[Crown the Empire] Reign 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that so?”

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

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

Swoop grinned. “Nope. Not yet.”

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

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

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

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

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

“But me Grimlock wait,” he conceded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good thing they had such thick plating.

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

Swoop grinned at him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.

Someone.

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

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

Who?

A low growl rose in Grimlock’s intake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What happened? He wanted to know.

Why? He needed an answer.

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

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

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

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

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

Grimlock was not a fool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knock Out stared up at him. “Critical.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How him Starscream?” Swoop asked.

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

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

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

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

“What happened?”

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

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

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

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

If he looked away, he might miss something important.

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

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

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

Grimlock’s plating clamped tightly.

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

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

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

He didn’t want to lose Starscream over politics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He refused to take any chances.

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

It was the only way to circumvent the political hurdles.

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

“Grimlock? Is something wrong?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And who had done this.

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

“You Grimlock come.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His ventilations hitched. Screw propriety.

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

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

“I never told you he said yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How? Who?

The questions burned in Grimlock’s cortex.

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

“You Grimlock rest now?”

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

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

Grimlock stared at the other Dinbot. “Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There. He’d worked.

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

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

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

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

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

Grimlock sighed and covered his face with one hand.

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

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

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

That was never a good sign.

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

This would be the moment of truth.

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

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

Ratchet would fix it. He could fix anything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was the worst case scenario.

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

“Options?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was one spark worth their pain?

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

“And the Constructicons?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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