[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.

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