have another job to do first.”

“Yeah. Finding the memory cores. I remember.” Rumble leaned in and stole a kiss before Bumblebee could react, and never mind the heat in his faceplates at the thought someone could have seen them. “So let’s get that over with so we can look for your friends, all right?”

Bumblebee nodded. “Sounds like a plan.” He paused, squeezing Rumble’s hands before his partner could wander away. “Thank you.”

Rumble leaned in for another kiss, this one softer and sweeter and who cared if anyone saw them? They had a lifetime of being at war with each other to make up for.
~

“Thank you for coming,” First Aid said as he met Ambulon outside the Autobot medical center and escorted the Neutral medic inside. “I am actually surprised Metalhawk approved your visit.”

Ambulon’s smile was thin around the edges, his shoulders hunched, his paint an oddly mottled swath of pale colors and bright spots. “He said, and I quote, that he intended to foster good relations and offering medical aid to those in need was something of a given.”

“I see.” First Aid wasn’t sure he trusted that, but he would go along with it for now. “Still, I appreciate the assistance. Spark specialists are rare.”

Ambulon’s smile thinned even further if that was at all possible. “The specialization evolved as something of a necessity.”

“How so?”

Ambulon’s hands tightened around the datapad he carried. “Decepticons,” he said tightly. “And their fascination with combiner technology. It’s a product of spark mechanics as much as it is frame compatibility.”

The door to the medbay proper swung open ahead of them, and First Aid dimly registered the low dong that announced their arrival. Being as he was the on-duty medic, he would have been the one to respond.

Ratchet, finally, was getting the rest he needed since he’d been hovering over Optimus nonstop, not that First Aid could blame him.

“You were a Decepticon?” First Aid asked, unable to hide his surprise. Most of the Neutrals had been Neutral from the start. The rest tended to be former Autobots. Rarer still was the mech who left the Decepticons for a non-combatant role in the Neutrals.

Ambulon would be the first that First Aid had ever met who lived through the war. The Decepticons tended to take defectors personally. Or at least Megatron did. First Aid had heard the horror stories of the DJD.

“Yes.”

The terse answer spoke volumes.

First Aid didn’t press for more. He understood not wanting to talk about things. After all, he had three patients in his medbay who might never get to leave. Though that also explained what brand had been on the scrupulously clean section of Ambulon’s paint, opposite of his medic’s marks.

He gestured for Ambulon to follow him to the small room they used for patient records. Ambulon wanted to sift through all the data on Sideswipe and Sunstreaker before he could make a judgment call, and First Aid wasn’t comfortable data-bursting it to him. He didn’t want the Neutrals to have a copy of Sideswipe and Sunstreaker’s medical records for any reason.

“I’m sorry the room’s so small,” First Aid said as they squeezed into the narrow space, which had enough room for two chairs, a slender table, and two bookshelves piled with datapads. “Data storage is low on the list of priorities.”

“I’ve endured smaller. It’s fine.” Ambulon pulled out a chair and sat himself at the table. First Aid retrieved Sideswipe and Sunstreaker’s files. “Is there any equipment that you are lacking? Perhaps we have spares.”

First Aid set the two datapads down in front of the Neutral. “How much time do you have? Our list is endless,” he said with a sigh. “Most of what we have is taken from the Xantium or has been scavenged from Polyhex or in some cases, built by hand out of scrap parts.” Though he’d heard Ratchet scrounging together some items worth enough to trade with Swindle in hopes to acquire their more dire equipment.

“Then I’ll see what all we can spare and have it sent here,” Ambulon said, but his tone was absent as he clicked on the datapads and started to skim the available data. “This is up to date?”

First Aid leaned against the wall near the open doorway, unwilling to try and squeeze down at that table. The room was tiny and reminded him too much of the cell where he’d spent a good portion of the last several months.

“Yes. The most recent scan was taken this morning after recharge and before energon consumption.”

Ambulon nodded, though again it was with a distracted air. “They have very unique sparks. No wonder Shockwave was intrigued. Twins are something of a rarity. I have only studied two pairs in all my functioning.”

“What happened to them?”

Ambulon sighed and scrubbed a free hand down his face. “One pair died not long after splitting. Spark instability. But that’s what happens when you force the fissure.”

“And the other?

Ambulon lapsed into silence. His field drew inward, tight to his frame, and his fingers tightened around the datapads. “They died as well. With the rest of their unit.” There was grief in the way he carried himself. A personal grief that felt somehow familiar.

Despite himself, First Aid gravitated toward the available chair and lowered himself to it. “Together?”

“No. That much is myth.” Ambulon shook his helm and glanced at First Aid. “Mechs often confused the two. The difference between a branched spark and a split spark.” He lifted Sideswipe’s records pointedly. “They are split. They are separate mechs. Branched sparks are connected. When one falls, so does the other.”

First Aid hadn’t known that. He assumed all twins were alike. After all, the only ones he’d ever met were Sideswipe and Sunstreaker. Ultra Magnus’ Wreckers had once had a set, a pair named Rack ‘n Ruin, but they died. Together. First Aid assumed that the same would happen to Sunstreaker and Sideswipe.

Ratchet hadn’t even known this. Granted, he was more of a general physician than a specialist, and he’d admitted that the particulars of spark mechanics were not his strong suit but still…

First Aid peered at the Neutral medic. “How do you know so much?”

Ambulon sighed. “I used to be part of a gestalt.”

First Aid’s visor reset. He stared at Ambulon, not expecting that answer. “You did?”

The Neutral nodded. His gaze wasn’t directed at First Aid. Instead, he seemed very focused on the datapad in front of him, but something in the way his plating clamped tight to his frame was familiar.

There was pain in his posture, an old pain, an old grief.

“Eons ago,” Ambulon said, his fingers fiddling with one of the buttons. “My team was part of an experiment. An attempt to make a combiner team that hadn’t been sparked together.” He paused and gave First Aid a long look. “That research would later help craft the Combaticons, you know.”

“I didn’t know.” First Aid put down his scanner and dragged himself onto a stool. “What happened to your team?”

Ambulon’s gaze drifted away. “They died,” he said, and his armor shivered. His shoulder, where a brand had once been, seemed all the brighter. “One by one. To this day, I’m still not sure how or why I didn’t.”

“I know what you mean.” First Aid rubbed at his chestplate. “You don’t ever forget, do you? That moment when you felt them offline.”

Ambulon set down the instrument and looked at him, his optics dim. “No, you don’t. The pain doesn’t go away. It feels like they’re still inside you.”

“Talking to you,” First Aid added, his shoulders slumping. “Offering commentary even though you didn’t ask for it. Fooling you into thinking they’re still alive somewhere.”

“Yes. That.”

“Is that why you joined the Neutrals?”

Ambulon audibly cycled a ventilation and set down the datapads. “I left the Decepticons without a plan. My escape shuttle broke down. I was floating in empty space waiting to die. Metalhawk’s crew saved my life.”

“You went by a different name then, didn’t you?”

“The mech I was before, he died with the rest of my team. Ambulon wasn’t a better choice but…” He shrugged, giving First Aid a wry look. “All the best names are taken.”

First Aid chuckled despite himself. “Left arm,” he said, tapping his shoulder. “You?”

“Right leg.”

First Aid cycled his visor, and then laughed louder, more genuine this time. “And you picked Ambulon on purpose?”

The Neutral medic shrugged again. “Made it a little bit easier to laugh at myself.” His lips curled toward a gentle smile. “I wasn’t Scalpel anymore. I knew I couldn’t forget who I was, but I hoped changing my name would at least help me move on.”

“Did it?”

Ambulon’s optics – a Neutral gold shade – dimmed even further. “Some days are better than others,” he admitted.

“And some days are worse,” First Aid agreed. He folded his arms over his spark, concentrating on the familiar pulses of it. “I don’t think I could give up my designation. It’s all I have left that connects me to them.”

Ambulon tilted his helm. “We all grieve differently. There’s no right or wrong way. And that’s after I’ve had centuries to get used to feeling this lonely…” He trailed off as though admitting his inner pain had been a mistake before offering First Aid a wan smile. “It is nice, however, to know I am no longer the only one.”

First Aid’s visor brightened in agreement. “It is.” It would be nice, too, to have a friend. Wheeljack and Ratchet were invaluable to him, but he’d been so close to his team that First Aid struggled to form a connection with anyone else. “Would you… be interested in exchanging personal comms?” he asked, but was quick to add. “Please don’t feel obligated to say yes. I only thought—”

“Yes,” Ambulon said, and his expression softened. “I would enjoy being able to have a conversation with you that isn’t being monitored.” His field opened to First Aid, just enough that he could sense the offer was genuine. “Especially since we should probably get to work. I have permission to be here, but too long gone and I’m sure Metalhawk will become anxious.”

“Good point. Back to work then.” First Aid made shooing motions. “We’ll have plenty of time to talk later.”

Ambulon’s optics glinted at him. “Yes, we will.”
~

Soundwave pressed a kiss to Optimus’ fingers before he left. It was an action so chaste that it should not have caused a wave of warmth to spread through Optimus’ frame, and yet it did.

Optimus swore that his fingers tingled, though only the truly romantic believed such a thing happened. He stared out the door as Soundwave left, his spark lighter than it had been in weeks.

It was not what he could have expected.

He was glad, at least, that Laserbeak had stayed. That she perched even now on the head of the berth beside him and nudged her helm against his.

He would return, if you asked, she sent to him, a smiling emoji attached to the purely text communication. Her field pushed at his, warm with affection and amusement.

To his dismay, Optimus’ face heated with the beginnings of a blush. “That is not necessary,” he replied. “I should be recharging anyway. Ratchet would insist.”

And you always obey Ratchet, Laserbeak commented with another trickle of amusement. She shuffled over on the head of the berth as though making herself more comfortable. Are you sure? All it would take is a little nudge.

Optimus chuckled despite himself and turned his helm so that he could look at Laserbeak, her optics glinting back at him. “You are a menace,” he said teasingly. “I can tell I am going to have to watch you closely.”

You and Master are a good match, she replied with a touch of smug superiority that was Soundwave through and through. I am only encouraging what is obvious to everyone else.

She had a point. Optimus remembered the knowing looks Ratchet kept giving him, and the ones Jazz echoed, though his with a touch of amusement. He wondered if Jazz harassing Soundwave had a secondary intent other than sussing out Soundwave’s intentions. Optimus supposed he would have to have a chat with his third tomorrow.

But you are also right, Laserbeak continued with that same mischievous edge to her text she had earlier. You need rest and if I keep you awake, Ratchet will come in here and yell at me.

“He wouldn’t. Not at you. I would bear the brunt of his displeasure,” Optimus said with a gentle smile.

He thought he wouldn’t be able to recharge. Given the nightmares that usually haunted him when he was most vulnerable, Optimus expected to spend half the night cycle staring at the lights on the equipment around him.

Laserbeak’s presence was a surprising soother.

Optimus settled himself into the berth, surprised also by how much of a comfort the thin metalmesh blanket Ratchet had provided gave him as well. There was something about the barely-present weight and warmth of it that calmed him.

He sent a ping to the lights so they would dim, and the room draped itself in pockets of shadow intermingled with bright orange and red and blue lights. As far as he could tell, all the machines monitoring him were reporting back positive results.

Recharge well, Optimus, Laserbeak sent, a smiling emoticon and a hugging one transmitting to him. Recharge in peace. I will guard your rest.

And not a better guardian could he ask for. “Goodnight, Laserbeak,” Optimus replied aloud and he offlined his optics, cycling long, slow ventilations as he attempted to initiate recharge.

It came to him swiftly and for the first time since the Autobots had been liberated from Megatron’s tyranny, Optimus did not dream.

[Crown the Empire] Salvage 09

Soundwave had heard rumors that the Autobot Chief Medical Officer could curse with the best of them. That he had a full arsenal of foul words to choose from, some of which held origins in various foreign languages, and he used them liberally. The more he cursed, the angrier he was, but also, the more likely his patient would survive.

So Soundwave took comfort in the amount of vitriol spewing from Ratchet’s lips even as he worked on Optimus, attaching drip lines and sensors and monitors. He moved fast, his hands a blur, practiced and calm. He’d put Optimus together more times than any of them could count. For Ratchet, this had to be common. Rote. Nothing worrisome.

Soundwave certainly hoped so.

He was wise enough to stay out of the way, though he refused to leave the room. His spark still hadn’t slowed, and still pulsed a frantic beat.

Laserbeak’s frantic pinging and calls across his comm and their bond still rang through him. She didn’t often sound frightened, but this time, she did. It was enough that Soundwave had dropped the energon he’d carefully selected for his meeting with Optimus and ran.

The sight of Optimus collapsed in the courtyard had nearly stopped his spark. He thanked Primus and anyone else listening he was strong enough to scoop the Prime up, rushing him to the medical center, even as he pinged Ratchet relentlessly. The CMO had been in recharge, but he’d been out of the berth the moment he heard who Soundwave was bringing in.

Soundwave feared it was poison. That this was Metalhawk finally making his move.

He feared worse things.

Laserbeak remained on his shoulder, refusing to return to his dock. She huddled near his helm, her optics locked on Optimus’ unconscious frame. Occasionally, Soundwave would stroke her head.

She might very well have saved Optimus’ life. Soundwave was even more glad that he’d had the foresight to have Laserbeak keep an optic on Optimus. The Prime did not know how to look after himself.

Why was Jazz not with him?

Soundwave determined that he would have words with the Special Ops Commander later. But for now, he would stand here and listen to Ratchet curse as the machines beeped a steady cadence, proving Optimus was alive.

Soundwave could not remember the last time he’d been so frightened.

“He’s going to be fine, the stupid fragging Pit-slagged excuse for a Prime that he is,” Ratchet snarled, and it took Soundwave several moments to realize that buried in all the cursing, Ratchet reassured him. “Just so you know.”

Soundwave dipped his helm. “Thank you.”

“I’m only telling you so you can stop watching me like I’m going to make a mistake or something,” Ratchet retorted with a halfway glance over his shoulder. “And so you can stop looking like someone kicked one of your symbiotes. This fragger’s going to live. I’ve brought him back from worse than this.”

“Every confidence in Ratchet’s skills held,” Soundwave replied with an inclination of his helm. “Comfort in waiting.”

“Yeah, yeah. At least you’re out of the way.” Ratchet shrugged a shoulder dismissively and then bent himself back to the task of repairing Optimus. “Fragging stupid mechs not listening to their slagging Unicron-slogged medics who obviously don’t know–”

Soundwave tuned him out once he realized Ratchet was simply cursing again, and not saying anything relevant.

Optimus was going to be fine, Ratchet said. Soundwave believed him. Though it was not enough to ease the tremor of worry in his spark. He’d left a mess outside Optimus’ quarters. He made a mental note to clean that up. He should probably contact Jazz and Ultra Magnus, but didn’t know if Ratchet had done so already.

There were many more things he should be doing than standing here, watching Ratchet work, worrying himself into illness. Laserbeak continued to shiver on his shoulder, no matter how much comfort he offered her. She had grown attached to Optimus.

He greets me like an equal! She’d chirred to Soundwave, her enthusiasm so great it had been infectious. Her delight affected Soundwave’s spark.

“That’s because you are one,” Soundwave had replied, but her excitement could not be deterred.

She’d turned circles in the sky that day, and constantly badgered Buzzsaw with her glee. He grumped at her, but her mood eventually infected him, too.

That was the moment Soundwave knew he’d made the right choice.

Seeing Rumble with Bumblebee had been the start. Sending Ravage off with Hound, her delight in finally being able to have something she’d thought she’d lost, had been the second point.

And now, Laserbeak’s unadulterated delight, they were all proof. They were relief. Soundwave had finally done something right for his cassettes. Even if Ravage and Rumble and Frenzy ended up leaving him, Soundwave had done right.

He turned his attention back to Optimus, trying to ignore the way his spark squeezed into a tiny ball. He hated feeling this helpless.

A querying ping rang across the bond – Rumble, wanting to know if Soundwave needed company.

He sent back a negative. He had Laserbeak. He would be fine, so long as Ratchet did not force him to leave.

Ratchet worked; Soundwave watched. He did not move. He had fine-tuned the art of standing still, watching and waiting. It served him well now.

He did, in fact, contact both Jazz and Ultra Magnus. The latter stated he would take over Optimus’ duties for the time being. Jazz accepted that he would help pick up the slack. Neither placed the blame on Soundwave.

‘Just look out for him for me, okay?’ Jazz said. Almost as if he knew.

But of course he knew.

Soundwave had tried to be subtle, but there were some things a mech could not hide. Especially not from someone as intuitive as Jazz. Soundwave had always admired Optimus Prime from afar, and the recent proximity to Optimus only made those feelings come pouring back.

Even if nothing ever came of it. Even if all Soundwave was allowed was a chance to remain at Optimus Prime’s side, however platonic, it would be worth it. Optimus Prime was a mech worth following. This Soundwave knew to be true.

Soundwave watched for several hours until Ratchet finally stepped back, wiping his hands with a cloth pulled from his subspace. Optimus’ vitals had stabilized, including his ventilations and his spark rate. He no longer lay on the berth tensely, as though fighting an inner battle. There was relaxation to his frame.

“He’s recharging,” Ratchet said, an exhausted cant to his voice as he dragged himself around the berth. He tilted his helm toward the door, indicating Soundwave should follow. “And if I’m half the medic I think I am, he’ll be recharging for the next several hours.”

“Understood.” Soundwave moved to follow, but Laserbeak alit from his shoulder.

Soundwave sent her a questioning ping, only to find her perched at the head of Optimus’ berth. Her gaze dropped to the sleeping Prime, her wings fluttering as she made herself comfortable.

I want to keep an optic on him, she said, and in her field was a sense of guilt. I should have been paying closer attention.

Plenty of blame to go around, Soundwave replied. He did not demand she return, and luckily, Ratchet didn’t demand she leave.

Soundwave followed Ratchet out of the private room and down the hall, to the medic’s office. It was a small space, crammed with cabinets and boxes of supplies, but Soundwave supposed it was the privacy that mattered. Ratchet signaled for the door to close and lock, but Soundwave had no doubt that Ratchet still monitored Optimus remotely.

Ratchet dropped down into his chair with the heaviness of a mech exhausted and carrying a weighty burden. “Ahhh,” Ratchet sighed with a palm shielding his expression from Soundwave’s view. “It was never the war that was going to kill me, but foolish Primes thinking they are indestructible.”

Soundwave found a sturdy chair and carefully lowered himself into it. “It was poison?”

“Poison?” Ratchet dropped his hand and snorted. “Of course not. It was idiocy.”

Soundwave stared at the medic.

Ratchet cycled a ventilation and straightened a little on the chair. “Optimus wasn’t fully recovered to start with, but he insisted on not being berthbound. I released him with caveats. He was to fuel properly. He was to recharge properly. And he was supposed to come to me if he sensed anything was wrong.” Ratchet threw one hand into the air, field flaring with aggravation. “He failed on all three counts.”

Soundwave inclined his helm. “Optimus refuels,” he said, the accusation stinging a bit as he’d made it a duty to ensure that Optimus received the proper amount of fuel every day. As far as he knew, Optimus had been consuming it.

“Yeah, he refuels,” Ratchet admitted, but it was a scowl. He tapped one finger on his desk. “But what he’s been neglecting to mention is that he’s been purging it just as much as he’s been consuming it. More than half of his daily intake has ended up in recycling.”

Soundwave lowered his helm, guilt striking him anew. “It was not sabotage then.”

“No.” Ratchet sighed and sank a little lower in his chair. “It was Optimus not getting the rest he needs. He has suffered as much, if not more, than the rest of us. But he continues to insist on putting our needs before his.”

“Optimus great leader.”

“You don’t have to tell me that.” Ratchet tossed him a hard look. “But he can’t lead if he’s not healthy.” He whipped a hand in the general direction of Optimus’ recovery room. “He hasn’t had a single night of uninterrupted recharge in weeks. The inhibitors aren’t working because he’s not slagging taking them! He passed out because his own frame turned against him. It forced a manual shutdown!”

Soundwave flinched. He had a passing knowledge of medical engineering. He was a field medic at best. But even he knew that when the frame forced a manual shutdown, it was not good.

Ratchet rubbed at his chevron, looking old and tired. “I shouldn’t even be telling you this,” he admitted in a gravelly voice. “But frag it, Optimus needs looking after and both me and Jazz have our hands full. You seem like you want the job so here I am, offering it to you.”

Soundwave tilted his helm, confused. “I don’t understand.”

“I’m not blind, Soundwave. And neither is Jazz. We know why you’re sticking close to Optimus, and it’s not just for political reasons. Though at least it shows you have better taste than we all thought you did.” He lowered his hand, looking Soundwave straight in the visor. “My advice? He’s never going to realize it unless you say something.”

“An unwise action,” Soundwave said quietly.

Ratchet snorted. “Why? Because you used to be a Decepticon? The rules aren’t that simple anymore.”

“Reasons more complicated,” Soundwave said with a shake of his helm.

“Reasons like fear, I’d imagine.” Ratchet squinted at him but then waved a dismissing hand. “Whatever. I’m not here to tell you what you should do. If you don’t want to, fine. I’ll find someone else to make sure Optimus stays in that berth where he belongs.”

Soundwave cycled a ventilation. “Medical leave?”

“If I have to,” Ratchet said darkly. “We’re settled enough that the Autobots will survive without Optimus looking over their shoulders. I’m not losing him because he won’t take care of himself. Frag that.”

This was no idle threat, Soundwave realized. Ratchet was serious. Every inch of his energy field was firm and unarguable.

Soundwave shifted his weight on the chair. “Task accepted,” he said. “Optimus in need of care,” he added with a touch of humor. “Even before end of war.”

“You have no idea.” Ratchet ex-vented a heavy sigh and leaned into his chair, the fatigue pulling down on his frame. “When he wakes up, he’s not going to be happy. But he doesn’t have a choice. I’m putting him on berth rest for several days. I trust you’ll help me keep him there.”

“Affirmative.”

“Good.” Ratchet hid his optics behind his palm again. “Primus, my spark can’t take this.”

“Apologies for startling you.”

Ratchet’s free hand waved dismissively. “Of all the things that happened today, none of it is your fault. Instead, I’m grateful Laserbeak – and by default, you – were there.”

Some of the tension eased out of Soundwave’s frame. If Ratchet could be so relaxed, then so could Soundwave. It was a relief to know that Optimus was in no real danger, though he still chastised himself for not paying better attention. He’d known Optimus was still exhausted, but assumed that Ratchet was monitoring it.

At the time, Soundwave had not thought it his place to question Optimus’ health. But Ratchet had given him permission to do so and so Soundwave would.

Optimus was needed. And not just because he was their Prime. Sometimes, Soundwave wondered if maybe Optimus lost himself in the title, that he forgot he was also dear friend to his subordinates. That they would miss him as Optimus and not just Prime if he was gone.

“Rest, also, suggested for Ratchet,” Soundwave proposed. The medic looked in better repair than Optimus, but exhaustion still sat heavy on his frame. “Until Optimus onlines?”

Ratchet’s lips quirk toward a smile. “Medic, heal thyself? How true.” He gave Soundwave an amused look. “Don’t worry. I intend to get some rest. I’m monitoring Optimus’ vitals as it is. Might I suggest you do the same? You can’t do anything more for him now.”

Soundwave nodded. “Suggestion understood. Will return later.” He rose to his pedes, the tightness in his frame almost fully gone. “Laserbeak to remain, if allowed.”

“Yeah. She can stay.” Ratchet waved another dismissing hand. “I owe her one anyway. Lemme know what she likes.”

“Laserbeak partial to rust sticks.”

“Junk food, hm? I’ll get Jack to whip up some.” Ratchet shifted in his chair as though getting comfortable, his expression turning sober. “I’m serious, Soundwave. Thank you.”

Soundwave tilted his helm in acknowledgment. “Appreciation unnecessary. Welcome all the same.”

He took his leave of the office, though he stopped by Optimus’ private room first. He paused at the viewing window, looking in at the sleeping Prime. Laserbeak remained at the head of the berth, ever vigilant.

Optimus would be safe. He would recover.

Ratchet was right. There was nothing Soundwave could do here at the moment. But he could see to cleaning the mess he’d made and ensure there was nothing of immediate importance in Optimus’ paperwork. He would also need to contact Grimlock and Metalhawk, informing them to direct their queries to Ultra Magnus for the time being.

There was work to be done, and Soundwave would see to it. Optimus could not recover if he was concerned about the Autobots and the daily running of Polyhex. The least Soundwave could do was support him. Besides, it would be an excellent distraction if nothing else.
~

He found her on a ridge, staring out over the ravaged landscape the Decepticons had left behind. She was seated, running on silent mode, even her field completely withdrawn. Below her, the land went on for miles, bleak and brown and empty.

“What’s wrong?” Hound asked.

Ravage’s tail twitched before she turned her head up to look at him. “Soundwave. Felt a spike of fear and worry from him before it was gone.”

“Do you think something happened?” Hound asked as he lowered himself down beside her. He gently rested a hand along her back.

“I don’t know. At this distance, only the sharper emotions come through.” Ravage sighed and leaned against him, the warmth of her frame a wonderful counterpoint to the cutting chill of the wind this high up. “It was not a fear for himself. I know this much. And it was not one of the others. I would have felt their pain.”

Her field finally opened to him, letting him inside. There was worry there, but it was nice to know she was comforted by his presence.

“We check in soon,” Hound replied as he let their fields tangle. “We can ask for news then. And if you want, we can go back.”

“Are you ready to return?”

He opted for silence rather than answering that question. It was a loaded one, and to be fair, Hound wasn’t sure he knew how to answer the question. Cybertron was full of memories, more painful than not. While being on Earth hurt, it was still a lesser agony than the dead husk of Cybertron.

“Hound?”

He shook his helm. “I will return if you need to,” he said. “And I will go where you go. Here, at the end of the war, where I want to be is wherever you are.”

Affection rose in Ravage’s field. Her engine purred, vibrating against his armor. “How romantic of you.” Her vocals were thick with humor. “But don’t think I didn’t notice you sidestepping the question.”

He made a noncommittal noise.

Cybertron was still home. It made him no more uneasy to be on Cybertron than it did to be on Earth. But the idea of casually going about his business, only to look into the sky and see a Conehead flying freely? He did not like that idea at all.

Jazz told him that the remaining Conehead was still imprisoned and right now, unlikely to see freedom anytime soon. It wasn’t as much of a comfort as Hound hoped it would be. Not when he still couldn’t be intimate with his partner without breaking into a cold shiver and rolling with nausea.

He needed time.

Luckily, Ravage did not mind spending his self-imposed exile with him on Earth. Luckily, Trailbreaker did not mind guard duty. Hound was lucky for many things.

So no. If he had the choice, he would not return to Cybertron yet. But he would go for Ravage, because he would not let fear hold him back for her sake. For his own, yes. But not for hers.

“We will see what is necessary after we check in,” Ravage said, once it became obvious Hound was not going to answer her question. “For now, I will try not to worry about it.”

“Soundwave can take care of himself, and your siblings are nothing if not resourceful,” Hound replied. “I am quite sure there is nothing to worry about.”

Ravage’s head rubbed against his chest again. “Your optimism is one of many reasons I love you.”

“And I cherish you as well.” Warmth filled Hound’s spark, chasing away the lingering chill of the crisp winter air.

“Hound! Ravage!”

Trailbreaker’s shout carried to them easily in the thinner air. Ravage didn’t stir, but Hound half-turned to see their escort-slash-guardian huffing his way up the narrow trail. He had more grace than many gave him credit for, not so much as disturbing the gravel-like bed of the trail.

“I found something!” Trailbreaker said with an excited wave of his arms.

“Primus, not another mushroom circle I hope,” Ravage murmured without cracking open an optic.

Hound chuckled. “You have to admit, that was a fun detour.”

“Detour. Exactly.” Ravage harrumphed.

Hound’s grin widened, and he shifted to see Trailbreaker better as the other mech came to a halt behind them, somehow managing not to loom despite being the largest of the three.

“What is it?” Hound asked.

“I think,” Trailbreaker said with the widest grin Hound had ever seen. “I think I’ve found the humans. Or at least some humans. I’ve picked up some chatter buried in the AM bands.”

Hound tried not to get too excited. The last clue had led to a dead end. “Are you sure it’s not just a repeat transmission? Or a cycling playlist from an abandoned radio station?”

“I’m sure.” Trailbreaker was all but wiggling with glee. “So come on, you two. Stop snuggling. Get off your afts, and let’s go. This is the break we’ve been waiting for!”

Ravage looked up at Hound, her amusement ripe in her field. “Is he always this painfully enthusiastic?”

Hound chuckled. “Sometimes he’s worse.” He patted Ravage on the back. “He’s right, though. No use in sitting around admiring the view. We are, technically, supposed to be working.”

Ravage huffed but rose to her feet with a stretching arc of her backstrut. Hound took a moment to admire her, the gleam of her plating in the rising sun, the little puffs as her ex-vents hit the cooler air, the curve of her spinal strut. She was beautiful, and he wanted to touch her, to listen to her quiet sighs as he offered her pleasure.

An idea occurred to him. There was one thing they hadn’t tried. Perhaps he would bring it up at the next opportunity. But for now, Trailbreaker was right. There was work to do.

Hound pushed himself to his pedes, brushing off the dirt that stuck to his aft. “All right, Trailbreaker, show me what you have,” he said.

Trailbreaker grinned and offered a data-chip. “You’ll believe me when you hear it.”

Ravage harrumphed. “We’ll see about that.”
~

A week’s worth of enforced berth rest. Maybe less if he consumed his energon properly, reported his symptoms as they occurred, and managed at least two cycles of proper recharge – and all of this to Ratchet’s standards, not his own.

Optimus tried not to pout, but the desire to do so was strong. He did not want to be berth bound. There was work to do. He did not want time to think. He wanted to be active. He did not want to be confined to berth.

It rankled. But the look on Ratchet’s face shamed him before he could argue otherwise.

“Do you have any idea how it felt to be startled online by a frantic call from Soundwave because you’d collapsed?” Ratchet demanded, pacing back and forth by Optimus’ bedside, his plating clamped tight, his energy field a maelstrom. “I trusted you to tell me when something was wrong. I trusted you to take care of yourself. And all you’ve done is proven how much you don’t trust me!”

Optimus flinched. “Trust was not the issue,” he replied quietly.

“Yes, it was, and don’t tell me it wasn’t!” Ratchet near-hissed. “You don’t trust me to help you. You don’t trust anyone to do it. And believe me, I understand why.” He whirled toward Optimus, his field turning bleak. “I understand, I honestly do, Optimus. But working yourself into stasis? That’s not a solution either!”

His spark ached. And right now, he couldn’t even be sure if it was an emotional reaction, or a symptom of what Ratchet called a survivor’s stasis.

Optimus’ shoulders sagged. Even now, despite succumbing to it and spending the last half-day in stasis, Optimus was exhausted. It was as if all the fatigue he had pushed aside for the last month was now crashing down on him.

He wanted to get out of this berth. Right now, he didn’t know if he was capable of doing so. His limbs were heavy; his frame felt twice as massive. He had to ventilate shallowly.

Ratchet had him on an energon drip. He couldn’t trust Optimus’ system to accept energon orally. Optimus could see his energon levels rising, slowly but steadily, and for once, the thought did not fill him with nausea. But he knew, logically, he couldn’t survive on an energon drip for the rest of his function.

“It wasn’t a solution,” Optimus said at length. He sighed softly. “It was a stop-gap measure. I could not take the time. I did not want to take the time. I did not want to think.” He pressed the heel of his palm to his optics, guilt building a sludge inside of him.

Ratchet scraped a hand down his face and ex-vented. He ceased his frantic pacing and sat down on the edge of Optimus’ berth. “And you didn’t want to be a burden. I get it. I understand. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to sit here and watch you hurt yourself.”

Optimus sighed. “I can’t sit on my aft right now, Ratchet. The political balance is still too unstable. There’s work to be done.”

“And you may not have your original command staff, but you have a very capable crew who is willing to step up and help you.” Ratchet dropped his hand and looked at Optimus, something pleading in his optics. “Won’t you just let us support you?”

Optimus bowed his helm.

It was not an enticing prospect, but he knew that Ratchet was right. The lack of recharge, the inability to keep down his energon, the constant anxiety – none of it was healthy. He was not improving.

He could not serve his Autobots properly if he could not keep himself together. And it was worse to see Ratchet hurting, to see him blaming himself.

“I remain humbled by your faith in me,” Optimus murmured as he lifted his helm and reached for Ratchet’s hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. “I promise to do my best to recover, so long as you promise to release me when I improve, and don’t prevent me from at least doing my paperwork.”

Ratchet’s lips quirked toward a grin. “Deal.” He squeezed back before releasing Optimus’ hand and pushing to his pedes. “Now, there is someone else who’s here to visit before I let in the rest of the mob.”

Optimus chuckled. He had no doubt there were many well-wishers out there, and he was glad that Ratchet’s rather draconian temper protected Optimus from being overwhelmed.

“Thank you, Ratchet.”

“You can thank me by resting, Optimus,” Ratchet said as he left, the words a tease, but his tone serious.

Optimus smiled despite himself and shifted a bit, making himself comfortable on the berth. Or as comfortable as he could be given the monitors that were attached to his frame, and the energon drip shunted into his left wrist port.

The door opened again, admitting Soundwave, who held an armful of datapads tucked under his left arm, and Laserbeak balanced on his unarmed shoulder. She chirped a greeting and lifted from his frame, choosing instead to land on the head of the berth behind Optimus’ right shoulder.

Optimus is well? She sent along the private channel, offering a hugging emoticon and one that indicated concern.

“Yes, thank you,” Optimus replied as he gave her a smile. “I hear you were my guardian angel whilst I was in stasis. I could not have asked for a better guardian.”

Laserbeak ducked her head, her field flushing with a mix of pleasure and embarrassment. I was worried, she sent. Please don’t be so careless again.

“I shall do my best to try,” Optimus replied as Soundwave handed him the datapads. He accepted them and tucked them next to his side.

“Optimus looking well,” Soundwave commented.

“I’m told I have you to thank for such a rapid response,” Optimus said as Soundwave lowered himself into the chair, sitting upon it stiffly. “If not for you and Laserbeak, I do not know how long I would have lain there.”

Soundwave inclined his helm. “Optimus neglects self.”

The tip of Optimus’ audials burned. “Yes. I’ve been told that as well.” He ex-vented softly and gathered what little poise could be had when he was berthbound. “I also had my optics opened to something I had not seen before. And I wanted to ask if it was true.”

Soundwave shifted on the chair. “Have I offended?”

Optimus shook his helm. “No. Nothing of the sort.” He performed a systems check, steadying himself. Why was this so awkward? “Jazz is under the impression that you desire to remain in my proximity is about more than political protection.” He met Soundwave’s visor with his own. “Is he right?”

“Jazz not wrong,” Soundwave admitted. His hands sat flat on his thighs, his plating drawing tight to his frame. “Optimus is good mech. Kind. Intelligent… Attractive.” He cycled a ventilation. “I have always admired Optimus.”

His spark throbbed with warmth. “Admiration,” Optimus repeated as Soundwave’s visor focused on him. “Is that all it is?”

“Negative.” Soundwave tilted forward as though he meant to rise, before he second-guessed himself and sat back in his chair. “Interest carried for Optimus. No reciprocation expected, however.”

That was terribly sad. Optimus honestly didn’t know how he felt about Soundwave. He saw the former Decepticon as a friend, a welcome one, and here lately, as a great source of support. Did he view Soundwave in a romantic light?

Optimus didn’t know. He was so used to pushing those types of interests aside, he wasn’t sure he could recognize genuine attraction if he felt it.

Though attraction wasn’t the problem. If Optimus had a type, Soundwave was it. They were of a similar size and mass. Soundwave was caring, at least to his subordinates. He had a code of ethics. He was quiet, compassionate and intelligent.

He was the exact kind of mech Optimus could see himself falling for.

Optimus worked his intake. “I do not know that as I am, I would make a good partner, Soundwave. I am…” he trailed off.

He did not want to say broken. He did not want to say damaged. He was both, but admitting it aloud was not something he wanted to do. But it was true that he couldn’t take care of himself right now. Optimus did not want to enter into a relationship where he had nothing to offer.

You are you, Laserbeak transmitted with a soothing warble. And what you are, Soundwave likes.

“You mean the mech I was,” Optimus said.

I meant what I said. Present-tense.

“Optimus strong,” Soundwave said, perhaps heedless to Laserbeak’s comments or because of them. “But strength not always physical. Also, Soundwave patient. Wish nothing but friendship.”

Optimus inclined his helm. “I understand. But I regret I do not have an answer for you right now. This is a lot to have happen all at once.”

“Understood.” Soundwave’s palms scrubbed down his thighs. “Soundwave will wait. Optimus take time.” He rose to his pedes and gestured to the datapads he’d brought. “Ratchet approved work. Soundwave to return later?”

Optimus offered him a smile. “Please do. I would welcome your company.” Perhaps by then he would have sorted out his own thoughts and could give Soundwave a proper response.

Soundwave’s field leaked free for the first time, and Optimus sensed the relief in it. “Laserbeak to remain if no objections?”

“None at all.” Optimus looked at the avian cassette, who tilted her helm against his in something he recognized as a show of affection. “I am honored that she would spend her time with me.”

“Laserbeak fond of Optimus.”

“I’m quite fond of her, too.”

Soundwave’s field hummed with appreciation. He gave Optimus another long look, and then he excused himself, departing from the room much as he had a few days prior, when he’d walked into the office while Optimus and Jazz were talking. He understood better now Soundwave’s reaction.

To the outside observer, it probably did look like there was something intimate between Jazz and Optimus. He relied on Jazz for many things and counted his third among his closest friends.

And speaking of sneaky spies…

“Knock, knock.” Jazz helm popped into view as he grinned and rapped his knuckles on the door frame. “Hey, boss bot. Got some time fer an old pal?”

Optimus gestured his third inside. “Come into my cell, Jazz. I’ll not be leaving anytime soon.”

Jazz chuckled and threw himself into the chair Soundwave had abandoned. He kicked back, crossing his pedes on the end of Optimus’ berth. “Did I just see Sounders stroll out of here?”

“You did.”

“And did he say what I think he was gonna say?” Jazz’s grin couldn’t have been cheekier.

Optimus cycled a ventilation. “He did,” he confirmed. “And yes, before you prod me, I concede that you were right.”

“I’m rarely wrong.” Jazz lit half his visor in a wink. “Go on then. What’s the gossip? Me ‘n Ratch have something of a bet going on.”

Optimus pulled one of the datapads into his lap. “I should not be so surprised.” He cut it on, finding that it was a financial report, not that anyone had much of a credit-based economy anymore. “There is nothing to say. I need to do some thinking.”

“So you don’t want to talk about the dashing former Decepticon who has a crush on you?”

Optimus gave his third an exasperated look. “No, I do not. I need to figure it out for myself, Jazz. So why don’t you tell me how you and Ultra Magnus have decided to divide my duties for the foreseeable future?”

Jazz sighed loudly, his field spiking with visible irritation. “Are you sure we can’t replace Magnus with someone with more personality?”

“Quite sure,” Optimus replied without looking up from the report. “If you would simply speak with Ultra Magnus without antagonizing him, I’m sure you’d see that he is more interesting than you give him credit.”

Jazz made a noncommittal noise and wiggled his aft, getting more comfortable on the chair. “If you say so.”

Optimus smiled to himself.

They would learn to get along eventually.
~

Rewind met him at the perimeter, excitement in his field and in his frame language as he shifted his weight from pede to pede. His optical band lit upon sight of Chromedome, and he waved wildly to get Chromedome’s attention.

He was also alone, which concerned Chromedome. Did his carrier not know how dangerous that could be? That Metalhawk just waited for an opportunity?

“Welcome back!” Rewind greeted as Chromedome transformed, looming over the smaller mech without even trying.

Because Rewind was tiny. So tiny that Chromedome feared harming him, even though Rewind was three times his age. Rewind was one of the oldest Cybertronians Chromedome had ever met, which was odd, considering his twin was Eject. Eject, by contrast, still acted like a youngling.

“Thank you,” Chromedome said. “I’m surprised you are greeting me. I would have expected one of the medical staff.”

Rewind shook his helm. “No. They’re all busy with Optimus. I volunteered.”

“Why?”

“Because I still have questions,” Rewind chirped as he reached up and tapped his camera. “I mean, that is, if you still have answers.”

Chromedome chuckled. “I do. And I don’t mind your questions.”

They headed toward the medical center. Rewind, however, skipped ahead of him, turning to walk backward so that he faced Chromedome.

“You’d be the first,” he said. “Why is that though? Most people get aggravated after the first couple minutes with me?”

“Maybe because I find you charming?”

Rewind stumbled and fell. Chromedome cycled his optics behind his visor, stopping by the downed mech and offering a hand to pull Rewind back to his pedes. The little mech let himself be lifted up and rubbed at his now scuffed aft.

“Walking backward is not the best choice, I guess,” Rewind said, trickles of his field suggesting embarrassment.

“No. I wouldn’t think so.”

Their hands were still touching, Chromedome realized. It was such a novel thing that he delayed letting go. Mechs tended to be afraid to take his hands, or let them touch him, as though all he needed was physical contact.

He’d tried to explain, but there was a stigma attached to mneumosurgery. Given Trepan’s reputation, Chromedome couldn’t blame them.

Rewind cycled a ventilation. “Did you mean it?”

“Mean what? That walking backward isn’t a good idea? Because recent events should be proof of that,” Chromedome said with a little laugh.

Something in Rewind’s posture sagged, and he took his hand back. “No. Never mind.” He turned around, clasping his hands behind his back. “So. What are you going to do today? I thought your work on Red Alert was done?”

Chromedome tilted his helm, but decided not to push the issue. “There’s a little bit of clean up left to do. After that, yes, my work is done until they find his back up memory core.”

“And if they don’t?”

“They’ll have to start anew.”

Rewind made a non-committal noise. “You mean, he’ll be like a sparkling.”

“But with the instincts of a spark that has survived a millennia long war.” Chrome cycled a ventilation. He couldn’t imagine a worse fate. “If it were me, I do not know that I would want that.”

“You’d rather die?”

Chromedome scrubbed a hand down his face. “It was a long war.” There was a reason he had chosen to become Neutral. “I would not want to be burdened with painful shadows of a past I couldn’t remember. Or have to carry the burden of those around me knowing who I was and having difficulty reconciling that.”

“Oh. You have a point.” Rewind touched his chin, looking thoughtful. “Well, I know Optimus planned on sending someone back to Earth to see if we could find a memory core for him. That’s our last hope.”

“I will pray they are successful then,” Chromedome replied. He wasn’t particularly religious, but it couldn’t hurt to put good thoughts out into the universe.

They arrived at the medcenter with Rewind still cheerfully in the lead. It was Chromedome’s fourth time strolling into the Autobot medbay, and it still surprised him how quickly they accepted his presence. After the first day of suspicious looks, they welcomed him.

He could easily sneak around and explore, like he’d been told to do. But Chromedome didn’t. He returned the Autobot’s trust. He kept to his assigned areas.

He lied to Metalhawk. He told his leader that the Autobots always kept him under guard, and he didn’t have the opportunity to snoop into their affairs.

And he wondered – he hoped – that if he could speak with Ratchet, he could convince the medic to expedite his petition to defect to the Autobots.

It was sad that while the Autobots and Decepticons worked together to ensure their peace was successful, Metalhawk was convinced the war needed little urging to return to the status quo. Chromedome didn’t want to go back to war. He wanted to live without looking over his shoulders. He wanted to settle down and not worry about where his next cube of energon was coming from.

He followed Rewind to the private room reserved for Red Alert, noticing that another one of the private rooms was occupied. The door was open as he passed, and Chromedome peeked in, ex-venting in surprise when he realized that it was none other than Optimus Prime in the berth.

What did Metalhawk do?

“Something wrong?” Rewind asked as he palmed the lock, giving Chromedome entrance to Red Alert’s room.

Chromedome cycled a ventilation. “Did something happen? To Optimus Prime?”

The door closed behind them, and locked with a beep. “Nothing untoward, if that’s what you’re asking,” Rewind replied. “He just needs some R&R.”

Chromedome looked down at the smaller mech. “You’re sure?” Because that sounded like Metalhawk’s tactics – sneaky and underhanded and untraceable.

Metalhawk claimed to be a peace-loving Neutral, but he wasn’t above getting his hands dirty if he thought that was what he needed to obtain said peace. He might not be the one out there starting battles and fomenting war, but he wasn’t any less guilty.

Chromedome didn’t want to think about the number of times he’d used his skills to adjust some prisoner Metalhawk had caught, in an attempt to alter their wicked ways. Or even, he thought with a churn in his tanks, mechs who were members of their own faction.

In Metalhawk’s hands, Chromedome had become a monster. One he feared no amount of goodwill could cure.

Fixing Red Alert was about far more than earning good regard with the Autobots.

“Very sure,” Rewind said though he tilted his helm and stared at Chromedome. “Why?”

“No reason.” Chromedome shrugged it off and shifted his attention back to Red Alert. “Time to get to work, right?”

He still had time. He could prove he was a good mech.

All he needed was a little more luck.

[Crown the Empire] Reign 09

Was this Grimlock’s idea of a joke? Because it was absolutely not funny.

Knock Out folded his arms over his chestplate and glared at the massive Dinobot standing in the doorway that separated the patient rooms from the medbay proper.

“You’ll have to repeat yourself,” Knock Out said coolly. “Why are you here?”

“Me Snarl need maint-an-ence check,” the Dinobot said, enunciating carefully. He grinned at Knock Out, all denta. “And then, see if you Knock Out need help. Him Grimlock say me Snarl need make friends.” The odd, triangular protrusions jutting from his shoulders wriggled as if in glee.

It did not compute.

Knock Out narrowed his optics and turned away, dropping his arms. “Don’t you go to Ratchet for your check-ups?” And hadn’t they just gone to see Ratchet last week?

He suspected an ulterior motive. He did not know what ulterior motive a Dinobot could possibly have in the medbay, but he still suspected one.

“Him Mama Ratchet busy,” Snarl said as he came inside, though Knock Out hadn’t invited him. “And we on same team now.”

Knock Out snorted and grabbed his buffer again. There was a spot on his arm that still needed attention, even if there was a Dinobot-sized distraction present.

“You don’t need a check up. You’re in perfect repair,” Knock Out said as he tended to the scratch on his arm with an intensity he usually reserved for surgery. But this was important. He had to look his absolute best.

“Maybe not know. Maybe need you Knock Out check,” Snarl retorted with that irreverent stubbornness that Knock Out was convinced was a trait to Dinobots and Dinobots alone. “What this do?”

Knock Out turned to look just as Snarl picked up a scanner from a nearby cabinet, turning the delicate piece of equipment over and over in his clumsy, oafish Dinobot hands.

Knock Out’s buffer clattered to the table as he stalked over to Snarl and snatched it away.
“Put that down. You’ll break it,” he huffed, and inspected the device for dents or scratches, surely a consequence of being Dino-handled.

“Me Snarl not broke stuff in long time,” Snarl insisted with a huff. “Except stuff me Snarl told to break.”

“Yes, well, I’ll believe that when I see it.” Satisfied it wasn’t damaged, Knock Out set the scanner carefully back into place with all the others, each of which served a different purpose. “This equipment isn’t that easily replaced, you know. It’s not like I can walk to the nearest store and pick up a new one.”

“What you Knock Out do when broken?”

“Try and find someone who can fix it, of course,” Knock Out said with a disdainful sniff. He stared at the Dinobot, who appeared here to stay. “Not that there’s anyone around here capable of doing that anymore.”

Snarl edged closer to the table and looked at another piece of equipment, though this time it was without touching it. “Me Snarl do it. Me fix stuff.”

Knock Out arched an orbital ridge. “Really.”

“It true. Give broken thing. Me Snarl prove it.”

Knock Out eyed him for another moment and then turned to the bin of discarded things he’d been collecting. For the most part, if something broke, he tossed it in here. He knew, if he was desperate, he could go to the Constructicons. But he wanted to avoid that if at all possible. He didn’t want to be caught associating with one of those rapists, but more than that, he didn’t want to admit that he couldn’t do something. They taunted him for his lack of training enough as it was.

Knock Out searched through the bin for something he actually needed rather than a mere challenge and finally produced an automatic flush pump. This would be a matter of convenience more than need, but if the Dinobot broke it more thoroughly, it wouldn’t be a loss. It meant Knock Out would have to keep manually flushing systems.

Or sending said patients to the Autobots for treatment. Ha! Make Ratchet do all the system flushes. Wouldn’t that be the rust on the oilcake?

Knock Out turned toward Snarl and offered him the automatic pump. “Go for it,” he said as Snarl plucked it from his hands and turned it over, examining it with more concentration than Knock Out would have given him credit.

“What wrong with it?” Snarl asked as his frown deepened. He turned it over and over in his fingers, tracing seams and tapping on screws like he was counting them.

Knock Out snorted. “Isn’t that what you’re supposed to tell me? You’re the one who said you can fix it.”

“Can and will.” Snarl stuck out a hand. “Tools?”

“Do I look like an engineer?” Knock Out demanded, gesturing to his entire frame with one sweep of his hand. “You’re on your own, pal.”

“Won’t be first time,” Snarl muttered and turned in a large circle, knocking over a stack of datapads that Knock Out rushed to rescue. “Find me own then.”

Knock Out scowled in the Dinobot’s general direction as he re-stacked the datapads and put them in their proper order. He felt the floor rumble as Snarl stalked across it, and then a screech as Snarl did something else. Knock Out whirled, prepped to deliver another scathing admonition, only to blink in surprise.

Snarl had pulled out a stool, which creaked under his weight, and took up a perch at one of the work benches Knock Out used when refurbishing a rare part. He was even, at this moment, digging through the littler drawers in the sides, pulling out tools and setting them on top of the desk.

“Me Snarl will fix this,” he declared as Knock Out peered over his shoulder, watching as large and clumsy Dinobot fingers gently unscrewed panels and carefully removed them.

He was… actually not half bad at this, Knock Out noticed. At least, he seemed to know what he was doing. There was focus and intent in his field as he took apart the automatic pump until it couldn’t even be recognized as one. Then Snarl set his hands flat on the desk and stared hard at all the different parts.

“Stuck?” Knock Out asked, expecting to feel triumphant, but actually ending up disappointed. Strange.

Snarl revved his engine and then lifted a hand, selecting one part from the pile, not that Knock Out could tell you what it was or what it did. “This the problem,” he said as he held it up. “It broken.”

“How do you know that?”

Snarl shrugged. “Just know. Need new one.”

Knock Out threw up his hands. “I don’t even know what it is. How am I supposed to get you a new one?”

Snarl, of all things, laughed at him, though it didn’t feel the least bit mocking. “Then me Snarl fix.” He bent back over the assorted pieces again. “Will work. Not perfect. But work.”

He again rummaged in the drawers of the desk, producing another fistful of odds and ends and tools of all shapes and sizes. Items Knock Out hadn’t even realized were in there because he’d inherited this medbay. Though he supposed it made sense that the Constructicons would have tools lying around.

The outer door chimed.

Knock Out turned away from Snarl. “I’ll be right back,” he said. He considered tacking on a warning but ‘don’t break anything’ and ‘don’t touch anything’ didn’t seem relevant, so he left it at that and headed out the door, into the receiving area. The room Snarl had seemed to take as a suggestion when he appeared in the doorway of the actual medbay.

There was a Stunticon standing just inside the doorway, enough that he was considered inside and the door could shut, and doing an effective imitation of a speed bump. His paint was dull and scraped, his shoulders hunched, his optical band dim. He clutched at his fingers nervously, but perhaps the most important detail was that his Decepticon brand had been slashed through.

“Aren’t you supposed to be in prison?” Knock Out demanded as he planted his hands on his hips. Though he wondered why an escaped prisoner would have made a beeline for the medbay.

There was no way the mech could take down Knock Out, much less a concussed minibot. He wasn’t going to get far.

“Not anymore?” the Stunticon offered, though he sounded unsure. Knock Out couldn’t remember which one this was. They all looked the same, except for their boorish leader. “I was released.”

“On good behavior?” Knock Out snorted and his plating fluffed out. “Imagine that, a Stunticon behaving.” He didn’t know what Megatron was thinking when he stuck that sorry lot together, but they were a mess, and that was putting it kindly.

Oh, they behaved for Megatron and when Megatron was looking. But outside of that, they were an unruly nightmare for any mech trying to keep a clean, neat paintjob. They’d sideswiped Knock Out more than once, and Megatron never seemed to care that they raced through the halls at Mach Twenty.

“Who let you out?” Knock Out demanded because he was sure as slag going to get confirmation of this. He did not want to get on the bad side of their new Dinobot leader.

“Lieutenant Cyclonus.” The Stunticon still hadn’t moved, and now his fingers tangled together, tight enough to stress the metal. His field was a bleak, tattered thing.

He was kind of pitiful actually. Knock Out started to feel like he was barking at a sparkling or something of equal challenge. Which was more than a little odd as the Stunticons had never come across as meek. Why now? Was it an act?

“I have orders. To prove it,” the Stunticon offered. He lurched forward, a clumsy half-step, and produced a datapad.

Knock Out narrowed his optics but took the datapad, keying it on. Sure enough, there were release orders for the Stunticon – Breakdown was his designation – on here, along with the parameters of his assignment. His parole had been assigned to the medbay, under Knock Out’s purview, where he was to… to…

Knock Out groaned.

Was this some kind of joke? Two in one day? What was their glorious leader thinking? Not only did he have a new pet Dinobot in his medbay, but he was supposed to look after some meek, shaking Stunticon? What had they done? Poked needles into his processor until he behaved the way they wanted him to?

Knock Out would have expected that kind of thing from Megatron, but he thought Grimlock was a different kind of leader. Then again, some of the mechs in the brig right now were never going to change without a little… help. Was Breakdown the trial run?

He handed the datapad back to the Stunticon who clutched it as though it was his lifeline. Knock Out eyed the mech who was barely larger than himself and was in no condition to be spending any amount of time around Knock Out, much less than in a medbay.

“You want to be a medic?” he asked.

“… Maybe?” Breakdown replied.

Knock Out snorted again. “You don’t sound very sure. Do you want to be or not?”

Breakdown shrugged. “I do, but whether or not I can…”

Knock Out waved a dismissing hand. “I didn’t ask if you could but if you wanted to. It’s a matter of trying. But whatever. Come on then.” He spun on a heelstrut and started toward the medbay proper, but didn’t hear the sound of the Stunticon following him.

He stopped and half-turned. “Are you coming or not?”

Breakdown blinked at him. “Just like that?”

“No, not just like that. I’m not letting you touch so much as a scanner in your current condition,” Knock Out retorted with a huff of ventilation. One finger jabbed in the direction of the Stunticon’s dirty paint. “Bad enough I got a Dinobot at my work desk, I’m not about to let a filthy Stunticon drop dirt all over my floors.”

Breakdown’s optics narrowed. “I’m not that dirty.”

“To my standards, you are.” Knock Out gestured over his shoulder and started toward the door again. “Hurry up if you’re coming. I don’t know what makes you think I’m chockful of free time, but I’m not.”

This time, he did hear the sound of Breakdown following him, though he didn’t have an ounce of pep in his step. If anything, he dragged his pedes as though Knock Out intimidated him. Which was absurd. Of everything in the medical bay, Knock Out was one of the least intimidating occupants.

Unless, of course, it was his stunning good looks that made Breakdown feel inferior in which case, well, Knock Out couldn’t fault him for that.

Back in the medical bay proper, Snarl was still hunched over the broken fuel pump but now he was putting it back together into its component parts. Behind Knock Out, Breakdown stopped in the doorway, staring in Snarl’s general direction.

“Oh, don’t mind him. He wants to be a medic, too,” Knock Out said with a flippant wave. “Come on. You’re contaminating my medbay.”

Breakdown shuffled after Knock Out, using the widest berth possible to avoid Snarl who hadn’t even noticed him yet.

Knock Out shook his helm.

This was all Grimlock’s fault, he assumed. First he had a Dinobot, now a Stunticon? What would they send him next?

~

There was a bounce to his step. Grimlock didn’t bother to hide it. If his glee frightened other mechs, that was their problem, not his. He was in a good mood and he wanted the whole world to know.

Starscream had agreed to let Grimlock court him. On top of all the other good news that had been flowing into his office, this was the cream of the crop, so to speak.

Life was good.

Right now, nothing could drag Grimlock back to solid ground. Not even Metalhawk and his painfully pathetic attempt at manipulations. It was actually kind of laughable now that he thought about it again, though he was sure Optimus wouldn’t think of it as such.

The constant worrying and stressing was probably part of what had sent Optimus to the medbay to begin with. Grimlock had been a little surprised to see the notification pop up in his inbox first thing this morning. Optimus was on medical leave, and Grimlock was to direct all of his future queries to Ultra Magnus.

Well, it was about time. If Optimus wanted to work himself to a spark-attack, that was his business, but Grimlock knew something like this was coming. Optimus didn’t know the meaning of self-care and anyone with two optics could see he was working himself beyond the limits of his frame. What surprised Grimlock was that Ratchet hadn’t put Optimus down first.

Then again, the two of them could compete for who was more stubborn.

Grimlock chuckled to himself, inviting a startled look from one of the Autobots he was passing, one he didn’t recognize. It was probably one of Ultra Magnus’ Wreckers, given his size.

Grimlock ignored the mech and continued to his destination, the large and functional office of Optimus’ second-in-command. Ultra Magnus was an interesting mech, Grimlock had come to find. He had his similarities to Prowl, but where the Praxian had learned to bend, Magnus remained as stiff as a board.

He probably clashed horribly with Jazz. Grimlock would pay to see their command meetings as they were now. He wondered if Optimus spent as much time separating Jazz and Ultra Magnus, as he had playing peacemaker with Jazz and Prowl.

Ultra Magnus’ door was open when Grimlock arrived, though he rapped his knuckles against the frame to announce his presence. He could have been obstinate and demanded that either Magnus come to him or they meet on neutral ground, but as it was, Grimlock wasn’t keen on encouraging Metalhawk to look too closely at this meeting.

Grimlock wandering in and out of Polyhex was nothing unusual, given that he used to be an Autobot and that those he considered his genitors lived here. But an Autobot wandering into New Iacon? That was something sure to gather Metalhawk’s attention.

Ultra Magnus was perched behind a desk that was far too small for his large frame. Grimlock nearly laughed, except that Ultra Magnus didn’t approve of such things as fun. He looked up as Grimlock entered, his expression carefully controlled.

“Welcome,” Ultra Magnus said, and gestured to the only chair available. “Have a seat. I trust you are well?”

“As well as one can be considering I’m the new leader of the Decepticons,” Grimlock said with a touch of humor to his voice. He accepted the offer of the chair, however. “You look busy. I’ll try to make this brief.”

Ultra Magnus inclined his helm and leaned forward, bracing his elbows on the tiny desk which creaked alarmingly. He laced his fingers together. “I would appreciate that. I understand you would probably prefer to speak with Optimus, but–”

“Ratchet has him on lockdown. I understand. I know better than to cross my genitor.” Someone else would have taken offense at being foisted off on the second in command, but not Grimlock.

Like the Pit he was going to butt heads with Ratchet.

“And this was too important to wait,” Grimlock concluded. His own chair creaked beneath him, but it seemed stable enough. “Metalhawk’s made a move.”

“So your message indicated.” Ultra Magnus’ lips twitched, deepening his neutral expression into a genuine frown. “What did he want?”

“An alliance. He tried to play me for a fool. Unfortunately for him, I am not so easily manipulated.” Grimlock huffed a laugh. “Don’t be surprised if he approaches Optimus within the next couple days to ask for a private meeting. And unlike me, he won’t take a meeting with you.”

Ultra Magnus inclined his helm. “No, I suspect he won’t. He is as mannerless as he is cowardly.” Disdain crept over the second-in-command’s expression. Clearly, they shared the same distaste for Metalhawk. “What were the terms of the alliance?”

Grimlock rolled his shoulders. “He was being purposefully vague. Something about establishing lines of trade and the quiet exchange of information. What he wanted me to do was strike an agreement that the Neutrals and Decepticons would ally against the Autobots should the situation arise.”

“I have no doubt he intends to extend the same agreement between himself and the Autobots, citing the danger the Decepticons present,” Ultra Magnus said. He shook his helm. “Metalhawk used to be a politician. No doubt these are the very same games he used to play in the sub-council.”

Politicians. Ugh.

Grimlock shifted in his chair. “I don’t intend to let the Neutrals continue to fester under Metalhawk’s leadership for much longer. Not if there’s anything to be done about it. What’s Jazz’s plan?”

“What makes you think he has one?”

Grimlock would have bared his denta if he had a mouth, as it was, he let his visor flatten in shades and stared at Ultra Magnus. “Because he’s Jazz. The war might be over, but I guarantee you I’m not the only one who thinks there’s still a battle to fight.”

Ultra Magnus audibly cycled a ventilation and leaned back in his creaky chair, rubbing two fingers over his forehelm. “He has recruited the aid of the Combaticons, or to be more precise, three-fifths of them.”

“Not Soundwave?”

“As I understand it, they are, for the most part, retired.”

Retired spies? What the frag did that mean? Then again, Grimlock had seen Rumble cavorting around with Bumblebee, and he caught Frenzy and Eject playing some kind of paint game last week. Perhaps Soundwave truly was as tired of the war as he claimed.

Or did it have something to do with the long, lingering looks Soundwave kept casting his new leader’s direction?

“I see.” Grimlock rapped his fingers on the arm of his chair. “What does Optimus intend to do then?”

“For now, reconnaissance. We hope to discover Metalhawk’s end game, and if there is a way to discredit him from the inside, perhaps appoint a different leader,” Ultra Magnus answered as he lowered his hand. “Because as you well know, the number of Neutrals will eventually overwhelm ours. We need to make sure all rough edges are smoothed over before the rest of the survivors return.”

Grimlock inclined his helm. “Cooperation is in everyone’s best interest. Thus the reason I’m here today. I only wanted to give Optimus the warning that Metalhawk is beginning to make his move.”

“We appreciate the warning.” Ultra Magnus cracked something that was almost a smile. “And we will be sure to keep you updated on our progress.”

Grimlock pushed to his pedes, dipping his helm in a show of thanks. “Offer Optimus my best wishes for a speedy recovery as well.”

Ultra Magnus nodded, his gaze already returning to the datapad on his desk as he shifted his weight on his creaky chair. “I will be sure to do so. Thank you, Grimlock.”

Sometimes, it still struck him as odd to hear gratitude from an Autobot. He’d spent so long being jammed into a closet with the rest of his brethren, only summoned when the Autobots had need, that yes, gratitude was a scarce thing. Now, they were beginning to give him and his brothers the respect they deserved, but a part of Grimlock still resented the Autobots for their treatment of the Dinobots.

They had all better be glad that Grimlock was a better mech than they could ever hope to be. He could have taken the Decepticons, turned them on the surviving Autobots, and shown them what ruin they had brought themselves.

But he hadn’t. Because Grimlock was better than that.

“You’re welcome,” Grimlock replied, and he took his leave before Ultra Magnus could read the surprise in his field.

He was better off now than he had been. He was a leader, he was respected, and no one would ever shove him into a closet again.

That was what mattered, more than anything else.

~

The knock was almost tentative.

Cyclonus cycled his optics and looked up from his paperwork with confusion. Why would anyone knock? All of his visitors usually pinged him for entrance.

“Come in,” he called out, unsure who to expect when the door opened, but smiling softly when the small helm poked in.

“You’re not busy, are you?” Tailgate asked, only his helm and the top of his shoulders visible.

Cyclonus set down his stylus and shook his helm. “Nothing that can’t wait.” He gestured for the minibot to come inside. “I’m actually surprised you found me.”

His office was tucked into a corner, away from the ones Grimlock and Starscream had claimed. It used to belong to Soundwave, and Cyclonus had inherited it with the former Decepticon’s blessing. But that explained why it was hidden.

“I’ve been wandering around for a while,” Tailgate admitted as he straightened and then fully entered the office. “A very nice cleaning drone gave me directions.”

Cyclonus arched an orbital ridge. “You can speak to them?”

Tailgate tapped his arm where he was emblazoned with his former and current occupation. “It’s a mutual respect thing. Like recognizing like.” He looked around, at Cyclonus’ bare walls and minimal decoration. “This is very…”

“Austere?” Cyclonus supplied.

Tailgate chuckled. “I was going to say professional, but that works, too.” He found the empty chair and dragged it closer, climbing up into it. “Thank you, by the way. My room is very nice as are the mechs who share my hall.”

Nice Decepticons? Well, Cyclonus had made effort to select those he trusted to room around Tailgate. Most were of his own crew, but there were a few others who had served under Megatron who could be trusted as well.

“I am glad to hear it,” Cyclonus replied. He folded his arms on the desk, giving Tailgate his full attention. The distraction was most welcome. “Have you thought about when you’d like to take the commitment?”

Tailgate squirmed. “You’re still requiring that?”

“For now.” Cyclonus cycled a ventilation. “Until such time as we can integrate successfully, it is still important to determine who belongs where. For political and practical reasons. I can understand, however, if you don’t wish to take the brand. I’ll speak with Starscream and Grimlock. I’m sure we can arrange something.”

Tailgate’s legs swung, barely reaching the floor. “If I’m supposed to, I’ll do it, I just don’t think I’m really a Decepticon, you know? Wouldn’t it be rude to take a brand for a cause I don’t believe in?”

“That depends on what you think our cause actually is,” Cyclonus replied. He leaned back in his chair, unsurprised Tailgate had such a misconception.

The Decepticons’ original intent had been distorted over the years. They’d wandered away from their original intentions as Megatron’s thirst for vengeance and power overrode his initial dissatisfaction with the state of Cybertron. Often, Cyclonus had wondered if Megatron had only taken advantage of the plight of the unfortunate, using their dissatisfaction to build himself an army that he could use to take over the universe.

Perhaps the truth had been there all along, and they were all too desperate to change their fates to notice it. Maybe Starscream had been the only one who noticed, but caught up in his own web of power-grabbing, he couldn’t take from Megatron what he no longer deserved.

“If you believe that every Cybertronian deserves energon and shelter and the chance to be educated, then you are very much a Decepticon,” Cyclonus continued, remembering fondly how it had been in the beginning. How they’d all stood up for what was right. “If you believe that a mech should be judged by his character, not his frame-type or the circumstances of his creation, then yes, Tailgate, you are more than deserving of taking our brand.”

He leaned forward, offering the former Neutral a small smile. “Claim the brand for what it meant, not what Megatron made it. You understand?”

Tailgate nodded enthusiastically, his fingers tangling together. “I do.” His field flushed with pride. “And when put that way, yes, I do. I want to take the commitment.” He paused and nervously added, “And maybe meet Grimlock.”

Cyclonus chuckled. “I promise, he’s not as fierce as he seems.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it.”

To be fair, he had a point. Cyclonus huffed a little laugh and picked up his stylus, scooting his datapad back into reach.

“You will. Soon.”

“Good. And in the meantime… you’re not busy, are you?”

Cyclonus cycled his optics. “As of this moment?” Didn’t they already have this discussion?

Tailgate shook his helm and sat up straight, something pleading in his visor. “No. I mean later. After your shift.”

“I had nothing planned. Why?”

Tailgate audibly reset his vocalizer. “Could we, I don’t know, do something together? I don’t know what Decepticons do for entertainment but maybe you could show me?”

Cyclonus blinked. He was, for a second, stunned into silence. It took him a moment to really interpret what Tailgate was saying.

“Are you asking me on a date?”

“Yes…?” Tailgate leapt to his pedes, his field spiking with flustered alarm. “I mean, not if you don’t want to call it that. I’m happy being friends with you, but maybe, I thought, we could be more?”

“I…” Words, for the first time, failed him.

Tailgate’s fingers twisted together. “I don’t expect us to fall into a berth immediately or anything like that. I just thought I’d like to get to know you better and now that we’re on the same team, I figured, here’s my chance.” He shrugged, but it was far from nonchalant.

This was unexpected, but Cyclonus realized, not unwanted. There was a certain delight that pinged his spark every time he saw Tailgate. And there was something in the former Neutral’s quiet optimism and fierce determination that spoke to Cyclonus.

He lifted his gaze and met Tailgate’s. “Did you know that you can see the Mithric Sea from the top of this building?”

Tailgate shifted his weight and tilted his helm. “Um. No?”

“What if I were to meet you after my shift and show you? Would that be acceptable?” Cyclonus asked, as his field eagerly leapt into the warmth broadcasting in Tailgate’s own.

Tailgate’s visor brightened. “Yes!” He leaned forward eagerly before falling back as though trying to restrain himself. “I mean, yes that would be acceptable. I’d like that very much.”

Cyclonus smiled despite himself and realized, what he said next was the absolute truth. “I would, too.”

~

Starscream hadn’t knocked.

He didn’t think he needed to. He’d scheduled a trine-flight. They’d agreed on a day and time. They had been the ones to come to him whining about how little time he spent with them.

No, Skywarp had whined. Thundercracker had given Starscream that quiet judging look full of disappointment that was just as effective as Skywarp’s pleading optics.

So.

Flying. Together. Twice a week. Starscream scheduled it so that he would always have time for his trine. The bond between them had stretched so far as to be intangible, and he had to admit, it was nice to start strengthening it again. Besides, he could really use a flight right now. After that tense meeting with Acid Storm earlier, he felt as though he needed to skim off some tension.

His trinemates knew he was coming. He wasn’t even that early. He was right on time, if perhaps a little late.

But the moment he keyed open the door and stepped through it, Starscream slammed to a halt and stared, catching Skywarp and Swoop in a liplock that he would have never called in a thousand years. Oh, and Thundercracker was here, too, one hand around Swoop’s waist, his helm tilted against Swoop’s.

Hadn’t they, just last week, complained about how annoying it was to take the Dinobot flying? Or had that been just a smokescreen? And what the frag? Just because Starscream grabbed a Dinobot for himself didn’t meant that his trinemates had to do it, too!

Swoop and Skywarp hurriedly parted. The three put distance between them, but the damage was done. Starscream had seen it. And he could still feel the way their energy fields were knitted together. Thank Primus the air didn’t stink of ozone. They hadn’t been ‘facing.

Starscream stared at them.

They stared back.

Thundercracker’s face pinked around the edges. Skywarp’s grin was mischievous. Swoop’s winglets fluttered, and he tilted his chin with more pride and verve than Starscream had seen the flying Dinobot offer as of late.

“Well,” Starscream said, planting his hands on his hips. “When I said to make him feel at home, this isn’t entirely what I had in mind.”

Skywarp coughed into his hand, his faceplate finally taking on color.

Thundercracker sighed and buried his face behind his palm.

Swoop, however, laughed and swaggered forward. “You Starscream jealous?”

He arched an orbital ridge. “Should I be? If I recall, it was your boss who chased after me first.”

“Him Grimlock crush on you Starscream for long time though,” Swoop said with a chortle and a wave of his hand. “This new.”

“Did he now?” What an interesting little tidbit. Starscream gleefully squirreled that away for later. “And who shall I blame for this?”

And did Grimlock know? Whether or not he approved or was going to flip his lid, Starscream didn’t know. Grimlock and the rest of his siblings were very, very protective of Swoop. Even before Shockwave got his hand on Swoop.

Skywarp coughed again.

Thundercracker fidgeted.

“It my fault,” Swoop said with another grin that was all too similar to the gleam of amusement in Grimlock’s visor.

Starscream’s second orbital ridge joined the first. “Is it now?” He looked past Swoop at his very guilty trine-mates. “Oh, I suspect that they are not as innocent as you claim.”

“And neither am I,” Swoop said, in a moment of pure clarity that was eerily similar to Grimlock’s. This, Starscream figured, was Shockwave’s work. “But me Swoop let you talk. Me Swoop go find him Grimlock.” He half-turned toward Starscream’s trinemate. “Me Swoop comm later.”

Swoop left.

Starscream tried very, very hard not to glare at his trinemates. He knew he failed when Thundercracker huffed, and Skywarp’s wings twitched.

“He did start it,” Thundercracker said, always ready to defend Skywarp. Starscream tried not to take it personally.

“And we’re not facing him,” Skywarp added.

“I don’t care who started it,” Starscream retorted. “End it.”

Skywarp startled. Thundercracker’s optics narrowed.

“Excuse me?” Skywarp said, his armor fluffing.

Starscream folded his arms over his cockpit. “Whatever it is, end it. Curiosity or a fling or what, I don’t care. End it. The last thing Swoop needs right now is the two of you confusing him.”

Skywarp’s mouth moved as though he echoed the word ‘confusing.’ Thundercracker’s expression turned stormy.

“That is unfair,” he said. “Besides, we know what we’re doing. We’re going slow. We don’t even know what we are.” Everything about him was defensive now, his plating clamped, and his denta worrying at his bottom lip.

Starscream shook his helm. Was there something in the energon, for crying out loud?

They’d signed the treaty a little under two months ago. Now, Starscream was being courted by Grimlock. Soundwave mooned after Optimus Prime. Cylonus had a minibot on his heelstruts. Vortex asked permission to court an Autobot, though Primus knew why he thought he needed it, and now this.

“Then you had better figure it out,” Starscream said through gritted denta. “Soon. And whatever you decide, make sure it’s clear as crystal to Swoop. You know he doesn’t process like everyone else.”

Skywarp and Thundercracker exchanged another glance. Skywarp frowned, and Thundercracker shook his helm.

“He’s not stupid,” Skywarp muttered. “And neither am I, for that matter.”

“I think we know how to talk to him better than you do,” Thundercracker retorted, all but putting himself in front of Skywarp. Protecting him, as he always did.

It had been a long time since either of them stood up for Starscream like that.

He cycled a ventilation and palmed his faceplate. “Just… take care of it,” he said, and waved a hand of dismissal, turning away from both of them. “Remember who his eldest brother is. I’m not going to get between you if you do something stupid.”

“We remember,” Skywarp retorted.

Starscream performed a systems check, aware that his wings twitched out of his control. This was supposed to be a calm, relaxing flight. One that would help bring them back to the unity they once had as a trine.

He shouldn’t have started it by snapping commands and all but yelling at them. Primus, but he was such a failure sometimes.

Starscream cycled a ventilation and rubbed at his forehelm. “We do have an appointment to keep,” he said, desperate to change the subject. “Unless you’d rather reschedule?”

“No,” Thundercracker said.

“I’m not missing another chance to go flying,” Skywarp added, and pushed past Starscream into the interior of the suite he shared with Thundercracker.

Thank Primus that like Starscream, Thundercracker and Skywarp had a balcony and they would not have to suffer any long, awkward walks down hallways out of the building. Instead, they would get to enjoy a long, awkward flight together.

Skywarp was the first to launch himself into the sky, but Thundercracker and Starscream were quick to join him. Silence fell between them as they lazily climbed higher. No doubt they were all thinking of what Starscream had discovered.

He was in the middle of trying to decide exactly how he was going to tell Grimlock and whether or not he even needed to when Skywarp finally spoke up.

“We really ought to do this more often,” Skywarp chirped as he shot ahead of them, twisting into a tight spiral before suddenly climbing higher.

Starscream and Thundercracker followed him at a more sedate, modest pace. They weren’t doing maneuvers right now. They flew for the joy of it.

“Twice a week isn’t enough for you?” Starscream replied with amusement ripe in his voice.

“Every day wouldn’t be enough for him,” Thundercracker retorted, his words sharp, but his tone speaking of affection.

He banked to the left and Starscream copied him to the right just as Skywarp shot between them with another spin and a shout of joy.

Starscream watched his trinemate twist and turn through the air, sheer delight in every burst of speed. He and Thundercracker drifted back together, their wingtips almost touching as Skywarp continued to do loops around them.

“So,” Thundercracker prompted.

If they were in root-mode, Starscream would have given him a sideways look. If anything, he should have been the one to make the awkward overture.

“So what?”

“There are rumors,” Thundercracker said carefully as though picking his words one by one, “that you and our new leader have begun to court.”

Pfft. As if he had any room to talk.

Starscream, to his credit, did not lose pace. He knew the rumors would get around eventually. He didn’t know it would be this fast.

“They are not mere rumor,” he replied. “Grimlock asked to court me properly and I accepted.”

“We’re not disappointed,” Skywarp said as he barrel-rolled above them, his comm thick with affection and approval. “We think it’s a good thing. We actually like Grimlock.”

And his youngest brother, apparently.

Thundercracker hummed in agreement. “There is a matter of the chain of command, however.”

“You mean, will we able to keep our personal and professional life separate,” Starscream assumed, he tipped to the right, angling them away from Nova Cronum and toward Thunderhead Pass. “The answer to that question is yes.”

Thundercracker made a non-committal noise as Skywarp swooped in to fly at Starscream’s other side. They were now, all three, nearly wingtip to wingtip. It felt so natural, so right, to have them by his side again.

“We trust you,” Skywarp said with a little waggle. “We just want to make sure it won’t be a problem for anyone else.”

“It won’t be.” Starscream cycled a ventilation and gave himself over to the feeling of flight, the air curving over his nosecone and back across his frame. “We have things well in hand. Or should I ask you about your relationship with Swoop?”

Skywarp tilted away by a fraction. “Or we could not.” His field smacked of embarrassment but also, pride. Whatever was going on between the three of them, it was making his trinemates happier.

“Have you told Grimlock?” Starscream asked. The idea of an angry Tyrannosaurus Rex chasing down his trinemates was both amusing and horrifying. They could fly, but did they dare ever land again?

“We assumed it would come up when it became relevant,” Thundercracker replied smoothly. “Or that Swoop would inform him. We had only just decided to try and explore something more than friendship.”

“I sure hope you two know what you are doing,” Starscream said. Though to be fair, relationship disputes were far more welcome than the sort that led back to war.

The horizon dipped.

Starscream shuddered.

What in the…?

Starscream startled back into full awareness. There was a heaviness in his frame, one that pulled him toward the ground. In fact, he was losing altitude, as though he’d tilted himself in a nose-dive, but he hadn’t done so.

His mind was spinning. His tanks lurched. His thrusters spluttered as though he were low on fuel, but that was impossible. He’d topped it before taking to the air, intending on going for an extended flight with his trine. Even now, his fuel readings read a sultry eighty percent.

“Starscream?”

His sensors went haywire. His visual feed filled with static. His audials glitched, though he swore someone was speaking to him. His comm crackled.

He dipped again. He was pointed toward the ground. The horizon and the sky were gone. All he could see was Cybertron’s landscape below and the wind whipping against him, no longer friend, but now a foe.

He tried to stall, to pull himself up. His thoughts spun again.

He screamed at himself, all of it internal. Transform, you fool! He tried to engage his transformation cog. He even heard the sound of it initiating, the click-click, only for it to grind to a halt. Like a jammed cog.

His spark beat a rapid pace, fear slicing through his systems. His tank lurched and the world started to spin. Was it the world, or was it him? Was he the one spinning?

The ground got closer. Too close.

Someone was shouting for him, over and over. There was a blur in front of him. Black and purple. Light blue and black.

His spark throbbed again. He screamed over comms and got static in return. The wind screeched around him.

Transform!

With the agonizing grind of metal on metal, his cog engaged, and the air slammed into Starscream with the force of a gestalt punch. He flailed, panicking, as black crept in around the edges. He couldn’t see! He couldn’t hear! He couldn’t–couldn’t–

Warnings. All in red and orange. He was hot, too hot, he was burning up. His tank squeezed. His vision swam.

There was noise in his audials.

There was darkness.