[Crown the Empire] Reign 06

It was a strange feeling to walk into Polyhex and be neither accepted nor rejected. No one questioned their presence, but no one saw them as Autobot either.

Grimlock wore a Decepticon badge now. It was only proper since he was their leader. But he’d not required the other Dinobots to do so. Swoop still considered himself an Autobot as did Slag. Snarl had removed his badge entirely and refused to replace it with either.

It didn’t matter that more than a few Autobots stared. Grimlock and his Dinobot brothers weren’t here to see any of them. There were only two Autobots he cared about.

They walked into the Autobot Medcenter, clearing their path with ease, and looking half-like a gang about to loot the place. But all of the sensitive patients were in private rooms, and there was no one in the lobby or waiting area to act scared or horrified when four large Dinobots came striding inside.

They were invited.

Grimlock and his gaggle of brothers arrived outside of the room Ratchet and Wheeljack shared and pressed the keypad for entry. Behind him, Slag and Snarl started jostling each other because they couldn’t go two seconds without causing chaos. Swoop, however, had a large smile on his face and a brightness in his energy field that was encouraging.

This visit was two-fold for Swoop. While Grimlock believed Knock Out to be a capable medic, no one compared to his creator. He’d be much more comfortable if Ratchet looked over Swoop and gave him clearance.

The door opened, Wheeljack’s indicators flashing bright yellow and orange at them as he greeted them. “My boys!” he said with a joyful cry, flinging out his arms.

Slag and Snarl rumbled past Grimlock and swept Wheeljack up in a hug, nearly crushing him in their enthusiasm. Wheeljack’s laughter could barely be heard over the thunderous noise.

Grimlock rolled his optics and urged Swoop inside so that the door could shut. A quick glance around was all he needed to see that Ratchet wasn’t here.

“Ratch is finishing up with a patient,” Wheeljack said once Slag set him down. He patted Slag on the shoulder, reaching up to do so. “He’ll be in as soon as he’s done.” He held out his arms to Swoop and the winged Dinobot came into them gladly. “I’m so glad you found the time to come see us.”

“Him Grimlock always busy now,” Snarl muttered as he folded his arms. He gave Grimlock a sour look.

“Well, him Grimlock is leader of the Decepticons, Snarl,” Wheeljack said as he released Swoop and patted Snarl on the nearest armor plate he could reach. “That comes with certain responsibilities. But I’m sure he’ll always find time for you if you need him.”

“Him Slag made new friend, too,” Snarl grumbled with a pointed glare at Slag. He inched closer to Wheeljack, almost sulking. “Me Snarl left alone.”

Grimlock tilted his helm. There was more than casual complaint in Snarl’s tone. It was, after all, true. Grimlock found himself increasingly busy with his responsibilities, so much so that it cut into time spent with his fellow Dinobots. Swoop spent a lot of his time with Starscream’s trine, when he wasn’t under observation in the medbay. Slag and Snarl were often delegated to various guard duty tasks.

“New friend?” Wheeljack repeated.

“Him Brawl is just friend,” Slag grumbled, giving Snarl a dark look. His armor rustled, a mix of embarrassment and indignation. “And him Brawl easy to talk to. Others treat him Brawl as stupid, too. But him Brawl not.”

Wheeljack cycled his optics. “You’ve befriended a Combaticon?” he asked, surprise thick in his tone. He shot Grimlock a quick look before returning his attention to Slag. “Well, good for you. The war’s over after all.”

“No one care about me Snarl,” Snarl muttered, hunching his shoulders. The two halves of his tail bracketed his faceplate.

“That’s cause you Snarl mean,” Slag said, giving him a push.

This was all news to Grimlock. He chastised himself for not paying more attention. He’d gotten so used to his team, his brothers, having his undivided attention that he’d depended on it. But this situation was new to all of them.

Wheeljack curled an arm around Snarl’s waist, looking tiny next to the large mech, who immediately swept him up into another hug, burying his face against Wheeljack’s chestplate. Wheeljack patted him on whatever armor plate was within reach.

“I’m sorry, Snarl. But I’m sure that’s not the case. You need practice is all.”

Snarl’s engine rumbled. “Me Snarl miss the war. War make sense. Me Snarl not know what to do now.”

“You have to figure that out now that you have the chance,” Wheeljack replied. His winglets twitched.

“That’s what me Slag been saying.” Slag folded his arms and heaved a heavy ventilation. “Him Snarl stubborn. Won’t listen.”

Snarl gave Wheeljack a squeeze that made his armor creak. Fortunately, Wheeljack had always been durable and didn’t let out so much as a squeak before he was lowered back to the ground.

“I’ll do what I can to help, I promise,” Wheeljack said as he took Snarl’s hand and squeezed it. “We’ve got the time now. Your big brother is making sure of it.” He tossed a wink at Grimlock who chuckled.

“You Snarl hog him Wheeljack!” Swoop cut in as he attached himself to Wheeljack’s side in another crushing hug. “Me Swoop’s turn!”

“Ack!” Wheeljack laughed as Slag and Snarl jumped on the cuddle pile, and the engineer went down in a tangle of Dinobot limbs.

The careful observer would notice that not a single armor panel was dented nor was Wheeljack harmed in any way. The Dinobots were not as clumsy as everyone assumed. They had learned their lesson.

Grimlock watched them for several moments, amusement and affection intermingling until Wheeljack extracted himself from the pile with a laugh.

“All right, all right,” he said. “I’m getting too old for this.”

Grimlock scoffed. “There’s nothing old about you.”

“Is that any way to speak to your father?” Wheeljack teased. but it was with another wink before he turned to the other three Dinobots. “All right. I’ve got something for you,” he said as he pulled a few boxes from subspace.

He tossed one to each in turn. Swoop admired his with care, but Slag and Snarl tore into theirs, tossing wrapping in all directions. Inside was a selection of energon goodies and some kind of handheld game. Grimlock intended to get a closer look, but that was when the door connecting the habsuite to the medbay slid open, and Ratchet stepped into view.

Swoop’s optics lit up. The present vanished into subspace.

“Mama!” Swoop darted forward and swept Ratchet up in a hug that lifted him clear off the ground.

Ratchet let out a little surprised squeak, but returned the embrace. “You haven’t called me that in years, Swoop,” he said warmly as Swoop set him back down. “Come on. Let me have a look at you. How’re you feeling?”

“Better now,” Swoop replied, leaning into Ratchet’s side. He’d always been more attached to Ratchet than Wheeljack, perhaps because medical training intrigued him once upon a time.

Swoop had always been the best of them.

“How’s he really doin’?” Wheeljack asked as Ratchet led Swoop to a chair and made him sit.

Grimlock folded his arms and cycled a ventilation. “Nightmares are easing off. He’s taken to flying with Starscream’s wingmates.”

“Hmm.”

Grimlock tilted his gaze toward Wheeljack. Was that a contemplative hum or a judging hum? Wheeljack’s field was carefully blank. He was better at field concealment than most would give him credit.

“We are allies now,” Grimlock pointed out. “And they’ve not hurt him.”

“I didn’t say that they would. But Skywarp’s got a cruel streak, and Thundercracker’s got a cold spark,” Wheeljack said. He rubbed a hand down his face and over his blast mask. “But if you approve then I guess I do, too.”

Grimlock chuckled. “There’s nothing to approve. It’s Swoop’s choice.”

“Like you and Starscream?”

Grimlock paused, gathering his thoughts and attempting to decipher Wheeljack’s tone. He didn’t know if it was approval or concern. Perhaps a mix of both.

“Yes,” he finally said. “Like Starscream.”

Wheeljack sighed, his indicators flashing a muted blue. “You’re serious about him?”

Grimlock inclined his helm. “Yes.”

“Him Grimlock stupid serious,” Slag piped up from where he and Snarl had been unashamedly eavesdropping despite interest in the two games Wheeljack had given them.

“Him Grimlock making plans,” Snarl added. They shared a look, even though Grimlock gave them a hard stare through his visor.

This was his revelation to tell, not theirs. His brothers harrumphed and went quiet, jostling each other and muttering subvocally. Their attention returned to their puzzle games, which Grimlock realized he would need more of.

“Plans?” Wheeljack echoed, his field nudging Grimlock’s with curiosity and, thankfully, not an ounce of reproach.

Grimlock shifted his gaze to Swoop whose faceplate was coloring as Ratchet said something to him. Ratchet looked calm, however, so whatever his scans told him, it was good news.

“One does not simply tame Starscream,” Grimlock said with a little chuckle. “Megatron made that mistake. I don’t intend to repeat it.”

Wheeljack tilted his helm. “Then it’s not just political?”

“If he denies me, then I’ll settle for having a competent second in command alone, since Optimus was so kind as to steal Soundwave from me,” Grimlock replied as he watched Swoop’s plating ruffle, the kind of reaction that indicated embarrassment and not fear. “Choosing to court Starscream is a charming bonus.”

Wheeljack’s ventilations stuttered. “C-court?”

“You should have seen the look on Prime’s face,” Grimlock said, subtly watching Wheeljack from his peripheral vision in order to gauge the engineer’s reaction. “He was speechless.”

“I imagine so.” Wheeljack audibly performed a systems reset before he turned and rested a hand on Grimlock’s arm. “Are you happy with him?”

“For a certain definition of the word.” Grimlock lay his hand over Wheeljack’s and gave it a pat. “You don’t need to worry about us, Wheeljack. We may be Decepticons now, but we were taught to be Autobots.”

“That you were,” Ratchet interjected as he walked up, guiding Swoop with one hand, who he urged to join Slag and Snarl with a quiet pat to his aft.

Swoop squawked and dug his present out of subspace before notching himself between his bigger brothers on the large futon.

Time for the adults to talk, Grimlock supposed. He chuckled to himself. He wasn’t any older than the others, but his programming enabled him to mature three times as fast. There was a reason he was leader, and it wasn’t entirely based on brute strength.

“Well?” Grimlock prompted.

Ratchet tossed him a look, one that Autobots everywhere had learned to fear. “Well,” he said, “I’m going to sit down at this table, and you two are going to join me, and we are going to share some energon because I’m old, exhausted, and you’ve got a lot of explaining to do.”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Wheeljack said with a waggle of his orbital ridge.

“And don’t call me sir.”

Grimlock chuckled. It appeared, at least on the surface, that nothing had changed between the two mechs he considered his creators. He was relieved that the haunted look was gone from Ratchet’s optics, and he didn’t cringe whenever Grimlock came near. Nor had he bolted when Swoop intended to hug him. His field had been open and welcoming.

Progress was progress, no matter what form it took.

They sat at the table with Wheeljack rummaging up some energon for himself and Ratchet while Grimlock declined. He was more than adequately fueled.

“Tell me about Swoop,” Grimlock said, and then tacked on ‘please’ because he’d been taught to be polite, even if he rarely utilized it. Politeness didn’t do him much good on the battlefield.

Ratchet curled a hand around his energon. He sipped at it on occasion, something in the way he savored each mouthful a reminder to how often he’d spent going without.

Grimlock was reminded, all over again, of the beasts he had leashed. The Constructicons were useful, and they better be damn grateful they were. Otherwise, he would have visited upon them every indignity they had forced on Ratchet, the jealous slaggers. Sometimes, Grimlock hated being practical.

Ratchet didn’t blame him for making use of a resource, but he also didn’t come near anywhere a Constructicon worked.

“I’m still not entirely sure what Shockwave was attempting,” Ratchet admitted as he rubbed a hand down his face. He still looked exhausted, his optics dim and his paint carrying a dull sheen. “He was examining both Swoop’s spark and his processor. I suspect he was tinkering with Swoop’s core programming.”

Grimlock’s spark rippled with chill. “Tinkering?”

“I can’t see anything detrimental in what he’s adjusted so far,” Ratchet admitted, though it was with a disgusted frown. “For the most part, he tweaked Swoop’s emotional range, and mental aptitude.”

“He’s smarter,” Wheeljack clarified. “And his natural empathy has been given a boost. He’s more…”

“… normal,” Grimlock finished. He sank down in his seat, feeling it creak beneath him. “Except for the part where he’s struggling to fly.”

“We think Shockwave was in the process of adjusting those systems, too, when we rescued Swoop,” Ratchet explained. He paused to take a sip of his energon before he continued. “He was working on removing inhibitions. and we believe he ended up causing an opposite effect.”

Grimlock rapped his fingers on the table. “Instead of making Swoop fearless, he inflicted him with a lingering sense of anxiety.”

Wheeljack’s indicators lit up purple, bright with pride. “Exactly.”

“Can you fix him?” Grimlock asked as he glanced over at Swoop, squished between Slag and Snarl, but still content.

“We can try,” Ratchet said, but there was restraint in his vocals, prompting Grimlock to look at him. “But it’s just not my area of expertise. Fiddly processor work is the kind of knowledge that got tossed aside in favor of faster methods to get wounded soldiers back onto the battlefield.”

“I’m not getting Shockwave anywhere near him,” Grimlock said, a touch too close to a growl as his plating bristled.

He reminded himself that Ratchet and Wheeljack weren’t the enemy here, even as Wheeljack leaned near and rested a hand on his arm. His field projected nothing but sympathy and calm, and Grimlock leaned into it, drawing on Wheeljack’s strength. That inner calm and confidence had always been a guide for Grimlock.

“It doesn’t have to be Shockwave,” Ratchet said as his shoulders dipped visibly. Not fear, but disappointment.

In himself?

Guilt clawed at Grimlock’s spark.

“There’s a Neutral mech, name of Chromedome. He’s a processor specialist,” Ratchet continued, hunching over his energon cube. His gaze wandered away. “We’re having him take a look at Red Alert, and there’s hope for Red. Maybe he can help Swoop.”

“You trust him?”

Wheeljack and Ratchet exchanged glances.

“Trust is a strong word,” Wheeljack admitted. “But we didn’t have any other choice for Red. Without Chromedome’s help, he would have stayed the drone Megatron made him.”

Grimlock’s engine rumbled with another snarl. He didn’t know if he wanted to trust one of Metalhawk’s kind, but if it meant helping Swoop, maybe he had no choice. All he could do was present the idea to Swoop. Grimlock would leave it up to him.

Maybe Swoop didn’t even want someone else poking around his processor. Maybe he was fine the way he was. Grimlock would let him decide for himself.

“I’ll think about it,” Grimlock finally said as behind him, roaring laughter drew his attention once more.

Slag and Snarl were trying to jostle each other again, but a single squawk from Swoop made them calm down again. All he had to do was give them a wounded look and the two would settle.

Swoop was the best of them, and Shockwave had almost destroyed him. It was getting harder and harder not to stride down into the Decepticon brig and rid himself of that particular problem.

“He’s healthy,” Grimlock added as he returned his gaze to the two mechs he considered his creators. “That’s what matters.”

Ratchet nodded, finishing the last of his energon and resting the cube on the table. “He’s healthy. He’s in no danger of offlining. He’s a survivor, Grimlock. He’s strong. All of you are.”

“Were,” Grimlock corrected, and his spark clenched again. His helm dipped. “Were.”

They weren’t strong enough to save Sludge or keep the Decepticons from walking away with Swoop in the first place. They hadn’t been enough, even with Defensor, to stop the tide of Decepticons from sweeping over Earth.

They’d been, for lack of a better word, helpless.

He’d watched Menasor and Bruticus descend on Defensor and meticulously take Hot Spot’s gestalt apart. But this, Grimlock had only seen in snatches because he and the rest of the Dinobots had their own problems. They had Overlord and Blitzwing and Astrotrain and Devastator on their heelstruts.

If Sixshot and Black Shadow had been present, Grimlock knew not a single Dinobot would have survived that day. He wouldn’t call it gratitude he felt, but there had been a certain element of luck, he supposed.

Not for Sludge, however.

Sludge, who’d gotten between Grimlock and Overlord and paid the price.

If Grimlock had been stronger, that wouldn’t have happened. If he hadn’t let Overlord knock him down, send him into a brief reset, Sludge wouldn’t have felt the need to step in and protect him. That was Grimlock’s job. He was the leader. He was the one who was supposed to protect and defend his team.

Instead, Sludge had taken Overlord’s attention away from Grimlock, buying him enough time to get back to his pedes. Enough time to see Blitzwing and Astrotrain cackling as they dragged off Swoop, his wings broken and twisted.

Grimlock had roared, intent on going after them, retrieving Swoop, but Devastator intercepted and swatted him aside like so much trash. He’d gone crashing through downtown Portland and was buried under piles and piles of debris.

Slag and Snarl dug him out much later, and they’d limped away to find shelter to tend to their injuries. They’d told him what became of Sludge. All three of them were dented and missing armor and leaking energon, but they’d spent enough time around Ratchet to pick up a thing or two. They’d gotten creative.

Duct tape might have been involved.

They’d done enough to keep themselves together, for their self-repair to fix what they could, and to get mobile.

They’d gone back to the battlefield, thinking maybe they could retrieve the Protectobots, give them a proper service. Thinking, possibly, they could find Sludge and say goodbye to their brother.

There was nothing left but splatters of energon and pieces of plating scattered throughout the mud and debris. If any of Defensor had survived, Grimlock didn’t know, save that Slag thought maybe First Aid made it. The Decepticons had taken the empty frames with them. They’d taken Swoop and Sludge.

They’d gone to the Ark next, but the Decepticons had already been there and ransacked everything. They smashed what they could. They tore open doors. They destroyed memories and supplies and if it wasn’t for the Dinobot “closet” being so out of the way, the Decepticons might have destroyed that, too. Either that, or they hadn’t thought it worth raiding.

They did what they could. They hid. They watched. They waited for an opportunity, and Grimlock drew upon his anger like a battery. He vowed vengeance. He never forgot the sight of Sludge skidding in front of him and charging Overlord, the ground shaking beneath the force of their collision.

He should have been stronger.

Still, Grimlock never stopped wondering how he and Slag and Snarl had survived. Megatron had made sure to be thorough everywhere else. Grimlock had learned, after it all went down, just how thorough Megatron had been. Going so far as to sift through the wreckage of Omega Supreme, and Skyfire and Silverbolt before dismantling them and smelting them.

How could he have missed three Dinobots?

Surely the humans gearing up to retaliate hadn’t been that much of a distraction? Grimlock didn’t know. He supposed he ought to ask Starscream about it at some point, not that it really mattered. It wouldn’t make Swoop whole or make Sludge any less dead.

A hand on his shoulder startled Grimlock out of his memories. He jerked, gaze snapping up to see that Wheeljack had slid out of his chair and moved to Grimlock’s side. His field was one of comfort and shared sorrow.

“The Decepticons took a lot from us, but ya can’t blame yourself, Grim,” Wheeljack said as Ratchet reached across the table and took Grimlock’s hand, squeezing it.

“If you’re looking for somewhere to point fingers, maybe you should look at the mech you’ve got as your second,” Ratchet said, a touch of a growl to his vocals. “It was all his plan.”

Wheeljack tossed him a look and while he didn’t say anything, the further downturn of Ratchet’s mouth suggested that Wheeljack had sent something disapproving over their bond.

“I am aware of Starscream’s contribution,” Grimlock said with a small ventilation. “I have learned to separate his actions in a time of war from his actions now. I am also aware that a lot of what happened was not his intention. Those were Megatron’s adjustments.”

“That doesn’t absolve him of blame,” Ratchet retorted.

Grimlock inclined his helm and turned his hand, so that now he held Ratchet’s instead. “I never said that it did. Only that his motivations and Megatron’s motivations were different.”

Grimlock didn’t see it as a matter of forgiveness. Though he wasn’t sure he could put it into words Ratchet would understand. Ratchet had every reason to hate the Decepticons, hate Starscream, hate anyone he viewed as representative of his time spent in Constructicon custody and all the friends he’d lost.

But Grimlock had learned how to be practical, no matter how much it pained him. And practically, Starscream had done what he had to do.

“As hard as it is to accept,” Grimlock added, much more quietly, “we have to concentrate on the future and not the past.” He kept his anger for Shockwave because Shockwave had not expressed any remorse for his actions and admitted he would do it again, and continue doing so if given the opportunity.

Starscream, by contrast, had already spoken at length how much he regretted how far Megatron had taken it. That he’d wanted the war to be over at all costs, but hadn’t expected what would happen in the aftermath.

That for a moment, he’d honestly thought Optimus Prime and the Autobots would win.

The difference there was what mattered to Grimlock. Or maybe he was biased when it came to Starscream. He didn’t know. That was something he’d have to pick apart later.

“For everyone’s sake if not our own,” Grimlock finished.

Ratchet cycled a vent and scrubbed his faceplate with his free hand, only to hide behind it. “When did you get wiser than us?” he asked, a tightness to his tone, but his field nudging at Grimlock’s with affection.

Grimlock squeezed his hand and leaned into the embrace Wheeljack offered next to him. “I guess I just had good teachers.”

Ratchet’s hand shook a little in his, but the affection in his field spoke a thousand fold.

 

~

Starscream was used to command meetings. Granted, he was used to command meetings that he had to limp out of or wait until Megatron stormed out before he could pick himself up and lick his wounds. But that was beside the point.

He was used to command meetings. He was used to their tediousness.

The new Lord of the Decepticons, however, was not. Grimlock looked as though he were engaged with the various reports being delivered by their command stuff, but Starscream suspected Grimlock was bored beyond all reason. If not in recharge.

Starscream nudged Grimlock under the table with his pede, and Grimlock fractionally tilted his helm toward him. Acknowledged. Not recharging then. Starscream tossed him a smirk and returned his attention to Knock Out’s half-sparked recitation of the state of their medbay.

“I honestly don’t know what else you want me to say,” Knock Out said with a flick of his wrist before planting his hand on his hip. “We’re fully stocked, overstaffed, and all I’ve been doing is too many maintenance appointments. Do you know how many clogged filters I’ve changed in the past week?”

Starscream pinched the bridge of his nasal ridge and lamented that they had no better option for Knock Out, who only performed his job because he refused to bow to Glit. Why were decent Decepticon medics so hard to find? Knock Out was good at the repairing part, but not so good at the Chief Officer part.

“I have some idea,” Starscream drawled and pointed at Knock Out. “But being as we need all of our mechs in good repair, it is a necessary sacrifice you should be making. I’m quite sure, after all, that your filters are in pristine condition.”

Knock Out’s plating twitched as though affronted. “Of course they are. I’m not a heathen.”

Grimlock snuffled a vent. It took everything Starscream had not to scoff at Knock Out. He could be a little ridiculous sometimes.

“Then I expect that you’ll maintain the Decepticons to the same standard,” Starscream said and waved Knock Out back to his seat, praying that the next item on the docket was more interesting. “That brings us to petitions.”

Hah. He honestly didn’t expect there to be any. Who wanted to join the Decepticons at a time like this when everyone else rapidly jumped ship?

Cyclonus stood up then, his purple claws tapping over his datapad. “Unsurprisingly, we have very few. Not a single Autobot has petitioned to take on the Decepticon badge, but Horri-bull has requested to defect, if the Neutrals will have him, the Autobots if not.”

Starscream cycled his optics. “Horri-bull?” He leaned forward, a laugh burbling in his vocalizer. “He honestly expects that the Neutrals will welcome him with open arms?”

Cyclonus shifted his gaze, coughing into his palm. “There appears to be a romantic connection involved.”

Starscream’s mouth opened and closed. Grimlock made a sound that was quite possibly a laugh. Knock Out rolled his optics so hard they should have fallen out of his helm.

“Are you kidding me?” Thundercracker muttered, perhaps an attempt to be subvocal that failed as he rubbed his faceplate and sagged lower on his stool.

“The war is over,” Cyclonus pointed out. “Is it so surprising that relationships might develop as a result?”

“Not surprising as much as it is… no. No, it’s surprising.” Starscream shook his helm.

The war had only been over for a few weeks, if that. Unless this was a pre-established relationship, some kind of spark-warming romantic gobbledygook that encompassed millennia.

He sighed and flicked his fingers in dismissal. “Is Horri-bull eligible?” Starscream asked. He consulted his list, but couldn’t find Horri-bull among those who were incarcerated without eligibility for parole.

“He was one of my mine,” Cyclonus answered. “He had better be eligible.” There was a hard edge to his vocals, and Starscream, in that moment, did not envy Cyclonus’ troops.

He was more than aware that Cyclonus had been quietly transferring members out of his unit long before Megatron was killed. He had a standard, a code of conduct, and anyone who did not obey that code was removed from his unit. By force, if necessary.

Starscream approved.

“If he’s eligible, then approve it,” Grimlock said, proving further that he wasn’t in recharge, despite evidence to the contrary. “One less frame for us to fuel and if it means he’ll behave and foster good relations, all the better.”

Cyclonus inclined his helm and made a notation on his datapad. “I’ll inform him of his approval then. Which brings us to the petition of a Neutral to take the oath of belonging to the Decepticons.”

Starscream straightened. “Beg pardon?”

He wasn’t the only one who looked confused. Thundercracker cycled his optics. Knock Out paused mid-yawn. Grimlock’s visor brightened.

Right now, the Decepticons were the villains. Who in their right processor would switch to wearing a purple badge? Especially if they started off Neutral?

“Who?” Thundercracker asked.

“A Waste Management minibot, designation Tailgate. He’s been here on numerous occasions as consultant,” Cyclonus said, tapping something on his datapad that prompted Starscream’s to chime.

He pulled up the new file from Cyclonus, skimming the contents. Tailgate was familiar to him. Starscream had seen the little mech around New Iacon before, usually in the company of one of the guarded Constructicons. He was cheerful, perpetually chatty, a bit on the dense side.

He did not fit anyone’s definition of a Decepticon. They would eat him alive over here.

Starscream frowned. “Why?”

Cyclonus ducked his helm, and on anyone else, Starscream would call that action embarrassment. But this was Cyclonus, not some meek Autobot. He did not do embarrassment, except the brief flicker of his field seemed to suggest that he did.

“He is something of a friend,” Cyclonus said as though choosing his words carefully. “And he is under the mistaken impression that this is a good choice for him. Aside from the fact he is ill-suited to the Decepticons, I worry what repercussions this might garner us from Metalhawk.”

Starscream wasn’t sure which of those two statements he wanted to tackle first. Cyclonus was a notorious loner. He did not make friends, especially not with chirpy little Neutral minibots. How had that happened?

But he supposed the comment about Metalhawk took precedence over his astonishment.

“What do you mean?” Starscream asked. “He doesn’t have to be a Decepticon to maintain a friendship with one.”

Cyclonus rubbed at his forehelm. “A fact of which I am well aware, but Metalhawk seems to be overly protective of him. Now whether that affection is genuine or a means to an end, I am not certain. But Metalhawk seeks to restrict his travels to New Iacon, and Tailgate is of the mind that he should have the freedom to go where he likes.”

“Which he should,” Thundercracker said, something thoughtful to his voice. “Metalhawk should have no reason to apply such restrictions to his own, unless he fears it is the beginning of a mass exodus.”

“You mean, you think he’s afraid he’s going to get even more outnumbered,” Starscream clarified as he folded his arms over his cockpit. It was certainly a valid assumption.

Cyclonus cycled his vocalizer. “There is more, unfortunately. When last I spoke to Tailgate, I discovered he had snuck over here without telling anyone. Fearing reprisal, I immediately escorted him back, and Metalhawk was waiting. He made several poorly veiled threats.”

Grimlock straightened, instantly visibly alert. “Of what sort?” he asked, just short of a demand.

“It should come as no surprise that Decepticons are not welcome in Nova Cronum, but it seems to extend beyond that,” Cyclonus explained, gathering himself from his brief embarrassment. “It is my belief that he does not even wish to foster good relations. He implied that he was willing to make it a political mess if I contacted Tailgate again.”

Starscream narrowed his optics. “But not vice-versa?”

Cyclonus worked his jaw. “I was under the impression that Tailgate would not be given the choice otherwise. He has my comm if he wants to contact me. I do not know if he will be given the opportunity to do so.”

Starscream winced.

He rapped his fingers on the table as he digested this. A political tangle, this was. They had no jurisdiction over Metalhawk. The best they could do was convene a meeting of the heads of state – Optimus, Grimlock, and Metalhawk – and force a revisit of the treaty. But whatever Metalhawk did with his own mechs was unfortunately, none of Optimus or Grimlock’s concern.

They could offer sanctuary, but they could not interfere. That was the term of the agreement.

Starscream suspected, however, that if word got out to Optimus, he wouldn’t let a little thing like a line on a legal document prevent him from saving someone he viewed in need of aid. Which would careen them right into another war.

“Extend an invitation to Tailgate,” Grimlock said as Starscream continued to gnaw on the matter. “Approve his petition.”

Cyclonus frowned. “He is not Decepticon–”

“I’m aware,” Grimlock interrupted curtly. “But this appears to be a matter of some urgency. Extend the invitation and forward the petition to Optimus as well. While Metalhawk might reject us, with Optimus’ support, we may have an edge.”

Starscream cycled a ventilation. “Or he could interpret it as an act of aggression.”

“For extending a hand of welcome to a Neutral?” Thundercracker asked, his orbital ridges drawing down in visible confusion. His wings flicked.

“For attempting to subvert his authority,” Starscream clarified. “Metalhawk fights his battles with words and politics. Right now, he may seem like a fool. But when others return, especially other Neutrals, they will review what has happened since the war’s end and they will decide where to lend their weight.”

Cyclonus inclined his helm in agreement. “It is war, if not a different brand. We will all have to tread carefully. This is Metalhawk’s territory.”

He’d been a politician before the war, after all.

“We’re not without our weapons,” Grimlock said. “I’ll contact Prime, set up a private meeting. He should have a better idea how to approach this. Until then, send the official invitation to Nova Cronum. Make it public.”

Starscream smirked. “If we’re open about everything, he can’t say we’re trying to be sneaky.” He tilted his helm toward Grimlock. “You aren’t as dumb as they think you are.”

Grimlock tapped his own helm, his field flicking against Starscream’s with amusement. “That they underestimate us is our advantage.”

Starscream chuckled. Thundercracker tossed him a look with narrowed optics that Starscream ignored.

“Was there anyone else?” Starscream asked.

“Not at this moment.” Cyclonus tapped a few more claws on the datapad before he returned to his seat.

Starscream checked his chronometer. It was getting late. Time to wrap this up. “Then is there anything else we need to discuss?”

No one spoke up. Knock Out looked as though he planned to vault from his chair so that he was the first out the door.

“Nice to see we’re all as verbose as ever,” Starscream drawled. “I call this meeting adjourned. You can all do whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing. Cyclonus, forward me that approval before you send it to Metalhawk.”

It turned out Starscream was wrong. Because Knock Out wasn’t the first to jet out the door, it was Thundercracker. Whatever had his joints in a twist, Starscream didn’t know. Plans with Skywarp perhaps?

Cyclonus forwarded the document before he left, and Knock Out actually lingered for a longer moment. “By the way,” he said. “I would be most appreciative if you would hurry up and appoint a new Chief of Science. I’ve had enough of Insecticons calling me up at odd hours.”

“Noted,” Starscream said. “I’m open to suggestions if you have any.”

Knock Out turned and flicked a hand over his shoulder. “I’m just the medic. In the category of things that aren’t my job, this counts.”

He left before Starscream could form a retort, not that he was annoyed. In fact, he was too amused at the moment to be offended. He’d probably get angry later if he thought about it.

Starscream stretched his arms over his helm and arched his backstrut, ex-venting a sigh of relief. It felt good to stamp complete over so many things on his to-do list. It felt like they were’d actually accomplished something.

This called for a celebration, he thought.

His gaze slid to Grimlock, who hadn’t moved since Starscream called a dismissal to the meeting. In fact, if anything he looked like he fidgeted as he rapped his fingers on the table.

Starscream tilted his helm. “Did we forget something?”

“No.” Grimlock shifted toward Starscream and then gave his chair a push, rolling himself closer and spinning it until he faced Starscream. “We need to talk.”

Apprehension dripped into Starscream’s tanks. He tensed all over and narrowed his optics. Well. There went his good mood.

“Do we?” he asked, keeping his tone mild. “Is this something I should call Cyclonus back for?”

“Not unless you want him to know the finer details of our relationship,” Grimlock retorted with a snort.

Starscream frowned. “He’ll have to find out eventually,” he said, only to pause. “Unless, of course, that is the whole point of this conversation. In which case, sure. Whatever. It was fun while it lasted.”

He shoved back from the table, but Grimlock’s hand whipped out, fingers encircling Starscream’s wrist. He didn’t grip or squeeze, but there was request in the motion.

“That’s not it,” Grimlock said, his vocals unexpectedly soft. “And it would be nice if you didn’t jump to conclusions.”

Starscream tugged and Grimlock released his wrist. He settled back in his chair and crossed his arms. “It was a preemptive strike,” he said with a sniff. “What do you want, Leader?”

Grimlock twitched but didn’t rise to the bait. “To court you, if you’ll accept me.”

Starscream’s vents stalled. He stared at the Dinobot as though Grimlock had informed him they were all Autobots now. He was quite sure he hadn’t heard correctly and rebooted his audial sensors just to make certain there were no errors.

“Beg pardon?”

Grimlock cycled a ventilation and leaned forward. “I want to court you, Starscream, as a potential mate.”

Yes. Grimlock repeated himself, and it was still the same. Starscream had heard correctly. He just didn’t believe it.

“Courting is for grounders,” Starscream scoffed, while inside, his internals performed flips and knots. He was at once flattered and floored.

“From what I understand, Seekers had courtship rituals as well,” Grimlock replied, still in that even tone, not at all bothered by Starscream’s own waspish retorts. “However, I can’t fly. This is the best I can do. Unless, of course, that was your version of a rejection.”

Starscream shook his helm, hunching his shoulders. His wings stilled. “It wasn’t a rejection. It was shock. This came out of nowhere, you have to admit. You barely know me.”

“I know enough.” Grimlock lifted a hand, and when Starscream didn’t flinch away, he rested it on Starscream’s knee. “I know that this isn’t a game for me, and I want you to know it, too.”

Starscream didn’t want to say he squirmed, but it was a near thing. There was a terrifying honesty in Grimlock’s vocals and field. Starscream wasn’t sure what to do when faced with it. He was used to duplicity, not honesty.

He didn’t know how to handle genuine attraction.

He worked his intake. “I need to think about it.”

Grimlock bobbed his helm. “Fair enough.” He patted Starscream’s knee and rose to his pedes. “I’ll wait for your answer.”

“That’s it?” Starscream blurted, mouth dropping open a bit in surprise. Was Grimlock just going to walk away?

Grimlock looked down at him. “Should there be more?”

Starscream felt heat steal into his cheeks, confusion the likes of which he’d felt when Skywarp and Thundercracker had first cornered him. He felt he was missing something, some key component of societal interaction that had made his trine give him looks of sympathy and concern.

He refused to let his own embarrassment rule him. So he swallowed it down and planted nonchalance on his face instead.

Starscream tossed his helm and leaned back, giving Grimlock a coy look. “You aren’t even going to try to convince me?”

There was a tiny click, like a fan coming to life, though Grimlock’s field betrayed nothing. He turned fully toward Starscream and leaned over him, closer and closer, until his hands rested on the table behind Starscream, bracketing him within the Dinobot’s arms. Their faces were mere inches apart, and all Starscream could see was the amber gleam of Grimlock’s visor.

“Do you want me to?” Grimlock purred, and the heat of him wafted against Starscream’s cockpit.

His vents caught. But he curved his lips into a smirk. “If you think you’re up to the challenge,” Starscream said. “Give me a reason to say yes,Leader.”

Grimlock shook his helm, the light behind his visor narrowing. “Don’t call me that,” he said, shifting his weight to one hand so that the other could rest around Starscream’s jaw, his thumb stroking Starscream’s bottom lip. “Not when it comes to this.”

Starscream’s spark absolutely did not oscillate a little faster. He flicked his glossa out, over the tip of Grimlock’s thumb.

“Noted,” he said, vocals huskier than he intended. He lifted one pede, rubbing it along the outside of Grimlock’s leg. Heat began to trickle through his lines. “Now prove it.”

Grimlock’s power plant rumbled. His field rose up and blanketed Starscream in a wave of lust. “Gladly.”

Starscream shivered.

What was that human adage about waking the sleeping beast, he wondered as Grimlock descended upon him. Because it certainly didn’t do Grimlock justice.

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