[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.

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