[Crown the Empire] Reign 07

Starscream cuddled in his recharge.

Grimlock could not have guessed, years after first encountering Starscream on the field of battle, that he would ever come to this piece of knowledge. But onlining with a snuggly Seeker half-across his frame and one of Starscream’s hands hooked into a seam, was now coming to be a daily occurrence, and frankly, Grimlock didn’t mind in the slightest. It was far better than Starscream either kicking him out of berth, or leaving after cleaning up.

Though it did make getting off the berth and extracting himself something of a challenge. Starscream still recharged like a Decepticon, meaning the slightest movement and he popped online, tense and ready to fight.

Now whether that was a consequence of being a Decepticon or being Megatron’s second-in-command, Grimlock didn’t know. He hadn’t asked because Megatron was a touchy subject. It was the quickest way to make Starscream close up and getting him to talk honestly was hard enough as it was.

Grimlock, however, didn’t have a choice. He had somewhere to be, and as much as he enjoyed the warm frame pressed against his, he was required elsewhere. Not only for the political state of Cybertron, but for his own peace of mind.

The Autobots were observing and honoring their dead today. Sludge would be one of them, and Grimlock did not intend to miss it.

Grimlock lifted his unpinned hand every so carefully and rested it on Starscream’s back as gently as possible. Starscream shifted on top of him, making a noise that Grimlock almost dared call cute except Starscream would claw his visor off if he said so. Starscream’s knee slid up a fraction, sliding over Grimlock’s pelvic armor, and he fought off a shiver.

He didn’t have time to indulge, but by Primus, he wanted to. There was something addictive about Starscream.

He turned his helm, intent to nudge against Starscream’s, when his internal communication system beeped at him. He didn’t immediately recognize the ident code, though his engine rumbled with distaste when he looked at the secondary identifier and realized it belonged to Metalhawk.

What a way to ruin an otherwise decent morning.

Grimlock cycled a ventilation and braced himself as he opened the datapacket, which contained a request and invitation from Metalhawk to discuss the parameters of a beneficial relationship between them. Meaning no Autobots and no Optimus Prime involved, just Metalhawk and Grimlock having a civilized discussion about how their two factions could co-exist. He must have received the notification about Tailgate’s intent to defect.

Grimlock smelled a conspiracy. And he didn’t like it.

He shifted the message to his waiting list. He would worry about it later, after the honoring. He didn’t want to think about political nonsense right now. Whether or not he should accept was a complicated question. He would have to discuss it with Starscream and Cyclonus as well, to get their perspective and perhaps a plan of attack.

It could wait.

He returned his attention to the Seeker in his arms and almost started when he found that slitted red optics looked up at him. There was a slight curve to Starscream’s lips, as though he were amused.

Grimlock’s fingers tickled at his wing hinges. “And how long have you been online?”

“Long enough,” Starscream replied as he pushed his fingers into Grimlock’s seam, stroking the web of cables beneath. “You’re tense.”

“Mmm.” Grimlock let himself soak in the moment for the space of a ventilation before he reluctantly sat up, forcing Starscream to do so as well. “Tends to happen when something unpleasant lands in your inbox when you online.”

“Who do I have to blame for ruining your morning?” Starscream’s wings flicked, first one and then the other, a sort of stretch that he did every morning.

How weird was it that Grimlock knew that?

“Metalhawk.”

Starscream made a face, one that expressed his displeasure when he normally would have kept that internal. “What does he want?”

“A meeting.” Grimlock rolled his neck cables and swung his legs over the side of the bed. His chronometer pinged a reminder at him. He had enough time for a cube of energon and a rinse.

Apparently, he’d over-recharged. He was quite sure Starscream was to blame for that.

“Of what sort?”

“The sort that is underhanded and sneaky.” Grimlock tilted his helm, giving Starscream a look from the corner of his visor. “I’d be impressed if it wasn’t so blatant.”

Starscream cocked an orbital ridge at him. “Was that meant to be a compliment or an insult to me?”

Grimlock laughed and forced himself to his pedes, his backstrut aching. He needed a bigger berth if Starscream was going to be spending more time on it. “Call it what you like. I’m pressed for time, however.”

“Well, maybe I have places to be, too,” Starscream said as he stood, his wings arched on his back. Irritation. Annoyance. A touch of hurt perhaps.

Navigating the minefield that was Starscream could be tricky sometimes.

Grimlock took his hand before Starscream could fully whirl away and pressed his mouthplate to it, a mimicry of a kiss. “I mean to attend the Autobot honoring. What matters are on the table for you today?”

“Not that,” Starscream admitted grudgingly. His wings slowly inched downward, a touch of embarrassment in his field. “Seeker meeting. We need to discuss what’s left of the Coneheads and re-establish a chain of command.”

“Sounds riveting,” Grimlock remarked as he dragged the back of Starscream’s hand against his mouthplate. “I wish you luck.”

“I won’t need it.” Starscream’s field touched his, filled with warmth.

He hadn’t said yes, yet. But if his behavior was any indication, Grimlock hoped that meant a positive outcome was forthcoming.

Grimlock released Starscream’s hand and straightened. “I do think I have enough time for the washracks, however. Care to share them with me?”

“Why do I feel this is an effort to placate me?” Starscream asked, but Grimlock noticed, he turned toward the washrack with a flick of his wing Grimlock’s direction.

“It’s not. There’s some benefit for me, too.” Meaning, he got to put his hands all over Starscream’s frame, and Starscream got to let him.

Mutually beneficial.

If there was an overload or two mixed up in it, all the better. It never ceased to surprise Grimlock how quickly Starscream could get him revved up. One coy grin or wink or flick of his wings, and Grimlock had to fight to keep his panels closed.

“Mmm. So there is.” Starscream sauntered to the door and tossed a look over his shoulder. “Well, come on then. You don’t want to be late.”

“No, I certainly don’t.” Grimlock’s engime rumbled. He eagerly followed his second – and hopefully future partner – into the racks.

They could be quick.

~

Starscream was late.

Thundercracker looked at Skywarp who grinned and mouthed ‘Grimlock’ at him before returning his attention to his handheld game. On his other side, Acid Storm looked annoyed. Sunstorm sat up eagerly, staring forward as if he couldn’t wait for Starscream’s arrival.

Thundercracker sympathized with Acid Storm. They were all busy. They all had things to do. And their Air Commander was late.

He shifted in his chair, and it wasn’t until Skywarp nudged him with an elbow that Thundercracker realized his wings were twitching.

“It’s kind of a good thing,” Skywarp said, though he kept his voice low. “I mean, Star actually looks happy. I forgot he could smile.”

Thundercracker folded his arms more firmly over his cockpit. “Yes, yes. I’m glad he’s happy. But I’m not particularly glad I’m stuck on this chair until our leader stops groping him and he decides to show up.”

Skywarp giggled.

The door swished open, attracting their attention as their Air Commander strolled inside, still a little damp from what had to be a quick run through the washracks. He didn’t look harried, but there was definitely a pep in his step. It was a little creepy. Statistics and history both had gone to show that Starscream was never happy.

“Good morning, Seekers,” Starscream said, almost breezily. “This particular meeting is long overdue, but it’s necessary. We have a lot of work to do.”

“What are you going to do about Thrust?”

Starscream paused and blinked. Thundercracker didn’t blame him. That demand was more than a little abrupt and accusatory. It had come from Acid Storm.

Starscream arched an orbital ridge and stared at the bright green Seeker. “As far as I’m concerned, Thrust can rot in the brig,” he said evenly. “Unless you feel that interfacing one Autobot to death and nearly doing the same to a second is a forgivable offense.”

“They’re Autobots,” Acid Storm retorted, his wings flicking up, a clear sign of agitation. “We were supposed to hate them.”

Starscream paced in front of them, agitation edging into his own field as well. “And yet, you and Sunstorm did not avail yourself of either of the Autobots you caught. Neither did Thundercracker and Skywarp.”

“We have no interest in Autobot slaves,” Acid Storm replied. He sneered, disgust plainly tangible.

Thundercracker doubted it had anything to do with Acid Storm disliking the concept of slavery. He seemed to loathe more the fact they were Autobots, and probably, that they were grounders. The Cybertronian-kept Seekers had kept more of the disdain for non-flying mechs than those who had been on the Nemesis with Megatron.

“My point exactly. We are Decepticons. We are Seekers and there was a time that actually meant something. I intend to return us to that time.” Starscream paced another step before whirling to face them all, his expression one of stubbornness. “Which is why Thrust is going to stay in the brig until we can decide a suitable punishment, or he believably expresses his remorse to me. I doubt it’ll be the latter.”

“For the sake of an Autobot,” Acid Storm said with a scowl.

“For the sake of Cybertron,” Starscream corrected. He folded his arms, returning Acid Storm’s scowl. “If you don’t like it, you are more than welcome to leave. To the Autobots, who I’m sure will be happy to hear you support enslaving prisoners of war, or to Metalhawk, who wishes we would all offline.”

“Or,” Acid Storm continued with an upward tilt of both his helm and his wings, “I could challenge you for right of leadership.”

Sunstorm straightened, rattling his stool. He grabbed at Acid Storm’s arm. “Stop,” he hissed. “What are you thinking?”

Even Thundercracker stared. Skywarp looked up from his game, going rigid with disbelief.

“I’m thinking,” Acid Storm said as he caught and held Starscream’s gaze, “that our Air Commander has forgotten who and what he is.”

“Starscream is our Commander,” Sunstorm hissed, a little louder this time. His grip on Acid Storm’s arm tightened to the point of creaking.

“No.” Acid Storm shook him off and rose to his pedes, his wing held high and rigid behind him. “Starscream is their Commander. We are nothing more than his failed copies.”

A bevy of emotions flicked over Starscream’s face. Thundercracker recognized the last one that settled into a firm mask over his expression.

“Fine,” he bit out. “If you feel you must–”

“No!” Thundercracker was on his pedes before he knew entirely what he was doing. He moved between Starscream and Acid Storm and noticed that Sunstorm was quick to do the same. “No, we are not doing this. Starscream, you are not accepting a challenge and Acid Storm, you are not issuing one.”

Starscream glared.

Acid Storm bristled. “Who are you to tell me what I can and cannot do?”

“Wow,” Skywarp drawled, leaning back in his stool. He looked casual as you please, but Thundercracker could see the tension in his cables. He was ready to spring. “Don’t you sound like a hatchling.”

Acid Storm stiffened, his mouth falling open.

Thundercracker cycled a ventilation and palmed his faceplate. “We are not letting Megatron and Shockwave’s actions put a rift between us. You are angry at them, Acid Storm. You know very well what they chose to do is no fault of Starscream’s.”

“Except for the part where he’s willingly sharing a berth with that Dinobot.” Acid Storm sneered.

“That Dinobot happens to be our leader,” Skywarp said in a mild tone, but Thundercracker could read the danger beneath it. Both he and Thundercracker liked Grimlock. He was good for Starscream, but more than that, he was good for the Decepticons. “I would not say such things if I were you.”

“If we could all just calm down, that would be great,” Sunstorm interjected, projecting a rather powerful energy field, no matter how soothing it felt. “If I’m not mistaken, we are all allies, despite our personal differences.”

Silence descended, but proving he could be reasoned with, Starscream backed down, leaving Thundercracker room to do so as well. Only Acid Storm stayed tense except that it left him looking the fool.

Sunstorm slid between he and Thundercracker and looked his fellow Rainmaker in the optic. “Acid Storm, you’re alone in this,” Sunstorm said, which came as a surprise to everyone in the room, no less Acid Storm. “Starscream is my Air Commander.”

Acid Storm jerked backward, his wings sinking low. “Sunstorm–”

The bright yellow Seeker shook his helm, cutting off his trinebrother, and likely, spark-brother if Acid Storm’s blurted admittance held any truth. “I’ve had enough of bickering. I’d really just like to get to know the mech I’m made from, if it’s all the same to you.”

Acid Storm stared at his trinemate as though he hadn’t seen Sunstorm before. A flurry of emotions rippled over his faceplate, before they settled on a mix of betrayal and dismay. His mouth opened, closed, and then he spun on a heelstrut, storming toward the door.

Starscream, wisely, did not demand that he remain. They watched him go, and Thundercracker wasn’t sure what to call the emotion he left behind. Discomfort was largely a part of it.

He knew Shockwave was ethically amoral but stealing Starscream’s specs to make copies of him? Why would he do that?

“Because Starscream was supposed to be the best,” Sunstorm said, to Thundercracker’s unvoiced question. He sighed and dropped back to his chair. “To be fair, he copied you two as well. But Novastorm and Ionstorm were too unstable.” His bottom lip dipped in a wry grin. “Warp technology is evidently difficult to duplicate.”

Thundercracker’s tank churned. He felt more than a little ill.

Starscream frowned. “You’re taking this rather calmly.”

Sunstorm smirked and that was all Starscream. He folded his arms over his cockpit and tilted his helm. “Yes, well, I’m apparently the part of Starscream he never uses.”

“You mean the rational side?” Skywarp asked with an arched orbital ridge. Thin amusement danced in the distant edges of his field.

Sunstorm’s smirk widened. “Yes.”

Predictably, Starscream huffed. His wings twitched, a sign of his displeasure and a clear indication he headed toward an epic sulk.

“In any case, don’t worry about Acid Storm, I’ll handle him,” Sunstorm added as he looked at Starscream again, his amusement sliding away. “We’ve spent our entire lives listening to Shockwave mutter about how much we’ve failed him. Given enough time, he’ll get over resenting you for that.”

Thundercracker frowned. “And your opinion on Thrust?”

“He’s exactly where he needs to be.” Sunstorm’s field darkened with disgust before he reined it in, drawing it back and taking the soothing calm with him. “My trine might be incomplete, but I’ll take a grounder into it before I’ll take a rapist.”

Starscream inclined his helm. “Fair enough as I didn’t intend to release him anyway.”

Sunstorm’s lips quirked. “That’s good to hear, Commander. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to find my trinemate before he decides to change the weather.” He tipped his helm in a bow to Skywarp and Thundercracker both before he left the room.

That was not at all the direction Thundercracker expected this meeting to take. Revelations and near-challenges?

“Well,” Skywarp said as the door swished shut behind Sunstorm. “Should I warp down to the brig now or later?”

Starscream cycled his optics and tossed their trinemate a confused look. “Why?”

Skywarp’s face was empty of expression as he leaned back. “Because I think I’m going to kill Shockwave.”

“Don’t be so dramatic,” Starscream said with a roll of his optics. “Besides, our dear leader claims first rights.”

Thundercracker frowned. “Remind me why he’s still alive?”

“Because he may be of use to us, if we can restrain him.” Starscream pinched his nasal ridge, his wings drifting downward. All trace of his good mood from earlier was gone.

Inwardly, Thundercracker cursed Acid Storm to the Pit and back.

“I’ll look at Shockwave’s records,” Starscream continued, sounding exhausted now. “See if I can find the truth behind Acid Storm’s anger and if there are any other… copies that may need our assistance. I will also destroy any data that might remain. I suppose going through Shockwave’s laboratory is a task I have evaded for far too long.”

“Do you want some help?” Skywarp offered.

Starscream lowered his hand, tossing him a wry grin. “I appreciate the offer, but no. If need be, I will politely request Perceptor, or worse, Wheeljack.” He shook his helm and straightened. “Times like this, I hate Megatron even more for taking Skyfire.”

Thundercracker and Skywarp exchanged a glance. Talking about Skyfire was one of the sure ways to put Starscream in a Mood. And it seemed he was clearly heading that way as Starscream strode toward the door.

“Consider this meeting postponed,” Starscream threw over his shoulder.

In his absence, the room was quiet and still, lacking Acid Storm’s turbulent field, Sunstorm’s prickling presence, and Starscream’s growing agitation. Thundercracker cycled a ventilation and sank down into his chair, unsurprised when Skywarp immediately snuggled into his side. While Thundercracker was one to brood away his frustrations, Skywarp was one to cuddle them away.

“That went well,” Skywarp remarked after Thundercracker rested an arm over him, stroking his back just below his wing hinges.

Thundercracker made a noncommittal noise. He debated pinging Grimlock and giving him a warning, but remembered their leader was at the Autobot honoring and was unavailable. Besides, Thundercracker would hope Starscream kept him informed.

“Course it could have been worse,” Skywarp added.

Thundercracker hummed and stroked Skywarp’s backstrut again. “Still better than it was before,” he said.

Still better than Megatron.

~

They almost didn’t receive the notice until it was too late, Starscream lamented. This was what happened when your communications officer defected to the Autobots and you were left with secondary and tertiary mechs to call upon. Especially when they didn’t know frag all what they were doing.

Starscream stomped out of Decepticon Headquarters and glared up at the sky, and the ramshackle ship that slowly descended. He narrowed his optics and reconsidered.

Or maybe it wasn’t their new communications tower that was to blame, but the ship itself, because it looked to be in shoddy repair. The Weak Anthropic Principle looked to be held together with duct tape, staples, and wishful thinking. It clattered and clanked and hissed as it landed with a ground-shaking bump. A piece of something from the underside jarred itself loose with a clatter.

Starscream wouldn’t be caught dead in that thing.

“That’s a Neutral ship,” Starscream said as he hurried to catch up to Grimlock, who was already waiting with his arms crossed over his chestplate.

For someone who was potentially faced with dissension in the ranks, Grimlock did not look the least bit ruffled. If anything, he seemed intrigued by which Decepticons might be aboard the ramshackle collection of dented panels they dared give a name.

“I know,” Grimlock said. “They’re all Decepticons though. Circumstances necessitated a change in transportation. They call themselves the Scavengers.”

Starscream arched an orbital ridge. “Not exactly a name that inspires terror.”

“It was a long war,” Grimlock replied, and that was all he had to say on the matter. Except that he paused and looked at Starscream again, tilting his helm. “What is it?”

Starscream blinked. “What do you mean?”

Grimlock stepped closer, lowering his vocals. “You’re agitated.”

He’d noticed? Primus, how much attention did Grimlock pay to him?

Starscream waved a hand of dismissal, hoping it was as flippant as he needed it to be. “Air Commander problems. I’m handling it.”

“Want to talk about it?”

“No.”

Grimlock stared at him. Starscream stared back. He could be just as stubborn as a Dinobot if he needed to be.

The ship settled into place, forcing their attention, but Starscream had no doubt Grimlock would only bring it up later. Which would give him more than enough time to gather his thoughts.

Grimlock turned away, and they both watched the docking ramp extend. A small crowd of Decepticons had gathered to welcome the new arrivals, as understaffed as they were. Starscream was no exception, provided that they weren’t Megatron supporters. He would leave it up to Grimlock, however, to take care of them.

Six mechs emerged, one of them a flyer that Starscream recognized immediately and who, in turn, recognized him as well.

“Commander Starscream!”

Starscream held up a hand and backed up a pace. “No,” he said, like one might to an Earth canine. “Not this time, Misfire.” The last time he’d seen Misfire, the target-challenged Seeker had tackle-hugged him to the ground, and Starscream had bent an aileron.

“Awww.” Misfire skidded to a halt and pouted, within inches of glomping Starscream. “You’d think you’d welcome me with open arms, Commander.”

“Go tackle Skywarp if you’re in need of affection,” Starscream retorted. “Or Scourge.” Though he doubted the dour flyer would have any interest in cuddling. But rumor had it Misfire and Scourge were old friends, whatever that meant.

He heard a snort of laughter and directed a glare at Grimlock, but the Decepticon Leader wasn’t paying him a bit of attention. Instead, he strode forward to greet the self-proclaimed leader of the group, whom Starscream did not recognize.

“Captain Krok reporting,” the mech said, something in his design suggesting he didn’t have an alt-mode. There were no tires, treads, rotors, or wings. Nor did he have the link-ups that indicated he was a cassette. “We heard of Lord Megatron’s demise and the all call to return to Cybertron.”

Grimlock tilted his helm. “Then I assume by your arrival here, you are not opposed to my rulership.”

“On the contrary, if it means energon in our tanks and a warm place to recharge, we don’t care who’s in charge,” Krok said, gesturing over his shoulder to the other four members of his team.

One was a rotary, taller than all the others, his expression concealed by a mask, but his crimson optics glowing balefully above it. Another was a grounder, judging by the tires, and half his helm was hidden behind a static bandage. There was another flyer with abnormally large pedes, and a fourth mech who resembled his leader in that he didn’t seem to have a visible alt-mode.

They were truly a ragtag bunch. Their paint was scuffed and discolored. They were covered in dents. They were in no better shape than their ship, which dropped another few rusty parts to the ground.

Grimlock shifted, crossing his arms behind his back. “You are welcome to remain provided you adhere to our new code of conduct. We have a truce in place with the Autobots in Polyhex and the Neutrals in Nova Cronum. Travel between the two is only allowed through a permit until relations are more friendly. You are also welcome to defect to either faction if you prefer.”

“Defect?” the mech missing half his helm scowled. “Why would we do that?”

“Some have chosen to do so. We do not hold it against them,” Starscream answered as he edged closer to Grimlock and further from Misfire, who looked like he could barely keep himself from hugging Starscream.

“I legit do not care about factions anymore,” the mech with an abnormally large chin spoke up. He stretched his arms over his helm, flakes of what looked to be rust dripping from his armor. “I want to see a medic. I want fresh energon. I want a working set of washracks. And I want a clean berth.”

“We can offer all of that,” Starscream said. It was a relief that these weren’t Megatron fanatics.

After the quote-unquote mutiny, the Decepticons could use all the hands they could get. Not to mention Grimlock could only benefit from garnering support.

“Finally,” the large rotary said, pushing through all of his teammates to stomp past Starscream and Grimlock. “I’ve got grit in my articulators.”

Krok, the leader, rolled his optics. “That impatient one is Spinister,” he said and turned to each of his team in return. “You already know Misfire. The others are Crankcase, Fulcrum, and Flywheels.” Crankcase being the one with only half a helm, Fulcrum he of the large chin, and Flywheels, the unfamiliar flyer.

Jet engines announced Thundercracker and Skywarp’s approach, which was better late than never as Starscream had pinged them the moment he’d learned of the new ship’s arrival. His trinemates landed behind him and sure enough, Misfire wasted no time in tackling Skywarp to the ground, and Skywarp was too startled to warp out of the way.

Starscream sighed and pinched his olfactory sensor. “Thundercracker will get you registered,” he said, waving toward his trinemate. “He’ll tell you what bunk-space we have available and get you on the list for quarters.”

Krok nodded. “Thank you.” He turned toward the rest of his team. “Get registered. Get rested. We’ll worry about the W.A.P. later.” He paused, a note of humor entering his vocals. “Don’t think anyone’s gonna steal it.”

Fulcrum laughed.

Well. That went better than Starscream could have hoped. No arguments. No one trying to challenge Grimlock for leadership. No one pitching a fit because they weren’t at war anymore. Hopefully, any further Decepticons arriving will go this easily.

Starscream and Grimlock turned away, leaving Skywarp and Thundercracker to it. Registering new Decepticons was part of their duty. Though Cyclonus would have to be informed as well. He was in charge of duty shifts, and everyone was required to put in effort somewhere. Cybertron wasn’t going to rebuild itself.

“Lord Grimlock. Commander Starscream.”

They paused, Starscream exchanging a look with Grimlock, and turned back toward the crew of the Weak Anthropic Principle. Most of them were crowded around Thundercracker while Skywarp tossed Misfire in a playful wrestle before the two of them took to the sky. It was Krok who had called out to them.

“There is something you should know,” Krok said, lowering his vocals as he approached them. He glanced around and over his shoulder, as though fearing eavesdroppers. “Your message was heard far and wide. I’ve no doubt more Decepticons will be returning home.”

Grimlock inclined his helm. “That was my intention.”

“Yes, well, I’m not sure all Decepticons are going to be as glad about it as we were.” Krok folded his arms over his chestplate, for the first time looking uncomfortable. “The DJD heard it, too.”

Starscream stiffened.

Grimlock’s visor darkened. “Who?”

Krok’s gaze flicked to Starscream before returning to Grimlock. “Ask your second there. I’m sure he’s on their List. I just wanted to give you the warning. They heard, and they’re coming.”

“And I should, what, be afraid?” Grimlock asked.

“Smart mechs would be. But who knows… you killed Megatron. Maybe that means you’re strong enough.” Krok rolled his shoulders. “Or maybe that just got you bumped to the top of their List. I don’t envy you that position.” He bowed and excused himself.

Starscream’s tank flipflopped. The DJD. How could he have forgotten about those monsters? He’d thought they were gone, maybe fell into a collapsing star somewhere, or were so far out of reach they couldn’t have heard the call. No one had seen or heard from them since the Ark crashed into Earth. Communication had been so spotty afterward that connecting with Cybertron alone was a triumph.

No one paid second thought to the other Decepticons scattered around the universe. They’d been too busy trying to stay fueled and find victory over the Autobots.

Starscream should have known, however. The DJD were not the sort to take Megatron’s silence as an excuse to shirk their duties and disband. They would have taken it as a sign they needed to be more diligent and protect Megatron’s interest in his absence.

He shivered, his plating clamped down tight. He’d only stayed off their list because Megatron took some sort of sick pleasure in dealing with Starscream himself. Tarn, however, had always come across as eager to teach Starscream a lesson or three. Megatron, however, was possessive.

He was the only one allowed to give lessons.

“Starscream?”

He shook off the memories and looked up, clamping down on anything resembling fear. He did not fear those monsters. But he was wise to be cautious.

“I’ll explain,” Starscream said, pulling back on his field as well. “But not here. We don’t want to cause a panic.”

“A panic?” Grimlock’s engine gave a rumble of amusement. “Are they sparkeaters? Are they giant scraplets? What kind of boogeyman would scare battle-hardened Decepticons?”

“The worst kind. And they are Decepticons.” Starscream frowned and turned away, assuming his leader would fall in step beside him. “There are five of them. They are the Decepticon Justice Division, Megatron’s personal team for behavior adjustment, by which I mean, they assassinate all transgressors in the most disturbing way possible.”

“Autobots?”

Starscream grimaced. “While they aren’t opposed to killing Autobots, they were created to kill Decepticons, most notably those who had betrayed the cause or failed the cause or did anything that might cause destruction to the cause.” He scraped a hand down his face. “Their leader, Tarn, all but worshiped Megatron. If he’s heading this way, I can imagine it is only for one purpose, to kill the mechs responsible.”

They entered the command center but rather than turn Grimlock toward central command, Starscream turned him toward the office that had been designated for Grimlock’s personal use. They didn’t need this broadcast everywhere. By the limitations that Tarn devised, every Decepticon currently on Cybertron should be on his List, save those in the brig.

They were all traitors to the cause by agreeing to a truce and agreeing to work alongside the Autobots.

“You think I should be afraid.”

Starscream shook his helm and looked up at Grimlock. “I think you should be cautious. Tarn is on par with Overlord and Sixshot except he doesn’t have a kill code. He has the capability to kill you by talking to you. The others are no better.”

“I did not fear Megatron. I will not fear his cronies.” Grimlock’s vocals were firm, as was the shade of his visor. “I will deal with them when the time comes, but I won’t let fear rule the present.”

Stubborn Dinobot.

Starscream gritted his denta. “Not everything can be solved with a punch to the face, you know.”

“I am aware.” Grimlock’s visor brightened, and he leaned closer, his field rubbing against Starscream’s with warm intent. “But that is why I have a very intelligent second-in-command who is more than willing to help me devise a solution. I never intended to do this alone.”

Starscream tried and failed to prevent that from making his spark flutter. How could a boorish Dinobot always know the right thing to say?

Starscream chose to ignore him by keying in the code to Grimlock’s office and gesturing for his leader to precede him. Here, in the relative privacy, they could speak freely.

“We need to contact Prime, let him know of the new arrivals. With their addition, the Autobots are firmly outnumbered, and he may be concerned,” Grimlock said as he moved into the room, and Starscream followed.

The door shut behind him, locking automatically.

“As much as it pains me to admit it, I’m quite certain Prime is idealistic enough to trust you. It is the others who will need convincing,” Starscream said. “But I will contact them.” He made a mental note to speak with Krok further, to ensure he didn’t spread information about the DJD.

The last thing they needed was a mass exodus from Cybertron. Or for Metalhawk to gain some ammunition. But speaking of…

“And Metalhawk?”

Grimlock sat at his desk and rested his hand on top of it. “I’ll tell him when we meet.”

Starscream blinked and leaned against the front of the desk, staring at his leader. “Meet? What meeting?” He vaguely remembered something about Metalhawk from this morning, but they were both in a rush.

“The one Metalhawk sent to me personally. He wants to discuss our quote-unquote relationship.” Grimlock’s visor darkened, his field flickering a faint sense of distaste. “I suspect he’s trying to build rifts between myself and Prime. It won’t happen. But I can allow him to hope for it. And perhaps gain insight into what he hopes to accomplish.”

Starscream’s optics narrowed. “Were you not going to tell me?”

“I only just now decided to go.” Grimlock shifted his weight. “I had been debating the benefits or lack thereof in attending.”

“Well, of course you have to attend. Otherwise who knows what lies Metalhawk will make up in your absence.”

“Mmm.” Grimlock cycled a ventilation. He reached across the desk, resting one of his hands over Starscream’s, the most forward gesture he’d made since asking to court Starscream.

He’d yet to give Grimlock an answer.

“I’d have mentioned it sooner, but you do serve as a tempting distraction,” Grimlock said as he rubbed his thumb over the back of Starscream’s hand. “Rest assured, however, I would not have made the decision without you.”

Starscream snorted. “Even though I was not included in the invitation?”

“Even though. Metalhawk may exclude you all he likes, but I won’t keep secrets. I’m not Megatron.”

Grimlock said that often, as though he felt Starscream needed to hear it. Though it was fairly obvious. Grimlock could be as confusing and irritating as Megatron, but that was where the similarities ended.

“I’m aware.” Starscream smirked to hide the wriggle of unease that lingered in his tanks. Despite Grimlock’s flippancy, the threat of the DJD could not be taken lightly. “So let’s sit down and figure out how we’re going to handle Metalhawk and Tarn.”

“Business first,” Grimlock agreed and retracted his hand.

Starscream told himself he did not miss that warmth.

~

They met where they always did, on the bridge where Tailgate had first bravely approached Cyclonus to introduce himself. Tailgate, Cyclonus noticed, looked agitated. He kept glancing over his shoulder and twisting his fingers together, but his visor brightened upon sight of Cyclonus, and there was no mistaking the burst of joy in his field.

“Do you have good news?” he asked, rocking back and forth on the struts of his pedes.

Cyclonus lowered himself down to one knee, all the better not to loom. “I do. Your petition was approved. Both of them.”

Tailgate tilted his helm. “Both?”

Cyclonus cycled a ventilation and held out a hand, relieved when Tailgate did not hesitate to reach for him in return. He looked at Tailgate’s hand, so small compared to his, and fingers so blunt next to Cyclonus’ sharp talons. Tailgate’s paint was scuffed as well, the marks of a working mech, a civilian.

He still wondered how Tailgate managed to slip away from Nova Cronum and get into New Iacon on his own. The cities were connected by two main roadways, in severe disrepair as they were, but Metalhawk had optics on both gates out of Nova Cronum. And yet this minibot continued to elude him.

Perhaps there was more to Tailgate than met the optic.

“I forwarded your petition to Optimus Prime,” Cyclonus explained as he rested his other hand over Tailgate’s. “He approved it as well.”

“Optimus? The Autobots? But I thought….” Tailgate trailed off, hurt infecting his field, chasing away the joy.

Cyclonus looked at Tailgate directly. He had vowed he would be honest. “We are better than we used to be, but the Decepticons as a whole, are still dangerous, and I would not see you hurt. At least in Polyhex under Optimus, you would be free of Metalhawk and you would be safe. Also, there are more opportunities for you to be whatever you wanted to be than we can offer here in New Iacon.”

Tailgate huffed a ventilation. “I can take care of myself,” he retorted. He stomped a pede. “I’ve been doing fine so far. Besides, I don’t know any of the Autobots. I know you.”

“They’re good mechs–”

“I don’t care about that,” Tailgate loudly insisted, overriding Cyclonus’ patient explanation with more force than Cyclonus could have expected. “I want to be where you are.”

Cyclonus blinked.

Oh.

Tailgate cycled another loud ventilation, and he squared his shoulders, his tires quivering. “So unless you’re defecting to the Autobots, too, then I’m going to be a Decepticon! At least until factions don’t matter anymore.” He stared back at Cyclonus, defiant and determined.

Maybe he could be a Decepticon after all.

Cyclonus curled his lip in a gentle smile, still surprised that Tailgate could look at a mech as fearsome as himself and not be intimidated. “Very well. The choice, after all, is yours. I simply wanted you to know there was a safer option.”

“If I cared about being safe I wouldn’t be sneaking out of Nova Cronum to come here,” Tailgate said, but it was with a little laugh.

Cyclonus squeezed his hand and gave Tailgate a wry look. “Speaking of which, how are you doing that? You don’t strike me as the type to have been trained in special operations.”

“Don’t have to be.” Amusement danced in Tailgate’s field, along with a hefty dose of pride. “No one ever pays attention to the waste lines. No one wants to and no one cares. And everything’s connected.”

“Clever.” Cyclonus squeezed Tailgate’s hand once more and then released him, though not without a pang of reluctance. How odd. He looked down at the mech who would soon be a Decepticon. “Is there anything you need to retrieve from Nova Cronum?”

Tailgate shook his helm and patted his chestplate. “I made sure to carry everything that matters with me. Never knew when I might have to disappear.”

“What would make you think that?”

Tailgate fiddled with his fingers, hunching down a little. “Metalhawk didn’t want me to go. He tried to scare me with terrible stories and showed me all kinds of videos of things that the Decepticons had done during the war.”

Cyclonus’ spark tightened into a tiny ball. The war was not something either side could be proud of, not once they passed the point of no return. No doubt Metalhawk had chosen only the most shameful and frightening deeds.

Which spoke a lot of Tailgate’s character that he still chose to defect and still chose to meet Cyclonus here today.

“He’s planning something, I don’t know what. I’m not in his inner circle,” Tailgate continued, tangling his fingers together. The inner edges of his field spiked with unease. “But I’m sure it’s not good. He hates Autobots and Decepticons. He hates everyone.”

Cyclonus worked his intake. “He showed you all those terrible images, and yet you still chose to defect?”

Tailgate’s visor slanted toward him. “We are the sum of our parts, not select images from history,” he said and then laughed. “I read that in a datapad somewhere. But it fits, right?”

Another smile curved at Cyclonus’ lip plate. “Yes, it would appear so.” He rose to his pedes and offered his hand to Tailgate. “Now, would you like to see your new home and meet your new leader?”

Tailgate took his hand. “Yes for the home, though if you don’t mind, I’d like to wait a little bit on meeting Lord Grimlock. I heard he was scary.”

“But I’m not?” Cyclonus asked, more than a little amused as Tailgate’s hand folded into his.

Tailgate beamed up at him and bounced on his heel struts. “No. You’re my friend.”

“Yes, I am,” Cyclonus said.

It was a notion both alien and strange, but somehow, he didn’t want it any other way.

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