[Crown the Empire] Reign 12

Millennia spent in pseudo-command of the Decepticons had left Starscream paranoid, more paranoid than the average mech. When it came down to his daily itinerary, the only one who knew where Starscream intended to be was Starscream. Which meant tracking down every place he had been in a given day had to be done the old-fashioned way – by retracing his steps.

“He said he’d gone to the medbay,” Skywarp said as he tapped his lips with two fingers.

“If he’d been in the medbay, how did they not realize he was unwell?” Thundercracker asked as he peered at the datapad containing their notes on Starscream’s behavior prior to falling out of the sky.

There wasn’t much. The only thing they did know for sure was that Starscream had arranged a meeting with Acid Storm and Sunstorm earlier that cycle. Grimlock said he hadn’t seen Starscream since they went their separate ways that morning.

“Maybe he wasn’t getting examined?” Skywarp proposed, his wings twitching in restless intervals that grated on Thundercracker’s patience. “You know how he is. If he gets hurt, he’d rather try and court Ratchet’s good grace than depend on Knock Out.”

Thundercracker sighed, rubbing at his forehelm. “Yes. I know.” If anything of note had occurred during Starscream’s visit, he was sure Knock Out would have mentioned it. “Where was he before that?”

“In a meeting probably.” Skywarp hitched himself onto a table, swinging his legs as he sat on the edge.

“The one with Sunstorm?” Thundercracker flipped back to his notes, checking the time stamps. “No. That was beforehand. Who else could he have met with?”

Skywarp rolled his helm, stretching out his neck. “That was midday energon, right? So he must have been holed up in his office.”

“We’ll have to double-check that. We log all codes in the command center, right?” Thundercracker asked. His processor began to ache. He started to curse Soundwave for leaving.

“Well, we’re supposed to,” Skywarp said, and his wings twitched. He rubbed at his forehelm. “Whether or not Starscream actually did is another matter. What did Sunstorm say?”

“Nothing. I haven’t asked him yet.”

Skywarp huffed a ventilation and sagged in his chair. “Then why don’t we start with him?” Fatigue lined Skywarp’s field, fatigue and concern both. They had neither of them been recharging well, and worry about Starscream was not helping matters. While they’d spent many an hour cuddled with Swoop, not even the Dinobot’s steady field had been enough to encourage a deep, meaningful rest.

“Fine.” Thudercracker shoved a datapad his trinemate’s direction. “Then you try and figure out where he was in this gap.”

“Don’t we have cameras or something?”

Thundercracker sighed. “Searching the hours of footage is our next step. Pray that we find something else first.”

Skywarp muttered something subvocally, but Thundercracker didn’t catch it. Which meant it did not matter.

Ignoring him for the moment, Thundercracker pinged Sunstorm and waited for the other Seeker to respond. Perhaps he could shed some light on either Starscream’s behavior, or the gaps in Starscream’s schedule. Maybe Starscream mentioned something in passing.

“Sunstorm here,” the bright yellow Seeker answered. “What can I do for you, sir?”

“You can drop the ‘sir’ for starters,” Thundercracker said as he paged through one of Starscream’s encrypted datapads, absently putting in code after code. Surely one of them could work. “You had a meeting with Starscream the day he dropped, right?”

“Earlier, yes. Only I had to cancel at the last minute. Acid Storm went alone.”

Thundercracker blinked. He sat up straight. “Beg pardon?” Given Acid Storm’s barely concealed distaste for Starscream, he couldn’t imagine that was a good idea.

“Believe me, I wouldn’t have asked if there wasn’t a matter that needed my attention. I fully intended to be there,” Sunstorm replied. “But I spoke with Acid Storm, and he didn’t mention anything of note.”

Thundercracker’s ventilations quickened. He exchanged a glance with Skywarp, already drawing an unfortunate suspicion. Acid Storm had made little secret of the fact he wasn’t fond of Starscream and did not enjoy serving under Starscream.

“Perhaps you weren’t asking the right questions,” Thundercracker said quietly. “I’ll contact him myself. Thank you, Sunstorm.”

“Whatever you need, sir,” Sunstorm replied, and he indeed sounded earnest. “I want to catch whoever did this to Starscream, too. So if I think of anything, I’ll give you a ping.”

“See that you do.”

Thundercracker ended the comm and looked at Skywarp again. “I hesitate to accuse a fellow Seeker of any misconduct but…”

Skywarp shook his helm. “All you’re doing is asking a question.” His engine growled. “And for Acid Storm’s sake, he better have an acceptable answer.”

Thundercracker rubbed a hand down his faceplate and pinged Acid Storm. There was no response. He pinged twice more, adding a commander-level override to the second one. No response.

“He’s not answering.”

“Let me try.”

A minute passed before Skywarp’s frown deepened. “No. He’s ignoring me, too. And I just checked the schedule, TC. He’s off-shift, but not in recharge. There’s no reason he shouldn’t be answering, especially since we’re all on alert.”

Cyclonus was on duty. Thundercracker pinged him to ask if anyone had seen or heard from Acid Storm, all the while suspecting he wouldn’t like the answer. While he waited for Cyclonus to check the logs, Thundercracker rose to his pedes.

“Come on,” he said, striding from the small room.

Skywap fell into step beside him. “Where are we going?”

“To speak with Acid Storm directly.”

The Seeker barracks were less than a minute away by air. Maybe they were overreacting, and Acid Storm was in recharge. Perhaps he was sparring in the lower levels and had turned off his comms to prevent distraction. Maybe he was a rare Seeker who didn’t mind the sublevels, down where the signals didn’t reach.

Either way, Thundercracker wasn’t going to stand around and wait.

The moment they stepped out of the building, Thundercracker shot into the air in root mode. Skywarp rose beside him, and they turned toward the Seeker barracks. As they did so, however, Thundercracker saw a jet take flight from the roof, and streak through the air. From this distance, it was hard to tell color, and a questioning ping bounced back.

“Skywarp.”

“It’s probably him,” his trinemate said with a note of disappointment.

The Seeker, whoever he was, pointed in a direction which led directly out of New Iacon and straight toward Nova Cronum. Maybe it was coincidence.

Thundercracker’s comm pinged. It was Cyclonus.

“Sensors pick him up heading due north,” Cyclonus said, and there was regret in his tone. “He took off toward Nova Cronum.”

“We have him in sight. Initiating pursuit,” Thundercracker replied, shifting to alt-mode in the blink of an optic.

“Belay that!”

Thundercracker nearly stalled in mid-air, Skywarp curving into a tight circle around him. He’d always been the faster one between them.

“Why?” Skywarp demanded, his thrusters burning and his wings tilted.

Acid Storm got further away, until only the burn of his thrusters could identify him against the bright horizon.

“Because he’ll reach Metalhawk before you catch up to him,” Cyclonus replied grimly. “Once he’s in Nova Cronum, there’s nothing we can do per the terms of the treaty.”

Skywarp jiggered in a tight circle. “We don’t know that’s where he’s going. I can still catch him! It’s only two jumps.”

Thundercracker transformed to root mode, hovering mid-air. Anger made his engine rumble, his hands pull into fists.

“No, Cyclonus is right,” he said, glaring at the last specks of Acid Storm’s afterburners. “If Acid Storm did this, and with Metalhawk’s blessing at that, then even if we could catch him, it would be politically ill-advised.”

Skywarp transformed in a snap. “We can’t let him get away with this!” he cried, whipping a hand and pointing in Acid Storm’s direction. “Star could die because of him.” His vents heaved, thrusters spitting fire.

“He won’t,” Thundercracker said with confidence. He spun mid-air, aiming toward the medbay where he suspected their fearless leader would be. “Come on, Skywarp. We’ll tell Grimlock what we know and let him decide from there.”

Skywarp muttered something and pulled up alongside him. “This should be a Seeker matter.”

“Except it’s not. You know as well as I do Acid Storm did not code that virus himself. He had help.”

Thundercracker’s proximity sensors pinged. He swung his attention to the left, where a bright gold Seeker approached, only to transform to root mode at the last second. Sunstorm’s expression was blank, but his field was a full of frenetic dismay.

“When you asked me about Acid Storm, I feared the worst,” he said by way of explanation, nodding a greeting to Skywarp as well. His gaze shifted to the horizon, not that Acid Storm could be seen any longer. “It appears I was right.”

“You knew he would do this?” Skywarp demanded, his engines revving again.

Thundercracker held out a hand, more gesture than physical restraint, to keep Skywarp from doing something rash. “It would be rather foolish of Sunstorm to out himself if he was at all responsible for this.”

“Yes, it would. And I am many things, but foolish is not one of them.” Sunstorm sighed and rubbed at his faceplate. “I knew Acid Storm was upset. He remained unconvinced of Starscream’s right to leadership. Our lack of a third only worsened matters. I tried speaking with him otherwise, but my words fell on deaf audials.”

Thundercracker’s frown deepened. “But to go so far?”

“He did not come to this conclusion on his own.” Sunstorm’s reply was fierce, his optics flashing. “He had to have been swayed, promised something, I do not know. But he was aware Starscream’s death would not automatically grant him the position of Air Commander. I have told him numerous times it was not so simple.”

“If anything, TC would step in,” Skywarp said with a snort.

Thundercracker shook his helm. “It is not a position I would accept.” Frankly, if there was anyone he’d consider, it was Sunstorm, Starscream clone or not. “However, we are presenting a rather high-value target up here. I suggest we land.”

“I agree. To the medbay then?” Sunstorm said. “I can’t imagine Lord Grimlock would be anywhere else.”

He was right, of course.

“Yes,” Thundercracker answered, and turned toward the medbay roof access again. “He needs to know this as well.”

This and so much more.

0o0o0

He would never get used to the sounds of the machines. They were an obnoxious noise, yet Grimlock clung to them. For as long as the machines beeped and whirred, Starscream was alive. For now, he was stable. Grimlock had lingered around Ratchet long enough to know that stable could turn to critical in a sparkbeat.

He bowed his helm, one of Starscream’s hands clasped between his own. Starscream felt cold to the touch, as though his frame reserved all of the latent heat for his chassis and spark chamber. His field was nonexistent, barely a hum of life to it. No matter how hard Grimlock reached, Starscream did not reach back.

The anger built again, so thick and cloying he almost couldn’t swallow it. He had nowhere to direct his fury, save in the vague direction of Metalhawk.

Grimlock was tempted.

He was so very tempted to damn the treaty, damn the consequences, and unleash the full might of the Decepticon army against Metalhawk’s collection of Neutrals.

Megatron would have. Not for Starscream’s sake, of course not, but because if there was one thing Megatron did not despise, it was looking weak in any shape. He would not have tolerated an assault on his home, on his residence. He would not have cared for repercussions.

He would have laid waste to Nova Cronum and gladly waited for the consequences. It was, Grimlock knew, one of the many reasons he was now slag at the bottom of a pool.

Grimlock was not Megatron. He would never become Megatron. But in moments like these, it was a tempting thought.

His comm pinged. Grimlock cycled a ventilation and gently set Starscream’s hand back to the berth. He leaned back in the chair and reached for his comm.

“Yes?”

“You have some visitors.” His creator’s voice came through, sounding exhausted. “Duty calls, kid.”

“Understood. Thank you, Ratchet.”

The comm crackled back to silence. Grimlock pushed to his pedes. Duty called indeed. He’d promised Thundercracker and Cyclonus his relationship with Starscream would not be a detriment to his leadership of the Decepticons. He meant that promise.

Grimlock leaned back over the berth, pressing his mouthplate to Starscream’s forehelm. He’d return as soon as his business was handled.

He put on a metaphorical mask and eased from Starscream’s private room, nodding a greeting to Blackout, one of Cyclonus’ mechs who had been installed as guard over Starscream. Blackout had a list of mechs who were allowed access to Starscream’s room. Anyone not on that list had to be approved by Ratchet or Grimlock and only them. Not even Knock Out was allowed to approve a visitor.

Anyone could be a suspect. Anyone could be to blame. Grimlock couldn’t afford to take any more chances.

He almost passed Ratchet in the hall, but his creator paused and so Grimlock did as well. Ratchet’s optics were dim, his shoulders hunched. One hand carried what looked to be a load of fluid refill bags, the other held a datapad.

“Any news?” Grimlock asked.

Ratchet shook his helm. “Some. Shockwave’s cooked up something, but we’re running tests first. I’m not uploading anything into Starscream until I’m sure it won’t make matters worse.”

Grimlock cycled a ventilation. “Thank you for your caution.”

“He’s your Intended.” Ratchet offered a crooked grin. “Of course I’m going to make sure he’s okay, kid. He’s almost family.”

Won’t Starscream be delighted to hear that?

Despite himself, Grimlock chuckled. “Yes, I suppose he is.”

Ratchet’s engine grumbled. “Just don’t tell him I said that.” He tilted his helm, gesturing to the hall behind him. “You’ve got a makeshift team meeting out in the reception area. Everyone’s looking fidgety, so it might be a good time to remind them who’s in charge around here.”

“I’ll remember that.” Grimlock briefly rested a hand on the medic’s shoulder before excusing himself.

He couldn’t hear the chatter through the thick doors dividing the medbay from reception, but he could sense the growing disturbance of energy fields. It ran the gamut from anger to resignation to agitation. If Metalhawk had intended to sow discord, he was on the right path.

Fortunately for Grimlock, the Decepticons were a lot stronger and united than Metalhawk could have dreamed. They would not dissolve or fracture. Grimlock would see to it.

He pushed through the door and stepped into the reception hall. It was not a large space, but it seemed even smaller with upwards of six mechs crowded into it, two of which were Dinobots and three of which were Seekers who demanded more personal space than nearly any other frametype.

Cyclonus was not present, of course. He should be on duty in the command center right now with Krok available on standby. The leader of the Scavengers was a bit of a twitchy sort, but he knew how to handle authority, and when to defer. He was a good asset.

It remained to be seen whether the rest of his team would integrate well. Grimlock had heard Spinister was something of a medic, but hadn’t heard Knock Out whine about the addition to his staff. Either Spinister had chosen not to make himself available to the medbay, or no one had given him the option.

“You have news?” Grimlock asked by way of introduction as the door slid shut behind him. His voice sliced through the low buzz of conversation.

Three Seekers, two Dinobots, and a Combaticon. It wasn’t quite the collection Grimlock expected to see, but so long as answers were to be had, he wouldn’t question it.

“Yes.” Sunstorm was the first to speak up, though discomfort lingered around him like a bad smell. His armor had clamped tight, and his wings pressed against his back. “We believe we’ve discovered the identity of the mech who infected Starscream.”

Grimlock went still. He cycled several ventilations, forcing himself to stay under control. “Who?”

Thundercracker lifted his helm. “Acid Storm.”

That… was unexpected. Grimlock chewed on the information. Weeks ago, Starscream had mentioned a disagreement of sorts throughout the aerial forces, but he had been scant on the details. He said he would handle it, that there was nothing to be concerned about.

Obviously, he was mistaken.

“Why?” Grimlock demanded.

“Metalhawk.”

That answer came from Brawl, who leaned against the wall nearest the exit door. Several paint scrapes and dents in his armor suggested he’d been sparring with Slag before they both appeared here. Not an unusual occurrence.

“And you know this how?” Grimlock asked.

Brawl tapped his helm. “Ya know Ons’ is in deep, right? He says yer missin’ Seeker’s up in Nova Cronum now, takin’ refuge with the Neutrals. On invitation, I hear.”

“He was last seen taking flight toward Nova Cronum,” Thundercracker confirmed, the darkness of his optics hinting of a banked anger the likes of which Grimlock had never seen in the usually calm Seeker.

“Then since we know where he is, we can go get him, right?” Skywarp asked, his wings twitching rapidly. He was the only one of them in constant motion, his field the most grating in the room.

“Him Acid Storm need whooping,” Slag grumbled, sneezing a brief gout of flame and nearly singeing Brawl’s legs.

The Combaticon didn’t so much as flinch.

“It is not so simple,” Grimlock said. He rubbed at his forehelm.

As much as he wanted to storm into Nova Cronum and drag Acid Storm out by his thrusters, he knew the treaty forbade it. He was certain there were rules that allowed Grimlock to demand extradition as the offense Acid Storm committed had been in Decepticon territory, to a Decepticon resident, by a Decepticon. But Grimlock suspected Metalhawk would not make things so easy.

His comm pinged. Again. Only this time it was Cyclonus.

Grimlock held up a hand. “Quiet,” he ordered, and shifted his attention to his comm. “Yes, Cyclonus.”

“We have just received through official channels an expedited request for a defection petition,” Cyclonus replied tersely. He sounded annoyed, each word spat into the comm.

Grimlock shifted his weight. “From Acid Storm?”

“No. From Metalhawk on Acid Storm’s behalf.” Cyclonus cycled an audible ventilation. “Am I correct in assuming this has something to do with Starscream?”

“You are.”

“Petition or not, we can still demand Acid Storm’s return as he did not go through the official channels on our end,” Cyclonus replied. He would know, as he’d studied the treaty as thoroughly as Ultra Magnus must have.

Grimlock rubbed harder at his forehelm. “No. Not without being able to prove, beyond any doubt, that Acid Storm is responsible for Starscream’s condition. Guilty behavior is not enough.”

“You wish to catch Metalhawk as well,” Cyclonus said, understanding lit in his vocals. “Very well. Shall I accept the petition and file it?”

Grimlock would have smirked, had he a mouth. “Metalhawk did say he wanted to be close allies. Let us pretend we are.”

“Understood. Cyclonus, out.”

The comm went silent, allowing Grimlock to redirect his attention to the rest of those in the room.

“I just don’t understand why he would do this,” Sunstorm muttered into the gloom. His shoulders sank, wings drooping with it.

“Him Acid Storm want trine,” Slag offered with a snort. He pawed at the ground with his right foot before abruptly shifting to root mode and randomly punching Brawl in the shoulder.

Given that all the Combaticon did was grunt, this was apparently a common occurrence? Grimlock honestly didn’t want to know. So long as they both agreed to it, he really did not want to know.

“Well,” Brawl added with a shrug, as though the punch had stirred something in his helm. “He’s not wrong. The Neutrals’ have two untrined Seekers, and they’re looking for a third.”

Sunstorm shook his helm. “That can’t be all. We’ve been talking about courting Misfire, for Primus’ sake. He’d seemed excited about the idea of it.”

“Maybe that wasn’t enough. Who knows. We won’t until we can ask him,” Skywarp said with a snort. His wing flicked dismissively. “Which I guess we can’t do until we find some proof.”

Sunstorm cycled a ventilation. “I’ll search his quarters,” he said, and rubbed at his face. “I’ll ask around as well. Perhaps Red Wing or Nacelle know something.”

“We should come with you,” Thundercracker said, only to draw up short when Sunstorm shook his helm.

A small, sad smile pulled at Sunstorm’s lips. “Normally, I would welcome you. But Acid Storm was not the only Seeker who was not content to bow to Starscream simply because he returned. I may not get any answers if I show up with Starscream’s trinemates beside me.”

“But–”

“Fair enough,” Grimlock said, cutting off Skywarp’s building protest. “Do what you need to do, Sunstorm. Report back to Thundercracker when you are through.”

“Yes, my Lord.” Sunstorm dipped his helm in a show of respect. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll go see to that now.”

Grimlock waved him off.

It wasn’t until Sunstorm had gone that he looked to Thundercracker and Skywarp. “Seekers come in threes,” Grimlock said, referring not only to the book Thundercracker had loaned him, but what he’d observed. “Who was Sunstorm and Acid Storm’s third?”

Skywarp folded his arms over his chestplate. “From what I understand, it was Icestorm.”

“And then Novastorm when Icestorm… exploded,” Thundercracker said with an audible ex-vent. His plating drew taut. “Novastorm attempted to warp. As far as Shockwave’s notes indicated he, well, disintegrated.”

Skywarp rolled his optics. “That’s not how warping works, TC. If Shockwave had any idea what he was playing with, maybe he’d have understood that.”

“How does it work?” Grimlock asked.

“Pfft. Do I look like an engineer?” Skywarp flicked a hand in the air. “Do you think that spy can explain why his electro-disruptor works? Or Soundwave knows what makes his telepathy tick? You’d be better off asking Primus.”

Grimlock’s helm began to ache. He resisted the urge to rub at it. “Understood.” He nodded at Thundercracker and Skywarp. “I appreciate your assistance in the investigation.” He shifted his attention to Brawl next. “Please extend gratitude to your commander as well. If he has anything further to add, he is welcome to contact me.”

Brawl scratched at his faceguard. “Sure thing.” He elbowed Slag in the side. “Come on, Dinobot. Let’s hit up Swin’s. I know where he keeps the good stuff.”

“Him Slag be there in minute,” Slag grumbled, giving him a sidelong look.

Brawl shrugged. “Whatever. Ya know where it is.” He departed, leaving Grimlock to offer Slag a curious look.

“Was there something else?”

“Just me Slag checking on you Grimlock.” Slag strode toward him and planted his hands on Grimlock’s shoulders, looking up at him with his version of concern. “You Grimlock okay? Not see you Grimlock in us Dinobot home.”

He shifted his weight, pointedly ignoring the fact that Thundercracker and Skywarp were watching with curious optics.

“Me Grimlock fine,” he replied and rested one of his hands over Slag’s, giving it a quick squeeze. “Worried about him Starscream. So stay here.”

Slag nodded. “Him Swoop worried. Miss cuddles.” His lips curved into a laugh, mouthful of pointed denta disconcerting to anyone who wasn’t a Dinobot. “Him Grimlock need rest, too. Or can’t help him Starscream.”

“Me Grimlock keep that in mind. Thanks.”

“Pfft. Me Slag only ask for him Swoop. That all.” Slag retracted his hands quickly, as though offended he’d had a moment of genuine concern. He rubbed at his nasal ridge and gave Grimlock a sideways look. “But you Grimlock call if need us, yeah?”

Grimlock folded his arms over his chestplate. “Always.”

“Okay.” Slag nodded as though to himself and then spun on a heelstrut, nearly poking Grimlock with one of his Dino-helm horns in the process. “If you Grimlock say so. Bye now.”

Contentious Slag might be at times, but he was still a Dinobot, and they were still brothers. When it came down to it, that was what mattered most.

Amusement tugged at Grimlock as he watched his argumentative sibling leave. Slag had certainly settled since he’d begun sparring and spending time with Brawl. Grimlock didn’t know if it was romantic or friendly, and it was none of his business. So long as they weren’t hurting each other and Slag was happy, Grimlock would wait until Slag was willing to share.

It was just nice to see that they no longer had to rely only on each other for companionship. That they weren’t relegated to a closet or the times when Optimus needed a heavy-hitter and remembered they existed.

It was nice, Grimlock reflected, to have friends.

“What now?” Thundercracker asked, reminding Grimlock that he and Skywarp yet remained.

Back to business.

Grimlock gathered himself together. “Now we search for proof, and we wait to see if Shockwave is half as good as he thinks he is.”

Skywarp bounced on his heelstruts. “Will they let us see him?”

“Yes. I’ll tell Blackout you’re on the list,” Grimlock replied, tilting his helm toward the entrance to medbay proper. “Just be careful. He’s surrounded by a lot of machinery. It’s all that is keeping him functioning.”

Skywarp rolled his optics. “It wouldn’t be the first time,” he muttered. He made his way to the door, only to pause when he realized Thundercracker hadn’t followed him. “Aren’t you coming?”

“In a moment.”

Skywarp gave him an odd look before he shrugged and continued, leaving Thundercracker and Grimlock alone.

“I assume there was something you wanted to say privately?” Grimlock asked. He would admit that at times, he was uneasy around Thundercracker.

Not because he feared Thundercracker, but because there was a depth to Thundercracker which was hard to penetrate. He was a Decepticon, but had always carried himself differently. He was close to Skywarp – lovers, Grimlock assumed – but still somehow held himself apart. He was silent when others spoke, and there was a coldness about him.

In many ways, Thundercracker reminded Grimlock of Prowl. Which was not necessarily a bad thing. That did, however, make him difficult to read.

“Of a sort,” Thundercracker finally said, and closed the distance between them. “It is nothing urgent, but I did have a request.”

Grimlock nodded. “Go on.”

Thundercracker cycled a ventilation. “I am content to do this for Starscream now. I recognize the necessity of it. But in the future, I recommend Sunstorm be nominated as temporary Air Commander, and he who should be listed as Starscream’s heir.”

“You are certain?”

Thundercracker nodded. “Yes.” He unfolded his arms, straightening his backstrut. “Leadership has never been my purview, and while Sunstorm is young in comparison, he has already demonstrated an aptitude for intelligence, fairness, and competence. I would support his ascension, should we need it.”

“Hopefully, it will not come to that, save far in the future,” Grimlock replied. “But I will keep your nomination in mind. So long as Starscream seconds it, I see no issues.”

“Thank you.” The corner of Thundercracker’s lips curved in an approximate smile. “For what it is worth, I am relieved that you are the leader we now serve. I am glad, also, for the effect you have had on Starscream.”

“I adore him,” Grimlock said. He saw no reason to be coy. His affection for Starscream was no secret, especially not one he intended to keep from Starscream’s trinemates.

Thundercracker huffed a laugh. “I am beginning to see that.” He inclined his helm. “Skywarp and I will sit with him for a time. Perhaps you should see to your siblings? Consider some recharge, refueling, maybe even a trip through the washracks?”

Grimlock could take a hint when he was given one. He didn’t have to look down at himself to know that while he wasn’t filthy, the daily grit of life had accumulated in his joints, and his armor had taken on a dull, dusty sheen. He hardly resembled the picture of a leader in control.

“Very well.” Grimlock unfolded his arms. “Comm me if anything changes. I’ll have the emergency line open to you.”

“Yes, my lord.” Thundercracker’s helm dipped in a respectful bow. “Recharge well.”

If such a thing were even possible, Grimlock didn’t know. He grunted an acknowledgment and took his leave.

He would simply have to trust Starscream to his trinemates for now.

~

Knock Out ached. Fatigue tugged at his struts, his cables. He loathed this feeling with every wire of his being. He had endured it during the war; he did not expect to endure it after the war was called to an end.

But he, like Ratchet and Shockwave, had been working around the clock to find a means to repair Commander Starscream. Knock Out could not more slow down than the others could. He felt, however, the lack of adequate rest and adequate fueling. His finish was atrocious. He hadn’t touched his buffer in days.

Primus, but he needed a drink.

“Thank you, Snarl.”

Knock Out looked up from his datapad, the numbers swimming before his optics, to find Snarl had made himself useful again. Instead of repairing some piece of archaic technology Ratchet insisted would be helpful, he’d brought his creator a cube of what looked to be mid-grade. Spiced in some manner, given the specks floating about in it.

Well. Of course he would bring something for Ratchet.

Knock Out huffed to himself and buried his attention back in his datapad. He knew that right now, he was the least useful of those attempting to help Starscream. He knew nothing of viruses or coding. He was a medic by choice, not creation. He’d bought his way into the academy, bought the best hands a medic could use, and bought everything else he needed.

Including a certificate of graduation when a few of his scores didn’t quite meet the medical standard.

He wished he could say it was because he wanted that much to help people. But the truth was far from it. The medical field carried prestige, honor. It carried a heaping ton of creds, especially for those who focused on augmentations and modifications, and those Knock Out excelled at.

He could alter a mech. He could change them. He could stylize them. He could fix things that were broken. Basic things.

What had been done to Starscream was another matter altogether. It was as much science as it was medicine. It was an insidious, twisted creation, and all Knock Out could do was treat the symptoms.

He’d failed the class on anti-viral coding. He looked at the datapad Ratchet and Shockwave had passed to him – coding which had also been examined by Perceptor and Wheeljack – and all Knock Out could see was gibberish. He could pick out a few things that were basic and easily recognized.

The rest, however, might as well have been written in Skuxxoid.

“You Knock Out need energon.”

Knock Out cycled his optics and looked up, only to see a cube of energon thrust toward his faceplate. It paused within an inch of striking his nasal ridge. It, too, was mid-grade, and subtle sparkling indicated that it had been flavored with iron sprinkles.

Which was his favorite.

“I…” He accepted the cube as Snarl looked down at him. “Thank you, Snarl.” Did he look as surprised as he felt? He hoped not.

A subtle sniff informed him that yes, indeed, it was flavored exactly how he liked it, and obviously different than Ratchet’s had been. How did Snarl know?

“You Knock Out welcome,” Snarl replied and leaned down to tap the datapad. “Hard work, yes? You Knock Out need concentrate.”

Knock Out’s fingers curled around the energon. “That I do. Thank you again.”

Snarl all but beamed at him and then straightened. “Me Snarl go back to work on oscillator–” He carefully pronounced the last word. “You call if need me Snarl.”

“Will do,” Ratchet said, sounding as exhausted as Knock Out felt. “Thanks, kid.”

Snarl’s arm spikes wriggled with happiness. “Mama Ratchet welcome.” His field flooded the room before he lumbered back toward his workstation in the corner of the room.

The tiny space was not one meant to be shared, but it was better to toss ideas across the room then rely solely on comms. Save Shockwave, who was locked in a storage closet nearby, one guarded by one of the new arrivals, a rotary named Spinister. He was a twitchy sort, Knock Out had learned, but he seemed competent. Until Knock Out could observe him in action, however, guard duty would suffice. Glit had the unfortunate luck to be the medic on permanent-call while Knock Out tended to Commander Starscream.

Glit, at least, had the bearings to admit he knew nothing of coding and couldn’t be of help in creating a cure.

The door opened, and Knock Out’s gaze swung toward it as Breakdown rushed inside, clutching a stack of datapads. The Stunticon had been serving as something of a runner for the time being, until they could spare time to begin teaching him. For now, some minor field medicine was the best he could do.

“I have it,” Breakdown announced, waving one of the datapads in particular. “Shockwave updated the coding to account for… for…” He paused and made a face. “For whatever the problem was that made the last test bot, um, explode.”

Explode was a kind way of putting it. The test drone’s processor had melted, his false-spark had imploded, and it had flopped around on the floor as if in the throes of seizure. Ratchet later attributed the failure to some kind of self-defense mechanism on the part of the viruses. A self-executing contingency plan.

Shockwave had called it an ‘unfortunate setback.’

Knock Out powered down his datapad and stood, ignoring the brief wave of dizziness that attacked him. When was the last time he recharged more than a stasis nap? He honestly couldn’t remember. With Lord Grimlock venting down his backstrut, he couldn’t relax enough to power down for longer than a few joors.

“Bring it here,” Ratchet said as he, too, stood. He stowed his own datapad, accepting the one Breakdown offered. “What was the estimated success rate?”

“Ninety-two percent,” Breakdown replied. He moved on to Knock Out, offering another datapad. “Should I go get a test drone?”

“No need get,” Snarl offered as he rummaged underneath his workstation and produced one, though it had obviously seen better days. “Me Snarl fix this one earlier.”

Of course he did. Apparently, Dinobots were geniuses. Who knew?

“Thank you, Snarl. That is most helpful. Knock Out, if you would?” Ratchet produced a transfer cable from his subspace, leaving Knock Out the joyous task of prepping the drone.

He cycled a ventilation and took the drone from Snarl. He produced his own datapad and cable, transferring a clean copy of the virus from the datapad directly into the drone. It was a vile thing. No way was Knock Out letting it get anywhere close to his own systems.

The drone itself was outfitted with an analogue for a Cybertronian’s processor and basic life functions such as coolant cycling, hydraulics, and energon dispersal. It held a central core, a spark analogue, which powered the frame, and even had a small engine.

It was the closest thing they could get to a safe test without using a live Cybertronian. So far, they had destroyed three drones with Shockwave’s ‘cure’. Hope grew dimmer by the moment. Yet, they continued to try.

“It’s ready,” Knock Out said as he plopped the drone onto a stool. He remote-accessed the software, putting the drone into standby. “Infected and waiting for activation.”

“Then here goes nothing.” Ratchet cycled a loud ventilation and connected the anti-viral datapad to the drone’s datapart. “Proceed with activation.”

Knock Out did not hold his ventilations, but he was sorely tempted to do so. He sent the command and watched as the drone twitched, engine instantly revving into a high degree. The virus might have taken time to fully infect Starscream, but this drone had no firewalls, no anti-virus software, nothing to protect it. There was nothing to slow down the progress of the infection.

“Proceeding with anti-viral upload,” Ratchet said, and his fingers flew across the datapad.

There was nothing left to do but wait, watch, and see.

Knock Out disconnected the infected datapad, and took a step back. He learned his lesson from the last one. There was still processor casing stuck in one of his ventral seams and until he could take the time for a detail, it would stay there.

Ratchet, he noticed, also took a step back, though he couldn’t go far as the cord connecting the datapad to the drone did not extend far. Then again, given the condition of Ratchet’s paint job, another processor eruption couldn’t possibly do him much damage.

Knock Out focused on the drone. He checked his chronometer. Thirty seconds and no convulsions. That was a good sign. Then again, the first trial had lasted at least thirty seconds as well.

And then that drone had promptly purged all of the energon in its pseudo-tank and proceeded to claw at its own frame. Subconscious survival protocols had it attacking the source of its discomfort, whatever that had been. It had gotten to its spark-analogue before Knock Out or Ratchet could stop it.

Shockwave’s response: “It was only a drone. Let us try this route instead.”

Sick fragger.

Knock Out pinged his chronometer again.

Two minutes and nothing. The drone shook, its optics flickering. Its hands twitched, but so far, it didn’t appear explosive. It kept its energon in its tanks.

Knock Out glanced at Ratchet, but the chief medic’s face was devoid of expression. He looked calm, his focus pinned on the drone.

Five minutes became ten. By now, trial number three had resulted in Knock Out getting an unwanted blast of processor bits against his chestplate.

The drone’s restless twitching stopped. Its optics brightened and held steady. The low purr of its engine continued to be just that.

Ten minutes became thirty became an hour. Still nothing. No sign of any unfortunate side effects. The drone’s internal temperature was slightly elevated, but that was standard.

“It working?” Snarl asked, the sudden question making Knock Out jump in the expectant silence.

Ratchet stirred. “That is a good question.” He disconnected the anti-viral datapad and set it aside. He crouched down next to the drone. “Hand me a spare datapad, would you? I want to check its coding.”

“Here.” Breakdown juggled the datapads in his arms and offered Ratchet one before Knock Out could so much as stir. “This one’s empty.”

“Thanks.” Ratchet connected it to the drone and started to run a basic diagnostic. His face remained empty of expression, as though he didn’t dare hope.

Knock Out folded his arms over his chestplate. He resisted the urge to tap his pede. If Snarl and Breakdown could wait patiently, so could he.

“The virus is gone,” Ratchet said with a shake of his helm. “It’s nowhere in the drone’s system. I’m seeing elevated spark rate, fuel pump rate, and temperature, but nothing worse than what the average mech would suffer with a nasty rust infection.”

“It works?” Knock Out asked.

“So it would seem.” Ratchet rose to his pedes, still examining the datapad in detail. “I’d like to run the simulation several more times before I even suggest trying it on a living mech, much less Starscream. But yes, it would appear we have a cure.”

Relief left Knock Out sagging. He cycled a long ventilation. Thank, Primus. While he wasn’t close to Starscream, he’d seen the effect Starscream’s condition had on Lord Grimlock and his trinemates. He knew how it could affect the treaty if Starscream died.

Knock Out did not want to go back to war. He quite liked not having to fear for his spark every day of his life.

“And we have Shockwave to thank for it,” Breakdown muttered, clutching his datapads tighter. “Is Lord Grimlock really going to release him?”

“Not if I have anything to say about it,” Ratchet growled. “But that is neither here nor there. Right now, we worry about making sure Starscream recovers. Shockwave can sit in his closet until then.”

“I’ll get another drone,” Knock Out said, already spinning on a heelstrut.

He might not be able to work on the coding, but he could at least play fetch. He hadn’t needed schooling to teach him that much.

Good news was good news, no matter the form it came in. Maybe once Starscream was fixed, things could go back to normal, and Knock Out wouldn’t have to spend days staring at mechs who made him feel inadequate.

That and he could finally have a wash.

One could only hope.

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[Crown the Empire] Reign 11

Grimlock never thought he’d find himself visiting Shockwave in the brig while intending to ask the immoral scientist for assistance. Every fibre of his being loathed Shockwave, not the least of which for what he’d done to Swoop. There was no one in either faction who wanted Shockwave to be released.

Not even the Autobots were feeling particularly merciful.

But Starscream had been practical, and Grimlock had echoed him. Shockwave was abhorrent, but he was useful. He was brilliant. He had a mind they couldn’t afford to lose. So Grimlock had let him rot in the brig as a temporary measure until they could figure out how to preserve his mind, but keep him from harming any others.

Punishment, after all, was worthless. Ineffective. Shockwave felt no remorse and not even imprisonment could convince him to change his ways. He remained certain that he would eventually be released.

Grimlock loathed that Shockwave had turned out to be right.

Scourge, the brig warden appointed by Cyclonus as he was also Cyclonus’ second in command, waited for Grimlock in the receiving area. There were fewer permanent residents of the brig than there used to be, but enough that there was a steady rotation of personnel to serve as guards. Like Shockwave, these prisoners waited for Grimlock to take the time to do something about them.

They were very low on his priority list.

“For a mech no one likes, Shockwave gets the most visitors,” Scourge commented in a dour tone. The odd decoration on his upper lip bounced as he spoke.

“He’s the only useful one of the lot,” Grimlock grunted. “Did he offer any resistance?”

“No, my lord.” Scourge gestured toward the interrogation hall, where they had three rooms for such purposes. “If it weren’t for the fact he didn’t have a face, I’d swear the fragger was smirking at me. Like he knows why I pulled him out.”

Grimlock’s engine growled. No doubt Shockwave did. He knew they’d need him eventually. All he had to do was wait.

“I’m sure he does,” Grimlock muttered.

Scourge paused in front of the first door. “He’s in here. Want me to stay outside?”

“No. I’ll be fine. Depending on how this goes, I may take custody of him,” Grimlock said. He pulled a datapad out of subspace and handed it to the warden. “Details are on here.”

“Yes, sir. Good luck.”

He was probably going to need it.

Cycling a ventilation, Grimlock keyed the door to the interrogation room open and stepped inside. It slid and locked behind him. It wasn’t that he thought Shockwave would try to escape. He would have done so already.

The scientist sat on the other side of a narrow table. Knock Out had divested him of his blaster arm long ago, and the stump of it rested innocuously on the table. Shockwave wasn’t cuffed, but he did wear an inhibitor claw, like the rest of the long-term residents of the brig. He held a datapad in his other hand, one of the few the prisoners had been allowed, though they were stripped of all data and were self-contained, incapable of accessing the larger datanet.

“After months of dealing with Cyclonus, I am pleased to see that I have finally gained the attention of my new lord,” Shockwave said as he set down the datapad, helm lifting so that his single optic could focus on Grimlock. “Congratulations.”

Grimlock performed a systems check and pulled out the only chair remaining. He lowered himself down to it, never taking his gaze off of Shockwave. “You aren’t upset?”

“Megatron was a means to an end,” Shockwave replied in a tone devoid of emotion. And everyone thought Soundwave was the drone. “He gave me freedom that the Autobots would not, and he had resources I could not gain among the Neutrals. I also thought he was my best option for surviving the war and continuing my research unimpeded. But was I attached to him? Only distantly.”

Disgust welled up within him, and Grimlock had to swallow it back down. There were many things he loathed about both sides of the war, but at least they all had the decency to support something. “You’re not loyal to anyone, are you?”

Shockwave lifted his helm, his yellow optic boring through Grimlock’s visor. “To myself and to science, the only things I measure of worth.” His single hand made a vague gesture toward Grimlock. “But you’re not here to ask me about my loyalties, are you? You are here because you want something from me.”

Grimlock narrowed the light of his visor. He did not know he could loathe Shockwave anymore than he already did. “I have been informed that you are something of a skilled scientist, that you have talents in… coding.”

“I would ask who told you, but I can guess.” Shockwave shifted his weight, leaning forward to brace himself against the edge of the table. “You have seen my work. I suppose that should speak for itself. Your companion, Swoop, was it? He’s higher functioning now, isn’t he?”

“That’s not the point!” Grimlock snapped. His hand curled into a fist he narrowly stopped himself from slamming into the table top. “He didn’t need to be fixed. He was fine the way he was.”

Shockwave tilted his helm, his tone so carefully mild Grimlock’s tank clenched with disgust again. “No one is happy the way they are, Grimlock. Surely you of all mechs would know that. Everyone wants to change. To be different. Better.”

Grimlock’s engine growled. “That may be true. But it is not up to you to decide that. No one asked for your help.”

“Ah.” Shockwave’s optic brightened. “But that is where you are wrong. Because that is why you are here now, isn’t it? To ask for my help.”

It was for Starscream. Grimlock had to remind himself of this several times. If the circumstances weren’t dire, he absolutely would slap Shockwave back into his cell and leave him to rust.

Grimlock leaned forward, resting his hands on the table. “We are in need of an anti-virus. As you are the one on this planet with the most experience in coding, it is on you to make it.”

“That is assuming I wish to do so.”

Anger ticked through Grimlock’s engine. “What do you want?” It was as he assumed. Shockwave would only cooperate if given proper incentive.

Shockwave’s optic brightened again. “Full access to my laboratory. Full privileges to the local and galactic datanet. And the freedom to continue my experiments unimpeded.”

“Absolutely not.” Grimlock rose to his pedes slowly, using his greater height and mass to loom over Shockwave.

He didn’t even need to think about this. He wanted to save Starscream, he honestly did. There were many sacrifices he was willing to make to do so. But to essentially release Shockwave, return everything to him, and let him continue his research without oversight? The implication being that Sideswipe, Sunstreaker, Swoop, and Mirage would also be returned to him.

Absolutely not. Grimlock would go to Metalhawk and start tearing down walls before he conceded any of those terms to Shockwave.

“Then we are at an impasse.”

Grimlock leaned forward, glaring at the scientist. “We are not. Because I have options that maybe aren’t politically sound but will get me answers. Whereas if you don’t cooperate at all, there are deeper prison cells where you will never see the light of the stars again,” he stated, each word precisely placed. “So try it again. What do you want?”

Shockwave’s stub shifted. “Perhaps, Lord Grimlock, you would be better off stating what I am allowed.”

Grimlock braced his weight on the table. “I will allow you a limited parole,” he said, though it was with much reluctance. “It will be supervised by a mech that I deem acceptable. You will allow yourself to be tagged and surveilled. And if you show you are willing to cooperate, and I can find a purpose for you once this task is complete, I may be willing to consider extending you more freedom.”

It wasn’t much, he knew. But it was also better than remaining locked in a cell for the rest of his functioning. They were both at an impasse. Grimlock wanted Shockwave’s help, and Shockwave wanted to be free. They would have to compromise.

“Define limited,” Shockwave said after a long moment.

“No shackles, but you’re keeping the inhibitor.”

“And my weapon?”

Grimlock lowered his helm and met Shockwave’s gaze. “Non-negotiable. Though if you’re that desperate, I’m sure Knock Out can whip you up another hand.”

He doubted Shockwave intended to go on a shooting rampage, but fighting his way free, stealing their only functional non-sentient transport and vanishing into the galaxy? That was a real possibility.

“I will not be able to defend myself without a weapon.”

“You won’t need to. Your parole officer will provide defense.”

“Who will this officer be?”

“I haven’t decided.”

Shockwave cycled a ventilation and shifted back in his chair, lengthening the distance between them. “I insist upon another scientist or someone of passable intelligence.”

Grimlock barely kept from laughing. “It depends on who can be spared. They’re not there to join you in your research, but to keep tabs on you.”

“Pity. I could have used an assistant.” Shockwave rapped his fingers on the table. “Who’s the victim?”

“Who said there was one?”

“You did. When you came to me with this desperate request.” The scientist tilted his helm, and his optic dimmed. “My guess is that it is Starscream. He certainly worked his claws under your plating fast, didn’t he, my lord?”

Grimlock growled before he could stop himself. “The victim in question is not what is important here. Are you going to provide assistance or not?” It took everything he had not to reach across the table and throttle Shockwave.

Shockwave leaned as far as the chair would allow. “In exchange for limited parole, where I will be watched like a sparkling no doubt, and given limited access to my lab.”

“To a lab, not necessarily your own,” Grimlock clarified.

“Hm.” Shockwave pondered for a moment before rising to his pedes with a creak of gears in need of maintenance. “Very well. I will render assistance under the parameters you’ve outlined.”

Grimlock stared at him. “Without further negotiation.”

“None will be necessary. Once you’ve seen that I am more useful within my laboratory than outside it, I am quite certain you will adjust the terms of my release.” Shockwave held out his full hand to seal the agreement.

Grimlock did not trust him at all. He would have to ensure whoever he assigned to watch over Shockwave was a mech who could be trusted. Not to mention one who was not easily manipulated.

Well. Slag had been saying he wanted something more to do than guard duty. All Grimlock had to do was pair him up with someone more used to manipulation and there, problem solved.

“That remains to be seen.” Grimlock tilted his helm in acceptance of the deal. A handshake would not be necessary. “Come with me to the medbay. You can begin there.”

Shockwave moved around the table, his field unfurling from a tight clench. It tapped against Grimlock’s own as if they had become friends. “You will see, Lord Grimlock. I can be just as useful to you as I was to Lord Megatron. He offered me free rein and so shall you eventually.”

Grimlock locked his tone. “We will see.” Not only did he find it highly unlikely, but he would actively seek to make certain that Shockwave’s freedom be kept as limited as possible.

He had enough loose cannons running around Iacon as it was. He didn’t want another. It was going to be difficult enough explaining this to the Autobots without the added insult of having Shockwave wander around without restriction.

No, no, and no.

Grimlock keyed open the door and gestured for Shockwave to follow him into the hall, where Scourge waited patiently.

“Have someone escort Shockwave to the medical bay and hand him over to Knock Out’s custody,” Grimlock said as the scientist emerged from the interrogation room, his field reeking of victory. “The inhibitor must remain. Assign a guard to stay with him as well. He has work to do.”

Scourge’s optics narrowed, but he tilted his helm in a bow. “Yes, Lord Grimlock. I will see to it at once.”

“Thank you, Scourge.”

He left Shockwave in Scourge’s custody. He had an immediate urge to visit the washracks, to cleanse himself of being in Shockwave’s presence. The scientist was vile in ways that Megatron could never match. Grimlock loathed that he’d had to resort to Shockwave’s assistance.

For Starscream’s sake, he would swallow his pride.

~

Swoop was the smallest of the Dinobots. That still left him larger than Skywarp and Thundercracker independently of each other. It usually left him on the bottom of the pile in the berth, because not only was he larger, he was heavier, with thicker armor. His sleek design belied the mass beneath his plating.

Skywarp tended to tease him about it, but usually in a manner that suggested he found it adorable.

They were worried, understandably so, which was probably why Swoop found himself with a lapful of Seekers. He’d come to offer his support, and they’d taken it gladly. Even though, up until this moment, Swoop hadn’t realized the Command Trine was so close.

“We didn’t use to be,” Thundercracker explained as he rested his helm on Swoop’s chestplate, his wings draped against his back. Skywarp, by contrast, had his helm on Swoop’s abdomen.

“Because of collateral damage,” Skywarp murmured. His arms wound around Swoop’s waist as their legs tangled together. Swoop could feel the pulse of his spark vibrating against Swoop’s hip. “It was dangerous, you know, to be close to Starscream, especially whenever Megatron was nearby.”

“We were a weakness, one Megatron could exploit,” Thundercracker murmured, his optics drifting closed, especially when Swoop took to stroking the back of his wings. Not with the intent to arouse, but merely to soothe. “So he pushed us away. Made us hate him. And it worked.”

“Him Starscream protect you,” Swoop said, though it was more of an observation than a discussion.

Skywarp and Thundercracker rarely talked about their relationship with Starscream. Even rarer, they talked about Starscream and Megatron. It was one of those hulking ghosts in the corner, a rusty mechanism everyone preferred to pretend did not exist.

“I guess.” Skywarp shrugged and rubbed his cheek against Swoop’s abdominal armor. “Not that he’d ever admit it. Starscream doesn’t like weaknesses.”

“More like, him Megatron would hurt him Starscream for it,” Swoop said, his thumb stroking Thundercracker’s wing hinges. His other hand rested on Skywarp’s helm. “Him Starscream complicated mech.”

Thundercracker snorted. “Tell me something I don’t know.” He shifted, burrowing closer to Swoop’s plating.

It was kind of nice, Swoop reflected, to be the one they leaned on rather than the other way around. How their friendship had come about seemed unlikely. The next step toward romantic entanglement even more so. He wasn’t even sure when it happened, when he went from feeling grateful they granted him a few moments of their time, to the two of them inviting him without any prompting on Starscream’s part.

He supposed there was just something about Dinobots that Seekers liked. The thought made him chuckle.

“What?” Skywarp asked, tilting his helm to look up at Swoop.

“Nothing,” Swoop replied. “Inside joke. You Skywarp recharge now.”

“Pfft. It’s the middle of the day. Why would I do that?” Skywarp retorted, but his helm tilted back against Swoop’s hip. His energy field remained that distressing, tangled mess.

Both he and Thundercracker were very worried about Starscream, only they didn’t want to admit it. Megatron had done as much damage to their trine as he had to Starscream alone.

“Because you Skywarp didn’t recharge last night,” Swoop said. “You Thundercracker didn’t either.”

“Lord Grimlock had us chasing ghosts. Trying to figure out who infected Starscream,” Thundercracker muttered. “I guess he figured if he wasn’t getting any sleep, none of us needed to either.”

“Him Grimlock worried, too,” Swoop said.

His spark ached for his eldest brother, but no matter how much he tried to coax Grimlock into a little recharge, he’d been ignored. So he’d opted to tend to someone who would at least let him help.

They made a noncommittal noise, each opting for comfort and silence instead. That was, until Thundercracker stirred, cursing subvocally.

“What is it?” Skywarp asked as Thundercracker started to extricate himself from the tangle of three different sets of limbs.

“I have that meeting. With Lord Grimlock. Filling in for Starscream, remember?” Thundercracker said, his dissatisfaction clear in his field as he slid off the berth.

“I remember. Better you than me,” Skywarp said as he wriggled, all but climbing up Swoop’s frame to usurp Thundercracker’s position and cover more of Swoop’s armor with his own. “We’ll be here. Waiting for you then.”

Thundercracker gave them both a long look. “I should make you come instead of Sunstorm. Then we can both suffer.”

“Him Starscream trust you,” Swoop said as he caught and held Thundercracker’s hand, giving it a squeeze. “It temporary job.”

“I know.” Thundercracker’s lips twitched toward a smile. He squeezed Swoop’s hand back and then gently worked his way free. “So the two of you better behave until I get back. I’m looking at you Skywarp.”

Skywarp nuzzled into Swoop’s intake. “I’m not the one with wandering hands,” he retorted, at the same time Swoop’s hand found its way to the base of his spinal strut, resting there.

Swoop laughed and patted Skywarp on the bum. “Him Skywarp not wrong.”

“Well, the both of you better behave then,” Thundercracker retorted as he gave his frame a brief once-over, half-sparkedly wiping at a scrape on his upper thigh. Fortunately, it could easily be passed off as belonging to Skywarp. “Just remember who his eldest brother is, Warp.”

Skywarp huffed.

Swoop chuckled and leaned his helm against Skywarp’s. “Me Swoop watch him. You go. Him Grimlock don’t like tardiness.”

“Yeah. I know.” Thundercracker sighed and scraped a hand over his helm. “I’ll be back. You two have fun without me.”

He left, and in his absence, Skywarp squirmed all the closer. “I’ll just stay here,” he murmured.

Swoop pretended not to notice that Skywarp clutched at him a bit stronger. He didn’t mind being the shoulder they leaned on. He was glad to return the favor.

~

The snatches of recharge he’d caught on a spare berth in the medbay were not enough. He felt the lack as it pulled his shoulders toward the ground, sitting heavy in his frame. He consumed medical energon to stay focused, but knew eventually, he would have to recharge in full.

For now, however, there was the command staff meeting. He could put it off no longer and indeed, Grimlock did not want to. He needed to find answers. He needed to explain why there was a shift in the command structure. He needed to remain the Decepticon leader that they expected of him, without allowing his personal feelings to interfere.

Grimlock arrived in the conference room first, but Cyclonus was not far behind him. Grimlock had kept his third apprised of the basics of the situation, but not the specifics.

“How is Starscream?” Cyclonus asked as he took a seat.

Grimlock selected his own chair and carefully lowered himself into it. “Alive,” he answered and cycled a ventilation. “For now.”

“I am relieved to hear it.” Cyclonus set two datapads on the table, his gaze focused on Grimlock. “I am also relieved that the Autobot medic was willing to render aid, but I am concerned that it may reflect badly in a more political venue.”

“Let Metalhawk whine his complaints. This is not an official favor from the Autobots. Ratchet is here as a favor to me, personally, and he will swear that under oath.” Grimlock rapped his fingers on the table. “As far as Optimus and the Autobots are concerned, Ratchet has taken a temporary leave of absence. Right now, he’s not an Autobot. He’s a medic.”

“That explanation will suffice.” Cyclonus pulled a datapad back into reach and powered it on, clawed fingertips tapping across the screen. “I’ll go ahead and draft an official statement. We will likely also have to address Shockwave’s release.”

Grimlock shook his helm. “He is neither released nor on probation. He is allowed to offer his assistance in hopes to earn himself a probation.”

Cyclonus’ lips quirked. “I’m not sure that’s the deal how he heard it.”

“Oh?” Grimlock tilted his helm. “Perhaps he heard wrong.”

The door opened again, admitting Thundercracker and Sunstorm, the latter whom Grimlock included as assistant to Thundercracker so that he wasn’t taking on both of the titles Starscream held. Though it was a curious thing that Thundercracker had asked for Sunstorm to inherit the title of Interim Air Commander and not Acid Storm, who was the prior Air Commander of Cybertron.

“We’re not late, are we?” Sunstorm asked with something of a lopsided smile. His wings twitched behind, the lights reflecting off his yellow paint so that it made the room brighter.

“No. You’re right on time. Pick a seat,” Grimlock answered, ignoring the look Cyclonus directed his way. Yes, he was playing word games with Shockwave. No, he did not feel guilty about it.

He was a Decepticon, wasn’t he? It was in the name.

Thundercracker and Sunstorm chose a stool each, and Grimlock became the focus of their undivided attention. That the seat to Grimlock’s right was empty was all too noticeable for its silence. He tended to let Starscream lead the command meetings as Megatron had set the precedent for preferring Starscream not speak at all.

Now, he was on his own.

“I know you are all aware of the basics,” Grimlock began after a cycled ventilation. “Yes, Starscream was attacked. No, we don’t know who or how, though I can guess why.”

“You have already ruled out Decepticon perpetrators?” Sunstorm asked, his lips pulling into a slight frown.

Grimlock inclined his helm. “Not entirely. I am aware Starscream has few friends and allies among the Decepticons, but I would hope that not a single one of them were foolish enough to make this sort of mistake. Unless you know of anyone in particular with a grudge?”

“The only one who ever had a finger on the spark-pulse of every Decepticon was Soundwave,” Thundercracker answered as he rubbed a palm down his faceplate. “He knew every grudge, every alliance, every owed bet…”

“Our Special Operations Division is in shambles,” Cyclonus said. “Every previous member has either defected, received discharge, or has been locked up in the brig. We have no Intelligence division, no Intelligence operatives, and no one to train those who might volunteer.”

Grimlock rubbed his palm over his helm. “None of your crew are suitable?”

Cyclonus laced his fingers together on top of his datapad. “There are a few with the requisite aptitude, but none have the training. My contingent is formed of warriors, not spies. Megatron tended to keep his intelligent officers close.”

“Shockwave preferred his drones when it came to operatives,” Sunstorm offered, though it wasn’t much assistance. “As it stands, the Autobots outnumber us when it comes to spies and saboteurs.”

“It wasn’t the Autobots,” Grimlock said.

Cyclonus tilted his helm. “You don’t know that.”

“Yes, I do.” Grimlock leaned forward and braced his weight on the edge of the table. “I know Optimus Prime. I know Jazz. I know that Optimus would never condone assassination and even if he did, Jazz would not be this sloppy. Besides, as it stands, their Spec Ops division may have more members as a whole, but they only have one who is active. Ergo, it was not the Autobots.”

“Which leaves us with one truly potential perpetrator,” Sunstorm said with a flick of his wings. “Which I am quite sure we all intend to blame anyway. We only need to prove it.”

Grimlock lowered his helm. “Yes. Metalhawk has made it clear he wants to take Cybertron for himself and the Neutrals. He’ll tolerate the Autobots if he must, but he wants us gone.”

“The Autobots will be next regardless. You can rest assured he has a plan in place for them as well,” Cyclonus commented. Clawed fingers rapped a nonsense rhythm on the table. “What I am most interested in discovering is how this deed was accomplished, whether or not he intends to strike again, and why Starscream.”

“Because Star is the processor of the Decepticons,” Thundercracker said with a deep frown. “No offense, my lord, but you have made it a point to convince others to underestimate you. They believe you the brawn and Starscream the brains, so to speak.”

Grimlock waved a dismissive hand. “No offense taken for that was my intent. So. They thought to cripple the Decepticons then.”

“Not just that,” Sunstorm said with a thoughtful tilt of his helm. “Metalhawk knows he can’t take us on directly. But he also knows we are two factions formerly at war, sharing resources in what he considers an uneasy alliance.”

“Uneasy,” Grimlock echoed and snorted a ventilation. “He doesn’t know us very well, does he?”

“No. He does not.” Cyclonus sounded dour, but then, didn’t he always? “We do need proof, however. We need to discover the ‘how’.”

Grimlock folded his arms on the table. “I have an idea. I’ve been informed that the Combaticons are becoming friendly with Metalhawk’s Neutrals, perhaps upon the Prime’s command. But they are a Neutral party unto their own. If I offer something of equal value, they can seek information for us as well.”

“It will not be a conflict of interest?” Thundercracker asked. He was one of many who questioned the Combaticons’ loyalty.

Grimlock shook his helm. “Their interest is solely to themselves, and whoever pays them more, though I believe Autobots and Decepticons get first choice over the Neutrals.”

“Then we will see what information they can offer,” Cyclonus said, making a note on his datapad. “When the time comes.”

“That being said, I want to know how Starscream was affected,” Grimlock continued, his gaze moving from one member of his command staff to the other. “He doesn’t trust anyone and he’s paranoid with good reason. Therefore, it had to be a Decepticon who passed the virus to him, either knowingly or unknowingly. Retrace his steps. Figure out who he had contact with.” He leaned forward, the light in his visor narrowing. “Give me a name.”

Sunstorm’s wings twitched. “And after?” His helm tilted, his expression neutral. “When you find the perpetrator, what then?”

“They will face justice for their crimes,” Grimlock said.

And depending on Starscream’s fate and how angry he was at the time, said perpetrator might actually live to do just that.

Sunstorm’s lips curved ever so slightly downward. “So long as we are clear.”

“The Decepticons are no longer a lawless society.” Cyclonus shuffled his datapads with the sort of focus usually reserved for sharp-shooting or making involved calculations. “We do need to keep a civil approach.”

“Of course.” Grimlock waved a hand. “Dismissed.”

No one argued, but neither did they linger. They left him alone rather quickly, without so much as a backward glance.

Maybe the frenetic rasp of his energy field had something to do with it. He doubted it was the urgency of the situation.

Grimlock sighed and leaned against the table, bracing his upper body on the surface. He wanted to bury himself in the scuffed metal. He cycled several ventilations.

The silence of the conference room wrapped around him, ice cold. The empty chairs stared back. The place Starscream should have sat was noticeably empty. Post-meeting was usually the Seeker’s favorite time to flirt, though Grimlock never examined the meaning why. The former relationship between Starscream and Megatron was not something he wished to examine closely.

He ought to be recharging. He ought to walk out of this conference room, return to his quarters, and recharge in his berth.

He wouldn’t have to do so alone. He could, as he’d once teased Starscream, crawl into the berths of one of his Dinobot brothers. Swoop would welcome him without question. Slag would grump but make room. Snarl wouldn’t even wake up, but his field would offer solace. Sludge would have pulled him into an embrace whether Grimlock liked it or not.

Grimlock shook off the melancholy of the last. He would not lose Starscream as he had Sludge. He refused.

He was also not going to recharge.

Instead, he turned around and went the opposite direction, back toward the medical bay. There wasn’t anything urgent he needed to attend; the others had it well in hand. He could take a moment for himself, to stop and ventilate, to perhaps look at Starscream without his spark squeezing into a tiny knot.

He doubted he’d be capable of the last.

Just after third shift, the halls were empty. No one bothered Grimlock, and he found the medical bay in peace. No one waited in reception, which meant Knock Out had either finished all of his maintenance appointments, or had opted to reschedule them.

Grimlock stepped into the main bay and halted in surprise. He cycled his visor twice to ensure he wasn’t hallucinating as a result of recharge deprivation.

“What you Snarl doing here?” he asked, flabbergasted.

Sure enough, the other Dinobot was perched at one of the desks shoved against the wall. He hunched over the top of it, several lamps directed toward the surface of the desk.

“Me Snarl working,” his brother answered without turning to acknowledge Grimlock. “Me Snarl helping him Knock Out.”

“….What?” He didn’t know if he couldn’t fathom that because he was so exhausted, or if it genuinely didn’t make a credit of sense.

Snarl’s spines twitched. “Me Snarl fix broken thing.” One hand gestured, holding a sodering iron between two fingers, before he focused his attention back on whatever he was repairing.

The door to the private medical rooms opened, revealing Knock Out, who blinked at Grimlock, but didn’t stop moving.

“Snarl is a great help, my lord,” the medic said as he carried in something broken and dumped it on the desk in front of Snarl. He rested a hand on the Dinobot’s shoulders. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to take him on as a full member of the medical division.”

If Grimlock had a jaw, it would have dropped. “So long as that’s what he wants, I see no problem with it. I’ll have Cyclonus make the changes in his file.”

“Me Snarl do good job,” Snarl said with a harrumph. “Me Snarl want stay here.”

Grimlock cycled his audials. “Very well.” When he’d told Snarl to go make friends, this was not what he had expected at all. He would have never guessed it, especially considering that it was with Knock Out of all mechs.

He turned his attention to Knock Out. He’d worry about sitting down with Snarl and having a conversation later. There were larger issues now. “How is Starscream?”

“No change.” Knock Out folded his arms over his chestplate. “With some help, I managed some rearranging. You can go in to see him, if you like.”

“Any progress on a cure?”

Knock Out’s expression softened, almost to the point Grimlock felt he was genuinely concerned. “No, my lord. But we are all optimistic.”

Grimlock cycled a ventilation. “Carry on then. I’ll see myself to his room.”

He left Knock Out and Snarl behind, and sought out Starscream’s room. Sure enough, the machinery had been rearranged to make it easier for the medics to reach Starscream through the cables. Medics and visitors, Grimlock assumed, considering that a narrow chair had been arranged at Starscream’s berthside.

He was still careful as he eased into the room and lowered himself down into the tiny, uncomfortable chair. It creaked alarmingly, and something cracked, but it held his weight. It would have to do.

He looked at Starscream, more clearly this time, and his spark squeezed into a tiny ball. He seemed delicate right now, and Grimlock was not accustomed to this. Even when turned into a beaten, bleeding mess because of Megatron’s assaults, Starscream had looked defiant and strong. No matter how many times he’d been thrown to the ground.

Now… now he looked small. Fragile. Grimlock feared touching him, but couldn’t bring himself not to. One of Starscream’s hands was free of wires and cables, save for a single shunt in his wrist. Grimlock carefully took it, wincing at the slight chill. Starscream always was colder than Grimlock.

He used it as an excuse whenever Grimlock teased him about enjoying their cuddles.

Grimlock cycled a ventilation and held Starscream’s hand between his own. It was all he dared touch. He bowed his helm, and listened, counting the steady whumps of the machine that managed Starscream’s ventilations. He counted the constant beeping of the other machines, those that regulated his coolant, his energon, his spark pulse.

He was still angry. But he didn’t spare the energy for that. Instead, he prayed. To whoever he felt would listen.

Wasn’t it time? Weren’t they owed a chance? Hadn’t he worked hard to take this planet back? To set it on the right course? Didn’t he deserve a break?

So many questions. Too many questions.

Grimlock offlined his optics and focused on the sound of Starscream’s ventilations. If he listened hard enough, he could hear the quiet beat of Starscream’s spark. He focused on that as well. It reminded him Starscream was alive, and as long as he was alive, there was hope.

He didn’t much believe in prayer, but right now, he’d offer up a few lines if it meant earning a spot of good fortune.

The ping disturbed his half-twilight state. Grimlock roused himself from a doze, sitting up slowly. His systems were slow to stir, proving he needed recharge, and this brief nap had not been satisfactory.

He hadn’t been out for long and ow, there was a pinched line in his neck now. Grimlock straightened, his hands still wrapped around one of Starscream’s. His Intended hadn’t moved, hadn’t stirred, but the steady beeps of the machines were comforting. He wasn’t better, but he wasn’t worse either.

Grimlock’s comm pinged again.

He cycled a ventilation and worked one hand free, activating his comm. “Grimlock here. What is it?”

The voice that came through was unfamiliar. “I am sorry to disturb you, sir. But we have picked up something on our long-range monitors that I think you need to see.”

He checked the ident code and realized it belonged to Krok, the commander from the Weak Anthropic Principle. His crew had called themselves the Scavengers. They’d all eventually assimilated into the Decepticons. Cyclonus must have been satisfied for him to approve Krok working the command center.

“I’ll be there shortly,” Grimlock replied as a bolt of alarm rippled through his frame. He ended the comm and took a moment to ventilate.

What now? Did he not have enough troubles without some extraterrestrial threat?

Grimlock grudgingly worked his other hand free of Starscream’s and shoved himself to his pedes. He bent down – carefully around the network of wires and lines – and pressed his forehelm to Starscream’s.

He would return, and hopefully, it would be to good news from Ratchet and the other medics and scientists working on the anti-virus.

Grimlock eased himself out of the private room, though he did so reluctantly, and made sure the door locked behind him. The number of people with access to Starscream’s room could be counted on his hand, and none of them were Shockwave. They still didn’t know when, how, or who had infected Starscream with the virus. The perpetrator could be lingering somewhere, anxious to finish the job he’d bungled.

Grimlock was not taking any chances.

He sent a quick message to Ratchet, letting his creator know that he was stepping out and to keep an optic on Starscream, and then headed for the command center.

It was mid-afternoon. All of New Iacon was bustling. There were few who knew of Starscream’s current condition. Most of the Decepticons were continuing on with their new daily lives, focused on rebuilding, constructing, forming ties, running drills, et cetera. It was peaceful. Busy, but peaceful.

Grimlock almost envied them that peace. Though it was better the infantry believe nothing was wrong than labor under the same anxiety that currently gripped Grimlock’s command staff.

He arrived at the command center expecting to find a flurry of panicked activity, but the situation appeared normal. Mechs were seated at their stations, monitoring their various tasks without a hint of concern. Krok – currently in command – noticed Grimlock immediately and tilted his upper half in a brief bow before he wordlessly gestured for Grimlock to follow him. He passed command briefly to his own second, a mech named Crankcase.

“Crankcase was the first to pick up the message. I had him copy it to an external drive and delete it from the database before anyone else could access it,” Krok explained as they moved to a distant corner of the command center, out of direct audial range of the nearest soldier.

Grimlock rebooted his visor, tilting his helm. “To what end?”

“Because I didn’t want to start a panic.” Krok approached the nearest console, one that was currently unstaffed and used as a backup in case one of their systems short-circuited – an often frequent occurrence. He pulled out a datachip, plugged it in, and brought up the data.

“Every mech in the Decepticon army knows the threat of the DJD,” he continued as he activated several firewalls, isolating the data. “I so much as mention them and you’ll see a mass exodus from all who can manage it.”

Grimlock shifted his weight as he waited for the program to load. “I thought they were loyal to the vision of the Decepticons?”

“The vision as led by Megatron. Without him, there aren’t any Decepticons,” Krok stated as the message queued up. He delayed playing it to add, “At least, in the optics of Tarn. He’s a loyalist through and through. I’m transmitting on Sigma. Let me know when you’re ready.”

Grimlock tapped into the comm line Krok indicated and nodded. He waited for the transmission to start, his visor dimming as deep, dulcet tones spilled from the recording, occasionally laced with static.

This message is for the mech I assume thinks he is the rightful lord of the Decepticons. As the leader of the Decepticon Justice Division, I do believe it is my right to test and see whether you are worthy. As of this broadcast, I am three cycles out from Cybertron and will arrive at my leisure. My team is looking forward to meeting you, former Autobot. I will call you ‘Lord’ when and only when I deem you worth that title. Tarn, out.

The message fizzled into static before there was a click, and it repeated again. Grimlock dialed out of the comm lines, signaling for Krok to go ahead and shut it off. He had heard all he needed to hear. He wondered if he was supposed to be shaking in his pedes right now, if the mere idea of the DJD should send him running for the hills.

“So you see why I called you.” Krok disengaged the datachip and handed it to Grimlock, no doubt for safekeeping.

“I understand the need to prevent a panic,” Grimlock said as he peered at the tiny datachip, the short message on it meant to be intimidating. “I suppose Tarn expects that he’s set the fear of Unicron inside me.”

Krok stared up at him. “You’re not the least bit worried.” It wasn’t a question.

“Should I be?”

Krok shifted his weight. “Permission to speak freely?”

Grimlock tilted his gaze toward the captain. “Granted, and in that regard, I’m not Megatron. I value the input of my command team. Their honest input.”

“Then yes, my lord, you should be concerned. The DJD may not be Phase Sixers, but they are the closest thing to it.” Krok cycled a ventilation, his field leaking free with something that smacked of personal fear. “Their threat should not be taken lightly.”

Considering that Krok feared a mass exodus as a result of the Decepticons in general learning of the DJD’s arrival, perhaps Grimlock should take his advice. He refused to be afraid, but exercising a little caution was prudent.

“I understand. Thank you, Krok, for the warning. And thank you for looking out for the well-being of the Decepticons,” Grimlock said. He closed his fingers around the datachip before tucking it into an arm panel. “I will discuss the threat shortly. For now, we will continue to keep it classified.”

“Yes, sir.” Krok nodded and then shifted his weight. “For what it’s worth, sir, I also hope Starscream’s recovery is quick and sure.”

“Thank you. I appreciate the well wishes.”

Grimlock excused himself and left the command center, though he didn’t know where to go. Back to his office? Back to his shared quarters with the Dinobots? Back to Starscream?

His spark tugged him in far too many directions.

But still, he knew there was only one place he wanted to be. He would chew on the matter of the DJD while he waited for news about Starscream.

Back to the medbay he went.

[IDW] A Ghost Between Us

The moment the name left his lips, Drift knew it was the wrong one.

He cringed, the last echoes of overload feeling stale and hollow, leaving him cold in their wake, rather than warm and satisfied.

Rodimus stared up at him, his face and optics abruptly bleached of color. His mouth opened as though he wanted to ask a question, but feared the answer. His hands tightened on Drift’s upper arms, his thighs loosening around Drift’s waist.

An apology stuttered to life at the back of Drift’s processor, but it died before it reached his lips. It seemed a pale, useless thing at the moment. An apology could not begin to make up for that look on Rodimus’ face, one of devastation and indignation.

“Rodimus, I–”

“Oh, so you do remember my name,” Rodimus hissed. His hand slammed against Drift’s chestplace, shoving him back. “Get off me. Now!”

Drift obeyed, scrambling backward, his spike popping free in the process. Rodimus’ panel snapped shut instantly, and Drift cringed.

Again the apology rose on his glossa, but he couldn’t seem to force it past his lips. “Roddy, I–”

“Save it,” Rodimus said, but it lacked heat. The anger withered away, leaving hurt in its wake. “I can’t believe you’re thinking about him when you’re with me.”

“It’s not like that.” He didn’t know what it was, just that Rodimus’ assumption was wrong. The lubricant on his thighs and pelvis suddenly felt cold and tacky.

“Then tell me what it is,” Rodimus said. He drew further away from Drift, pressing against the wall, his armor clamped tight. His field retreated, until Drift could feel nothing of him.

Drift scrubbed a hand over his face. He slid back, offering Rodimus the distance he so clearly wanted, until Drift stepped fully off the berth.

“It’s… it’s complicated,” he said, and immediately winced. Was there anything worse he could say?

He should be apologizing, not defending himself and sounding defensive. Not, for instance, speaking in a garbled rush of words.

“I just… lately I’ve been thinking about things,” Drift found himself saying, and felt as though he watched from a distance, watched himself make mistake after mistake. “Thinking about myself, the choices I’ve made, where I am now and–”

“And, what, you’re regretting it?” Rodimus demanded. His optics were dim, and his lips pressed together, a thin line of despair.

Drift shook his head. “That’s not what I’m saying.” Frag, he didn’t really know what he was saying. He was panicking, that’s what he was doing.

“No, but it’s what you meant,” Rodimus snapped.

Drift sighed before he could stop himself. He knew that tone, that posture, and he knew exactly what would come next. “Please don’t make this a big issue.”

Rodimus stared at him. Stared at Drift as though he’d never seen Drift before. “How can I not?” he asked, and hurt edged back in to his tone. “All I’ve ever heard from you is Wing this and Wing that. Wing’s so perfect. Wing’s so beautiful. Wing’s so smart. Wing always does the right thing.”

Drift’s mouth opened. Closed.

What?

Rodimus shook his helm, his expression twisting into one of loathing. “I guess capturing people and imprisoning them until they change their minds is what I should have done. It’s the right thing to do. Who knew?”

Drift narrowed his optics. “It wasn’t like that.”

“Of course it wasn’t!” Rodimus threw up his arms, and his field flashed through the room like a sharp smack to the face. “Because Wing is perfect and nothing he did could ever be wrong. Meanwhile, here I am, the one who manages to frag up and fail at everything. Of course I’m wrong.”

Drift folded his arms. “Now you’re being ridiculous.”

“What else is new? Everything I am is ridiculous!” Rodimus snarled and his optics flared. He groped at the berth, and Drift didn’t know why, until one of their pillows came whipping through the air, aimed at Drift’s head.

He ducked to avoid it, heard the soft cushion hit something behind them, an ineffective attack, but Rodimus didn’t need a weapon to hurt.

“Well, I’m sorry your precious Wing is dead,” Rodimus hissed, and the hurt in his voice made Drift ache, too. “And I’m sorry that I’m what you’re stuck with.”

Drift ground his denta. “Will you stop putting words into my mouth? I never said any of that. I don’t even talk about Wing!”

“You don’t have to. Not when you’re calling for him in the middle of being with me on our fragging date night, you selfish aft!” Rodimus snarled, and he lurched across the berth, though he didn’t slide free of it. His field lashed out with fear and panic. “You think he fragging saved you, and made you better, and put you on a right path. You worship him for that. You’d probably be with him now if he hadn’t died, don’t think I don’t know that.”

Drift shook his head. “Roddy–”

“I get it.” Rodimus’ lips pulled back over his denta. “I fragging get it, okay? I’m second best. I’ll always be second best. But Primus Drift, do you have to shove it in my face?”

“I didn’t do it on purpose!” Drift snapped, just shy of a shout, and he couldn’t seem to hold on to his calm. It slipped through his fingers, his engine revving, his field lashing out against the onslaught of Rodimus’.

“You don’t accidentally think about your dead ex when you’re fragging your endura,” Rodimus snarled, his hands curled into fists, his plating rattling. “And especially not enough to end up calling his name instead of mine!”

“Stop talking about him like that. Frag it, Rodimus. Have some damn respect!”

Rodimus’ hands threw into the air. “Now I’m the one being disrespectful. Of course I am. It always comes back to me. Because I’m immature and irresponsible, right?” His vents hissed, his faceplate flushing with heat. “Well at least I know your fragging name.”

Drift worked his jaw. “I never said any of that.” His spark palpitated. His lines ran cold. Everything spiraled out of control, and he had no way to get it back.

“You don’t have to.” Rodimus jabbed a finger toward him, rising up on his knees, his spoiler quivering. “I know what everyone else on this ship thinks of me, Drift. But I thought you were different. I should’ve known better.”

Confusion replaced indignation. He felt lost, adrift, like he didn’t have a place for solid footing. He had no grasp on this conversation anymore.

“What are you even talking about?”

Rodimus’ optics flickered, and his engine breached a higher pitch. “Megatron is a better captain,” he recited, his vocals devoid of inflection. “They actually respect him. Him. A fragging genocidal murderer.” His engine revved faster. “Ratchet’s a better friend to you. Perceptor is a better caregiver to my own hatchlings. He at least knows what he’s doing. He’s never lost one of them.”

Rodimus’s hands formed fists at his side, pain leaking into his voice, and still he kept going. “There’s nothing Thunderclash can’t do. Everything he does is a thousand times better than my best effort. And there are still at least eighty-nine mechs on this ship who are watching, waiting for me to fail. Again. Like I always do.”

Drift shook his head. He didn’t even know where to begin. “That’s… that’s just ridiculous Rodimus. No one is thinking that.”

Or if they were, they had better not be saying it to his face. Drift knew there were members of the crew dissatisfied with Rodimus’ leadership. He couldn’t blame them either. But Rodimus had changed and was changing, and that was what mattered.

Rodimus’ lower lip wobbled. “Ridiculous,” he repeated, and his armor shuffled. “Because that’s what I am.” He repeated the word again, though not aloud, shaping it with his lips.

Oh, Primus. Drift’s processor ached. He rubbed at his forehead. There was no calm here, he began to realize. There was no way to save this.

“That’s not what I meant,” he said with a sigh.

“How should I know? You never mean what you say.”

“That’s not true either.”

“Isn’t it?” Rodimus’ voice was eerily calm, for all that he leaned forward, his optics harsh and unrelenting. “Then tell me you don’t love Wing. Tell me you don’t wish you had him back. Tell me you don’t think about him every fragging day.”

Drift stared.

His mouth was dry. He couldn’t form the words. He knew what Rodimus asked of him, and he couldn’t form the lies.

“You can’t, can you?” Rodimus persisted, in a tone near-earnest, for all that it pleaded with Drift, begging him to prove Rodimus otherwise. “Because the truth, Drift, is that I’m what you’re stuck with because you can’t have who you really love.”

Drift had no words.

He pressed his lips together, and he stared at his best friend, his captain, his mate, the carrier of his hatchlings. He didn’t know how to deal with this. He didn’t know how to answer this without making things worse.

He didn’t know if he could manage to get through to Rodimus. Not with the hurt and the fear turning into a congealed mass in what little of Rodimus’ field Drift could sense.

He didn’t have the words to fix this. So Drift just… didn’t.

Instead, he spun on a heelstrut and headed toward the door.

“Where are you going?” Rodimus demanded. Drift heard the sound of him scrambling free of the berth, feet hitting the floor.

“I can’t talk to you like this.” Drift ground his denta, his spark squeezing.

It hurt to walk away, but he also knew that if he kept on like this, he was only going to say more things he didn’t mean, and hurt Rodimus further. And there was no telling what Rodimus would say in return.

Drift needed to get his thoughts in order so he could explain himself properly. The situation was too charged to do so now.

“I’ll come back when I’m calm.”

“Why? I’m obviously not the one you want!” Rodimus shouted from the doorway to their berthroom.

Drift paused by the main door, stopping to grab his Great Sword. That, too, he realized was a mistake, but only belatedly. It was habit. He never left their quarters without it. He didn’t think twice, until his fingers wrapped around the hilt, and he heard Rodimus hiss.

“Oh, yeah. Better make sure you take Wing with you,” Rodimus spat, his engine growling. “He’ll be great at keeping you company.”

Drift didn’t turn. He cycled a ventilation as he calmly attached the blade with trembling fingers. “I’ll be back later.” He keyed their door open.

Don’t react. Don’t provoke. Be calm. Wing’s voice purred at the back of his mind.

“Don’t bother!” Rodimus snarled, the words following Drift out into the hallway and if Rodimus said anything else, Drift did not hear it.

The door shut and locked behind him, leaving him in the silence of the corridor. Or not so silent. If Drift listened, he could hear the rattle of his cooling fans, the clatter of his armor, the rumbling of his engine, the rapid ventilations.

He paused and shuttered his optics. He leaned against the wall beside the door, trying to find a calm center. His spark churned; his field surged and sank. His hands balled into fists, and he ground his denta so hard he tasted sparks on his glossa.

Rodimus’ face floated at the back of his mind. Hurt and anger, fear and panic. His optics were wide, filled with dismay. He looked alone and abandoned.

Drift’s spark constricted.

He had no idea what to do. So he checked the duty log, and found Ratchet was off-shift. Thank Primus. Drift could really use a voice of reason right now.

Drift pushed off the wall and headed for Ratchet’s. He half-expected Rodimus to start pinging him at some point, and was a little hurt when Rodimus didn’t.

Luckily, the corridors were deserted, and there was no one to bear witness to Drift’s jittery, twitching frame. The wrong word, and Drift honestly didn’t know what he’d do.

At Ratchet’s hab-suite, which the medic finally started to use rather then the spare room at the back of the medbay, Drift buzzed the door. He probably should have commed Ratchet ahead of time, but it hadn’t occurred to him. His thoughts were in too much disorder.

He crossed his arms, and he waited. And waited. Until the door finally opened, Ratchet peering out into the hall, his confusion turning to surprise.

“Drift?” He cycled his optics and tilted his head. “I thought it was date night.”

“It was.” Drift gnawed on his bottom lip, shifting restlessly. “Are you busy?”

Ratchet squinted at him before he audibly ex-vented. “Yeah, kid. Come on in.” He stepped back and gestured Drift inside. “Had a fight, I take it?”

Drift nodded and obeyed Ratchet, a soft sigh of relief escaping him, only to go rigid the moment his optics registered the interior of Ratchet’s hab.

Ratchet had not been alone. Megatron himself was stepping out of Ratchet’s berthroom, a cleaning cloth clutched in his fingers, his optics finding Drift as quickly as Drift had seen him.

Why did he have a cleaning cloth?

No. No, Drift was not going to ask that question because he was not an idiot, and he knew exactly why Megatron had a cleaning cloth, and he did not want to go there.

“Y-yes,” Drift stammered in response to Ratchet’s question. His processor stalled on everything else. How could he have forgotten that Megatron and Ratchet were quote-unquote seeing each other?

“I thought so,” Ratchet said from behind Drift. He sounded long-suffering. “Megatron, would you?”

Drift’s former commander and leader inclined his head. “On it,” he said, and moved toward the door, Drift scrambling out of the way in the process. The clothing cloth vanished into an arm panel.

“Thank you, sir,” Drift blurted out, like an idiot.

Megatron gave him an odd look, a narrowing of his optics. “I’ve told you that is not necessary,” he said, vocals soft, before he was gone.

Drift sagged, cycling a vent of relief.

“You know, every time you call him sir, it makes him uncomfortable,” Ratchet said as he moved past Drift and made a beeline for one of the plush chairs in the main room. Those, too, were new.

Ratchet usually didn’t bother with soft things or indulgences.

“He’s not the only one,” Drift muttered.

Ratchet plopped down into the chair. “You two need to talk.”

“We will. Eventually.” He’d been saying that for months. Ever since he came back. And he and Megatron had talked. Just… not about the things that mattered.

“You can’t keep running away from it.”

“I’m not!” Drift winced. Even he could see how defensive that sounded. Also, a touch shrill.

Ratchet stared at him. “You are, Drift. It’s what you do. Run away from a problem if you’re not ready to face it.”

“It’s not a problem,” Drift said with a huff.

“Not yet. Until it becomes one.” Ratchet pointed to the chair across from him. “Sit.”

It was less invitation and more command. Drift sat, adjusting the Great Sword at the last second, and sat back. He stared at Ratchet, who stared back at him, expression unreadable.

“Now,” Ratchet said as he leaned back and folded his hands in his lap. “Want to tell me what’s causing the drama this time?”

Drift’s finials heated, as did his faceplate. He ducked his head. “It’s my fault,” he muttered, though to be fair, Rodimus exacerbated the situation.

“Surprise, surprise,” Ratchet drawled. “What did you do?”

“Hey!”

“Don’t sound so indignant, brat. I had a fifty-fifty chance of guessing.” Ratchet tilted his head, giving Drift an assessing look. “So?”

He fidgeted.

“Drift.”

“I said Wing’s name,” Drift blurted out, the shame of it making his vocalizer fill with static. “During overload,” he clarified, in case that wasn’t clear.

“Oh.”

Drift’s orbital ridges drew down. “That’s all you have to say?” His spark hammered in his chassis, and his vents stuttered, and Ratchet only said ‘oh’?

“It’s a pretty common mistake,” Ratchet said, only to cycle a ventilation. “But then, this is Rodimus we’re talking about here, and I can see that not going well.”

Drift gnawed on the inside of his cheek. “Especially if you said some things that probably didn’t help your case after he started yelling.”

“That’s what I thought.” Ratchet gave him a look. He didn’t even need to speak. Drift knew exactly what that look meant.

Drift fidgeted again. He scrubbed his palms down his thighs. He knew he fragged up, damn it. He didn’t need to be told that. He needed answers for how to fix it.

“Well?” Ratchet prompted. “What are you going to do about it?”

“I’ve already apologized. I don’t know what else I can do.” Drift folded his arms against his chestplate again, his shoulders hunching.

“Did you explain yourself?”

“He didn’t give me a chance to.” No Rodimus had leapt right into accusations and self-flagellation. Drift cycled a ventilation. “I do miss him, Ratch. But that doesn’t mean I’m not happy with Rodimus. Because I am. I love him! What Wing and I were, I just, I dunno. It was different, you know?”

Ratchet inclined his head. “I do, but does Rodimus?”

Drift opened his mouth. Closed it. “We don’t… talk about Wing much,” he admitted. He knew he’d mentioned Wing in passing a few times, but he still found it hard to talk about Wing. Especially to Rodimus who he knew would react badly.

“I see.”

Drift stared at Ratchet. Those two words were an accusation into themselves. “Don’t,” Drift warned.

Ratchet lifted his orbital ridges. “Don’t what?”

“Don’t use that tone. The one that says you think I’m an idiot.”

“Well, at least I don’t have to pretend then.” Ratchet leaned forward and braced his elbows on his knees. He laced his fingers together. “You should understand Rodimus by now, Drift. He’s painfully insecure.”

“I do know that. I’m not stupid,” Drift muttered. “He thinks everyone disapproves of him. That no one likes him. That even I’m just tolerating him because I have to.”

“In some ways, he’s not wrong.”

Drift’s jaw dropped. “Ratchet!”

The medic shrugged, though it was far from dismissive. “It’s true.” He gave Drift a sidelong look. “I voted against him, you know.”

“Yeah, I remember. And I get why you did.” Drift’s lips pulled into a frown. He fidgeted as he chewed on Ratchet’s comment. “Do people really think Megatron’s a better leader?”

“Do you want me to answer that?”

Drift’s optics rounded.

Ratchet audibly sighed and flexed his fingers. “In terms of competence, yes, there are a few who would say that. But it’s not as many as Rodimus thinks. Kid carries more guilt than I do, and that’s saying something.”

Drift nibbled on his bottom lip again. It began to feel sore. “He only lost Flashfire the once,” he admitted. “And I don’t even blame him for that. Flash is a menace.” More than that, Flashfire thought it was hilarious to hide from Rodimus. He’d gotten himself lost on purpose, the little hellion.

“That he is.” Ratchet rubbed at his chevron. “But perception is often worse than reality.”

Drift twisted his jaw. He didn’t even know how Perceptor did it. Something about him kept the hatchlings in line. They didn’t like to listen to Rodimus at all, for some reason, and especially not Flashfire. Drift could usually get their first-hatched to obey, but he always snubbed Rodimus. Arclight and Wander, at least, hesitated.

Primus, no wonder Rodimus felt like slag. But why hadn’t he said anything?

No, that was a stupid question. This was Rodimus.

Drift sighed. “I fragged up.”

“Yes, you did.”

Drift snorted. “Thanks for the sympathy.”

“If you wanted a shoulder to cry on, you’d have gone elsewhere.” Ratchet loudly cycled a ventilation and leaned back. “Look, Drift. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to exorcise that ghost between you two. You can’t pretend he isn’t there. You may not talk about Wing, but everything you are, everything you do, that fragging sword you can’t leave behind – it all speaks more than enough. Rodimus is not stupid. And he will figure it out.”

Drift bowed his helm and clasped his hands. He stared at his interlaced fingers. “The truth will only hurt him.”

“Worse than a lie?”

Drift shuttered his optics. “I don’t know.” He cycled several ventilations, his processor churning.

“Then you’d best figure it out,” Ratchet advised. “And soon. Because what you’re doing right now is unfair to both of you.”

Drift gnawed on the inside of his cheek. The Great Sword pulsed warmly across his backplate.

Ratchet was right, of course. Then again, Ratchet was always right.

Rodimus deserved an answer. He deserved a truth.

Drift simply had to figure out which one.

~

Somehow, in the course of slowly and carefully building a relationship with Ratchet, Megatron had come to learn that there were certain duties involved. Ratchet had deemed himself Drift’s closest confidante, and along the way, Rodimus had latched onto Megatron, and now, they both found themselves as advice-givers when the two high-strung lovers butted heads and were at odds.

Megatron had an internal bet with himself as to what had caused the strife this time. Honestly, it could be any number of things. He was inclined to believe it was Drift’s fault, however, given the shivery-disquiet in his former Decepticon’s field.

He had no idea what he would find when he arrived at Drift and Rodimus’ shared suite. He was not surprised no one answered the ping. So he used his command override to gain access to the suite, and nearly tripped over a few pillows in the process.

Yes. Definitely Drift’s fault.

Rodimus was nowhere immediately in sight, but as Megatron moved toward the berthroom, he could see a lump of red armor, pillows, and blankets on the berth itself. Little pitiful sounds emerged from the lump.

Megatron approached the berth and sat on the edge of it.

“I’m not talking to you,” the lump said in a petulant tone.

“Are you so angry you can’t even bear to read his field?” Megatron asked, careful to keep his tone mild.

The lump rustled. Blankets were tossed backward, and the next thing Megatron knew, he had a lapful of trembling Rodimus, his co-captain clinging to him desperately.

“Drift hates me!” Rodimus wailed, the static in his vocals clear indication he had been weeping. That and the optical cleanser dripping down his cheeks. “I screwed up everything.”

Primus save him. This was the most sodden mess Megatron had ever been sent to clean.

“I’m quite certain that’s not true,” Megatron replied as he awkwardly tried to get Rodimus into a more comfortable position. He patted Rodimus on the back.

“It is!” Rodimus insisted fiercely and rubbed his face on Megatron’s chest, smearing optical cleanser everywhere. “He’d rather be with Wing, but he’s stuck me with me, and all I am is a mess. A mess he keeps having to clean up.”

Well. To be fair, Rodimus was making a mess right now. Megatron wisely kept the thought to himself however.

He patted Rodimus again and struggled to think of something encouraging to say. His comm pinged him while Rodimus clutched at his frame, and Megatron recognized Ratchet’s ident code.

“Well?”

“There is a weeping Rodimus in my lap,” Megatron informed him. He made it clear he felt this was Ratchet’s fault.

“Then comfort him.”

“He is inconsolable.”

“Try listening, dumbaft.”

Ratchet, never one to mince words, promptly closed the comm. Yes, thank you ever so much for the advice, chief medical officer. It certainly helped.

Not.

Megatron awkwardly patted Rodimus on the back again. The clattering of his co-captain’s armor was pitiful and nearly enough to tug at what little softness remained in Megatron’s spark.

“I am sure that is not true,” Megatron said, trying again. “You have three hatchlings together. You are endura at the very least. Drift loves you.” Drift. It still felt an odd name to say.

“He loves a lot of people,” Rodimus bit out, his vocals as bitter as the buzzing rasp in his field. “He stays with people even when he shouldn’t. When he knows better. He probably only feels obligated.”

“Has he said that?”

“No. Not that he would.”

Well, Rodimus did have a point, Megatron mused. Drift was patently incapable of telling someone ‘no’ if he cared for them. Especially if there were expectations involved. Drift was the sort to ignore his own wants and needs for the sake of someone else.

“What did he do?”

Rodimus went still. His vents snuffled.

“Rodimus?”

“He said Wing’s name,” Rodimus burbled.

Wing. Megatron had heard of this mech, mostly from Ratchet. Apparently, he was the one responsible for fully turning Drift into an Autobot. Megatron also blamed Lockdown and Turmoil for that. Both had failed, and Megatron lost the opportunity to address Deadlock’s concerns himself.

Though Megatron had been under the impression Drift and Wing’s relationship had been purely platonic. Clearly, he was mistaken.

“I take it an inopportune time?” Megatron asked.

“Yeah.”

“Is that all?”

Rodimus braced his hands on Megatron’s chestplate and looked up at him, betrayal etched into his pretty features. “What?”

“All of this drama is because of a misspoken name?”

Primus save him. Megatron felt like shaking Rodimus. And then shaking Drift. And then shaking the two of them together.

Rodimus squirmed and tried to wriggle his way free. “I knew you wouldn’t get it.”

Megatron clamped his hands on Rodimus’ thighs. “Sit down, you noisy thing,” he said, and gripped Rodimus’ chin with one hand, forcing his co-captain to look up at him. “I do understand, contrary to your reaction.” Over-dramatic reaction, but then, this was Rodimus.

Rodimus’ lips formed a pout. “No, you don’t,” he muttered. “You’re Megatron. People have fantasies about you, not about others while they’re with you.”

Again, he had a point. But therein lay the crux of the matter. It boiled down to Rodimus’ insecurities.

“There are many reasons why Drift inadvertently spoke the wrong name,” Megatron said, choosing to ignore the ‘fantasies’ remark. “Yes, the obvious explanation is that he was fantasizing about another mech. Or it could have been that his subcortex connected the way he feels about you to the way he felt about Wing and some wires were crossed. Perhaps he suffered a glitch. Did you ask him?”

Rodimus’ optics shifted away. Guilt wrote into his field.

“You didn’t ask,” Megatron surmised.

“What was the point?” Rodimus grumbled, lips still curved in that adorable pout. “No matter what the reason was, the truth is, he doesn’t want me. He’s just stuck with me now.”

“That is patently untrue.” He tapped Rodimus’ thigh to get his co-captain’s full attention, and Rodimus’ gaze shifted back to him. “He did not have to return to the Lost Light. He did not have to rekindle his relationship with you. He chose to do both of those things.”

Rodimus’ engine revved weakly. “Yeah. After Ratchet convinced him.” That lower lip wobbled. His optics dimmed.

“To be fair, you did not seek out Drift on your own either.”

“I remember.” The bitterness in Rodimus’ tone was cloying. His ventilations hitched. “I should have. I know I should have. I was too scared to do what was right,” he bit out, only for his optics to widen. “And don’t you tell anyone I said I was scared!”

“Your secret is safe with me,” Megatron said dryly. He cycled a ventilation. “The point, Rodimus, is that right now, you have to make a choice.”

Rodimus gave him a wary look. “What do you mean?”

“Do you love Drift?”

“Of course I do!” Indignation seeped into Rodimus’ field.

“Do you love him for who he is, or who you want him to be?”

Rodimus squinted at him, his spoiler flattening against his back. “What kind of question is that?”

“A relevant one.”

Rodimus squirmed. “I would’ve loved him as Deadlock, which is better than Wing ever managed,” he said, and the bitterness in his tone was almost toxic.

Rodimus really loathed this Wing. Or perhaps it was the jealousy talking.

“You sound so sure of that,” Megatron said with a tilt of his head. “You didn’t even know him as Deadlock.”

“Yeah. Well. I never had the chance to.”

Megatron dropped his hand from Rodimus’ chin. “Be glad you did not.” Deadlock would not have liked Rodimus. Deadlock would have killed him. “You are, however, missing the point.”

“That’s because you keep going around it in circles!” Rodimus exclaimed as he threw up his hands. It was that very impatience which made him exhausting to work with at times.

A processor-ache began to form. It was getting common place around all of these Autobots. “If you love Drift, truly love him, then you have to accept the part of him that doesn’t belong to you.”

Rodimus stared at him. “You’re telling me that the reasonable thing to do is lay there and take it when he’s fragging me and thinking about someone else?”

Primus save him from sparklings.

“Not a single one of those words came out of my mouth. Were you even listening to me?”

“I heard you.” Rodimus huffed. “Once again, the fault is all mine. I guess I don’t have any right to be upset. I knew what I was getting into.” Indignation tried to rise in his field, but genuine hurt left it empty. “If I want to be with Drift, I have to settle for being what I’ve always been – second best.”

Megatron shook his head. “I don’t think it’s that simple.”

“Of course it is.”

“No, it is not.” He tapped Rodimus on the head, gaining his co-captain’s attention once more. “You can either choose to accept Drift as he is, lingering grief and all, or you can choose to leave him.”

Rodimus trembled, his lip wobbling. “I don’t want to leave him.”

“Then you must accept him, both his flaws and that there are times his spark will not belong wholly to you,” Megatron said.

“That’s not fair.”

“Nothing ever is,” Megatron replied with an audible ex-vent. He should know. His existence was a series of unfair, unfortunate events.

Rodimus sagged. His forehead tipped against Megatron’s chestplate. “You’re not fair,” he muttered. “You know everything.”

“I have lived significantly longer than you.”

“Age isn’t everything.” Rodimus ex-vented noisily. “You really are the better captain.”

Megatron pressed his lips together. “That is not true either.” Or at least, not entirely.

Rodimus didn’t reply. Perhaps that was the best. Such was a topic they would have to address at a later time. Megatron was more concerned now with repairing Drift and Rodimus’ relationship.

Everything else could wait.

~

Drift wanted to think he wasn’t nervous, but anxiety rippled through his spark as he made the trek back to his shared hab-suite with Rodimus. He knew what he needed to do, and to say, but what he lacked was the courage.

He had to do this. He just hoped he could.

He let himself into the hab-suite, and braced himself for anything.

Well, anything except the sight of the former Decepticon Lord striding out of the berthroom, idly wiping at his chestplate. They froze upon sight of each other, and Megatron was the first to stir into motion again.

“You’ll behave,” Megatron asked, tossing the question over his shoulder.

Rodimus nodded behind him. “Yeah.”

“Good.” Megatron tucked the cloth into his subspace, held his head high, and strode past Drift as though the air between them didn’t sizzle of unresolved tension. “Good luck.”

“Thank you, s– Captain,” Drift said, adjusting at the last minute. He didn’t want to keep making Megatron uncomfortable.

“Co-captain!” Rodimus piped up from the berthroom.

Drift inclined his head. “Co-Captain,” he amended.

Megatron’s lips twitched toward a half-smile. “You’re welcome,” he said, and dipped his head again before he left. The door locked shut behind him, leaving Drift and Rodimus alone.

Nothing to it then.

Drift cycled a ventilation and looked at his endura. Rodimus still perched on the berth, only now he was gripping a blanket, twisting the soft fabric in his fingers.

“I’m sorry,” Drift said, a mere half-second before Rodimus spat out the words as well, their apologies overlapping.

Well, that made things easier.

Drift’s lips curled upward. He rubbed the back of his head. “Can I go first or…?”

Rodimus nodded, though he nibbled on his bottom lip.

Good.

Drift cycled a ventilation and moved into the berth room, just outside the range of Rodimus’ field-sense. “All right,” he said, and gathered his courage. “Rodimus, I love you.”

He moved another step, until his field reached out for Rodimus’ tentatively. The other mech’s plating was clamped so tightly it made him look small. Lesser somehow. Rodimus was supposed to be bright and animated, not withdrawn and uncertain.

“I love you not because I don’t have any other choice, and not just because we have three amazing hatchlings together, but because I want to be with you,” Drift continued, moving close enough that their knees finally touched, and he had to look down at his endura.

That wouldn’t do.

So Drift dropped to a single knee, angling his frame so that the blade of the Great Sword wouldn’t scrape the floor. He looked up at Rodimus, meeting the deep blue of Rodimus’ optics.

“I love you for who you are, flaws attached,” Drift finished.

Rodimus’ lip wobbled. “I love you, too,” he said, so quietly, as though it was a fragile admission. “And I’m sorry I said what I did. About Wing, I mean.”

“I know.” Drift reached for Rodimus’ hand and was so relieved when Rodimus reached back. Their fingers tangled. “I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately.”

Rodimus’ fingers shook, but he didn’t take his hand back.

“Thinking that I’m glad he helped me change, that it led me to what you and I have now. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and I’m not sure I ever made a choice on my own, at least, not until I chose to come back to you.”

Rodimus’ optics widened, but Drift didn’t give him a chance to speak.

“I wondered if he’d be proud, if he’d think I was wrong for joining the Autobots, and then I wondered if I should stop thinking about what he thinks, and start wondering about what I think.” Drift sighed a ventilation.

“Sometimes, when I’m happiest, that’s when the doubt creeps in. It gets tangled in my head, separating him from who I am, from what Megatron helped make me, and the war. I get confused…” He shook his head. “Anyway, that’s no excuse. But I promise, I wasn’t fantasizing about Wing. I don’t know what happened, but I swear, I’ve never wished you were Wing, or more like him, or that he was here instead of you. I’m happy that I’m with you.”

It was truth. But also… not truth. He had often wished that Wing were still alive. But Drift was happy with Rodimus, and he was happy to be with Rodimus. Roddy was not second-best, no matter what he thought.

Drift still missed Wing, however. And he thought it would be a long while before those feelings faded.

Rodimus sucked on his bottom lip. “I believe you,” he murmured.

There was hesitation in his voice. Drift swallowed thickly. “But…?”

The sucking turned to gnawing. Rodimus’ hand shook harder. “Do you still love him?” he blurted out and then looked horrified, as though he hadn’t expected to ask the question.

Damn it.

Drift couldn’t lie, but he also couldn’t tell the truth. He’d already hurt Rodimus so much, and Rodimus would only take it the wrong way.

Because yes, Drift still loved Wing. Yes, he’d be thrilled if Wing were still alive. Yes, if Wing showed up out of the blue because of some miracle, Drift didn’t know if he could choose.

He couldn’t tell Rodimus any of that.

“I–”

“No. Never mind. Don’t answer that. I don’t want to know.” Rodimus looked both sad and resigned and Drift hated that he couldn’t repair that. “Sometimes, it’s better not to know the truth.”

Drift reached up and gently touched Rodimus’ face. “Whatever my feelings for Wing are, that doesn’t make what I feel for you, or what we have together any less valid.”

“My processor understands that but my spark…” Rodimus ex-vented audibly. “My spark will take a little longer.”

“I know.” Drift stroked Rodimus’ cheek. “I’m sorry I hurt you.”

“I’ve hurt you worse.” Rodimus’ smile wavered. “I guess that makes us even.”

It was a joke, a pitiful attempt at one, but Drift’s lips curved anyway. He leaned up to embrace Rodimus, to press their plating together.

Rodimus, however, tipped his chin and caught Drift’s mouth with his. They kissed, slow and sweet, so chaste that not even their glossas got involved. It was an exchange of vents, a press of their lips, so soft and loving.

Rodimus leaned his forehead against Drift’s, his optics dim. “What to go ahead and try this again?” he asked. “We don’t have much longer before Perceptor comes back.”

“I always want you,” Drift said honestly.

“Then come up on here, babe,” Rodimus replied and tugged on Drift, pulling him toward the berth.

Drift grinned as he rose to his pedes. He stripped himself of the Great Sword, leaning it against the wall near the berth, before he crawled onto the berth after Rodimus. Rodimus opened his arms invitingly, and Drift crawled into them, blanketing Rodimus with his frame. Their limbs tangled as their lips came together again, in another soft and sweet kiss.

Rodimus was warm and pliant beneath him, engine softly humming, his hands grasping as his arms wrapped around Drift’s frame. Drift gently ground down against him, their armor rasping together, their interfacing arrays coming into dizzying contact. Heat built between them oh-so-slow, as Drift soaked in the feeling of Rodimus’ field, and focused on Rodimus and Rodimus alone.

He refused to make the same mistake again.

He kissed his way to Rodimus’ intake, nibbling and sucking at the delicate cables there. He heard Rodimus’ vents quicken, even as heat built faster between them. Hands grasped at his back, his sides. Rodimus moved beneath him, a slow and sinuous wave of his frame.

Drift kissed him again, deeply, wetly, before he broke away. Such a treasure deserved to be treated as such, he thought. He kissed his way down Rodimus’ frame, over the slope of his chestplate, down to the slight swell of Rodimus’ abdominal plating. He had a little bump still, and Drift nuzzled it with his cheek. He knew Rodimus was self-conscious of it, and so made a point to offer it love.

He heard Rodimus’ ventilations hitch. Hands landed on Drift’s shoulders, neither encouraging or discouraging, just resting there. Rodimus’ field pulsed against his, thick with need and want. Hope even.

“You’re so beautiful,” Drift murmured as he ex-vented over Rodimus’ belly and laved the curve of it with kisses.

Rodimus sighed a soft sound. A low murmur rose in his intake, as though he wanted to protest, but the noise was lost to another quiet moan as Drift shimmied lower, his mouth finding and tasting Rodimus’ closed array.

Both panels snapped open after a single kiss. Rodimus’ spike jutted free, pre-fluid leaking from the tip, calling to Drift’s glossa. He in-vented, dragging in the scent of Rodimus’ arousal, before he took Rodimus’ spike into his mouth. His glossa stroked the decorative whorls as Rodimus throbbed in his mouth, making more hitched noises.

Rodimus’ thighs pushed further open, inviting Drift between them. He shivered, his field throbbing with warmth as it drizzled against Drift’s. His spinal strut arched, thighs trembling. His hands clenched and unclenched rhythmically.

Drift took him deeper, until the head of Rodimus’ spike bumped the back of Drift’s intake. He stroked his glossa along the length, as pre-fluid slicked his intake. He felt Rodimus tremble harder beneath him, felt the push and pull of desperation in Rodimus’ field.

Drift’s own array snapped open. He rolled his hips, spikehead rubbing against the berth cover, valve pulsing. He didn’t know which he wanted more, to slide into Rodimus’ valve, wafting heat and damp toward him, or to feel Rodimus’ spike moving deep within him. Both options were equally appealing.

Rodimus pawed at Drift’s tires as though trying to tug him upward. “Drift,” he moaned, need leaking into his vocals. “Wait. Oh, Primus. Hold on.”

“Wait.” Drift blinked and looked up, Rodmus’ spike slipping from his mouth. “Why?”

“I want you to ride me.” Something flashed in Rodimus’ optics, predatory and possessive. “Wanna see you on top of me.”

Drift’s valve clenched. He recognized in Rodimus’ gaze something that was desperate to stake a claim, and he wasn’t at all opposed. If this helped Rodimus, then all the better.

“That I can do.”

He gave Rodimus’ spike a parting kiss before he dragged himself back upright, straddling Rodimus’ hips. He felt the head of Rodimus’ spike drag over his inner thighs and bump against the rim of his valve. He shivered, valve squeezing out a pearl of lubricant. He knew exactly how Rodimus felt within him.

“Yeah, that’s better,” Rodimus said, his hands finding Drift’s hips and clamping down, adjusting Drift exactly where he wanted him.

Drift leaned forward so he could grab Rodimus’ spike and guide it to his valve. He shivered as he rubbed the head of it against his rim and node. Charge drizzled down his backstrut, his exterior node throbbing. More lubricant welled in his valve, quickly slicking his inner thighs and dripping down on Rodimus’ spike.

He frotted against the spike, letting it rub over and over his rim and inner thighs. His calipers fluttered as though demanding he get on with it.

So did Rodimus.

He shifted restlessly, hips rocking up, trying to urge his spike toward Drift’s valve, but he rose up on his knees.

“Drift, come on,” Rodimus whined, vents blasting heat into the air. His optics were bright with need, his field a flood of arousal. “Why are you torturing me?”

Drift laughed. “It’s called being patient,” he said, but he guided Rodimus’ spike to his valve anyway.

He hummed as the spikehead breached his rim and effortlessly slid into his valve, lubricant slicking the way. His calipers fluttered, dancing around the gold and grey length, drawing it deeper.

Sensor nodes and receptor nodes snapped together. Charge danced between them, lighting up Drift’s haptic net. He shivered and planted his hands to either side of Rodimus’ shoulders, bracing himself. He ground down, forcing Rodimus deep, swiveling his hips in little, narrow circles.

Rodimus groaned, his head tossing back. His hands tightened on Drift’s hips as he drew up his knees and planted his feet on the berth. He thrust up as Drift dropped down. They moaned in unison, Rodimus’ spike grinding against Drift’s ceiling node.

Drift shuttered his optics, giving himself to the sensation. Rodimus’ spike stirred pleasure through all of his receptor nodes. He twitched, valve cycling faster and over. His hands kneaded at the berth covers as he rose and fell, riding Rodimus’ spike. He drew in air though his mouth, his engine purring.

“Primus, you’re gorgeous,” Rodimus murmured, and his hands squeezed Drift’s waist. He matched Drift’s rhythm, rolling his hips and grinding his spike against Drift’s node.

Drift’s glossa swept over his lips. He half-unshuttered his optics, giving Rodimus a lopsided grin. “You’re not so bad yourself.” Arousal hummed in his array and peppered down his backstrut in little nips of charge.

Rodimus made a noncommittal noise. His right hand loosed its hold and swept inward. His fingers danced over Drift’s spike before wandering lower, one flittering over Drift’s anterior node.

He bucked his hips, a zap of need jolting into his array. Drift hummed, slamming his hips down and grinding Rodimus deep.

“Ooo, you like that.” Rodimus pulled his hand away and licked his thumb, only to return it to Drift’s nub and give it a firm rub.

Drift’s hips jerked. His knees dug into the berth as he panted air through his mouth, restlessly rutting on Rodimus’ spike. Lubricant splashed out of his valve as he ground down harder and harder, his interior sensors snapping with charge.

He groaned through gritted denta, pleasure crawling down his backstrut, pooling in his groin, and throbbing through his array.

“Overload for me, Drift,” Rodimus whispered, his optics alight with delight. “Come on, my knight. Overload all over my spike.” His thumb pressed harder, sending a shock through Drift’s systems.

He slammed down on Rodimus’ spike and overloaded, valve squeezing down tight, and pleasure burning like a flash-fire through his array. His calipers fluttered madly, rippling up and down around Rodimus’ spike.

His hips jerked in little movements, Rodimus’ thumb easing to gently stroke him through the tremors. Drift’s cooling fans roared to life as he rocked and rolled his hips gently, extending the pleasure.

He perched there, panting air through his intake, arms wobbling. It took him several moments to realize that the buzz in his audials was Rodimus talking.

“Oh, frag that was so hot,” Rodimus babbled, his hands clutching at Drift’s hips now and tugging on them. “Come on, baby. Come up here. I gotta taste you. Come on.”

Drift groaned and tried to stir, feeling sluggish. “Too heavy,” he slurred, forcing his optics back online. The world clarified into Rodimus’ eager face. His spike throbbed in Drift’s valve. “You need to overload.”

“I will. Later. First, I want you up here. Now,” Rodimus said with another tug, his glossa sweeping over his lips.

“Too heavy,” Drift repeated, yet he found himself moving anyway, sliding off Rodimus’ spike, feeling mingled fluids drip from his valve.

“I’m not that delicate,” Rodimus said, and started scooting further down the berth, wriggling his way down as he urged Drift up. “Come on. Sit on my face. Wanna lick you.”

The part of Drift concerned only with gratification perked up. He thought of all the times Rodimus had licked him to overload and that got him moving, albeit carefully. He spread his thighs, his back tires balanced on Rodimus’ shoulders, his valve positioned over Rodimus’ face.

Rodimus wrapped his arms around Drift’s hips and yanked him down, ignoring all of Drift’s attempts to be careful.

Drift yelped and toppled forward, catching his upper torso on the wall. He braced himself to keep from placing his full weight on Rodimus’ face. That was of course when Rodimus’ mouth latched onto his anterior node and started to suck.

“Roddy!”

Drift’s hips bucked. He shuddered, knees digging into the berth, lightning shooting up his spinal strut.

The noises Rodimus made were nothing short of lewd. He slurped and suckled, licked and nipped, lapping up all the fluids dribbling from Drift’s valve, and shoving his glossa deep in search of more. A happy hum rose in Rodimus’ intake as he buried his face in Drift’s array as though it were the sweetest treat.

Drift’s array surged back toward his peak before he could entirely cycle down. His fingers kneaded at the wall as he tried to rise on his hips, but Rodimus kept yanking him back down. Lips and glossa and denta wreaked havoc on Drift’s valve, on his rim, his nodes. Rodimus ex-vented heat, suckled on his nub, and fragged him with his glossa.

Drift’s engine whined. His thighs trembled. Charge danced out from his substructure, lighting up the room, and still Rodimus persisted. He hummed with delight and licked deep, slurping up every dribble of lubricant. His denta scraped over Drift’s nub again and that was all it took.

Drift panted and dropped, grinding hard against Rodimus’ face as overload stripped him of rational thought. He groaned, gritting his denta, trying not to thrash atop Rodimus as the charge erupted from his frame. His cooling fans screeched from over-exertion. His engine rumbled.

Rodimus’ lips lingered around his rim, leaving little kisses to the swollen mesh. “One more?” he said, nasal ridge teasing the plating around Drift’s swollen node.

Drift panted, trying to drag himself back up on shaking knees, but Rodimus’ hold on his hips and thighs was firm.

“Roddy, I can’t…”

“Oh, yes you can,” Rodimus purred, the vibrations echoing over Drift’s rim and making him shiver. “One more it is.” He made a happy noise and latched onto Drift’s nub, mouth forming suction and glossa lashing over the pulsing node.

Drift all but shrieked, helm tossing back, as the lingering tremors of overload roared him back into full arousal. His hips danced, try as he might to take care. He clawed at the air before his palms smacked against the wall.

Rodimus’ glossa lashed over his anterior node, again and again. Only to draw back as he licked a long line up Drift’s valve, lapping at the swollen mesh of his rim, before returning to the pulsing node. The brief breaks only served to ramp up Drift’s arousal and left him clawing at the wall, panting for ventilations.

His spark throbbed, his calipers clicking in restless abandon. A fire grew in his array, centering around his node, and every scrape of Rodimus’ denta sent jagged spikes of need all throughout his frame.

Drift’s hips rocked before he could stop himself. He gasped aloud, fingers screeching against the wall, as overload slammed into him. His forehead hit the wall, his thighs drawing taut as he shook, pleasure shooting through every line in his frame. Lubricant all but gushed from his valve, but that didn’t stop Rodimus from licking him and purring with delight.

Sound roared through his audials. His vision whited out. For a moment, he hung in the air, alight with pleasure, until he came tumbling back into his frame. His over-heated, desperately revving frame. His cooling fans roared and rattled, his vents came in sharp gasps.

Drift moaned.

His helm spun. No, that was the room. It spun around him as Rodimus wriggled out from beneath him and climbed up his frame. He tugged and pulled until he got Drift where he wanted him, and pressed against Drift’s front, throwing a leg over Drift’s knees.

“I’m so lucky. You’re the sexiest thing ever,” Rodimus panted as he buried his face in Drift’s intake and rolled his hips.

His spike rubbed against Drift’s abdomen and pelvic array, leaving streaks of pre-fluid behind.

Rodimus clutched at Drift’s lower back and yanked their frames together, Drift’s groin cradling the insistent push of Rodimus’ spike. Rodimus rutted against him frantically, vents gasping air, and his mouth attached to Drift’s neck cables.

Drift struggled to find coherency in the ebbs of overload that seemed to strip it all away. He pawed at Rodimus, tried to untangle their limbs. He wanted… he wanted…

He got hold of Rodimus and rolled them just enough. He worked a leg free, draped it over Rodimus’ hip, and shuddered as Rodimus’ spike nudged against his sensitive nub.

Rodimus moaned. “Can I…?” He rolled his hips, spike rubbing on Drift’s valve rim.

Drift grabbed Rodimus’ aft and yanked him forward, shuddering as Rodimus’ spike slid into his valve. At this angle, Rodimus could only thrust into him shallowly, but it seemed to be enough.

“Say my name,” Rodimus panted as he rutted against Drift’s valve.

Head still spinning, Drift blinked. “What?”

Rodimus nuzzled into Drift’s intake. “Say my name,” he said. “Please, Drift.”

Oh.

Drift curled an around Rodimus, stroking his back. “Rodimus,” he murmured.

Rodimus shuddered, rolling his hips harder and faster, his hands clutching at Drift.
“My Rodimus,” Drift said again, nuzzling the top of Rodimus’ head.

A low whine rose in Rodimus’ intake.

“I love you,” Drift whispered, his hands stroking, his field pulsing against Rodimus’.

“Drift,” Rodimus moaned, his hands clutching hard enough to sink into seams. He ground against Drift, faster and faster. His denta grazed Drift’s intake. “I… I…”

Whatever he planned to say was lost to a moan as he shuddered. He overloaded, his spike spilling several thick spurts into Drift’s array. He moaned, long and low, entire frame shuddering.

Drift held him close as their fields pulsed in sync, thick with satisfaction, affection, and fatigue.

“Frag,” Rodimus panted, his lips leaving little kisses over Drift’s intake. “Oh, frag that was good. I love you so much.”

Drift stroked a hand down Rodimus’ back, briefly toying with Rodimus’ spoiler hinges. He could feel Rodimus’ spark thumping through their armor, even as their fields intertwined.

“I love you, too,” Drift murmured.

Rodimus nuzzled into him. Their frames twitched and ticked in the simmering heat, until the cooling fans slowly whisked it away.

This was so much better than arguing.

Drift shifted to his side, trying to get them into a more comfortable position. Rodimus’ softening spike slipped from his valve, lubricant seeping free in its wake. They were both a mess, actually. They’d have to clean up before Perceptor arrived, but Drift was in no hurry to move.

Until he caught sight of the Great Sword in his peripheral vision. A pulse of something emanated from it, as though tugging on Drift’s attention. He hadn’t been the only one to feel it, he surmised, given how Rodimus stilled, his head turning toward the blade.

They couldn’t avoid this conversation forever.

Drift leaned over Rodimus, reaching for the sword.

Rodimus made a small noise of dismay. “Do you have to?”

“I think so, yes,” Drift replied, and his fingers caught the hilt, pulling it closer. His other hand wrapped around Rodimus’ wrist, tugging Rodimus toward the blade.

Rodimus, however, curled his fingers in, away from the jewel. “Drift–”

“Please.” He kept his voice gentle, pleading. “I think you’ll understand better if you do.”

Rodimus chewed on his bottom lip before he cycled a ventilation and straightened his fingers. The tip of his index finger touched the gem in the hilt, and Drift felt a surge of energy ripple through the room, even as the gem flashed. The surge had been warm. Loving. Welcoming.

Approving.

Rodimus gasped. “That’s–”

“What’s left of Wing,” Drift finished for him. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense, I know. But some of his spark energy is still in the sword.” In a way, that meant Wing was always with him. And perhaps that was to blame for his faux pas.

Rodimus sighed. “You still love him.”

“Rodimus–”

Yellow fingers retracted. Rodimus shook his head and wrapped his hand around Drift’s instead, pulling it back tight against his frame. No. Against Rodimus’ abdomen, still a little rounded. Several months after laying the eggs, and Rodimus’ belly had yet to completely flatten.

It had to be intentional. As though a reminder.

“I love you,” Rodimus said, and squeezed Drift’s hand.

Drift worked his jaw, but leaned forward and kissed the back of Rodimus’ head. He stroked his fingers over Rodimus’ belly. “Does that mean we’re okay?”

“No,” Rodimus said, and some of the tension in his frame eased. “But we will be.”

Drift understood. Some things couldn’t be solved in a day. But as long as they worked on it, if they talked instead of letting worries fester, they would be all right.

“Fair enough. Do you think we have time for a nap?”

Rodimus laughed softly. “Oh, the exciting life we lead.”

“Well, we are parents now.”

“Parents to three rambunctious hatchlings who will be back, well, any second now if my chronometer is to be believed.”

Drift groaned. “Then we need to get out of the berth and get cleaned up.”

“Nope. Can’t move.”

Drift chuckled and nipped at Rodimus’ spur. “Yes, you can,” he said with a pat to Rodimus’ aft. “Come on. I’ll help.”

Rodimus groaned, but leveraged himself out of the berth. He stared mournfully down at his frame, liberally spattered with transfluid and lubricant alike, even as Drift clambered out after him. He’d checked his chronometer, and Rodimus was right.

Perceptor would be here any moment now. They’d wasted a lot of time arguing, but then, those were things which needed to be said. Better to have it out now than when the sparklings were around.

They cleaned up as quickly as possible. Sadly, there wasn’t even enough time to play around in the washracks. They rinsed, wiped down their frames, and tidied up. Drift fetched the pillows from the main room as Rodimus changed the sheets on the berth, and just in time.

No sooner had Drift tossed the pillows onto the berth than their door chimed.

Drift moved to answer it and was immediately was mobbed by two hatchlings, and only saved from the third because Perceptor had Flashfire tucked under an arm.

Drift had no doubt it was because the little menace had tried to run off. Even now, bright orange arms and legs squirmed incessantly, trying to work their way free.

“Daddy!” Three hatchlings chirped in unison.

Rodimus had taught them that. Drift had patiently said “sire” over and over, but they weren’t having any of it. Human terms were better they said.

At least Rodimus didn’t mind being called Mommy.

“Did they behave?” Drift asked as he bent down to scoop up Arclight and Wander. The former all white with bits of red, just like his sire, and the latter a bright yellow with highlights in white and orange. They were a colorful mess, honestly.

“Did you?” Perceptor asked with that dry humor he often blessed them with.

“Ha ha.” Drift rolled his optics and stepped aside, inviting Perceptor inside with Flashfire still tightly in his grip.

“Mommy!”

Flashfire started squirming uncontrollably as Rodimus appeared, and Perceptor stooped, letting Flashfire squirm free of his arm. He ran helter-skelter for Rodimus, who scooped him up with a laugh, rubbing their nasal ridges together. The two of them – for all that Flashfire rarely obeyed Rodimus – were utterly adorable together.

“Like a little mini-me, isn’t he?” Perceptor remarked.

He had a point. Flashfire was nearly an exact replica of Rodimus, down to the head spurs, spoiler-nubs, and flame motif.

“Behaves as well as his carrier, too,” Drift said.

Perceptor chuckled.

“But that’s okay, because I’ve got two very well-behaved little bitlets here, don’t I?” Drift said as he lifted up Arclight and Wander, nuzzling each of them in turn. They giggled and grabbed at his face to give him messy kisses.

Drift grinned. “Thanks for watching them, Perceptor. We appreciate it.”

“Anytime.” Some of the severity in Perceptor’s expression eased. “I mean that, Drift. If you two need help, don’t hesitate to ask.”

“We won’t,” Rodimus said as he joined Drift, having tucked Flashfire under an arm in much the same way Perceptor had. Flash giggled and wriggled. “Thanks for the offer.”

Perceptor dipped his head. “You are very welcome.” He excused himself, leaving the family alone in their suite.

Rodimus leaned in and kissed Arclight and Wander each on the forehead. “Hey, kiddos. Ready for bed?”

“Awwwwwwww.”

And that, dear friends, was the sound of three hatchlings whining in unison.

“We wanna play,” Flashfire said, kicking his arms and legs. Rodimus had quite the firm grip on him however.

“Well, we can’t always get what we want,” Rodimus said with a laugh. His free hand wriggled toward Flash, squirming into the mechlet’s seams and tickling him.

Rodimus looked up at Drift, winking. His field reached out with warmth and affection, no trace of the disquiet from earlier in it.

Drift couldn’t help himself. He leaned into Rodimus’ space and brushed their lips together. “Maybe just this once?” he asked.

“You spoil them,” Rodimus murmured.

“So do you.”

Rodimus huffed a laugh. He rubbed their nasal ridges together. “Guilty as charged.”

Arclight and Wander started to squirm. “Wanna play. Wanna play,” they chanted, little hands tugging at Drift’s fingers as though trying to uncouple his grip.

They looked down in unison, at three tiny faces, three pleading expressions, three pairs of big blue optics, and tiny nasal ridges. Their bitlets, their hatchlings. So hard to resist. Drift found he didn’t even want to.

“Oh, all right,” Rodimus finally said and rolled his optics. He leaned down to free Flashfire, as Drift did the same for Arclight and Wander.

“Go play,” Rodimus said, shooing them in the direction of the nursery-slash-playroom the entire Lost Light had helped them assemble. “But bedtime for real in twenty minutes!”

“Okay!”

They scrammed, nearly tangling each other up in their haste, though Flashfire quickly rose to the head of the stampede.

Rodimus laughed, but the sound became muffled as Drift pulled him into a kiss. He loved the taste of joy on Rodimus’ lips, and the feel of it in Rodimus’ field. He loved how Rodimus melted into him, their frames sliding together.

He loved everything.

“I love you,” Drift murmured as he met Rodimus’ gaze.

Rodimus smiled and kissed him back. “I know.”

In the distance, something crashed and thumped. And then there was silence.

Silence. Never a good sound when one had three hatchlings.

Drift sighed.

Rodimus rolled his optics.

“Flashfire,” they guessed in unison, and laughed. It was, if anyone asked Drift, a nearly perfect life.

He couldn’t ask for more.

[Crown the Empire] Salvage 11

Soundwave was there when he woke. He was there until it was time for Optimus to sleep. He was there as often as Optimus asked for him, and never failed to make certain his presence was welcome. He didn’t presume. He waited for an invitation.

Laserbeak, also, never left Optimus side. Since Ratchet never minded her presence, she never felt the need to leave. Optimus was grateful for it. He couldn’t bear to be alone, but he also couldn’t tolerate too much company. For some reason, Laserbeak’s quiet presence was enough to satisfy both.

During the day, his conscious hours, Optimus welcomed Soundwave’s company, the quiet conversation, his soft humor, his gentle presence. It was easy to forget that Soundwave once bore the Decepticon badge, especially when he disengaged his battle mask and looked even less like the symbol.

They talked. A lot. More so than anyone would have believed Soundwave were capable. There were moments of silence, too. But being as they were virtual strangers to each other, despite this almost inexplicable attraction, a lot of talking was involved.

Optimus found he didn’t mind too much. He used to think he wanted silence, to wallow in his own pain, but Soundwave’s quiet conversation was better than the void. It was better than letting the nightmares drag him down.

There were some topics they avoided or skirted around, such as their occupations before the war. Optimus had no problems admitting who he was – Orion Pax, discovered by Alpha Trion, and who had a Matrix thrust upon him when he wasn’t looking. But Soundwave grew silent and uncomfortable, and Optimus learned to drop the line of conversation quickly.

He suspected, based on previous hints, that Soundwave’s past was murky and terrible, like many Decepticons, and Optimus was willing to wait until Soundwave was ready to share. And if his suspicions proved true – that Soundwave had been a slave until Megatron freed him – then Optimus resolved even more to wait. He had somehow earned Soundwave’s trust. He did not want to throw that away as Megatron had.

Which left them with the silly questions, but important nonetheless.

“You don’t like sweets?” Optimus stared at the communications mech, unable to hide his astonishment. “Surely there’s some type of goodie you find palatable.”

Soundwave shook his helm, lifting his datapad a bit higher as though attempting to hide behind it. The pad itself was ostensibly there because Soundwave was still working, but he hadn’t spared it a glance since coming into Optimus’ prison.

“None,” Soundwave answered, his vocals lacking the monotone, though he still preferred to be concise in his word choice. “Preference of functionality rather than taste.”

Optimus grimaced. “That does not sound appealing. What on Cybertron do you do to spoil yourself then, if not unhealthy treats?”

Soundwave’s visor glinted. “Peace and quiet,” he answered, a note of humor entering his tone.

Optimus’ lips curved into a smile. On the headboard behind him, Laserbeak chortled, shifting across the back.

“One wonders why,” Optimus replied with no small amount of humor of his own. “But you must also have other interests. Music? Reading? Games?”

“Yes.” Soundwave inclined his helm. “All of the above, more so the last.”

Optimus shifted on the berth, trying to ease the cramp in his right thigh. He wanted to get up and move and if Ratchet didn’t let him up to walk around soon, Optimus intended to sneak out. He had wheels for a reason. Movement was necessary.

“What sort of games?” Optimus asked, but before Soundwave could answer, the sound of knocking interrupted the moment.

He looked up and past Soundwave’s left shoulder to see Jazz standing in the doorway, his fingers rapping over the frame.

“Hate ta interrupt,” the Spec Ops commander said with a grin. “But needs must ‘nd all.”

Optimus never knew that one day he would welcome the idea of work. Soundwave’s visits were the highlight of his day, but the hours between were dull and tiresome. Ratchet had taken to confiscating his work datapads because he’d reached his “maximum daily quota of work,” and Optimus was bored out of his processor.

Soundwave stood, perhaps faster than seemed necessary. “Duty comes first,” he said, though his tone carried reluctance. He looked at Optimus. “I will return tomorrow?”

“Or tonight,” Optimus suggested. Or hoped rather.

Soundwave’s field rippled, his armor echoing the motion. “I will be here,” he said, and made a beeline for the door where he nearly collided with Jazz, though Jazz’s little pirouette at the last moment saved him from getting a faceful of carrier dock.

Jazz laughed it off, and Optimus didn’t miss the almost abashed cant to Soundwave’s field as he dipped his helm in apology and then scurried away.

Embarrassment. He never thought he’d see the day when he caught Soundwave in a moment of imbalance.

“Why is it that every time I run into ‘im, he runs away?” Jazz asked with a grin as he strutted into the room and snagged the stool Soundwave had abandoned. “Hey, Beak. How’s it going?”

Laserbeak warbled a greeting in return, lifting one wing. Optimus found it amusing that all of his Autobots had gotten so used to the sight of her that no one so much as batted an optic.

“But yeah,” Jazz continued as he spun the chair around in a circle before slinging himself into it with all the grace he’d shown earlier. “Is it somethin’ I said?”

Optimus, despite himself, chuckled. “I’m quite sure it was. You do have a habit of intimidating other mechs.”

“Who? Me? Well, I never.” Jazz effected an air of offense, though the grin belied it. “I’ll have ya know, Optimus, that I’ve been the epitome of politeness and welcome to old Sounders. Mebbe he still thinks I’m crouchin’ on his territory.”

Optimus arched an orbital ridge. “His territory,” he repeated, amusement rich in his vocals. “And by that you mean…?”

“His presence at your side ‘o course.” Jazz tilted forward, planting his elbows on the edge of Optimus’ berth and his chin on his palms. He looked up at Optimus, all coquettish charm and flashing visor. “Poor old Sounders don’t even realize he doesn’t have anythin’ to worry about. You ‘n me, it ain’t like that.”

Optimus’ lips curved further. “No, it isn’t,” he agreed, warmth suffusing his spark. “What we have defies explanation, yes, but it is nothing Soundwave need compete against.” That he didn’t quail at Jazz’s proximity was testament enough.

Jazz grinned. “Exactly. Though I have to tell ya, OP, I haven’t seen anythin’ cuter than the two of you since I caught Bumblebee and Rumble canoodlin’ in a storage closet last week.” His shoulder tires wiggled suggestively.

“Yes, well, they have a history,” Optimus demurred, though he was happy to know Bumblebee and Rumble seemed to be determined to rekindle their old flames. “I don’t think you came to visit simply to tease me about my romantic endeavors.”

Jazz made a face of playful disgust. “Ya know, it’s that constant need to be workin’ that landed ya in this berth in the first place.”

“There is much work to be done,” Optimus said by form of protest. “How can I tumble it into the hands of others and wash my own of it?”

“Because we told ya to,” Jazz said, pointing a finger at him, toward his spark. “Yer so busy takin’ care of everyone else that ya didn’t pay a bit of attention to yourself.”

Optimus worked his intake, cycling a slow ventilation. It wasn’t the first time he’d heard something similar, and he knew it wouldn’t be the last. He knew very well that he’d been letting his personal health slide. He knew why he’d done so.

He didn’t much enjoy confronting his own behavior, but he also knew it was necessary.

“Then consider this easing my peace of mind,” Optimus replied, and before Jazz could protest, he held up a hand and continued, “I promise not to fill out any paperwork or make any command decisions. I simply want to know what’s going on.”

Jazz tilted his helm, giving him a scrutinizing look. “Okay,” he said. “Fair enough. What do ya wanna know first?”

“Anything that’s relevant.”

Jazz laughed and stretched his arms over his helm with a creak of taut cables. “All right. Well. Hound thinks he might have found the humans. I sent Bee and Rumble to help make contact.”

Optimus cycled his optics. “Wait. You found the humans? That’s great!”

Jazz waggled a finger at him. “We only think we do,” he corrected. “We haven’t made visual contact yet. When they do, they’re gonna let me know.”

“Still… it gives us hope.” Optimus sank back against the head of the berth. It was a relief to know they hadn’t led to the utter annihilation of the natives of Earth. “What else?”

“Onslaught meets with Metalhawk today. Hopefully, we’ll get some answers soon about what he’s planning.”

“Ah.” Optimus inclined his helm. His gaze drifted to the table set up in the corner of the room, where well-meaning Autobots had sent him get-well gifts, mostly small things like cards, hand-made objects, even a small crystal or two. Someone, Optimus suspected Springer, had sent him a fragmentation grenade.

Why?

Optimus had no idea. Perhaps it was a joke? Perhaps it was meant to comfort him by offering a means to protect himself? Either way, Optimus suspected the next time he fell into recharge, Ratchet would make the grenade vanish. It was almost a pity. The grenade would come in handy, should the worst happen.

Metalhawk, however, had seen fit to send what looked to be a vintage bottle of Praxian engex, complete with ribboned bow. Optimus didn’t dare try it and not even Ratchet – self-proclaimed fan of Praxian high grade – had any interest in popping the cork. He assumed it would continue to be a very fancy room decoration, one Optimus didn’t dare throw out on the off-chance Metalhawk asked about it.

Praxian high grade bottles were supposed to be collectables, empty or full, though that was the sort of useless way of thinking that only the elite and high class indulged in.

“Metalhawk sends his wishes for a speedy recovery,” Optimus said, unable to hide the disbelief in his tone. “Are you interested in giving it a taste?”

Jazz spun in his chair to stare at the bottle. A shudder raced across his armor before he spun back around. “There’s not enough credits on the planet, Boss Bot. And what kinda mech sends engex to a patient on strict medical grade anyway?”

“The oblivious kind.” Optimus grimaced and scrubbed his hands down his thighs. “Is Onslaught going alone?”

Jazz shook his helm. “Nah. He’s taking Blast Off. Says there’s another shuttle in the Neutrals, and you know, Blast Off used to be a noble. That oughta win him some points. He’s takin’ Swindle, too, which is a gamble if ya ask me.”

“Not necessarily. Swindle’s motivations are largely monetary.” Optimus cycled a ventilation. “All we can do from here is hope that they are capable of pulling this off.”

Jazz leaned back, folding his arms behind his helm. “I’ve the utmost faith in my temporary team, O.P.”

“I’m relieved that you do.” Though that did bring up another point, encouraging Optimus to shift to another topic. “And what of your actual team?”

Jazz sighed, some of the joie de vivre vanishing from his frame language. “Mirage ain’t asked to come back, and even if he did, I’d say no. He’s in no condition, boss. I’m tryin’ to find somethin’ else for him to do, maybe help Magnus in accounting.”

Optimus glanced past Jazz, but could see no sign of Ratchet through the window. He dared swing his legs toward the edge of the bed.

“And Bumblebee? Hound? Trailbreaker?” Optimus asked.

“Bee’s fine. He’s lettin’ Rumble court ‘im the right way. Breaker’s happy to play bodyguard for Hound and Rav, you know how he is.” Jazz gave him a curious look as Optimus’ pedes hit the floor. “Uh, Optimus. Don’t think yer supposed to be standin’.”

Optimus gingerly rose to his pedes, feeling at once exhausted and relieved. It was a mercy to be off that berth, but he had to admit, his legs felt wobbly and uncertain beneath him. Was he that tired? Had he truly drained himself that much?

“I’m not going anywhere, Jazz. I only needed off that berth for a moment.” He held onto the backboard with one hand and rubbed at the base of his backstrut with the other. “Unless you plan on telling Ratchet on me.”

Jazz coughed into his hand. “I won’t if you won’t. But if he catches ya, I’m goin’ to swear on your spark that I tried to stop ya.”

Optimus chuckled. “I’ll hold you to it.”

Please be careful, Laserbeak said, her words laced with concern. She scuttled closer across the back of the headboard, her optics focused on him. Optimus had nearly forgotten about her, so involved in Jazz’s information had he been.

“I will,” Optimus promised and returned his attention to Jazz. “What of Smokescreen?”

Jazz rebooted his vocalizer, relaxing back into his chair. “He’s the only able-bodied mech I got. He has his hands full. And no, before ya ask, I’m not goin’ to go recruitin’. Not yet. Not until I know what I need.”

“I trust your judgment.” Optimus dared take his hand off the backboard, finding that he could at least stand, and tried a couple careful steps. It felt immeasurably good to be moving again. He waved toward Jazz. “Continue, please. I want to know everything.”

“Everything, huh? That could take awhile.”

Optimus cast him a fond look. “If Ratchet has anything to say about it, time is something I have plenty of right now.”

Jazz chuckled and leaned back in his chair, though his posture remained tense and his visor tracked Optimus’ movements, as if he expected Optimus to topple over at any moment.

“All right,” he said. “But don’t say I didn’t warn ya.”

~

“Are you certain we are choosing the right side?”

Onslaught stared out through Blast Off’s windshield as the landing site for shuttles in Nova Cronum came into view. A small group of mechs already waited, their gazes locked in Blast Off’s direction.

“We are Neutral,” Onslaught said as he kept a hand on the back of the pilot’s chair to hold his balance. “We have no sides.”

“Pfft.” Swindle smirked as he leaned his helm against his fist, his arm balanced on the chair he occupied. “You’re a terrible liar, Ons. Maybe I ought to do the talking before Metalhawk chases us out of here with guns ablaze.”

“That won’t happen.” Onslaught cast him a long look, but as always, it did not faze Swindle. There was little that did. “And yes, Blast Off, I am certain. While I care little for Starscream and only vaguely trust Optimus Prime, a Cybertron under the control of one such as Metalhawk is not a Cybertron I wish to call home. He is old guard.”

Blast Off’s voice echoed around them. “He claims otherwise.”

“He also claims to only want peace, but given the way he’s sneaking around more than that pet spy of Prime’s, he’s a worse liar than Onslaught.” Swindle’s visor flashed. “He wants Cybertron for himself, and he thinks he can scare the rest of us off it.”

“He is wrong.” Onslaught’s hand tightened on the back of the chair as Blast Off gracefully landed without so much as jostling his passengers. “Come. We have work to do.”

Swindle leveraged himself out of the chair, stretching his arms over his helm. “Work,” he repeated, effecting a yawn. “Did they happen to mention how much we’re getting paid for this work?”

“It will be worth it. That’s all you need to know,” Onslaught said as he headed toward the loading ramp which Blast Off had already begun to lower.

“See, when you put it that way, it kind of sounds like you’re saying we’re not getting paid at all,” Swindle muttered, but it was quiet enough that only Onslaught caught it. The words did not carry to the trio of mechs awaiting them just outside of Blast Off’s landing zone.

“Combaticon Commander Onslaught.” Metalhawk stepped forward, his hands clasped behind his back, his gait as graceful and regal as a mech born and raised in the Towers. “Welcome to Nova Cronum.”

Onslaught dipped his helm in a respectful nod as behind him, Blast Off shifted to root mode, subspacing much of his mass in the process. “Thank you, Metalhawk… or do you have a title you prefer?”

“Metalhawk is acceptable.” The Neutral leader’s upper lip curled. “I am not so proud that I need to be a Lord or a Prime, unlike others.”

“I see. You need not use my title either as I carry no rank here.” Onslaught gestured to his left, where Swindle had taken a lazy, non-military stance. “This is Swindle and behind me is Blast Off.”

Metalhawk cycled his gold optics. “You appear understaffed, Commander. I was under the impression there were five of you.”

“Vortex remained in Polyhex.” Onslaught projected disapproval into his tone. “Brawl had another duty.”

Swindle coughed into his hand. “Tex is infatuated with an Autobot. Thinks he found a new toy.” He rolled a shoulder, setting one of his tires into spinning. “It’ll never last. He’ll be back with us soon enough.”

“I see.” Metalhawk’s tone remained perfectly neutral. He gestured to the blue mech at his left, Praxian if Onslaught had to guess. “This is Skids, my second, a former Autobot if you must know.” He then lifted a hand to the mech on his right. “This is Sky-Byte, a former Decepticon.”

Onslaught nodded at each in turn. “Then it is true, what they say, that you welcome all with open arms, so long as they are willing to look toward peace.”

Metalhawk’s lips curved. “Is that why you are here? Are you interested in peace?”

“Among other things.” There was something in Metalhawk’s tone that Onslaught despised. Perhaps because he came across as smarmy. “I would like to thank you for accepting this meeting.”

Metalhawk inclined his helm. “I’ll admit, curiosity compelled me. You are infamous, you and your team, especially your interrogator. Pacifism does not seem to suit you.”

“People change. Priorities change.” Onslaught shifted his weight, clasping his hands behind his back in mimicry of Metalhawk. “There is a difference between deeds done by choice, and those done because of the bonds of slavery.”

Metalhawk made a noncommittal noise. “You wish to petition to join us? All… five of you?”

“Perhaps. You are Neutral, yes? We’d still like the ability to move freely,” Onslaught replied, glancing at Sky-Byte behind his visor. The former Decepticon frowned, his optics narrowed in disapproval. Skids, however, looked bored.

Swindle crossed his arms over his hood. “Some of us have business opportunities that require it,” he added and ignored Onslaught’s engine growl of disapproval.

The Neutral’s didn’t have to know it was planned. Let them think some of the Combaticons could be swayed. Let them think there was a rift.

Metalhawk nodded. “That can certainly be arranged. Come. Let us talk more inside. One never knows when the shadows are listening.”

Onslaught was grateful he did not have a mouth so Metalhawk could not see him smirk. If Metalhawk was suspicious of the Combaticons, it did not show. He was too concerned with Optimus’ band of spies to think that perhaps they stood on his doorstep.

“Metalhawk, if I may, I was told that Octane and Sandstorm were among your crew?” Blast Off said, speaking up for the first time.

Sky-Byte looked up at him, optics narrowed. “Yes, they are,” he said. “Why?”

“They are old friends.” Blast Off did haughty dismissal very well. “Unless they are somehow prohibited from such, I would like to contact them.”

Metalhawk unclasped his arms, one of them raising to gesture at Sky-Byte, who immediately clamped down on a protest. “I don’t see why not.” He smiled up at Blast Off. “I’ll have Skids take you to them.”

Skids grinned at that and planted his hands on his hips. “If you save me a walk, I won’t even complain about it. You’ve got thrusters, right?”

“I do.” Blast Off could not have sounded less thrilled.

Onslaught left them to it while he and Swindle joined Metalhawk and Sky-Byte.

“I have the feeling this is going to be beneficial for both of us,” Metalhawk said as he took the lead, guiding them into the command center of Nova Cronum.

“As do I,” Onslaught said, and before they entered the privacy shield – a curious thing for a group of pacifist Neutrals to have – he sent a ping on a private, guarded channel.

We’re in.

~

A couple months since they officially split from the Decepticons and joined in with the Autobots, and Polyhex still didn’t feel like home. Not that Iacon did either, what with the way Soundwave got all twitchy and wouldn’t let ’em wander around as much.

It still felt weird to look in the mirror and see an Auto-brand. But then, it had felt weird all those millennia ago to see a Decepti-brand, too. Frenzy wasn’t used to being claimed like that. Back on the streets, it hadn’t been wise to announce your affiliations unless your friends were big and bad.

Back then, Frenzy’s friends had been neither big nor bad. They’d consisted of Rumble and Bumblebee and while they were sly, they weren’t intimidating. Finally hooking up with Soundwave was one of the best decisions they ever made.

Well. Rumble might not see it that way. Between that and leaning toward the Cons, he’d lost Bumblebee. But Frenzy supposed it all worked out in the end. Cause there they were, together at last, off canoodling on Earth under the guise of doing some work, and here Frenzy was, stuck on Cybertron.

Alone.

He wasn’t used to that. Being alone. He didn’t know how to be alone. He’s always had his brother, his twin, his best friend.

Frenzy knew Rumble didn’t mean to leave him behind. He knew, like he knew his own spark, that they’d always be brothers, and Rumble loved him and all that slag. But he also knew Rumble had missed Bee with every wire of his being, and Frenzy wasn’t about to complain now that they were tentatively working toward something special.

He didn’t want to get in the way of that.

He just… he just didn’t want to be alone. He wasn’t used to it. If there wasn’t Rumble, then there was the boss and their new siblings. There was Ravage and the bird twins and now, there wasn’t even them.

Ravage was off with her own Autobot toy, and Laserbeak watched over Optimus for the boss and Buzzsaw, little carrier’s mech that he was, was never far from Soundwave’s shoulder.

Which left Frenzy here. All alone.

Alone except for the door he was standing in front of. Passing Autobots were giving him strange looks, but no one was yelling at him or trying to toss him out. He supposed they’d gotten used to seeing former Decepticons wandering the hallways of their pseudo-base.

Anyway. The door. He was standing here, debating whether or not he ought to press the call button. Maybe the Autobrat was messing with him. Maybe that day of fun had been just that, a single day.

Maybe he was standing here for no reason.

And maybe, just maybe, he’d found a friend, one that the boss grudgingly approved of. Not even changing factions could make that old rivalry die quickly. Blaster and Soundwave worked together civilly, but friendly was out of the question.

Frenzy sighed. Nothing to do but try, he guessed. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

He pressed the call button and waited. He knew someone had to be inside. No one was on shift today, and there wasn’t that much in the way of entertainment around Protihex.

The door opened, Blaster standing in the frame. He looked down at Frenzy, the ghost of a frown on his lips. “Can I help you?”

Frenzy put on his biggest, friendliest grin. “I was lookin’ for Eject. He around?”

Blaster’s optics narrowed. He stared at Frenzy for the longest moment before he sighed and stepped back. “Yeah, he’s here. Come on in.”

Frenzy rebooted his visor. “Ya don’t sound so sure about that invitation.”

Blaster pinched the bridge of his olfactory sensor. “It’s going to take me awhile to get used to this, Frenzy. It’s taking all I have not to point my gun at you.”

“Oh.” Frenzy edged through the doorway, trying to look as nonthreatening as possible. “If it makes ya feel better, I had to disable my threat protocols just to walk down here.”

“It doesn’t. But nice try.” The door slid shut behind Frenzy, trapping him in an apartment that looked pretty cozy.

It was filled with warm and inviting tones, and compared to the one Frenzy shared with the boss and his siblings, it was a mess. Organized chaos maybe. Stuff was piled everywhere. There was a huge vidscreen on the wall, currently playing some noisy movie, and Steeljaw and Ramhorn were gathered in front of it.

“He’s in that room,” Blaster said, gesturing to one of the three doorways connected to the main room. “And please remember that there are other audials in the building.”

Frenzy grimaced. “It ain’t like that.”

“If you say so.” Blaster’s upper lip curled toward a smirk. “Just remember that there’s a disapproving carrier sitting right outside the door.”

Frenzy sighed. “I’ll remember.” He headed toward the door Blaster had indicated, probably one Eject shared with his twin.

He hoped Rewind wasn’t here. He was probably in the medbay, come to think of it. Frenzy heard rumors he was getting awfully cozy with one of the visiting Neutrals. He wondered if Blaster disapproved of that, too. Or was his disapproval saved for bots attached to Soundwave?

Engex for thought.

The door was open. Frenzy hung around the edge and peered inside. No Rewind. Just Eject, sitting cross-legged on the floor with a controller in his lap and a small vidscreen blinking in front of him. He was playing one of Earth’s consoles and some kind of sports game.

Hah. Frenzy should have known.

“Not down for family bonding time?” Frenzy asked as he stepped fully into the doorway and leaned against the frame.

The game paused as Eject swiveled toward the door, his visor brightening. “Hey, Deceptidork!” he greeted with a bright grin. “What brings you to our neck of the city?”

“Boredom. Whatcha playin’?”

“Madden NFL 12.”

Frenzy cycled his visor. “What? Really? Ya don’t have anythin’ better?” He pushed off the frame and invited himself inside, since Eject didn’t seem keen on marching him out at gunpoint.

“I did,” Eject replied as he swung his attention back to the game. “It’s back at the Ark, rusting with everything else.”

Oh.

Frenzy tried not to squirm. “Um, my bro’s on Earth now. Want me to have him find ya somethin’ else to play?”

“Ohhh, so that’s why you’re here.” Eject laughed and unpaused his game, his thumbs flying across the controls. “You were lonely.”

“Was not!”

Eject flicked a gaze over his shoulder. “Wanna bet?”

Frenzy squinted at him. “I don’t think ya know how that phrase works.” He laughed and plopped down on the ground next to the other cassette. “Do ya have another controller?”

“I thought you said this game was stupid.”

“Not in so many words.” Frenzy nudged him with a shoulder. “Well. Do ya?”

Eject stared at him for a long moment and then leaned over, pulling a box out from under the berth and rummaging inside it. He produced a wireless controller, which he handed over.

Frenzy reached for it, only for Eject to pull it away at the last second.

“Only,” he said in a playful tone, “if ya get Rumble to bring back some games.”

Frenzy winked his visor and snatched the controller away. “Deal,” he said. “Now come on, unpause so we can play this stupid thing.”

“Ooo. Ya make it sound like so much fun when ya say it that way.” Eject snickered. “All right. Get ready to have your aft whipped.”

“You’re on!”

~

Soundwave returned, technically after visiting hours, but Optimus figured he either was allowed inside, or put his skills to the test and managed to sneak around Ratchet. He came into the room as quietly as his eldest cassette, with not so much as a whisper of sound to indicate movement.

Optimus, fortunately, had not even begun to head toward recharge. Had he been staying awake in hopes that Soundwave would return? He refused to answer that question.

“Welcome back,” he said.

“Apologies for delay,” Soundwave said as he lowered himself to the stool he had claimed for himself. “A matter needed my attention.”

Laserbeak chirped a greeting as well, prompting Soundwave to reply with his field, the warm touch of it briefly brushing Optimus’ own.

Soundwave reached for the nearest of Optimus’ hands, fingers gently curling around Optimus’ own. Optimus’ ventilations hitched as Soundwave brought Optimus’ hand to his mouth. The guard slid aside in enough time for Soundwave to press his lips to Optimus’ knuckles, a surprising warmth spreading through Optimus’ hand in the aftermath.

It was an action as chaste as they come, but something about the simple touch, the gentle sweep of Soundwave’s thumb over his palm as he lowered Optimus’ hand back down, sent an echoing warmth through Optimus’ frame.

“A matter?” Optimus repeated, once his processor rebooted into something a little more workable than mush. He tried to focus. “What’s wrong? What happened?”

Soundwave shook his helm, lowering Optimus’ hand into his lap. Optimus found he had no inclination to request it back. Two points of contact and suddenly, it was a world of intimacy he craved.

“Verbal altercation between two mechs, one Autobot, one Decepticon,” Soundwave answered though nothing in his field suggested Optimus should be concerned. “Disagreement was small, petty, and appropriately, handled.”

“But as with all things that cause a cross-factional disturbance, had to be overseen by a member of high command,” Optimus murmured. He cycled a sigh. “Well, it was too much to hope for no issues whatsoever. At least it was minor. What was the topic?”

“So petty as to be irrelevant.” Soundwave rolled one shoulder in a shrug. “Peace makes everyone uneasy. We are too used to conflict.”

Optimus cycled a ventilation. “That is very true,” he admitted. It would take time and patience to fix what millennia at war had broken. He was under no illusions it would happen quickly and without issues.

“Only need time.” Soundwave rubbed his thumb over Optimus’ palm. “There is nothing that can’t be solved through time.”

His field reached out, entreating, and Optimus allowed it. There was something in the soft patience of Soundwave’s actions that helped him relax, made him feel unpressured.

“Of course.” Optimus worked his intake. “Thank you, Soundwave, for handling the duties I am unable to take. I regret that I am unable to assist you, but I am very grateful that the Autobots have such capable leaders in my absence.”

An absence he began to worry might last longer than Ratchet’s restrictions. There were times, especially now, he wondered if he was still suited for this role. True his Autobots had voted for him, but Ultra Magnus had confided in him that the vote had not been unanimous. He suspected that it was because some of his Autobots worried for Optimus’ health, but Optimus wasn’t sure.

He would not be surprised if any of his soldiers had lost their faith in him. There were days he struggled to find it in himself.

The days where the empty Matrix connectors ached were the worst. So much for being the chosen one.

“Gratitude unnecessary,” Soundwave insisted. He leaned forward, still cradling Optimus’ hand, rubbing soothing patterns in the dermal metal. “Concern is only for your health.”

Optimus gave him a wan smile. “I wish I could say that was a reassurance. It only makes me more determined to get out of this berth as fast as possible.”

“Then luckily Ratchet will say otherwise,” Soundwave said, with something that Optimus dared call a twinkle in his visor. “He will ensure you are fully healed.”

“He can be something of a tyrant, I agree,” Optimus replied.

Soundwave chuckled, though it carried a raspy edge. He bowed his head, brushing another kiss to Optimus’ knuckles, the gentle press of his lips sending a shock through Optimus’ systems.

Optimus’ spark throbbed in his chassis. He gnawed on his bottom lip, suddenly feeling as if there was a great chasm opening in front of him, and he was going to fall into it if he wasn’t careful.

He didn’t want to hurt Soundwave. And he didn’t want to hurt himself. He needed to speak up before it became too late.

“Soundwave, I….” He worked his intake, feeling as though there was a glitch in his emotional circuit. “I apologize, but I am still… I do not know that I will ever…” This was frustratingly difficult to put into words.

Soundwave shook his helm, pressing another kiss to Optimus’ fingers, the warmth of his ex-vents making Optimus’ hand tingle. “I am patient. I will wait. If never, I am content in this.”

Optimus gnawed on his bottom lip. “I cannot ask that of you. Surely you’d rather someone else? Someone less…”

Broken.

He didn’t want to say the word aloud again, but it had been circulating inside his processor for hours, days even. Long before he collapsed in the courtyard, prompting his current state of enforced berth rest.

He felt broken, and he didn’t know if there was a way to repair what Megatron had shattered within him.

“You are who I chose,” Soundwave murmured, his field gently nudging Optimus’ like the warmth of a hug that felt even stronger when Laserbeak reached out as well. “Just as you are. Damaged, yes. But not broken.”

Of course Soundwave wouldn’t have to ask. Optimus had been all but screaming it mentally. Surely his emotional state had to be grating to the touch-telepath. But Soundwave never once complained.

How this quiet, dignified mech had lasted so long in the Decepticons, Optimus felt he would never understand. How Megatron had first proven himself worthy of Soundwave’s loyalty was also a mystery.

He means it, Laserbeak offered. If that reassures you at all, Optimus.

It did, to a certain extent.

Optimus cycled a ventilation. “Then if you’ll have me, partners we are,” he said with a wan smile.

Soundwave’s field rippled with delight. He squeezed Optimus’ hand. “I–”

Commotion beyond Optimus’ room captured his attention. It jerked him from the moment, and he startled on his berth. Soundwave, too, tensed, and they both swung their gazes toward the window.

Lights sprang to life in the hallway. Optimus heard rushed conversation, a sense of tension rising in the air.

By unspoken request, Soundwave released Optimus’ hand and rose, going to the doorway. He keyed it open, peering into the corridor, just as Wheeljack came into view.

“Oh, Soundwave. You’re here,” the engineer said, indicators flashing in quick flickers of color.

“Danger?” Soundwave asked.

Wheeljack shook his helm. “No. I mean, yes. I mean, well, we don’t know. Something’s happened is all we know.”

Optimus frowned and threw back the berth cover. “What do you mean, Wheeljack?” he demanded as he made to swing his legs over the side of the berth.

“No, no, no. Stay put!” Wheeljack said as he rushed into the room, waving his hands. Only to pause, his indicators flushing pink. “I mean, please, sir. Stay on the berth. It’s nothing you need to handle.”

Optimus’ frown deepened. “Are we under attack?”

“No,” Soundwave answered before Wheeljack could, one hand lifted to his comm system. “Polyhex is secure. There is no attack within our boundaries.”

“It’s not us,” Wheeljack said with another shake to his head, and gestured at Optimus again. “It’s the Cons. Something happened to Starscream. Grimlock called Ratch, private channel, not faction-related, asking for help. He’s gone to Iacon now.”

Optimus’ spark lurched. “What?” he made another effort to get off the berth, but it was Laserbeak this time who stopped him.

She launched off the head of the berth and flew in front of him. You need rest, she insisted, something of fear in her optics.

“I don’t know the details. Ratchet’s gonna let me know when he actually knows something.” Wheeljack sighed and rubbed at his helm. “But if Grimlock’s asking for help, I’m guessing Starscream’s hurt badly.”

“They were not attacked,” Soundwave said as he stepped from the door. “I have received no alerts.”

“Which means whatever happened was internal or…”

“Sabotage,” Soundwave finished, and his visor dimmed. He pressed the manual release for his dock, and one of his cassettes emerged, transforming into Buzzsaw. “Iacon. Investigate Starscream’s condition.”

Buzzsaw dipped his helm in midair and took off before anyone could protest, flying out the door above Wheeljack’s helm.

Buzzsaw will get information, Laserbeak said as she flew toward Optimus, as if nudging him back toward the berth. Please, Prime, rest?

Optimus sighed and pinched his olfactory sensor. “Politically, I should at least make an effort to contact Grimlock.”

“Decepticon Lord made private request of creator,” Soundwave said, finally moving away from the door to approach Optimus’ side. “Politically, no response on Prime’s part required.”

Wheeljack nodded in agreement. “Soundwave’s right, Optimus. For now, Mum’s the word until Grimlock makes a public statement.”

It still didn’t sit right with Optimus, but he understood their position. No doubt Ultra Magnus would advise the same.

“Very well.” He lowered himself back to the berth, not failing to notice that Laserbeak’s field went flush with relief, and some of the tension eased out of Soundwave’s posture as well. “But I expect to be kept informed. Political tensions are high as is, I cannot have them worsened by rude behavior.”

“Of course.” Wheeljack nodded vigorously and slid a pace toward the door. “Now I gotta go inform First Aid he just got a temporary promotion. Soundwave, stay as long as you want.” He paused in the doorway and winked an optic. “Especially if it keeps Optimus in that berth.”

Wheeljack vanished out the door, hitting the panel so it would close behind him, before Optimus could muster up any kind of protest. Heat gathered in his faceplate and to his amazement, Soundwave looked a little discomfited himself.

“Autobots nosy,” he said.

“It is one of their more endearing traits.” Optimus quirked a grin and patted the berth beside him. “Sit,” he offered, only to amend. “I mean, please. If you want. I don’t think I’ll be able to recharge anytime soon.”

“Worried?” Soundwave visibly hesitated before taking the offered seat, the heat of his hip pressed to the side of Optimus’ knee.

“Yes.” Optimus rubbed at his forehelm, hoping to stave off the inevitable ache behind his optics, a clear sign of tension. “Our peace is so tenuous. The slightest mistake could catapult us back into war, and I fear the consequences of such would be dire.”

Soundwave’s weight shifted. Peripheral sensors pinged a warning before Optimus felt the careful touch to his fingers where his hand rested on the berth. He turned his wrist, offering his hand to Soundwave who accepted the invitation. He curled their fingers together, his field reaching out for Optimus’.

“It will not happen,” Soundwave said quietly. “We are stronger than any machinations Metalhawk or whoever else has in store.”

“I certainly hope that is true,” Optimus murmured as he lowered his hand, and happened to catch Soundwave’s gaze.

The crimson visor gleamed at him, the intent in Soundwave’s expression making Optimus’ spark skip a beat. He worked his intake, intensely aware of the points of contact between them, and what the clamor in the hallway had interrupted.

Optimus opened his mouth to speak and had to reboot his vocalizer when nothing came out but static. He coughed into his free hand, feeling heat steal into his faceplate once more.

“Thank you,” he said. “For the reassurance.”

Soundwave rubbed his thumb over Optimus’ knuckles. “It is what partners do,” he said.

Optimus’ spark throbbed with warmth.

Partners.

He liked the sound of that.