[TF] Trial By Fire 05

Time moved ever onward, faster than Starscream would have liked, a dread growing in his tanks, not unlike inevitably. He gnawed on the inside of his cheek as he checked his systems, first thing in the morning, and last in the evening before recharge claimed him. He recorded every reading.

And the steady decline of his code. Anxiety eroded at him, reminding him that he was running out of time. That the storm raged until it started to weaken, and by the time he could send Hot Rod home, he might not have the strength to wait for Deadlock.

Hot Rod, at least, was proving to be better company than Starscream could expect. He didn’t bother Starscream, except when he dropped by with a tray of treats or two. He kept to himself. Starscream caught him more than a few times out in the windowseat, either reading or doodling. He’d sat there to repair his tarp, too, sewing back the ripped edges with very precise and even stitches.

The Firebrand tended to fidget, Starscream noticed. He always had to be doing something with his hands, and Starscream idly wondered how many things he’d find with random doodles on them. It explained, too, why Hot Rod spent so much time making treats in the energon storage room. Silence didn’t suit him for long.

Hot Rod had to be moving, doing something, at all times. He spent hours in the training room, after Starscream offered him the use of it, and he’d spent the better part of last evening buried in the Star Charts, clicking through the files Starscream had on all the planets he’d ever visited.

Starscream sighed and scrubbed at his forehead. He was spending far too much time thinking about the clanling when he needed to get back to work.

Sixty-three percent. That was what this morning’s reading had shown. Attempts to upload a saved copy of Deadlock’s code had proven as useless as the artificial code Starscream had been struggling to program. He needed the charge of a live connection. Or at least, he assumed that was the issue.

Or perhaps he just needed to completely revamp the artificial code.

He rubbed harder at his forehead and stared at his calculations. The numbers swam before his optics, blurring from one equation into the next. He waited for a burst of inspiration that wouldn’t come. He didn’t know if he should blame his anxiety or that he’d been pushing himself so hard on this one project in particular.

Maybe what he needed was a change.

Starscream pushed back from his desk and rose from the stool. He set aside the complicated equations and switched gears to a different project: a synthetic energon capable of being cheaply produced and condensed. Basically, it was the ideal energy substitute for the lower class, the poor, those stuck living on the streets with no other means of providing for themselves.

Just as Starscream had been once. Just like Deadlock, too.

Sometimes shifting gears to a different project could help unlock his processor from what it was stuck around on another.

He sat on a rolled stool and pulled out the datapad, reviewing his progress on the synethetic energon project. So far, the largest concern was that the end-product was unstable. It had a tendency to, err, explode. Even more than standard energon did. Too hot equaled kaboom. Too cold and it tended to turn to acid.

Neither of which made it safe for consumption.

Truthfully, not even the best scientists in all the universities understood energon, basic energon. What entirely it was made from. How it worked. How a refined crystal could power everything they relied upon. Starscream ventured into unknown territory here.

Scientists had been working since the energon shortages first began on a synthetic energon formula. No one had been successful so far. Starscream would love to create a stable formula, just to shove it in all of their arrogant faces.

Look at this, he’d say. The cold constructed mech. The Seeker drone. The buymech you’d turned him into. And he’d solved this problem none of you could. That would be the ultimate victory, Starscream thought.

He switched on the burner to let it warm up and started arranging his equipment, internally musing on which chemical he’d like to start as his base this time. Seeding planets for energon had always required a careful balance of heat and pressure, and chemical stock. It was nearly impossible to replicate the same conditions twice.

Some conditions required a different chemical seed. Starscream’s greatest successes had always been to start with the elemental gases, particularly argon. Which was fascinating because it was so scarce on Cybertron.

Might as well begin with argon.

Starscream hummed to himself as he started to arrange the necessary equipment. He would worry less about the calculations for now and just start wild experimentation. Who knows? Maybe it could actually produce something worthwhile. He’d just have to make sure he was tracking every choice he made.

The door to his laboratory chimed.

Starscream paused and checked his chronometer. Well, it was midday. If the last two days were any indication, Hot Rod often visited around midday, usually with a tray of his latest batch of treats. He experimented with Starscream’s supplies, creating all different kinds, most of which recipes he attributed to one of his companions. Sideswipe was the name?

The door buzzed again. Starscream’s tank grumbled at him as if in reminder. A well-fueled frame made for a well-fueled processor, yes? Or was that just an excuse?

Starscream remotely allowed the door to open, though he refused to look toward it with any eagerness. Peripherally he saw Hot Rod poke his head into the laboratory.

“I’m not interrupting, am I?” he asked, polite as Starscream didn’t know a clanling could be.

“If you were, I wouldn’t have opened the door,” Starscream said dismissively. His wings twitched, betraying him. “What is it?”

Hot Rod inched inside, the door sliding shut behind him. Sure enough, he clutched a tray in his hands, and he gestured with it. “Made more treats. Thought you might like some.”

Starscream waved a hand to an empty space on the lab table. “I appreciate it,” he said, keeping his hands busy with his equipment. “Though you know you don’t have to keep making them. It’s not going to make a difference.”

Hot Rod set the tray on the table, his gaze focused on the carefully arranged treats. “I, uh, wasn’t even thinking of it that way? I just like doing it.” He gave Starscream a sidelong look. “And I still owe you. For saving my spark.”

Starscream made a noncommittal noise. “You’re healing well?”

Hot Rod patted his abdomen. “Yep. You do good work for someone who’s not a trained medic.”

“Are clanlings not taught basic field medicine?” Starscream asked as he half-swiveled, hooking a talon on the edge of the tray to drag it closer.

Hot Rod shrugged and leaned against the table, crossing his arms. “Some of us specifically seek that training. Scouts and hunters are given field medic certification. The rest of us get some basic stuff.” He chuckled, though it was self-deprecating. “I don’t have the patience for it.”

“That I can believe.” Starscream sniffed the treat and gave it a nibble. His glossa tingled at the spicy-sweet flavor. “This is interesting.”

“Isn’t it?” Hot Rod leaned forward, a smile curving his lips. “I tried adding some iron flakes to the mix beforehand, just as an experiment. They turned out to be pretty good!” His spoiler flicked up and down, like a youngling discovering something new.

Primus, he was adorable.

“I would call it a successful experiment,” Starscream agreed, and popped the rest of the candy into his mouth. He’d miss these treats, he realized. Maybe he ought to learn how to make them himself someday.

“I’m glad you think so.” Hot Rod leaned back, unfolding his arms, only to clasp his hands behind his back. “So, uh, what’re you working on? Or am I allowed to know?” He peered at the equipment, but he didn’t try to touch anything. He’d learned his lesson after nearly breaking Starscream’s orrery apparently.

Starscream leaned back. It wouldn’t hurt to share the details of this project. “I am attempting to create a stable synthetic energon formula to help solve the energon crisis.”

Hot Rod’s optics got big and wide. “Whoa,” he said. “That sounds really difficult. How smart are you?”

“More intelligent than I was ever given credit,” Starscream answered with a flick of his fingers. His spark, however, warmed at the compliment. “Though now that you are here, I could use a second pair of hands.”

Hot Rod blinked. “Wait. You mean, I can help you? I get to touch stuff?”

Starscream almost laughed aloud at that. “Yes,” he answered with a small smile. “You would get to touch things.”

“Then sure! I’d love to help! Only, I mean, I don’t know much of anything about science.” Hot Rod ducked his head and scratched at his chin. “Or at all. I don’t know how much help I’d be.”

“You have two hands,” Starscream waved dismissively again as he turned back toward the desk, setting the suspended base into a low boil as the titration system dinged to let him know it was ready for use. “I don’t expect you to do much more than play fetch.”

Hot Rod made a face. “That’s better than nothing, I guess.”

Starscream chuckled. “Then go fetch yourself a stool while I get the rest of this set up.”

Hot Rod’s spoiler wriggled with excitement as he turned to obey, Scuttle on his heels, beeping excitedly as if echoing Hot Rod’s emotions. At this point, Starscream wondered if Scuttle would try to follow Hot Rod when he left. As it were, Starscream had two drones who patrolled the laboratory, Skip and Scrape, both of whom were docked at the moment.

Starscream gathered up several bottles of various chemicals and gases, all of which he intended to experiment with, and returned to the station. He carefully siphoned argon into the stoppered flask, the colorless gas invisible to the naked optic. The careful application of an electric field, however, would give it a purplish hue.

“So I get why we need something like synethetic energon,” Hot Rod started as he dragged a stool close and hopped up into it. “But why are you so interested in making it?”

“Because no one else has,” Starscream said as he filled a few more flasks, choosing the chemicals almost at random. Today was not a day for precision. It was for wild exploration, freeing the processor n order to promote flexibility. “And because there are many who think it can’t be done.”

Hot Rod leaned against the counter, crossing his arms on the edge. “Oh, so it’s a pride thing.”

Starscream gave him a sidelong look. “Have you never wanted to do something because no one else could?”

“I’m here, aren’t I?”

“Ah, good point.” Starscream pointed to one of the items behind Hot Rod. “Hand me that scale behind you. I need to weigh out the beryllium.”

“A scale I can recognize.”

Starscream chuckled again and carefully poured some of the powdered metal onto the scale, relying on instinct rather than any scientific calculation. The quiet drip of the base was a calming background noise.

“So you know nothing of science? Chemistry? Physics?” Starscream asked as he carefully added the beryllium to the base solution. “What on Cybertron did you study in your clan?”

Hot Rod shrugged. “The basics. I can read, contrary to popular opinion, and write, too. But mostly, we focus on useful stuff. Weaving. Self-defense. Hunting. Small crafts. Science is a luxury, I guess.”

A luxury. Starscream internally snorted. Though he supposed Hot Rod had a point. His education had been received due to a whim by one of his owners, who wanted a capable lab assistant more than a berthmate. Starscream had then furthered his own education by reading every datapad he could get his hands on, and skipping recharge to watch info-videos on the local datanet.

“Then you had no scientists? At all?” The very idea of it still baffled Starscream. Truly the clanlings were uncivilized mechs, to completely disdain the very idea of scientific progress!

Hot Rod leaned his head on his hand and braced an elbow on the table. “Well, we have a few mechs who are kind of like scientists. Beachcomber knows all about weather and warns us about storms and land disturbances and helps us find all of the minerals we need. Hound’s our best tracker. He knows the local wildlife and stuff.”

“You live a far different life from the citylings,” Starscream commented, still having trouble wrapping his processor around it.

Hot Rod laughed. “Duh. We’re clanlings!” He paused and his face darkened a little with embarrassment. “Though a lot of the older ones, they used to be citylings. A long time ago. Warchief Megatron and Optimus Prime led the first of us into the wilds, after the war that wasn’t.”

Starscream made a noncommittal noise. “Yes. I’ve heard. They chose to flee rather than fight the Senate.”

“They aren’t cowards!” Hot Rod growled as he abruptly straightened, his spoiler halves flicking high and taut.

Starscream raised an orbital ridge and looked directly at the Firebrand. “I didn’t say that they were,” he said, careful to keep his tone calm. “It takes a certain type of courage to look in the face of that kind of horror and choose to seek a better life elsewhere rather than stand your ground.”

“That’s because they are the bravest mechs I know!” Hot Rod insisted, so passionate and determined, a fire in his optics. “I’m too young to remember the Exile, I was sparked out here in the wild, but even so, I’d never go to the city.”

Starscream leaned back. “You can say that because you’ve never been there. You don’t know what you’re missing.”

“You don’t seem to be in much of a hurry yourself,” Hot Rod shot back, his field like a drizzle of electric fire against Starscream’s own. “I know what kind of place the cities are. Places of too little of everything. Energon. Homes. Affection. All of it. Mechs are disposable and treated that way. I could never want to go to a place like that.”

Starscream ground his denta. “You’ve only been told the worst of it. You, who come from a place where you don’t even have scientists, who knows nothing of discovery or conveniences. There are good mechs in the city, just as there are bad. That’s the way things are. The world isn’t black or white, Firebrand. It’s shades of gray.”

It bothered him, Hot Rod’s ignorance, and Starscream wasn’t entirely sure why. It wasn’t as though he disagreed. Starscream himself never wanted to return to Kalis, to the cities. Not unless it was to brag and to gloat, to show them he had succeeded despite being treated as a commodity or disposable. Even so, as hard as life had been, leaving the cities had not been easy.

It hadn’t all been terrible.

Blurr had always been the best of it.

“I know that.” Hot Rod vented sharply, his optics bright, betraying his irritation and snapping Starscream out of his thoughts. “I’m not that naive or an idiot or… or… whatever uncomplimentary things you’re thinking about me!”

Starscream sighed and rubbed his fingers over his forehead. “I never called you any of those things.” Not aloud at any rate. “I do, however, think you are rather quick to judge something you haven’t experienced for yourself.”

“Pfft. Look who’s talking. You live out here alone, watching mechs like me from afar, but what do you really know about how we live?” Hot Rod retorted with a surprising acuity. “We’re not savages, you know. We’re just mechs who chose a different kind of life. How does that make us any different than you?”

That Hot Rod had a point wasn’t even the most startling point of the conversation.

Starscream stared at him, for once at a loss for words, trying to find something to say that wasn’t an immediate concession. Because Hot Rod was right. They’d judged each other, purely based upon the words of others, and both of them were at fault. It was highly unfair for Starscream to place the entirety of the blame on Hot Rod’s shoulders.

“It doesn’t, that’s how,” Hot Rod continued, vehement. “And yeah, maybe I came here with an agenda but that doesn’t… uh… is that supposed to be doing that?” he asked as his gaze slid to Starscream’s laboratory equipment.

Starscream blinked at the abrupt change in topic. “Is it supposed to be doing what?” He turned to look at the burner and titration system, where he’d set up the complicated equipment to drip feed various chemicals into the base solvent.

A mixture which was bubbling and boiling violently.

Starscream’s optics widened. He lurched toward the burner, hand reaching for the heating unit to turn it down, as the other hand snatched up a hot pad to remove the bubbling flask.

That was of course the moment it exploded, sending a spray of something wet and sticky in all directions, the glass shattering and causing a chain of explosions throughout the device. Hot, gummy fluid spattered over Starscream’s hand and chassis, barely avoiding his face, and it stung where it splashed his armor. He dimly heard a clatter and a curse as Hot Rod scrambled away.

It happened so quickly, Starscream’s hands still hung in midair, even in the aftermath. The stench of the mixture – like spoiled energon – spilled into the room, cloying and nauseating. Thank Primus it wasn’t corrosive, he thought, as he finished switching off the burner, though it was far too late to save himself.

“I take it that wasn’t supposed to happen?” Hot Rod asked from the vicinity of the floor, where he’d tripped over his own stool and tumbled onto his back.

Starscream looked at him, spattered as he was in the sticky fluid as well, though he’d caught most of it on his left arm and side. His face had been spared as well. Scuttle beeped as he knocked against Hot Rod’s side, perhaps sensing the mess and outraged that it couldn’t get to it.

“No,” Starscream said curtly. “It wasn’t.” He stood up, mouth twisting in disgust as he looked down at himself, where thick globs of goop dripped from his chassis.

Skip and Scrape activated then, zooming free of their charging ports to barrel across the floor, making a direct course for the broken glass and sticky spatters on the floor.

“It’s not my fault!” Hot Rod said as he righted himself and the stool. He winced as he twitched his spoiler halves, which had taken the brunt of his fall. “I didn’t touch anything.”

Starscream wiped ineffectually at his chestplate and stained cockpit. “The fault is mine. I was not paying proper attention.” Well, that was one method he could cross off the list at least.

“Oh.” Hot Rod turned in a slow circle, looking like a lost turbofox kit. “This stuff isn’t corrosive or anything, is it?”

Starscream shook his head and stared at his demolished equipment. He’d have to replace it all, which was not going to be cheap. He’d either have to ask Skyfire for it, as he still had contacts in Protihex, or Starscream would have to go to the cities himself, hoping to find someone willing to sell to a Seeker. He’d ask Blurr, but it would seem very odd for a racing champion to purchase laboratory equipment, and the last thing Starscream wanted was to put a target on his former lover’s back.

“No, though it’s best that you wash it off quickly. It’ll only get harder to clean as it dries and solidifies,” Starscream said. He half-turned toward Hot Rod. “Rinse off in the washrack before you soak in the oil spring.”

“But…” Hot Rod turned in another one of those pointless circles. “There’s a pretty big mess in here. You don’t want some help?”

“No. I can handle it.”

Starscream purposefully shifted his gaze away, crouching to gather up the larger bits of broken glass. The cleaning drones swarmed around his feet, but they couldn’t get everything.

He’d gotten distracted enough. He didn’t need Hot Rod lingering, conversation so easy between them as they cleaned together. He’d let himself be interested in Hot Rod and look what happened. He’d accomplished nothing and destroyed delicate equipment.

Starscream hid his frustration from Hot Rod. It was, after all, only tangentially the Firebrand’s fault. He’d come here uninvited, but Starscream should have kept his distance. It really was his fault alone.

“Are you sure?”

Starscream dumped the armful of broken things into a disposal bin. He’d sort through it later for recyclables. “Yes.”

Hot Rod audibly vented. “If you insist.” Starscream heard the shuffle of his feet as he turned away. “But you can’t get mad at me later for not helping.”


The lab door slid open and shut behind Hot Rod, leaving Starscream alone. Well, save for Skip and Scrape who scooted around, gobbling up the goo from the floor. Scuttle had followed Hot Rod, no doubt to clean up every bit of the mess as it flaked from the clanling’s frame. Hot Rod would probably have a parade of drones after him, come to think of it.

Starscream vented and focused on cleaning up, chastising himself for being such a fool. This was why he didn’t like distractions. This was why he should have tossed the Firebrand back into the sandstorm and washed his hands of such troublesome encounters.

His gaze slid to the code reader.

Sixty-three percent.

Starscream shuttered his optics and leaned against the edge of the counter, disquiet growing in his abdomen, rumbling through his tanks.

He couldn’t afford any more distractions.


It wasn’t anger that roiled in Rodimus’ spark, but bewilderment. He stormed toward the lowest level, wiping ineffectually at the goop staining his frame, as Scuttle beeped in his wake, and two more drones joined the parade.

Starscream’s behavior was just… odd. He had no other words. It wasn’t that he knew the Seeker that well, but Starscream was very mercurial. Friendly and open one minute, angry and concealed another. If he’d made any indication he’d wanted Rodimus to leave the lab, he’d have done so immediately. But no! He’d invited Rodimus to assist.

Rodimus vented. He didn’t know why he was getting so aggravated in the first place. It’s not like he actually cared what Starscream thought of him. They were only strangers, thrust into proximity due to a curious turn of events. A couple days from now, the storm would be over, and Rodimus would be on his way home, a failure by every definition of the word.

Disappointment crouched on his back, and his shoulders slumped. He dragged himself into the washracks and rinsed off, having to resort to a scrubber just to get the worst of the stinky goo from his seams. Scuttle didn’t follow him into the washracks, just lingered outside the door, spinning in helpless circles.

He’d miss the little guy, Rodimus realized with a small smile.

He finished scrubbing, rinsed again, and then cut off the washracks. He slipped out and slid into the oil spring with a sigh of satisfaction. He’d definitely miss this, he thought as he sank up to his neck before rising again and perching on one of the ledges below the surface. It was so relaxing to sit here, the oil soaking into his joints and seams.

Well, slightly less relaxing with Scuttle making repeated circles around the edge of the oil bath, chittering and chirping all the while. It reminded him of the time he’d gone for a dunk in one of the underground pools they’d found and a hatchling had come along, worrying about him drowning. Cute kid.

But Starscream.

That mech was a mess of contradictions. He insisted Rodimus was a distraction and a bother, yet he kept being kind to Rodimus. He offered use of his home, of his training facilities, his research rooms. He invited Rodimus into his private spaces, even consented to conversations that revealed a lot more than Rodimus would have expected. But then, in the very next moment, he turned waspish and cold.

Rodimus sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. He supposed if he lived isolated from the rest of the world, he might be a contrary mess, too. Social interaction was difficult on a good day. But if you didn’t regularly interact with people, you’d fall out of practice. Right? Especially if you didn’t much like people in the first place.

Just like Sunstreaker. Who could be pretty mercurial at times, too. Come to think of it. And he had certain triggers. One did not insult Sunstreaker’s fighting ability, paintjob or twin, and not suffer the consequences. He’d stood up for Rodimus on more than one occasion, too.

“Don’t fall asleep in my spring, Firebrand. I’m not going to fish you out.”

Rodimus slid his hand down and looked up as Starscream came striding into the room, his frame liberally spattered with the results of the failed experiment. Two drones came in his wake, though they struggled to keep up with his rapid pace.

“I wasn’t,” he said.

“Good.” Starscream vanished into the washracks, his drone shadows trilling where they lingered outside the door, refusing to enter just as Scuttle hadn’t.

Speaking of which, Scuttle’s circuit brought him into range of the two drones, and the three of them bounced off one another. Rodimus watched them, if only to keep from getting frustrated. If it wasn’t his fault the experiment had gone kaput, why was Starscream acting like he’d committed some terrible sin? He’d thought they were getting along.

Should he leave before Starscream came back out? He had the feeling he’d offered some kind of offense. Again. But he wasn’t sure how. Should he bother making amends? He’d be leaving in a couple days.

The door opened, and Starscream emerged before Rodimus could make up his mind. The Seeker said nothing as he slid into the natural spring on the opposite side from Rodimus. His wings twitched, however, and his armor had settled close to his frame as though he was uneasy. Did he think Rodimus was going to jump him in the springs?

That would be foolish for all kinds of reasons. Rodimus wasn’t that kind of aft anyway, but aside from that, Starscream was bigger and stronger and no doubt, armed. And even if he wasn’t, that he was skilled with so many different weapons meant he was not a mech Rodimus wanted to underestimate.

“Did you get it all tidied or do you need help?” Rodimus asked, desperate to cut the quiet tension. He worried that if he moved, it might set Starscream off. “I’m pretty handy with solvent and a rag.”

“It’s taken care of already.” Starscream sank up to his shoulders in the oil, his wings drifting through the warm fluid and his gaze elsewhere.

“Oh.” Rodimus chewed on the inside of his cheek. “Um, what about your back? Did any get on your wings? I could help with that, if you want.”

Crimson optics shifted toward him slowly, narrowing as they did.

Frag. That could have been taken the wrong way.

“It’s just an offer!” Rodimus rushed to clarify. “It doesn’t have a secret motive or anything, I just want to help. Payback, you know. For your kindness.”

Starscream’s lips formed a thin line. His optics darkened, and his field went still. In that moment, Rodimus began to realize why such fearful tales had been spun. There was something in his expression that spoke of the term ‘Deathbringer.’

“Why did you come here?”

Rodimus twitched at the aggressive question. “You already know why,” he said with a frown. “I wanted to challenge the Deathbringer.”

Starscream’s jaw set, his words coming through clenched denta. “I meant, why did you want to challenge me? What are you trying to accomplish?”

Rodimus leaned back against the wall of the spring, feeling as though Starscream was searching for a specific answer. “I want to prove myself.”

“For what?”

“Prove that I can be a warrior,” Rodimus blurted out, for no reason other than though this felt less like a friendly chat, and more like an interrogation. “I’m a Firebrand, you know. That means I’m an undecided, basically. My role in my clan hasn’t been determined yet.”

Starscream waved a hand, dripping hot oil in all directions. “Yes, I’m aware of that.” He leaned forward, frown deepening. “So you trotted out here like a fool because you want to show how brave you are? How strong? Just why do you need to prove it? Shouldn’t that be obvious to your clan already?”

It was like a dagger to the spark.

Rodimus’ shoulders hunched. His face colored, and it had nothing to do with the heat. “It’s not,” he admitted. “Obvious, I mean. There’s nothing special about me. I’m average in every way. I don’t stand out. I’m a joke.” The last came out more bitterly than he expected, and he dialed down.

He didn’t want to betray such weakness to Starscream.

He shook his head and worked his intake. “A lot of mechs think I don’t have what it takes,” he said instead, his hands forming fists beneath the surface of the oil, where Starscream couldn’t see them. “But I know I do. I just needed a chance to prove it, to show them that I’m much better than they think. I can do it and I will. I just need a chance.”


The weight of Starscream’s glare felt like the ridicule of his peers. It burned. And a shame he hadn’t known he could experience, crept in around the embarrassment. He’d interrupted Starscream’s life for a selfish agenda.

Rodimus stood up and bowed his head. “I’m sorry,” he said as he stared hard at the rippling surface of the oil, a few specks of goo floating across the shimmering liquid. “My reasons were selfish, and I should have never come here. I’ll leave you in peace until the storm passes, and you’ll never have to see me again.”

The thought made a sharp pang go through his spark, but it was no worse than the disdain that Starscream surely felt for him.

He turned to go.

“In retrospect, I could use some help.” The oil splashed as Starscream shifted. “With my back, to clarify.”

Rodimus worked his intake and turned back toward Starscream. Was this forgiveness? He couldn’t read Starscream’s expression, as blank as it was, but the Seeker’s field was clearly neutral, as he showed Rodimus his back and twitched his wings.

“You can see why I’d have difficulty reaching, yes?” Starscream added and held out a small scrub-brush. “Or did you rescind your offer?”

“No!” Rodimus lurched forward, only for the heat to fill his cheeks again. “I mean, the offer is still there. I just didn’t think you were interested.”

Starscream gave him a single look over his shoulder. “It’s not about interest.”

“Right. Of course.” Rodimus worked his intake and took the scrubber, gently applying it to the seams of Starscream’s back, exceedingly careful around the hinges to his wings.

He did his best to use a business-like approach, but he wasn’t blind. Starscream was attractive in every way, the curves of his frame, the sleek lines, the brightness of his colors. Any other situation, any other time, and Rodimus would have made a move on Starscream without needing an alternative motive.

“I’m, uh, sorry your experiment exploded,” Rodimus said, in a desperate bid to distract himself and change the subject from Starscream’s tension earlier.

The Seeker cycled a ventilation. “It’s not something you need to apologize for. The fault is mine.”

“Still…” Rodimus shrugged and gently swiped the cloth over Starscream’s back, noticing every twitch and tremble of the Seeker’s wings. “I feel like if I hadn’t been there, it wouldn’t have happened.”

“That may be true, but you were invited, so in the end, it’s still not your fault.” Starscream pulled away from him and turned, pulling the cloth from Rodimus’ now slack grip. “Thank you for the assistance. I can take it from here.”

Rodimus nodded and backed several steps up. He rubbed at the back of his neck and dropped his other hand. “You’re welcome.”

Starscream nodded and faced Rodimus as he started swiping the cloth over his arms and the front of his frame, face twisting into a moue of disgust as he worked at the sticky bits of goo still clinging to his armor. The tension in his field ebbed away, as did the taut nature of his armor.

Maybe it was forgiveness.

“Think I’ll head back to the Astronomy room if that’s okay?” Rodimus took another step back and toward the edge of the spring. “I also left a mess in the energon storage room. I’ll clean that up, too.”

“You are welcome to any door that is unlocked for you. That has not changed,” Starscream replied as he focused on wiping down his frame, without sparing Rodimus another glance. “I will be in my laboratory for the rest of the afternoon. Please do not disturb me.”

Rodimus climbed out and toweled off quickly, though Scuttle didn’t escape getting dripped on. “I promise I won’t.” He tossed the towel into the bin. “So, uh, have a good soak. And a good night.”

Starscream made a noncommittal noise which Rodimus interpreted as agreement. He opted not to push his luck and left without another word, Scuttle hurrying to accompany him.

Once out of Starscream’s audial range, Rodimus cycled a ventilation. He’d really fragged that up, hadn’t he? It shouldn’t even come as a surprise.

Well, he’d be out of Starscream’s way soon enough. If the Seeker’s predictions were accurate, the storm would pass by the day after tomorrow, and Rodimus could leave, giving Starscream back his peace and quiet.

Granted, Rodimus wasn’t returning to much, but he had no right to continue intruding on Starscream’s kindness. Besides, he had to go back and face it all, didn’t he? Get his answer, for better or worse, about which badge would be his.

He had to go back. Rodimus belonged with his clan, in the settlement, even if he’d always felt otherwise. It was home. It had Sunstreaker and Sideswipe, Springer and Kup, his friends and family, his hopes.

Rodimus didn’t belong here, in this tower of wonders, a distraction and a nuisance for Starscream. No matter what fleeting thoughts he might have had.


[TF] Trial By Fire 04

“Is that Pierce’s ‘Treasure Planet’?”

Rodimus startled out of his reading reverie and looked over the top of the datapad to see Starscream standing in front of him, his expression one of curiosity rather than disdain. A day after Rodimus had almost broken the orrery, and he expected Starscream to be touchy around him. Yet, this question had been almost pleasant.

“Yes?” Rodimus answered, bracing himself for the inevitable teasing and/or mockery. One could never be sure. “I found it in your library.”

“That’s because I’m an excellent judge of good literature,” Starscream said with a toss of his head and a twitch of his wings. He grinned, tapping the edge of the datapads tucked under his arms. “You do know it’s based on a true story, yes?”

Rodimus raised an orbital ridge. “Impossible.”

“Only if you’ve never left the planet.” The Seeker chuckled. “Oh, it’s embellished, yes, but there are many parts that are true. The Universe Bridge, for example.”

Rodimus shifted, straightening up on the window seat to rest his feet on the floor, Scuttle immediately bumping against his nearest foot. “You mean the portal?”

Starscream nodded. “Yes. It’s nonfunctional at the moment. It lacks a power source in this dimension. But it does exist.”

“You’ve gotta be joking,” Rodimus said accusingly, finding it difficult to believe that there was a universe bridge or whatever. A device capable of taking you anywhere in the universe from a single point in space. “Just cause you think I’m some dumb clanling–”

“I am being honest,” Starscream interrupted, a bit testily. His wings flicked sharply. “I’ve seen it myself. It’s something of a tourist attraction in the Andule Quadrant. There are scores of scientists from all over the universe who are convinced it can be made to work again.”

Rodimus stared at him, unsure if he dared believe. ‘Treasure Planet’ was a fantastic tale, but it felt too much like a fantasy. A whole planet covered in nothing but precious metals and creds? A Universe Bridge? It sounded too good to be true.

“You’ve seen it yourself,” Rodimus repeated as he narrowed his optics. “You’ve actually been off Cybertron.”

Starscream straightened, his head tilting imperiously. “Yes, I have,” he said. “And I can prove it. Granted most of my research was confiscated, but I still have some image captures left.”

Rodimus’ jaw dropped. “You’re serious.”

“Of course I am.” Starscream huffed, his wings twitching upward. “Come on. I’ll show you.”

He didn’t wait for Rodimus to agree. He started toward the library with a determined gait, and Rodimus scrambled off the window bench to follow, tossing the book into subspace as he did. Scuttle chittered and nearly tripped him up in eagerness to come along.

“Your research was confiscated?” Rodimus asked as he caught up to Starscream, slowing his stride to match the Seeker’s, even as they passed the library and kept climbing, toward what Rodimus knew to be a string of locked doors. “Why?”

“For reasons that are no business of yours.” Starscream gave him a sideways glance. “You wouldn’t understand anyway. You’re a clanling. You’ve never experienced life in the city.”

Rodimus shrugged. “Yeah. But from what I’ve heard, I’m not missing much.”

“There are some… amenities that would be useful, but otherwise… yes. There is little to miss of citylife, especially for those of us not in power,” Starscream said, his tone quiet this time, more contemplative.

He stopped in front of one of the locked doors on the hallway and pressed his palm to the field reader. It beeped as it acknowledged him, the door sliding aside, granting him access to a room that was lit only by emergency lights around the perimeter, top and bottom.

“How many planets have you been to?” Rodimus asked as he followed Starscream inside, peering curiously into the dark. He couldn’t see anything but vague shadows. He did, however, hear the quiet hum of consoles in a sleep-state.

“More than you can possibly imagine, but less than I would have liked.”

There was a click before a pale light spilled into the room, doing little to eliminate the shadows, and revealing multiple low shelves strewn around the fringe of the room. The space in the middle, however, was empty, save for a single pedestal with a spherical object sitting in the middle of it.

Why in the desert were they here?

“I’m a bit jealous,” Rodimus murmured as he watched Starscream move to the pedestal, crouching down to open a panel in the base of it. “I don’t really care about the cities, but I’ve always wanted to explore. Go places. See things that you only read stories about.”

Starscream paused and looked at Rodimus over his shoulder, a soft smile on his lips. “No wonder you like fantasy tales.”

Heat flooded Rodimus’ cheeks. He looked away, scratching his jaw. “What are you doing anyway?”

“Proving a point,” Starscream said before there was another click and the ceiling suddenly lit up with pinpoints of light. The globe on the pedestal was emitting a soft glow as well, perhaps the source of the light.

Rodimus looked up, his optics widening. The dots of light were large and small, and ranged in shades of white, yellow, red, and blue. Some were clustered together; some were far apart. In fact, it reminded him a lot of the night sky.

“Wait,” he said as he turned in slow circles. “Are those stars?”

“It’s a representation of them, yes. They are formed of my own memories,” Starscream answered as the lights swirled across the ceiling, only for their configuration to change into something a bit more familiar. “Recognize it now?”

Rodimus nodded and gestured to a cluster of dots just over Starscream’s helm. “I know that constellation. There in the center, that’s the guiding star.” It was the single most important point of reference for a lost clanling. It was what all their charts revolved around. Of course, it wasn’t much use in the middle of a raging sandstorm.

“It’s called Arcturus,” Starscream explained as he crossed his arms and tilted his head, looking up at the star-cluster. “It’s over eighty light years away, and still that visible to us. And yes, it is often called the guiding star by your people.”

Rodimus turned in a slow circle, amazed that the sky had been so accurately recreated on the ceiling. “I see Reticule and the Archer.”

“You’ll probably find many that you recognize,” Starscream murmured, something soft and thoughtful in his voice. “I’ve been to places that I thought only existed in stories. I’ve seen worlds with the strangest of creatures, and the most severe of landscapes.”

Rodimus shifted his gaze to Starscream, watching the Seeker who looked up at the star display with something like longing in his optics. The usually severe lines of his face had smoothed over, allowing his beauty to shine through.

“I once saw a planet that was made almost entirely of crystal. It gleamed in the pale light of its sun, and the surface was nearly blinding,” Starscream said as his wings canted downward, a motion one Rodimus recognized as ease. “There was another world where the entire surface was liquid, and its sentient residents all lived below the waves. There are even other worlds who hold metallic beings like us.”

“Wow.” Rodimus cycled his optics. “Kind of puts a wrench in the thought that Primus made us special in his image, doesn’t it?”

Starscream tossed him a wry look. “I suppose that depends on the strength of your faith.” He leaned forward, fingers brushing over the podium again.

The lights whirred again, until they repositioned themselves, still familiar, but also not. One of the stars in particular was almost as bright as the guiding star, as Arcturus, and it was set in a very familiar constellation.

“That is Alpha Circini, the brightest star in the Circinus Galaxy and the Circinus constellation,” Starscream murmured. “It is also home to the Andule Quadrant and where you’ll find the Universe Bridge.”

“Circinus, huh? We call that constellation ‘the Lovers’,” Rodimus said with a little laugh. Only for the heat in his cheeks to deepen when he realized what he said.

He coughed a vent and scratched the back of his head. “I guess that’s why I’m a clanling and you’re from the city. You know the real names.”

Starscream huffed a laugh and angled his frame toward Rodimus. “Somehow, I think your clan’s name is more charming.”

“Maybe.” Rodimus coughed again. “So, uh, you’ve been to Circinus then?”

“Yes. My master at the time was an adventurer, as much as someone like him could be at any rate. He wanted to see the famed Universe Bridge for himself.” Starscream looked up at the constellation, something nostalgic in his expression. “I was lucky enough to be dragged along. And luckier still to assist him with his research.”

There was a lot of information in that statement, but only one bit of it truly stood out to Rodimus. “Your… master?”

Starscream’s vents stuttered. He whirled toward the podium and slapped a hand against the side of it, the star display abruptly shutting off and casting the room in shadows.

“It’s not important.” His engine growled, less threatening than it was agitated. “And none of your business.”

Like so much else in the little details Starscream let slip. Rodimus was starting to get a better idea of the life Starscream left behind, and it was not a pretty picture.

Rodimus held up his hands and backed toward the door. “I’m not here to pry,” he said. “I just, you know, I’d love to hear about the other planets you’ve been to. If you want to talk about them.”

Starscream moved away from the podium, his armor suddenly clamped tight around his frame, and his expression closed off compared to earlier. “Perhaps another time,” he said, his tone screaming of forced civility. “I’ll leave this room unlocked if you want to come back.”


“Who am I to stop someone from learning?” Starscream paused next to him, withdrawing a datapad from subspace, which he offered to Rodimus. “Instructions for operating the display. There are ways to activate a learner bot as well.”

Rodimus accepted the datapad, feeling as though he’d been given a degree of trust along with it. “Thanks,” he said and dipped his head. “I promise to be careful and not break anything. Well, at least not on purpose anyway.”

Starscream’s lips curved in a slight echo of the openness he’d offered earlier, until the walls came crashing down again. “I believe that much. Have fun.”

“I will. Thanks.”

Starscream left, and Rodimus pretended he didn’t watch the Seeker leave. Not the long lines of Starscream’s back, the sleek curve of his wings, or the subdued nature of his biolights.

He didn’t pay attention to any of it, even as his hands tightened around the datapad and his spark gave a weird flutter.


Starscream returned to the safety of his laboratory, locked the door behind himself, and sank onto the stool at his main workdesk. He pulled out the datapad containing the calculations for the substitute coding, flicked on the desk lamp, and told himself to get to work.

Ten minutes later, he realized he was staring at the far wall, lost in his contemplations, chastising himself for letting down his guard around Hot Rod. But there was something inviting about Hot Rod’s sincerity. He asked questions, and Starscream found himself answering before he realized what words had slipped past his lips.

The clanling was dangerous.

Only a few more days and he would leave. Starscream worried that it might not be soon enough.

His gaze wandered to the tray Hot Rod had brought him yesterday, empty of treats and in need of washing, a few sticky bits clinging to the metal. They’d been delicious.

He told himself Hot Rod had only made them in an effort to earn an invitation to Starscream’s berth. And then he wondered how he could even think a mech like Hot Rod could be so devious. The kid didn’t have a sneaky strut in his frame. He blushed at the drop of a bolt, and stammered over his words, and frag, seemed half-afraid to get within arms reach of Starscream.

And yet…

Hot Rod had come here for a reason. One Starscream was not interested in offering to him, neither fight nor a night in the berth. Surely, to venture all this way, Hot Rod had not given up on his intentions?

The shriek of Starscream’s alarm system sliced through his thoughts. He startled, nearly tumbling out of stool, and scrambled for the desk to regain his balance. Spark hammering in his chassis, he tapped the nearest console to identify the source of the alert. He’d worry about Hot Rod later.

It was his back door again. What was it this time? Another half-dead clanling collapsed on the doorstep?

The screen went black and white with static. Starscream growled and gave it a smack. Or two, actually, since that’s how many it took this time before the image clarified.

Great. Duryllibears. And this time they were…

Starscream froze and leaned closer, peering at the screen. Disgust suddenly crawled down his backstrut, and he shoved himself back. Dear Primus, they were mating on his back doorstep. Again. Why they kept venturing out of their preferred dens to cause a ruckus around his sensor arrays, Starscream did not know. But it slagged him off.

He growled and reset the alarm, the shrill noise abruptly cutting off. If he didn’t chase those beasts away, the motion sensors would only activate again. Ugh.

Starscream stomped out of the laboratory and stormed up to the second floor, angrily punching his code into his weapons locker. The only interruption more irritating than an unwanted sapient guest, was that of the local wildlife. Sure, they were useful as a deterrent to nearby clanlings, but they were a pain in the aft.

The door slid open. Starscream cast a glance through the array of weapons: from short-range to long-range, bladed and not, blasters and everything in between. He didn’t want to kill the duryllibears, but he did want to chase them away. A sonic blaster would cause harm to the structure of the tunnels. But a flare gun?


Starscream snatched one off the rack, just as the motion sensors were tripped again, and the shriek of his alarms split the quiet. Cleaning drones went rushing by the doorway in a frenzy, led by Swift, the poor, glitched thing.

Starscream sighed and stomped out of the weapons locker, leaping over the rail of the walkway to land on the first floor. He slid into the narrow hall behind the lift, where the backdoor was located down a small ramp, hidden from immediate view. He had little doubt Hot Rod had found it, but he couldn’t open it.

Starscream keyed his code into the panel by the door, resetting the alarm again and deactivating the hologram. He manually threw open the heavy door, the sound of low grunting and other noises floating to his audials. At least he could be reassured they were too distracted with one another to notice the door opening.

Starscream flicked the switch to brighten the tunnel, and eased through the door, wings cast high and alert. He saw the duryllibears almost immediately, rutting as they were just before the tunnel curved away.

There was a reason Starscream had never been interested in zoology. He liked non-messy things. Non-sticky things. Non-mating things.

Shuddering, Starscream lifted the flare gun and fired it right over their thrusting frames. “Get!” he snarled as the gun boomed and an explosive cartridge echoed loudly in the narrow tunnel.

It occurred to him that a smarter mech would be afraid. Duryllibears, after all, were of a size with the average mech, and stronger at that. Only a fool would interrupt their mating haze.

It was too late after he’d pulled the trigger. He thought that maybe he ought to run, but luckily, the flare gun had the intended effect. It startled the beasts, forcing them apart. They staggered around in a blinded haze.

Starscream fired another round, and the resulting bang and flash of light was enough to send the duryllibears loping off into the dark, away from his backdoor. Thank Primus.

Starscream lingered long enough to be sure they were gone, and then he ducked back into his tower. Maybe he should think about setting up some kind of long distance system? Just so he wouldn’t have to come down here all the time to chase them away.

He tabled the idea for later. He had more important things to work on at the moment.

He locked the door, made sure the motion sensors were properly activated, and turned to head back to the weapons locker.

“What was that about?”

For the second time that day, Starscream startled, leaping backward, his wings striking harsh against the door, flare gun raised defensively.

Hot Rod immediately backpedaled, hands raised, a look of alarm on his face. “Sorry,” he said, sheepish. “Didn’t mean to startle you. It’s just, I heard the sirens and I got worried.”

“It’s nothing. I was chasing away some vermin,” Starscream said as he cycled a ventilation, forcing calm into his field. He moved past Rodimus, heading back toward the weapons locker. “Bored already with the astronomy sphere?”

“No. I heard the alarms and figured I shouldn’t ignore them.” Hot Rod fell into step beside him, as if it were no unusual thing. “Did you build that yourself?”

Starscream snorted. “I built everything here myself. What makes you think that is any different?”

“I don’t. I just…” Hot Rod trailed off with a quiet chuckle that almost sounded nervous. “Sorry. I guess I don’t really know many, um, scientists? It’s kind of about survival in my clan and none of us spend much time on science-y stuff.”

“Science-y stuff,” Starscream echoed, amused despite himself. He directed an orbital ridge at the clanling. “There is not a single researcher among your people?”

Hot Rod shrugged and clasped his hands behind his back. “Not like you.”

Whatever that was supposed to mean.

“Thanks. I think,” Starscream said dryly. They rounded the corner, and he sighed to himself.

Damn. In his haste, he hadn’t sealed the weapons locker behind him. Thank Primus the clanling hadn’t investigated it first. His energon bow was in there, as well as all the other weapons Starscream had confiscated from him. Not to mention all of the weapons Starscream used, some of which were his own design.

“Whoa,” Hot Rod said, hurrying past Starscream to peer into the weapons locker. “You’re ridiculously equipped. I don’t even think our warriors are this well-armed. Is that an energon sword?”

Before Starscream could answer, Hot Rod ducked inside, hands reaching for the hilt of two blades Starscream had on the walls.

“Don’t touch those,” Starscream snapped as he chased the Firebrand inside, his fingers hooking around Hot Rod’s wrist before he could touch the sword. “In fact, don’t touch anything in here.”

“Sorry.” Again, the clanling looked abashed. He curled his fingers and tugged his hand away from Starscream. “It’s just… only warriors can use those, you know. I’ve never gotten to hold one before.” There was longing in his tone, and in his gaze, as he stared at the swords with nothing short of appreciation.

Starscream returned the flare gun to its case. “You’re not a warrior?”

“You know I’m a Firebrand, and you still ask that?”

“I’m only vaguely familiar with the culture of the clanlings and all of them have their quirks,” Starscream said as he watched Hot Rod from his peripheral vision.

Hot Rod sighed and crossed his arms, his shoulders hunching. “I’m still a trainee,” he said, and his face darkened as he looked away. “I’ve not been offered the warrior’s badge. Which, if you remember, is why I was out here in the first place. To prove myself.”

Starscream made a noncommittal noise. He turned, bracing his hip against the edge of the display counter. “Energon blades require a lot of training. I am not surprised their use is restricted.”

“Do you know how to use one?”

“Of course.” Starscream waved airily. “I know how to use everything here. I’d be an idiot to keep a weapon on hand I wasn’t familiar with.” He’d be dead twice over if he didn’t know how to defend himself. Surely even a lost clanling knew that.

Hot Rod’s optics widened as his gaze shot back toward Starscream, before he turned in a slow circle, looking around him. “Everything?”

“Even your energon bow.” Though he wasn’t particularly skilled with long-range target weaponry. Starscream preferred broad-spread blasters or energon blades, especially if dual-wielding.

A touch of awe colored Hot Rod’s field. “No wonder they call you the Deathbringer,” he said and gave Starscream a crooked grin. “Guess it’s a good thing I didn’t challenge you. I don’t think I would’ve won.”

Starscream snorted. “Of course not. Aside from the fact I’m far older than you, I have more experience as well.”

“And modest, too.”

“There’s no need to be modest when it’s the truth,” Starscream said with a sniff. “I live out here alone so I have to know how to defend myself, from vermin and unwanted guests alike.”

Hot Rod nodded. “That makes sense,” he murmured, and his gaze wandered back to the energon sword, the broadbladed one, longing so strong in his field that it made Starscream dizzy.

If later asked, Starscream wouldn’t be able to say why he choose to do what he did next. He would possibly even deny it. He couldn’t explain why he felt the need to pull down one of the blades from their display and offer the simple hilt to Hot Rod. Save perhaps that the longing expressed in the Firebrand’s field was so very similar to his own, years upon years ago, when he received his first taste of true education.

“You know how to hold it at the very least, yes?” Starscream asked with a raised orbital ridge. “The pointy end goes away from your frame.”

Hot Rod’s optics rounded as his face colored. “I know that much,” he said and lifted his hands, reaching for the blade, only to hesitate. “You sure you wanna trust me with this? I could do something stupid, you know.”

“I don’t think you’re that big of a fool.” Starscream chuckled. “Now, you could always prove me wrong, but I don’t think you will.”

Hot Rod stared at him, his optics bright and blue. “I won’t,” he said as he carefully took the hilt, fingers curled around it with an almost reverence. It was a heavier weapon, so he used both hands to grip it, as one thumb rested over the activator switch.

“Most of the warriors eventually have these internally connected,” Hot Rod explained as he gave an experimental swing of the unactivated blade. “They power it with their own frames.”

“Yes, well, this comes with an external power pack built into the hilt.” Starscream gestured toward the display case and the box beneath it. “Rechargeable at that. I prefer the smaller dual-wields, but even those are a drain, so I rely on external supplies.”

“Why two?” Hot Rod asked.

Starscream leaned against the counter again, his hands braced on the edge, as Hot Rod gave a few more practice swings. “They are easier for someone with my frametype and fighting style. They are better suited for speed and agility.”

“I’d love to learn someday,” Hot Rod murmured before he sighed and straightened, offering the hilt of the broadblade to Starscream. “Thanks.”

I’ll teach you.

The words almost left his lips, before Starscream reminded himself how foolish they were. The wildling wasn’t going to be around long enough to learn, and the last thing he needed to do was make Hot Rod more skilled. Not if he still carried the intention to defeat Starscream in any kind of combat.

“I’m sure you’ll get one of your own someday,” Starscream said instead. He accepted the blade, returning it to its proper nook. “You seem like a determined mech. I’m sure there’s nothing that can stop you.”

“Well, you’re probably the only one who believes that.” Hot Rod shrugged with one shoulder and crossed his arms. “Anyway, you probably have a lot of work to do, so I’ll leave you to it.”

Starscream hesitated for only a fraction of a second. “If you’re bored, I have a training room.”

Hot Rod paused mid-turn. “What?”

Starscream cycled a ventilation. “It’s probably not a good idea to let you have an active energon blade, because of your inexperience not because I think you’re stupid,” he hastily corrected. “But if you want to practice with some weaponry, I do have a training room. I’ll unlock it for you. If you want.”

“That would be great!” Hot Rod’s spoiler wriggled with genuine delight, and Starscream would never admit how cute that was.

“Then I’ll do it.” Starscream turned back toward the weapons, focusing on them if only to keep from staring at the Firebrand. “It’s directly below the library. Help yourself to anything available there, but do remember, I’m not even qualified as a field medic.”

Hot Rod chuckled. “I’ll be careful.” In his peripheral vision, Starscream saw him back toward the door. “And, um, thanks.”

He left before Starscream could formulate a response. Which was good, because he couldn’t think of anything that didn’t sound enormously stupid.

Starscream sighed and braced his hands on the counter. His shoulders hunched as he offlined his optics, trying to regulate his ventilations, while his spark gave off several odd tremors.

He was letting Hot Rod get too close and playing a very dangerous game. Clearly, he’d been alone too long if he was allowing himself to be this nice to a wildling. Especially one who’d come here with an agenda.

An idiot, that’s what Starscream was becoming.

An absolute idiot.

And one that needed to get back to work. Time was running out. Percentages were dwindling.

Because pretty soon, the choice might be taken from him.

[TF] Trial By Fire 03

Starscream survived day two with the absolute minimum contact with the Firebrand. Which suited him just fine.

At least the brat knew how to behave. He didn’t leave his room after Starscream changed his bandages, and when Starscream peeked in on him later, Hot Rod was deep in recharge, one of the datapads resting on his chestplate. Well, at least he had decent taste. Even if he had, apparently, seduced one of Starscream’s cleaning drones. The darn thing was in a rest state beneath Hot Rod’s berth.

Starscream left him to it, ex-venting a sigh of relief.

Only a few more days to go, he told himself, and retreated to the safety of the laboratory, secure behind the most stringent security he had. Though he wondered if he truly had anything to fear from this Firebrand. Hot Rod was young and brash, and he had ventured here with an agenda, but he’d obeyed the rules so far. Maybe he could be trusted.

Starscream snorted.

And maybe he ought to return to Kalis and make another go of it. If he was going to consider impossibilities and all.

Far better to get back to work here. Starscream bent over his desk and reconsidered his research. He had a long night ahead of him.

Or at least, he thought he did. But when morning dawned, Starscream onlined only to realize he’d fallen into recharge over his desk, curled at an awkward angle that made his back scream in agony and his wings screech a protest.

Starscream groaned and forced himself to his pedes, stretching out his limbs. Kinked cables screeched at him, and Starscream resigned himself to spending the morning in his oil bath. What a terrible fate, he remarked dryly.

He checked the monitors first. The Firebrand was still ensconced in his room, deep in recharge. It was safe to venture out.

Starscream retrieved a cube of energon for himself, spicing it with a sprinkle of iron flakes, some of which he purposefully spilled to the floor. Scramble, the local cleaning drone, was quick to vacuum it up with little happy chirps. Starscream chuckled.

Even drones were delighted to have a purpose.

Starscream headed downward. He briefly looked up, acknowledging the swirl of dust and grit battering at his skylight, as Saunter worked furiously to polish the transteel. No matter how hard Starscream tried, he couldn’t seem to fix Saunter’s programming. The drone was convinced sand on the outside was a mess it needed to clean on the inside. It only descended long enough to empty its trap or dock on its charger.

The storm continued to rage, blasting at the transteel, and if he listened closely, spattering at the outside walls of his tower. So far, his predictions remained accurate.

Too bad those fools in Kalis could not see how far he’d come without their assistance. Or permission. They’d expected him to lay down and die, like so many of his kin. They expected he’d submit himself, enslave himself, for a mockery of living.

Frag them all.

Starscream would rather offline out here in the desert, his coding turned to rust, then fall in line with their expectations of him.

Fortunately, he had no intentions of dying anytime soon. He would live, if only to spite them all. Not only that, he would live in comfort and happiness, living a life of his choosing and no one else’s.

Starscream descended the ramp, heading for the lowest level, where he’d guided the natural oilsprings into a private oilbath for his personal enjoyment. Yes, the Firebrand had discovered it and made use of it, but honestly, so long as he was clean, Starscream wouldn’t complain.

Relief surged over his aching limbs as he slipped into the hot oil, and it seeped under his armor to caress twitching hydraulics and tense cables. The tension in his wings slowly ebbed away as he sank down and made himself comfortable, occasionally sipping on his energon. He allowed his thoughts to wander, taking the moment for what it was – a rare indulgence.

He’d slipped into a half-doze, half-twilight state when he heard the door to the oilbath creak open, followed by careful footsteps. Starscream tensed. What little ease he’d managed burned away. Of course the clanling would emerge to bother him.

The footsteps stuttered to a halt. “Oh, sorry,” Hot Rod said, and he sounded honestly contrite. “Didn’t realize you were in here. I’ll go.”

Starscream lit his optics, pinning the Firebrand with a steady gaze. “Are you in any pain this morning?” he asked, careful to keep his tone mild, if not guarded.

Hot Rod blinked at him before he looked down at his abdomen, giving the static mesh a curious poke. “Not a bit,” he said. “This stuff seems to be doing the trick. Thanks.”

Starscream waved off the gratitude and rose to his pedes, flicking his wings as oil sluiced off his frame. He fought off a twinge as taut cables still thrust their complaints at him.

“You need to soak for at least an hour, then you are welcome to remove the bandages at your leisure,” Starscream said as he moved out of the bath. It was degrees cooler outside of the heated oil, and he grumbled at having to leave.

He could have sent Hot Rod away, he supposed, but the Firebrand’s arrival reminded him that he had work to do. He couldn’t lounge around all day. Unlike some mechs.

Hot Rod waved his hands. “You don’t have to leave because I showed up. Really. I can come back.”

Starscream shook his head. “It was time I got back to work anyhow.” He shook the last of the oil from his frame, unable to hide his grimace as a cable in his lower back twinged. He moved a hand to it, fingers sliding beneath the armor panel, but due to the construction of his frame, couldn’t reach.


“Pinched a cable, huh?” Hot Rod sounded sympathetic at least. He twitched his spoiler halves. “Happens to me all the time. Wrench taught me a little trick to help. That is, uh, if you don’t mind me showing you…?”

Starscream froze. He stared at the Firebrand, who offered him a hesitant smile, his optics big and bright and earnest.

He still did not trust the mech. But the twinge in his cable rose again, and it would be a distraction, he knew.

He narrowed his optics. “If this is some ploy to connive yourself into my berth…”

Hot Rod’s field burst with surprise. “No. Honestly, I didn’t even think of it that way!” He ducked his head, rubbing the back of his neck with one hand. “It’s just, you know, maybe a small way I can say thank you?” Heat shaded his face into a fine, pink hue.

Starscream stared at him for longer, trying to discern the motivation behind the small, careful smile.

Hot Rod shifted his weight and dropped his hand, his fingers now tangling together. “Guess it was a stupid idea.”

“It was not.” Starscream cycled a ventilation and braced himself. “I am hardly a fool to turn down a genuine offer of assistance.” He half-angled his frame, and as a consequence, enabled him to see whatever Hot Rod did with the reflective panels set into the wall. “Your hands will not stray.”

Hot Rod held up a hand, folding one finger over the other. “Firebrand’s honor.”

“I didn’t know you had any.” Starscream sniffed.

“Well, there’s a lot you don’t know about me.” Hot Rod approached, albeit cautiously, like one might a wounded predator.

He sidled up to Starscream’s side, though not directly behind him, reaching for the spot nearest to where Starscream’s fingers couldn’t reach. “Here?”

“Further up. There is an overlapping plate to the left of my – ah. You found it.” Starscream let free a soft sigh as Hot Rod’s digits slipped beneath the armor plate and located the pinched cable.

He wasn’t sure what the Firebrand did. Something with magnets perhaps, that sent a light buzz of heat through the cables before they loosened and eased. Relief cascaded through Starscream, so fast that his knees wobbled, and he had to catch himself.

Hot Rod chuckled. “Yep. Works every time.” He gave another pulse of whatever it was before his hand withdrew. He had indeed not strayed.

Starscream raised his hands over his head and gave a long stretch. He twisted about the waist and flicked his wings in the cardinal directions. Not so much as a twinge.

He raised both orbital ridges as he turned to regard the Firebrand. “I am impressed. Thank you.”

Hot Rod flushed again. “You’re welcome.” He backed away, and nearly tumbled backward into the oilbath as a result, though he caught himself at the last minute. “And see? I have honor after all. No wandering hands.” He lifted his hands and wriggled his fingers pointedly.

Starscream snorted. “Enjoy your soak,” he said, and excused himself from the room. He did, after all, have work to do.

A task much easier now that he didn’t have the ache to serve as distraction.


Rodimus sank into the oil bath and lingered, purposefully not thinking about how warm Starscream had been under his fingertips. How relaxed the Seeker’s field had been. How he’d shown so much trust in that simple moment.

As soon as he got home, he owed Wrench a huge thank you for teaching him that little trick for pinched cables. He’d saved himself countless times with it – spoilers could get so tense sometimes. And now, he’d made a dent in that wall Starscream had built around himself.

Maybe even a crack, if he was being generous.

Rodimus grinned and then wiped the smile off his face. He sank down to his nasal structure to keep from looking like a fool. It meant nothing. Right? Surely Starscream wasn’t even thinking about it. Not like it was going to lead to an invitation to the Seeker’s berth or anything.


Rodimus laughed to himself, blowing bubbles in the oil. He was acting like an idiot, a lovestruck youngling even. So what if Starscream was pretty? He was also dangerous and could throw Rodimus out into a deadly sandstorm if he so chose. He needed to tread very, very carefully.

Rodimus soaked until his timer dinged, letting him know an hour had passed, and dragged himself free of the springs. He drip-dried for a minute, toweled off the rest, and laughed as Scuttle whirled around him, chittering all the while. It didn’t seem to mind the droplets of oil Rodimus kept dripping onto it and the floor.

He moved in front of the reflective panels set into the walls and peeled at the bandages on his midsection. They came away easily thanks to the oil. He dropped their remains into a nearby refuse bin and carefully ran his fingers over the repaired wound.

It was a bit ragged, not as smooth as Wrench would have managed, but altogether, it wasn’t a bad patch job. His self-repair would do the rest of the work, and Sunstreaker could and would fix it up for him later. Sunstreaker never could abide by anyone in his family group looking less than perfect. The scratches and dings were bad enough.

Rodimus’ tank gurgled, reminding him that it was past time he refueled.

He stopped admiring himself in the mirror and headed out, slipping through the narrow corridor that connected with the ground level above. As he approached the entryway, however, he heard Starscream’s voice and slowed to a stop, hovering just inside the open frame.

“Whatever will I do with you?” the Seeker murmured as if he was talking to someone.

Rodimus peeked out and around the corner. Starscream stood in the middle of the walkway, half-turned toward Rodimus and a half-dozen of the cleaning drones milling around his feet. He had one in his hands and was fiddling at the underside with a set of tiny tools, a look of intense concentration on his face.

The drone in his hands blatted an indignant noise.

Starscream chuckled. “Yes, it is your fault,” he said as he poked at something with a screwdriver. “You’re the oldest, Swift. You’re supposed to be setting a good example for the others.”

The drone’s wheels spun and clicked. Its fans audibly whirred.

Starscream laughed again, softer this time, and the tools blinked out of sight. “So you say,” he murmured and crouched, setting the drone on the floor.

It immediately took off, barreling through the crowd of drones at Starscream’s feet, and knocking them aside. More indignant beeping rose up in a chorus.

Starscream audibly sighed and palmed his face. “You’re going backward now,” he said, a note of exasperation in his voice. “At least it’s not pointless circles, I suppose.” He rested his hands on his knees, surveying the assortment of drones milling around him. “Anyone else in need of a tune up?”

Something bumped Rodimus’ foot. He looked down to see Scuttle scurrying past him, making a beeline for Starscream with loud, eager trills. Lights on top of the flat frame flashed brightly.

Starscream turned to acknowledge Scuttle, a look of amusement on his face. “There can’t be anything wrong with you,” he said as he scooped up Scuttle, his fingers running over the unmarred plating. “You’ve barely been online a week, and I examined you last night.” He peered closer, lips twisting in contemplation. “You just need to empty your trap.”

The soft smile on the Seeker’s lips suddenly made Rodimus feel as though he were eavesdropping or looking at something he shouldn’t. So he stepped back into the shadows of the entryway, backtracked a few steps, and then made a loud scuffle with his feet as he came out of the doorway. He rolled his shoulders, pretending like he hadn’t been watching Starscream talk to his army of cleaning drones.

“Wow,” Rodimus said, faking his surprise as he came to a halt and stared in Starscream’s direction. “How many of those things do you have?”

“Enough,” Starscream said with a sniff, his frame language instantly going taut and closed off. He set Scuttle on the floor and rose to his full height. “This is a large building, and I can’t be expected to clean it on my own.”

Rodimus held up his hands in a show of conciliation. “I wasn’t trying to offend. It was just an observation.” Scuttle scooted right up to Rodimus and spun around his feet, giving off giddy little beeps. “This one seems to like me,” he observed with a little laugh. “Or is it how you’re keeping track of me?”

“I’m not tracking you,” Starscream said sharply, his wings twitching. “That one is merely as glitched as all the others. It’s artificial intelligence isn’t honed.”

Rodimus blinked. “What?”

The Seeker waved a dismissing hand. “It’s the newest of the lot. Doesn’t know that you’re not a part of the tower yet. It’ll forget you soon enough.”

That was kind of disappointing.

“Aww.” Rodimus crouched and gently ran a finger over the back of Scuttle’s frame. “I like it though.”

Starscream huffed. “Well, you can’t keep it.” He looked down at the drones milling around his feet and made broad, shooing motions. “Go on. All of you. Get back to work.”

“Do they have names?” Rodimus asked as the drones obeyed, scattering like glitchmice caught in a spotlight. Well, except for the one Starscream had called Swift.

That one loitered, spinning around and around Starscream, bouncing off the walls and Starscream’s feet, as if it couldn’t quite remember how to function. Until Starscream sighed, leaned over, and gave it a nudge. Swift squeaked and took off in a meandering route up the curved walkway.

“You don’t name drones,” Starscream said testily.

Oh, ho. The Seeker doth protest too much.

“That’s a shame.” Rodimus stood back up. Scuttle zoomed around his feet, glistening where the droplets of oil left their mark. “I hope you don’t mind that I named this one then. Since he likes me.”

Starscream’s wings twitched upward and back. “And just what kind of ridiculous designation do you think you can give to my drone?” He sounded personally offended.

“Scuttle.” Rodimus crossed his arms, and Scuttle danced around his feet. “Seems to like it well enough.”

Crimson optics flashed before some of the indignation seemed to drain out of Starscream’s field. “Well, that is decent enough,” he grudgingly allowed. “The others have their own identifiers, however, so don’t go around giving them designations.”

“Identifiers? How is that different from a name?” Rodimus asked.

He tilted his head, trying his best to conceal his grin, but honestly, Starscream’s embarrassed outrage was pretty cute. Reminded him a lot of Sunstreaker when Rodimus caught him reading those absurdly sweet romance novels Sunstreaker liked to pretend he had no use for. Even if he was the one who made all the arrangements to acquire them to share with Rodimus.

Starscream sniffed. “Because I said so.” He spun on a heelstrut, his wings flicking with evident agitation. “Now if you don’t mind, I have work to do. Go occupy yourself elsewhere.”

“Yeah. I can take a hint.” Rodimus turned toward the lift, Scuttle coming along with him. He also knew when to push and when to back off, and now was definitely time for the latter. “Good luck with whatever it is you’re working on.”

“I don’t need luck,” Starscream retorted, but the irritation was half-sparked at best. He stalked up the spiraled rampway, and out of nowhere came Swift, trailing after its master in a haphazard fashion.

Cute, Rodimus admitted, if only to himself, before he shook his head and stepped into the lift. He still needed to refuel and after that, he had a novel to finish and maybe some more exploring to help pass the time.

As for surviving Starscream?

So far so good.

All he needed to do was keep on behaving himself. Relatively speaking.


Starscream thought Hot Rod understood the law of the tower. He thought the Firebrand realized the consequences of disobeying. Especially after that moment by the oilspring, and the careful conversations they’d had. Starscream actually, for a moment, dared to offer the clanling a tiny bit of trust.

And then, as day three of their forced proximity dawned, he was outraged to walk into his laboratory and find Hot Rod poking around, sticking his nose into every corner.

“Just what do you think you are doing in here?” Starscream demanded with a hiss, his wings arching back and up, going rigid with his outrage.

Hot Rod reared back, stumbling, and Starscream held a vent as he eyed the table of delicate lab equipment behind him. But the Firebrand caught himself before he did much more than jostle the table, his optics wide and bright.

“The door was open!” he said, frantically waving his hands, apology all but wafting in his field. “It’s not like I broke in or anything. You’re the one who said I could go anywhere the door was open!”

“While that may be true, the invitation does not extend to my lab!” Starscream snapped. He stormed to the lab center, gaze swinging left and right, hunting for anything Hot Rod might have disturbed. “There is a lot of delicate equipment in here.”

“I’m not some kind of rampaging durylibull.” Hot Rod folded his arms over his chest, his lower lip poking out in a pout. “Besides, how was I supposed to know that all open doors were allowed except thisopen door? Maybe you should have been more specific.”

Starscream completed his circuit, his vents huffing sharp enough to make him more than a little dizzy. But as far as he could tell, nothing was damaged or out of place or smudged even. Hot Rod had looked, but not touched.

Lucky mech. If Starscream had found anything ruined, especially the couple of very delicately balanced experiments in the far corner, Hot Rod would have found his flame-painted aft tossed into the sandstorm in a spark beat.

“I’ll keep that in mind the next time an unwanted guest passes out on my doorstep,” Starscream retorted and a small surge of relief passed through him.

No harm had been done. And the fault was his own, for rushing out and forgetting to key the door locked behind him. He’d gotten distracted and forgotten he was no longer alone in his tower. More than that, he’d let slip that his solitude was broken by someone he did not trust as he did Deadlock or his other, few visitors.

“Way to make a mech feel welcome,” Hot Rod muttered, but his optics continued to wander, and what Starscream could sense of his field contained thinly veiled fascination. “What are you working on in here anyway?”

Starscream sniffed. “As if you’d understand.” He pulled out his stool and leveraged himself into it, idly rearranging the notes he’d been scribbling when he’d had a thought and rushed out to grab a journal to confirm his suspicions. Said journal joined the organized mess on his desktop.

He had a feeling his calculations needed to be altered because the manipulations he attempted only worked on a quantum level. And it had been quite some time since Starscream had worked those particular theorems. He needed a refresher course.

“I’m not the idiot you think I am,” Hot Rod snapped, and now he sounded offended. “Yeah, okay, maybe I’m not going to get all of the little details and complicated stuff, but how stupid are you if you can’t put it in simple terms?” He huffed noisily and stomped past Starscream, making quite a bit of noise for someone who should have been taught stealth.

A twinge of something not unlike guilt tugged at Starscream’s spark. He sighed. Hot Rod, after all, had behaved for the most part. He supposed being polite to the Firebrand couldn’t be misconstrued.

“I have many projects,” Starscream said, though without turning to look at Hot Rod. He didn’t want to make it seem as though he were encouraging the mech. “Several have eclipsed my focus at the moment. One of which is a device to help mitigate and manage the severity of the storms that ravage the wilds. The other is a flexible, self-sustaining operating code.”

He heard, rather than saw, Hot Rod snap to a halt, his feet clicking on the polished floor. “Well, I can understand at least one of those,” he said, and he spun back around, the sound of him approaching Starscream once more preceding him. It didn’t hurt that Scuttle whirred along after him. “Especially right now. Though wouldn’t that mess up the natural order of things?”

Starscream sniffed, his wings twitching. “Nothing about the functioning of this planet could be considered natural. We have been modifying, adjusting, and altering our homeworld from the moment the first of us set foot onto the untouched expanse.”

“You mean Primus.”

Starscream half-turned, staring at Hot Rod, who was visible beyond the jut of his wing. “Whichever origin story you prefer.” He flicked his wing. “At any rate, I am not looking to eliminate the dust storms, but make them more manageable and trackable, especially for those mechs who prefer to wander.”

Like Deadlock, whom Starscream forever worried about. Though Deadlock would only see his worry and chase it away with a laugh. He could take care of himself, he’d say.

Hot Rod sidled up beside Starscream, though he approached the desk with care. He nodded. “I guess that makes sense. What about the other bit though? The flexible coding?”

“It’s complicated,” Starscream said, and when Hot Rod’s plating started to ruffle, he held up a hand. “Not that I don’t think you can understand it, but that I don’t feel comfortable sharing with you the particulars of that project.”

Outrage deflated from the Firebrand’s field. “Oh. Can’t really trust me, huh?”

“No, I cannot.” Starscream shuffled around his paperwork again, if only to make himself look busy. “Now, since you can’t be of use in here, why don’t you go do whatever it is you do to pass the time and leave me be.”

Hot Rod backed away from the table, palms displayed in a gesture of conciliation. “Yeah. Sure. I can take a hint.”

He sounded disappointed. Which was ridiculous, in Starscream’s point of view. What was there to be disappointed about?

“If you need any help, you know where to find me,” Hot Rod added, tossed over his shoulder, as he dismissed himself.

“Hah, don’t hold your vents,” Starscream muttered, but Hot Rod was already gone, so Starscream could remotely trigger the door to close. And lock.

Honestly, he would not be so careless again. His spark still trembled with anxiety. What if Hot Rod had broken or disturbed something? What if he’d upset a careful balance and set Starscream back?

What if he’d looked and understood any of the complicated equations that betrayed Starscream’s greater weakness?

He ex-vented softly and tugged out the datapad buried under all the paperwork he’d been shuffling around a-purpose. His future, his spark was on this datapad. The only chance he had to live without being yoked to another’s generosity.

It was still safe.

The last of the tension dripped out of his frame, and Starscream clutched the datapad tightly. That had been close. Too close. He’d best mind himself more thoroughly in the future.

There was too much at stake.


Rodimus hummed quietly to himself.

He couldn’t sing. He didn’t have the voice for it, or the means to produce a lovely song, not like Sunny when he consented to put on a show, or Tracks when he was showing off. Or Breakdown when he thought no one was listening.

Rodimus still liked music and since there was no one here to complain about his caterwauling out of pitch and off-tune, he could hum as much as he liked. If Starscream was wrong and this storm didn’t end within the next few days, Rodimus worried that he would miss the Festival of Lights.

At least he wouldn’t miss the treats.

He’d been bored when he’d started poking through Starscream’s energon storage and prep room. Being nosy paid off as he’d discovered all of the ingredients he’d need to make those chewy energon gels Sideswipe taught him. Boredom gave way to excitement. He figured Starscream would appreciate the sweets, too. Plus, it would be a nice gesture and Rodimus felt he owed quite a few of those.

He was the one who intruded, after all, and he’d arrived under false pretenses at that.

It was so much easier with Starscream’s equipment, too. The convenience could easily become addictive. Not that living in the settlement meant they were completely wild or anything, but living a halfway nomadic life meant there wasn’t much room for permanence of any kind.

Rodimus had been born in the wilds, forged from a spark carried away from Nyon when Megatron and Optimus first fled the cities. He’d known nothing but the settlement and his clan, though he’d heard stories of city life. A lot of the older mechs liked to share data packets, and Hound had particularly vivid holograms.

Rodimus had never longed for the cities. However, fumbling his way through Starscream’s equipment had its own charm. He wouldn’t mind having one of these back home. Sideswipe could make goodies three times at fast if they had these!

Rodimus hummed as the oven beeped at him, signaling the firming cycle. He grabbed a pair of mitts and pulled out the trays, the scent of warmed cobalt floating up to his nasal sensors. His tank grumbled as his mouth filled with lubricant.


He might not be as good at this as Sideswipe, but they’d be edible, that was for sure.

Rodimus grinned, his spoiler flicking up and down. He carefully shifted the warm treats from the tray to a platter. He pulled out a shaker he’d filled with magnesium powder and shook it over the treats. It glittered brightly, making his tank grumble. He resisted the urge to dive in at once. He had to share.

Rodimus double-checked that all of the equipment was shut down behind him. He’d come back for the mess later. At least, the mess that Scuttle and the local drone hadn’t gobbled up.

He lifted up the tray and made his way down to the lowest level, to the door he now knew concealed Starscream’s laboratory. He shifted the platter to one hand and pinged the door with the other.

He waited, a tad impatiently as he shifted from foot to foot, for Starscream to answer, and was just about to ping the door again when it rattled open.

“When I said I didn’t want to be bothered, I meant it, Firebrand!” Starscream snapped, just short of a snarl, his vents huffing and his wings doing that rigid-flick thing they did when he was agitated. “What do you want?”

Rodimus planted a smile on his face and put the tray of goodies between himself and the Seeker. “I made these and wanted to share.” He put on his best, most beguiling expression, one that often calmed the raging Sunstreaker before the warchief came along and stole him away.

Starscream blinked. His gaze dropped to the tray. His nose twitched. “You made these?”

“Yep!” He would not mention the mess he left behind.

Starscream’s wings twitched again. The severe expression on his lips faded. “Very well. Come in.” He turned, showing Rodimus his back, but left the door open behind him. “But don’t touch anything!”

Rodimus grinned and followed Starscream inside. It was much brighter today than it had been yesterday. Starscream had several desk lamps lit, and they were all pointed at some fancy contraption on his desk. One that Starscream returned to with a quiet huff as he dropped onto his stool.

Rodimus moved to his side, looking for a relatively clear spot to rest the tray. He found a stable stack of datapads and decided it would do. Better that they would be in arms reach of Starscream now.

“What are you working on?”

“A project of no significance to you.” Starscream leaned over, peering at the tray of treats, before he pinched one between two talons, giving it a little squeeze. “I wasn’t aware that clanlings had any talent in the culinary arts. I am learning something new of you with every day.”

Rodimus shrugged. “The mech who taught me, he learned it from a mech who used to live in the cities. Sideswipe’s are way better though.”

Starscream nibbled on the treat, some of the dust sticking to his lips. His field lit with surprise and delight both. “Don’t sell yourself short,” he said as his glossa flicked out, catching most of the magnesium dust. “These are delicious.”

Heat stole into his face. Rodimus stuffed two treats into his mouth just to hide it. “Thanks,” he mumbled around his mouthful.

Starscream ate three more in quick succession, with much less care than the first. The delight in his field was evident, and Rodimus couldn’t hide the pride in his own. It wasn’t like making the treats required a special talent or anything. It just made him happy knowing he could do this one thing and do it well.

“Do you enjoy this sort of thing?” Starscream asked.

“What? Sweets?” Rodimus wandered a bit away, lest the temptation to eat more would get the better of him. He had to remind himself he’d made these for Starscream.

Starscream huffed. “No. The process of making them.”

Rodimus shrugged and peered at a nearby table, one with an odd contraption on it. There were all kinds of colorful spheres and long rods and dangly bits and tiny bulbs indicated that it lit up somehow. Fascinating.

“Not particularly. It’s just something to pass the time. Hey, what’s this for?” He reached for the contraption, finger skimming over the glossy blue surface of one of the larger spheres.

It rattled and leapt forward, away from his fingers, causing something else to spin. Rodimus leaned back, guiltily, just as another one of the spheres wobbled precariously and abruptly tumbled from its perch.

Rodimus scrambled forward to catch it, the smooth metal slipping free of his hand. He panicked and snatched at it with the other, nearly crumpling it as his fingers closed around it a touch too tightly.

The contraption rattled, and Rodimus’ free hand darted out, grabbing the wobbly rod and making the twirling motion stop. What. The. Frag. His optics wide, Rodimus had to kickstart his ventilations, as they’d stalled in his panic.

He slowly straightened, easing his fingers from the rod even as he gently put the sphere back where it belonged. It was only a little dented. Maybe Starscream wouldn’t notice?

He chanced a look over his shoulder. Starscream’s optics were narrow slits of crimson, his lips set into a thin line, though the effect was much reduced with magnesium dust in the corners of his mouth.

“That,” he said through obviously clenched denta, “is an orrery. A model of our galactic system. It is a priceless item. And what part of ‘don’t touch anything’ did you fail to understand?” The last emerged as a hiss.

Rodimus’ shoulders came up to his audials. He ducked his head. “Sorry.” His fingers tangled together, even as his audials spat embarrassed sparks. “I was just curious. It didn’t look dangerous.” Though, to be fair, it did look valuable.

“It’s not dangerous. It is, however, a prized possession.” Starscream huffed at him. “This is my tower, Firebrand. Mine. So I say again. Touch. Nothing.”

Rodimus rolled his optics and threw his hands into the air. “Well, what am I supposed to do? Float? Because my feet are touching your precious floor.” He stomped his feet to prove a point. “And how am I supposed to entertain myself if I’m floating mid-air, huh?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Starscream selected another treat and nibbled on it. “And if you are that bored, you need only ask. I will find something for you to do.”

“Yeah, right. You’d probably hand me a broom or a cleaning cloth and tell me to start earning my keep.” Rodimus rolled his optics.

Starscream smirked and ate another treat, glossa sweeping over his lips to clean them of dust. “Oh, are you a reader now, Firebrand? Is that your special talent?”

Rodimus folded his arms, making a point not to touch anything. He’d gotten lucky that he’d not broken the orr-whatever that thing was.

“No. You just seem the type who’d delight in free labor.”

Starscream barked a laugh, a genuine laugh. “And you’d be right. Primus knows there is plenty around here that could use a bored hand.” He tipped his head to the left, gesturing toward a clump of mess in the corner. “That scrap pile, for example. Be so kind and take it to the recycle bin for me?”

“Only because I almost broke the orr-thingie,” Rodimus said with a disdainful toss of his head. “And just this once.”



Rodimus stomped toward the pile, casting around for some kind of can or crate to carry it in. From what he could tell, it was an assortment of mismatched, broken gadgetry and discarded materials. There were quite a few misshapen blocks of various metals, too. He was surprised none of the cleaning drones had tried gobbling up the mess.

“You want to throw all this out?” he asked as he crouched and scooped up one of the blocks – chromium, he thought.

Starscream made a distracted noise. “Mmm. To the recycle bin at any rate. Here it’s just taking up space, and I doubt I’ll ever use it.”

Rodimus pinched the chromium between his fingers. There were other blocks, too. Copper and aluminum and gold and silver even.

“Could I have these then?” he asked, scooping more of the blocks into a little pile. They could fit in his subspace, he thought. Or maybe Starscream would let him borrow a little box.


Rodimus shrugged and ducked his head. “I like to make things when I’m bored.”

This particular skill he’d learned from Kup. Old rustbucket loved to tell stories, but he couldn’t sit still when he did. So he made things, all kinds of things, and one of his favorite things to do was metal-shaping, usually from discarded bits of materials no one needed for anything anymore.

Rodimus didn’t have as much of a knack for it as Kup or Antimony or Dead End even. But it was a nice distraction and gave him something to do with his hands.

Starscream dusted off his fingers and waved a hand at Rodimus. “Help yourself. Take anything you’d like.”

Glee bubbled up in his field. He was careful to conceal it. “Thanks!” Rodimus scooped as many as he could fit into his subspace. He’d look around for a sack for them later.

“It’s just scrap,” Starscream replied, and now he sounded distracted, hunched as he was over his datapads again. “Nothing special about it.”

“Maybe not to you,” Rodimus murmured, not that Starscream was paying him a bit of attention. The Seeker seemed fully focused on his work, though not so focused that his hand didn’t occasionally reach for the tray of goodies.

Pride bloomed within Rodimus all over again. He thought maybe he’d go back and make another panful. Even if Starscream didn’t eat them all today, they’d keep.

Rodimus rose to his feet, nudging the rest of the scrap back into the corner. He wasn’t here to clean up Starscream’s mess after all.

“Guess I’ll leave you alone then,” he said, a touch loud, and Starscream gave him a distracted wave.

He supposed that was as much of a dismissal as he’d get. Rodimus shrugged and made for the door, though with greater care to his step. He didn’t want to nearly-accidentally break anything, not like he’d done with the orrery. Best to be cautious.

“Hot Rod.”

He paused at the door, hand on the frame as it slid aside to allow him to leave. “Yeah?”

“Thank you for the treats.” Starscream hadn’t turned around to say this, but his wings twitched in minute motions, up and down.

Rodimus’ lips split in a grin. “You’re welcome!”

He all but bounced out the door, and then had to stop and stare down at himself because he felt like an idiot. What was he so excited for? So what if Starscream appreciated the treats? Not like it meant anything.


Rodimus smacked his forehead and shook his head. Getting too comfortable here, he was. He didn’t belong in this tower, Starscream’s private domain. He’d be leaving soon enough, if Starscream’s calculations were correct.

What was the point in any of it?

Rodimus sighed and patted his subspace. Best not to make the treats after all. He’d clean up his mess and retreat somewhere. At least he had the metal to work with. It would be enough to entertain him for several days.

And then he’d go home.

[TF] Trial By Fire 02

They spent most of the first day ignoring each other, which suited Starscream absolutely fine. He had work to do. Piles of work to do. Which included trying to find his place in those mangled calculations. So long as Hot Rod didn’t poke his nose somewhere it didn’t belong, Starscream was content to ignore him.

He kept one optic on the monitors, watching the Firebrand for misbehavior. The rest of his attention was devoted to his work.

Hot Rod seemed content to explore the first day, tentatively poking his nasal ridge into all of the nooks and crannies of Starscream’s tower. He tested doors to see which ones opened and which ones wouldn’t, and popped his head inside to identify the rooms. He didn’t linger much in them before he moved on.

Slowly, however. The Firebrand was still healing and had to be tender. Starscream was a passable field medic at best. He’d learned a lot from Wrench, but he’d never qualify as a real medic. He’d repaired Hot Rod to the best of his ability, but what was left required Hot Rod’s own nanites to complete. He suspected the Firebrand would tire long before the day was through, and would retreat to his room and berth.

Hot Rod found the energon storage room of his own accord, and Starscream expected him to be greedy. But, no. He only rummaged up a cube of mid-grade for himself before he continued exploring, touching everything.

Mech couldn’t keep his hands to himself for anything. He traced the filigree on the walls. He dragged his fingertips on the bannister railings. He poked at indicator lights and scuffed his feet over the emergency strips in the flooring. He rode the lift up and down, for no discernible reason since he didn’t get off on any of the levels, as though he was fascinated by the mere novelty of it.

He’d found Starscream’s private oil bath almost immediately, as if he’d had some kind of homing beacon in his frame for discovering personal comforts. He invited himself to use it, too, which would have irritated Starscream, were it not for the fact the Firebrand was filthy and tracking filth throughout Starscream’s tower. One of the drones had taken to following him, beeping as it gobbled up every speck of dirt.

Granted, his home wasn’t the tidiest of places, but at least it was clean. Starscream might have stacks and piles of things in corners and on tables, but nothing was dirty. He prided himself on that. He had an armada of cleaning drones to do all the fiddly work.

Hot Rod dozed in the oil bath, and Starscream relaxed. Self-repair would keep the mech out for at least an hour, if not more. He could take the time to focus on his project.

So he did.

Agitation set his wings to flickering, however. He wasn’t used to having his solitude disturbed. Yes, he had his visitors, but they were no longer strangers to him. They were friends most welcome. Mechs who Starscream trusted.

Hot Rod was neither of those two.

He resolved himself to a week spent on high alert, watching the Firebrand for the slightest hint of danger. He hoped he could focus through it. He broadcast a message for Deadlock just in case, in a thin hope that his friend would be by sooner than later.

He had work to do. He couldn’t let himself be distracted.

Starscream bent back over his desk.

One optic slid toward the monitor. Hot Rod still dozed.

Starscream was safe.

For now.


Rodimus onlined the next day feeling a thousand times better than the day before. He’d recharged long enough for his self-repair to work diligently, and that combined with the oil bath left him feeling languid and nearly pain free. Nearly being the key word here.

He rolled around on the berth, stretching his arms over his head, his joints moving with ease and his cables feeling like new. Damn. Why couldn’t they have warm oil baths at the settlement? This was positively heaven.

He lay there for several minutes more, gearing himself up for the day. The berth was absurdly comfortable, and while the tower carried a slight chill, the cover was thick and retained heat, and honestly, Rodimus could easily lay here for the rest of the day, dozing. He couldn’t remember a time he felt so unhurried.

He was tempted to do so. But he remembered all the interesting places he’d discovered the day before. Exploration waited for no mech, especially not lazy ones who stayed aberth all day. So Rodimus reluctantly untangled himself from the hedonistically comfortable berth and departed the small room.

Besides, his tanks were pinging him for fuel anyway.

The tower was silent as he stepped out and hung a left, following the curve of the downward slope toward the fueling station. Well, silent except for the roar and rattle of the storm raging outside. He could look up and see it, the swirls of sand and wind. Starscream had a skylight for a roof, though it had to be made of some pretty thick transsteel to stand up to that storm.

Rodimus thought it might open, too. There seemed to be some kind of sliding mechanism, not that he could really see it from down here. Though he supposed it made sense. Starscream could fly. Why wouldn’t he want to have an open roof in good weather? Though wouldn’t that make it hot in here?


The quietest whirr and hum announced his tiny shadow. Rodimus looked over his shoulder to see the small cleaning drone scuttling after him, which was a little insulting. He’d bathed yesterday and everything! He wasn’t dripping dirt anymore. But the thing stayed on his heels, narrowly missing bumping him. It stopped when he stopped. It moved when he moved.

Had Starscream programmed it to follow him? Was he being tracked? Rodimus supposed he couldn’t blame Starscream for being cautious, but still. A cleaning drone?

He vented. He’d let it be. The cleaning drone wasn’t causing any harm and besides, Starscream seemed to have an armada of the things. When he paid attention, he could see half a dozen scurrying about, quietly humming as they scooted across the floors or the walls and there was even one slowly creeping over the skylight, polishing the transsteel.


Rodimus poked his nose into the fueling station and found it deserted. No sign of Starscream. He hadn’t seen the Seeker yesterday either, not after being told to behave and mind himself like some kind of youngling. He supposed Starscream really did like to be alone.

He drew himself a cube of mid-grade and sipped on it, still finding the flavor a bit odd. Energon refined from actual crystals was a rarity in his clan. It wasn’t as if they grew in great abundance around their settlement, plus it was a volatile process. Rodimus liked the flavor of the fresh energon. It actually tasted like something.

This would do. Beggars couldn’t be choosers.

Rodimus shrugged and left the fueling station, his drone shadow at his heels. Maybe he should name it?

He looked over his shoulder and stopped. It stopped, too. Rodimus laughed to himself. “I think I’m going to call you Scuttle,” he murmured. “Since you’re my shadow now.”

The drone beeped at him, a cheerful trio of tones, as if it had understood him.

“You like that?”

Another beep.

Well then.

“Scuttle it is,” Rodimus said with a chuckle, before he shook his head. Talking to a cleaning drone. Was he so lonely so quick?

Rodimus debated how to occupy himself as he mentally reviewed every room he’d discovered the day before. Fatigue hovered in his circuits, and the dull throb in his abdomen suggested he take it easy.

He’d found a library, hadn’t he? Maybe there was some worthwhile reading in there. Or maybe Starscream had some of those fun little mind-games loaded onto a datapad. Rodimus liked those, though the chances he had to play them were very rare.

If he remembered correctly, said library was a few levels down. It hadn’t even had a door, just an open entryway. Should be easy enough to find.

Sipping on his energon, Rodimus set off again, with only a small hitch in his ventilations. His belly still felt sore. Tender. He definitely needed to take it easy.

The silence of the tower wrapped around him. It made his footsteps sound absurdly loud. Scuttle was a bare brush of movement behind him. He still hadn’t seen wing-hinge or thruster of Starscream, and maybe that was for the best. He couldn’t irritate someone he didn’t see, right?


Rodimus found the library with ease. See? His sense of direction didn’t suck. Getting lost was a fluke. A twist of fate.

An act of Primus?

All better options.

Rodimus moved through the doorless entry and set off to exploring the haphazardly arranged shelves. Scuttle whirred and followed him, only to veer off at the last second, chirping happily as it bumped into another cleaning drone. They chittered at one another.

“Abandoned for a pretty face,” Rodimus said with a theatrical vent. “Wouldn’t be the first time.” He moved deeper into the library.

It looked a lot like Starscream dragged a bookcase in here whenever one filled up, and didn’t think twice about the fact he might need another one later. It was all so… chaotic.

Did he have an organizational system? Not one that Rodimus could find. Most of the titles made his head hurt. The ones he could read anyway. The rest were scribbles and garbles, languages he couldn’t recognize, some he did but still couldn’t read.

Then he lucked out. Piled on a small rolling cart in the back was a stack of datanovels in plain Standard with easy to read titles. Fantasies. Romances, if he were being honest with himself. The kind of slag he wasn’t supposed to read, but had tucked under his berth back at the settlement. Guilty pleasures, they were.

And there wasn’t anyone here to tease him for reading them.

Rodimus grinned, grabbed the first one off the stack, and wandered back toward the front where he’d spotted a comfy looking chair earlier and a small table nearby. Perfect for reading, in his opinion. He flopped into it, set his energon on the table, and made himself comfortable. Nearby, Scuttle and his friend chased each other around the floor. Cute.

He was nearly to the climax of the story – pun intended, actually, since it happened to be one of those erotic thrillers – when awareness prickled over his proximity sensors. Rodimus dragged his attention from the novel and looked up to see Starscream striding into the library as if he owned the place. Which, technically, he did.

Rodimus blinked.

Starscream drew up short and stared at him, wings angled high and back. His armor clamped down tightly. He looked at Rodimus, the datapad in his hands, and then back at Rodimus again. He frowned.

“I didn’t know you could read,” Starscream commented in a pointed tone that made Rodimus’ hackles rise.

He scowled and tightened his hold on the datapad. “Of course I can.” He rolled his optics. “I might not be able to read Vosian or Tarnian or whatever else scrap those are written in, but I damn sure know Cybertronian Standard.” His spoiler flicked. His mood soured.

How rude. Couldn’t Starscream have managed a pleasant ‘good afternoon’ before diving into the insults?

Starscream arched an orbital ridge. “And here I thought you clanlings were ill-mannered and ill-informed. It seems I was only half-right.” Derision radiated in every spoken glyph.

Rodimus huffed. “You’re the one who insulted me first,” he bit out, and resisted the urge to leap up from his chair. Attacking Starscream would be an overreaction, and pointless for that. “Who walks into a room and greets someone with an insult anyway?”

“This is my home. You’re an unwanted guest. Just how polite do you expect me to be?” Starscream retorted. He spun on a heelstrut and moved to one of his shelves, showing Rodimus his back. “And it’s not Tarnian. It’s pre-Golden Age Primal Vernicular. A dead language, by the way, not that you’d know.”

Rodimus rolled his optics. “It’s gobbledygook. Just like all the science… stuff.” He waved a hand toward the relative entirety of the library. He’d never been much for science in his studies. Stuff just didn’t make sense. “I’m lucky I found anything interesting at all.”

Starscream half-turned and pinned him with an insulted look. “Everything here is fascinating.”

Rodimus snorted. “Maybe to you. But I don’t spend my life hiding away in this tower.” He flicked his spoiler halves. “Besides, I’ll bet you haven’t even read everything here.”

Starscream blindly grabbed three datapads off the shelves and stacked them into his arms before he gave Rodimus his full attention. “Of course I have. Why would I own books I haven’t read or didn’t intend to?”

“You tell me.”

Starscream stared at him. His optics narrowed. His wing flaps twitched back and forth, which was kind of interesting. And then Starscream tilted his head, gaze dropping to the datapad in Rodimus’ possession.

“Is that Lightscreen’s ‘Once Upon a Time’?”

Heat stole into Rodimus’ cheeks. He slapped a hand over the screen, not that it mattered at this point. “It was one of the only non-science things I could find,” he muttered and curled his legs up into the chair. “Besides, you’re the one who owns it!”

“Yes. For when I need something that requires little processor power to entertain me,” Starscream said, amusement thick in his vocals. His optics all but shone. “But please, read all you like. I encourage education for someone like yourself.”

“Like ‘myself’?” Rodimus sat up straighter, fixing Starscream with a glare. “What’s that supposed to mean?” Oh, he knew exactly what it meant. He just wanted to hear Starscream say it.

The Seeker sniffed. “Take it as you will.” He tucked his datapads under his arm. “Spend as much time in the library as you wish. Just don’t break anything.”

“I’m not that clumsy!”

“So you say.” Starscream held himself up straight and stalked toward the door, his field screaming his irritation at having been disturbed. “Enjoy your book.”

Rodimus ground his denta on the bitter retort and glared at Starscream’s back as the Seeker left the room, the cleaning drones briefly swirling around his feet before scattering back into the library.

Rodimus huffed a ventilation, his engine growling. No wonder Starscream lived out here alone. He was a jerk.

Rodimus frowned and turned his attention back to the novel, which really was a good story. He would have to look into getting a copy for himself.

Starscream was an aft and rude besides, but at least he had good taste in fantasies.


Starscream returned to his lab, setting his retrieved datapads aside. He actually hadn’t needed them. He only wanted to make a point. He’d re-shelve them later, when he needed a break, and hopefully, long after Hot Rod retreated from the library.

Starscream dropped back onto the stool behind his main workstation and performed a long, languid stretch. He supposed he could have gone on for a week, ignoring the Firebrand and hiding in his lab. But there was always the concern that the bold and curious mech would come poking his nasal ridge around, interrupting things and trying to charm.

Best to burn those misconceptions out as soon as possible.

Primus, this week couldn’t go by fast enough.

Starscream snorted. Honestly. Lightscreen’s ‘Once Upon a Time’? Of all things he expected to find Hot Rod doing, reading a collection of romantic fantasies was at the bottom of the list, if it even occupied space on the list at all. It was just so ridiculous.

Starscream shook his head.

Clanlings were an odd bunch. It hadn’t surprised him Hot Rod could read little else. Starscream knew how the clanlings didn’t much care for science. It did them little good, in their scrape for survival. But then, they didn’t have to worry about a ticking chrono hanging over their heads, counting down the time until they would have to beg for assistance, or submit to their fate.

Starscream sighed.

He grabbed his code-reader and plugged it into the medical port on his left wrist. He feared he already knew what it would tell him, and when it beeped the completed scan at him, his lines slushed with ice.

Coding degradation at seventy-six percent.

Damn, but he should not have been so hasty in testing the synthetic code. He was running out of time. He couldn’t afford to keep worrying about what the clanling had planned. He needed all of his focus for this.

Starscream got back to work.


Rodimus finished ‘Once Upon a Time’ and sped through ‘The Ivory Tower’ and ‘Into the Rust Sea’ in even shorter order. It wasn’t until his tanks started rumbling at him that he thought maybe he should take a break.

He tucked the other datapads under his arm, intending to take them back to his borrowed room, and went out in search of fuel. Scuttle beeped and immediately gave him chase, nearly bumping his heel in the process. It was the only thing which made noise in the silent tower, which was getting creepier by the minute honestly.

Rodimus passed by a door, the locked panel screaming at him to stay away. He was almost certain Starscream spent his days behind this door. It was probably a laboratory or something. He doubted the Seeker’s private quarters were so far from the top.

Rodimus successfully retrieved energon for himself and climbed higher, until he found the little window seat he’d discovered yesterday. His midsection felt taut and warm, and it made him want to itch. He resisted the urge to scratch through the static bandage and folded himself into the seat.

Scuttle beeped, bumped into the wall beneath the ledge, spun in a circle and wobbled around. It paced back and forth across the floor, long sweeps that were never far from Rodimus’ sight. Such a weird thing.

Rodimus’ gaze turned to the window. Sand and rust spun and danced out beyond the transsteel. Sometimes, the frantic whirls died for a fraction of a second, and he could see the shimmer of something in the distance. A non-solid state holographic array, perhaps. Starscream had to be hiding this tower somehow.

Rodimus wondered where he was getting all the power from. An energon crystal mine below the tower maybe? He heard rumor that the land beneath the desert was thick with twisting tunnels and scores of untapped energon deposits, not that anyone was brave enough to try mining the treacherous, unstable underlevels. All kinds of things lived down there, like scraplets and borers. No one was desperate enough to start mining.


He shrugged. What did it matter? He’d be gone from here soon enough.

He focused on the next novel instead, ‘A Thousand Days and Nights’. It promised to be quite the adventurous romp, if the summary was any indication.

Rodimus was halfway through it and his energon when his peripheral sensors detected movement. He tore his attention from the story and looked up in time to see Starscream coming into view, the soft whoosh of the Seeker’s thrusters preceding his arrival. His optics brightened as soon as he spotted Rodimus, and he landed with quiet taps of his feet on the floor in front of Rodimus’ seat.

“There you are.”

“Here I am,” Rodimus said, optics narrowing. “Come to insult me some more? Or perhaps I’m breaking something just sitting here.”

Starscream’s wings twitched. “Neither of those,” he said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Your bandages need to be changed.”


Rodimus felt his faceplate heat. His free hand brushed over his abdomen, only then realizing that it was beginning to ache with the dull throb of discomfort. The itching returned with a vengeance as well.

Scuttle gave a little trill of delight and beelined toward Starscream, bumping into the Seeker’s foot. Starscream looked down at it and crouched to pick it up, long fingers running over the flat surface of the cleaning drone as he inspected it.

“I’m surprised you care,” Rodimus said, because Starscream had been rude to him earlier, and gratitude or not, Rodimus still felt salty about it.

Starscream all but smirked, one hand propping on his hip. “I don’t,” he said with a roll of his optics. “But Primus forbid you keel over in my tower. Someone might come around asking questions, and then I’ll have more unwanted guests.”

Starscream bent over and set Scuttle back on the floor, giving the drone a little nudge with his fingertips. He then straightened and crooked a taloned finger at Rodimus. “So come on then, Firebrand. You need new bandages, and you need to recharge.”

He spun on a heel and stalked away, as if fully expecting to be obeyed, no doubt heading for the room he’d designated for Rodimus’ use. Scuttle beeped at the Seeker as though incensed, vibrating in place, before scooting back to hover near the base of the window ledge.

Rodimus grumbled subvocally. He could argue, he supposed. He could dig in his heels and refuse to cooperate, but really, what was the point? His belly ached, and the wound itched, and come to think of it, he was exhausted.

He’d concede. For now.

He leveraged himself out of the window seat, though he took his time in doing so. Scuttle circled around his feet, bouncing against his heels and spinning away again. Like it was a game.

Rodimus gathered up his energon and datapads and followed Starscream at a leisurely pace, unsurprised when Scuttle trailed after him. When Rodimus finally caught up to the Seeker, Starscream was huffing and twitching, one foot tapping the floor impatiently.

“I know that grounders are slow, but that was ridiculous,” Starscream said with a growl of his engine.

Rodimus smirked. “I’m injured. I have to be cautious.” He slid past Starscream into the room.

It occurred to him that maybe he should be more polite. Starscream was larger than him, and undoubtedly armed where Rodimus wasn’t, and also, he was the Deathbringer. Maybe being rude was some kind of deathwish. Maybe he should be more cautious.

But why would Starscream save his spark only to kill Rodimus later? Wouldn’t that be a waste of resources?

Rodimus placed his energon and the datapads on the fold-out shelf by the berth. He cast about for some kind of chair, but there was nowhere to sit, so he planted his aft on the edge of the berth and waited for Starscream to attend him.

Starscream still stood in the doorway, and Rodimus wasn’t sure to call his expression. There were echoes of contempt. Exasperation, too. His lips curled.

“And what are you reading now?” he asked with a visible shake, as though trying to throw off the irritation.

“Does it matter?” Rodimus retorted.

“I suppose it doesn’t.” Starscream withdrew a small box from subspace and set it on the berth next to Rodimus. “Raise your arms, please.”

Rodimus blinked. “Wow. A please. I feel like I should be honored.” He did, however, obey. And tried not to shiver when Starscream reached for him, his fingertip glinting brightly.

He hooked a talon in the top strip of the static bandage, where it was already starting to peel away, and began to work it free.

“I reserve genuine niceties for invited guests,” Starscream said as he started to pull off the old bandage, occasionally using spritzes of solvent from the kit he’d brought to loosen the adhesive. “Not mechs who came here with an agenda.”

Rodimus frowned. “You just assumed that’s why I’m here.”

Starscream jerked the last of the bandage free and crumpled it into a ball. “Isn’t it?” he asked with an arched orbital ridge.

Heat stole into Rodimus’ face again. His gaze lowered.

“That’s what I thought.” Starscream tossed the used bandage onto the berth beside Rodimus and reached for his kit again. “It’s utterly ridiculous, you know. I’m just a mech. There’s nothing spiritual or sacred about fighting me or ending up in my berth.”

Rodimus nibbled on his bottom lip. He couldn’t meet Starscream’s gaze. “It’s supposed to be a challenge,” he said. “A test of bravery and skill and…”

“Foolishness,” Starscream supplied and snorted. “I know very well what it’s meant to prove, Firebrand. And has the little fact that none of your fellows returned victorious somehow slipped your notice? Or did you think yourself so special as to be the first?”

Rodimus ground his denta. He refused to dignify that with an answer. He was embarrassed enough already.

Starscream spritzed something on the slash marks, that fizzed and popped as it made contact with the ragged edges of the wound. It was cold, too, and Rodimus shivered. At least it didn’t hurt.

“Well, you aren’t going to be the first,” Starscream said, once it must have become obvious Rodimus wasn’t going to answer him. He was humiliated enough as it was. “So you can get that idea out of your fool head permanently.”

Rodimus’ gaze wandered to the wall past Starscream’s right shoulder. “I’m not that stupid,” he muttered.

“Could have fooled me.” Starscream’s words were sharp, but his hands were professional and careful as he wrapped new static bandages around Rodimus’ abdomen, protecting the wound from potential infection. “There’s nothing frightening or dangerous about me, but do feel free to spin a tale when you go home. Especially if it’ll keep others from bothering me again.”

Rodimus cycled a ventilation. “I’m not telling anyone anything if I can help it.”

Starscream snorted. “Works for me.” His hand smoothed over the bandage before giving it a pat. He shifted his attention to gathering up his kit. “You can lower your hands. Stay out of the oil bath tonight. And if I were you, I’d just head straight into recharge.”

“You trained as a medic?” Rodimus asked as he obeyed, surprised to find that the dull ache was gone. Had the spray been some kind of numbing agent? That was actually pretty nice.

Starscream gave him a sardonic look as he tucked the medkit under his arm. “Right. The Senate makes a habit of training its toys to be medics.” He rolled his optics. “I had some help, but otherwise, I’m self-taught. It was a matter of necessity.”

Ratchet looked down, poking at the edges of the static bandage without disturbing it too much. “Well, this isn’t half-bad,” he commented. “Thanks.”

Starscream’s vents stuttered. “You’re welcome.” He snatched the old bandages up and took another step back from the berth, nearly tripping over Scuttle in the process. “The rules haven’t changed, Firebrand. Don’t touch anything. Don’t break anything. And don’t bother me.”

“Noted.” Rodimus lifted his head to watch Starscream leave.

That interaction had been almost pleasant. He supposed Starscream wasn’t entirely a jerk, just most of one.

He didn’t have to save Rodimus. He didn’t have to patch him up, give him a nice room, decent energon, and the freedom to roam. Starscream would have been well within his rights to leave Rodimus to rot, or lock him up in a cell, or throw him back into the storm. But he hadn’t.

So what if he was a little surly? Mech lived all alone in this tower and was more than aware of the rumors about him. That would make anyone a bit short-tempered, Rodimus supposed.

Starscream kind of reminded him of Sunstreaker, come to think of it, Rodimus realized as he reached for his energon, intending to finish off the half-empty cube. Sunstreaker was like that, too. Cruel sometimes, though not always intentionally, and short-tempered, especially if he felt insulted.

But he was also one of the few who took the time, and the patience, to help Rodimus when he struggled with some of his hand to hand training. He’d also been the one who helped Rodimus acquire the fantasy datanovels without telling his twin who they were for.

People tended not to like Sunstreaker. Most didn’t bother to look past his exterior. Rodimus supposed Starscream was like that. People just looked at him, saw ‘Seeker’ and knew what that meant, and passed their judgments accordingly. When that happened, well, mechs like Sunstreaker stopped bothering. Stopped trying.

There was a reason Starscream lived out here alone. Rodimus wondered if maybe it wasn’t for some of the same reasons Sunstreaker didn’t much like anyone but his own twin. Well, and Megatron.

Rodimus finished off the energon and flopped back into the comfort of the berth. Carefully flopped, since his belly was still tender. He grabbed ‘A Thousand Days and Nights’, intent on finishing it before he let recharge claim him.

He had less than a week to go. He figured he ought to start thinking of this less like a failure and more like a pseudo-vacation.

He might as well make the most of it.

[TF] Trial By Fire 01

Was there anything worse than sand in your gears? In your joints? In your seams?

Rodimus swore that he grated as he walked. That he could hear his joints grinding and his hydraulics seizing, no matter how tightly he clamped his armor. Not even the cheap, tattered tarp that Springer had given him ages ago was enough to block it out.

Ow. His ankle joints. Grind, grind, grind. They’d be ground to dust at his rate. Why had he plunged out here again? Why hadn’t anyone warned him about the oncoming dust storm? Oh, sure, it was better than an acid storm but only just.

Sand or acid. Both were murder on the paint.

Not that getting lost was any better. He thought he knew where he was going. But he’d lost his bearings in the storm, and his GPS was going haywire with all the electrical interference. It kept saying he was south of Protihex, and Rodimus knew that was wrong. Protihex was on the other side of the planet!

He should have never come out here. He should have never let the others goad him into this. He should have never listened to their taunts. He shouldn’t have let his own insecurities blind him. He shouldn’t have…

It was all Silverspire’s fault anyway.

Rodimus sighed and wrapped his tarp tighter around his frame, even as the wind tugged back at it, trying to yank it away. Sand battered at his exposed armor, in a harsh raspy noise.

How had it come to this?

He’d been overcharged, or halfway there anyway. It had been a long day of training, of failure, sitting around a small bonfire with his agemates and fellow Firebrands. They’d been laughing, teasing one another, it was meant to be playful, Rodimus supposed.

Talk turned to the upcoming graduation ceremonies, the badge offering and acceptance. Everyone knew Springer was a shoo-in for Lord Megatron’s warriors. Rodimus, sitting there, stewed in his own disappointment.

He’d failed another practical that morning. There was no way they’d offer him a place in the warriors this season.

Or ever, Silverspire had laughed.

He should just give up, Torque had said.

Anger swept in. Anger and embarrassment both, and with them came the stupidity. The boasts he could never hope to back up.

“Oh yeah?” Silverspire had challenged and smirked, his hulking frame bristling with a menace Rodimus could never hope to duplicate. “Prove it.”

“I will!” Rodimus had said, in overcharged confidence. Then the idea came to him. A single, stupid idea. “I’ll… I’ll defeat the Deathbringer!”

Silence. A stupefied silence. For a single, blissful moment, Rodimus had thought it one of awe. That they were impressed with his bravery. Until the laughter started, loud and mocking.

“How? By seducing him?” Silverspire said, with the sort of frame-shaking, outright laughter that made his optics spark and vents wheeze. “Because that’s the only thing you’ve got going for you.”

“If that’s what it takes,” Rodimus had snarled, full of righteous indignation, even as Springer tugged on his arm and tried to get him to sit. Tried to make shushing noises and laugh it off.

Rodimus had shaken off his hold. He’d been trembling from anger, from embarrassment. “I’ll do it,” he’d declared in front of all of them. “I’ll show you. I’ll show Lord Megatron. I’ll prove that I’m a warrior because I’ll do what no one else can. I’ll fight the Warlock and then none of you can say anything!”

His determination might as well have been a joke. They’d chuckled and waved him off. Clockwork told him to sit down, that he was making a fool of himself.

“Sure,” Silverspire had said, like the overconfident slagger that he was. “Fight the Deathbringer. Seduce him or whatever. If you survive that, maybe you do actually have what it takes.”

“I do,” Rodimus had said, anger hot like fire in his lines, and shame the worst of it, curdling the high grade in his tanks and his processor spinning and spinning.

“You’ll see,” he’d muttered as they turned the conversation to something else, namely Torque’s ongoing courtship with Dreadnought.

“You’ll see,” Rodimus murmured, back in the here and now, and his engine growled. He’d set out that morning, with the determination of the foolish, not even telling Springer where he’d gone. He’d left without permission from anyone, because he’d known Kup or Sunstreaker would try and stop him.

He had to do this, he’d told himself. He had to prove he was worth something, that he’d earned the warrior’s badge.

And now he was lost. Lost and probably going to die in one of the worst sandstorms he’d ever seen ripping through the Barrens.

This was the stupidest idea he’d ever had. And he’d had some doozies.

Rodimus sighed and peered through the haze, his drop-down lens protectors keeping his optics safe, but obscuring his vision. He swore there was a large, dark shadow in front of him. Like a mountain? Shelter?

Rodimus’ spark whirled with excitement. His spoiler twitched. His sensors pinged back a solid mass. Perhaps a cave even! So long as there weren’t any duryllibears, he was set!

He would duck inside and hole up for the night. Start out again when the storm passed. Give up this stupid idea entirely and go back home. Sure the others would mock him, and he’d lost the available badge to Hot Spot, but it was better than dying. Right?

Rodimus’ gritted his denta. His tank gurgled at him. His joints screeched agony.

He’d decide in the morning. If he survived until then.

The dark mass loomed in front of him. A small break in the storm gave him a clear view of the gaping opening, stalactites dripping from ceiling and making it look as though the cave had a mouth filled with fangs.

Well, that wasn’t at all disconcerting.

Rodimus pressed forward. He really didn’t have any other choice. His sensors swept the open space ahead of him, but he didn’t trust their feedback. Error messages cropped up every other second, and static glitched across his visual feed.

He plunged into the dim shadows of the cave and gasped as the suffocating press of the sandstorm abruptly vanished. The sheer noise of it dampened, and his audials rang in the quiet. Rodimus shook his head and disengaged his lens covers, letting them slide up and out of the way. His optics cast a pale glow in the dim.

He slung the tarp back, letting it drape from his shoulders as dust rained down from the numerous folds, and activated his chassis-mounted forelights. They, too, barely offered a glow. He swore it felt like the darkness had fingers.


Rodimus shivered and continued, alert for any sound or noise. There didn’t seem to be anything present, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t. He cringed as he heard his joints rattle and scrape. Maybe he’d get lucky and he’d would find an oilspring in here.

The roar of the storm grew more distant the further into the tunnel he wandered. The dark became even more enclosing. His forelights swept back and forth, but there was nothing of interest on the floor, save for a few rusted remnants of something that Rodimus did not intend to investigate closely.

Turborats, he told himself. Or petrorabbits. Something small, meek, and largely harmless.

He came to a fork in the road. Well, three forks to be precise, each of the tunnels looking as ominous as the other. They were all dark and narrow. The one on the left had a minor air flow, but it stank of rot and rust. The air coming out of the right was stale, but he swore he heard something skittering down that way. The path straight ahead seemed to slope downward.

None of it was appealing.

Rodimus chewed on his bottom lip. His only other option was to turn back and plunge into the sandstorm once again.

His forelights swept from one foreboding tunnel to another. Turbowolves and duryllibears didn’t skitter, right? Glitchmice did. To the right it was.

Hoping he wasn’t making the wrong choice, Rodimus preemptively drew his crossbow and started down the right path. He could handle glitchmice. He could even handle ironspiders. A small turbofox perhaps.

Rodimus worked his intake and continued forward. He’d give it a few hundred yards and if he didn’t find anything of use, he’d turn back. He’d camp out just within the cave opening and wait for the storm to pass.

The silence enclosed him. It was eerie, to only hear the noise of his own frame, the whoosh of his vents, and the creak of his gears and the hissing of his pistons and the itching scrape of the sand in his seams. Primus, what he wouldn’t give for a nice, hot oil spring right now. Or even a dip in the Sea of Mercury, so cool and refreshing. Not that he’d ever been. It was on his dream list of places to go.

He doubted he ever would. It took a special kind of warrior to get to travel to those shores. His clan would have to skirt Predaking’s land, and cross boldly into Elita’s, and only the bravest and most skilled of warriors were allowed that treacherous journey.

The risks, oh but the risks, were worth it.

Kup used to tell Rodimus about how smooth the sea was, how it got into your seams and your cables and oiled you better than even an oil bath. How you felt like a new mech afterward.

Rodimus asked if him if that was why he never creaked despite being so old. Kup had cuffed him across the head, laughed and called him cheeky, and winked. Rodimus hadn’t failed to notice he never answered the question.

Still. Sea of Never-Aging or whatever, Rodimus wanted to see it. Second-hand from decaying vidcaptures wasn’t enough. He wanted to see everything.

He had to be a warrior first. He had to get through the initiation, prove himself, so he could graduate beyond Firebrand status and accept his badge.

Rodimus paused as he came to another fork in the tunnels. Unease settled into his spark. Here the airflow was still, without a whiff of freshness. Rather than go deeper and get lost, maybe he should just go back? For all he knew, these caves were a maze and he could get lost forever. Without functioning GPS, no one would even be able to find his locator beacon, for they ran on the same frequencies.

Definitely best to turn back before he got himself impossibly lost.

Venting, Rodimus spun on a heelstrut and turned back the way he came, though his backstrut shivered at the idea of turning his back on the unknown. At least he knew the way back was relatively safe. Anything could have lurked in the shadows of those two tunnels.

Something scuffed in the dark.

Rodimus froze. Had that been his own footstep?

He dialed up the gain on his audials. He held his bow at the ready, energon humming in a dim blue glow that lit up the tunnel a bit further than his headlights. His spark pounded in his chassis as he searched the dark.

He lowered his optical lenses and switched to a different band.


A heated shape approached him. No, scratch that. Three heated shapes. Large, easily up to his hip if not more, and four-legged.

Turbowolves. And here he thought Primus loved him.

Rodimus swallowed thickly. He backed away slowly, his hands shaking around his bowgrip. One turbowolf he could handle with ease. Two was a struggle, one that might leave him injured by the end, but he could survive if he managed to keep them both in his sights.


Three was a nightmare. And three were stalking him.

He’d better make this shot count.

Rodimus continued to back away, though he raised his energon bow. He couldn’t see them, not with his optics alone, but he could make out the blobs that were their frames. If he could just take out one…

He aimed carefully. He sucked in a deep ventilation. The energon bow buzzed with anticipation.

He would have to be ready to run.

Primus, watch over me.

He doubted their deity was listening. But it never hurt to try.

Here goes nothing.

Rodimus stalled, confirmed his target and released. He didn’t wait around to see if it hit the mark. He immediately spun on a heelstrut and took off running down the tunnels, praying again that there was an exit or something ahead of him. These close quarters benefited the turbowolves alone.

Behind him, he heard a yelp and several growls. Good. He’d hit something. He didn’t know if he’d taken it down completely or wounded it. Either way, it was a point in his favor.

He wished he could transform. But in these narrow, twisting tunnels, it would be even more dangerous. He would have to rely on his own speed.

The fork came up again. Rodimus didn’t think; he reacted. He veered off to the left, forelights sweeping ahead of him, revealing more of the same tunnels, until he tumbled through a thick ironspider web.

Gross. He spat out webbing. Behind him, he heard the snarls of the turbowolves giving chase, their clawed feet scrabbling across the rocky ground.

He readied his energon bow again. He’d have to make this fast. Rodimus braced himself, sent up another quick prayer, and then skidded to a stop, spinning at the same time. He swung his bow around as he did so, aimed quickly and released, before sprinting back into the darkness.

He heard another whine. Maybe he’d gotten lucky. Maybe he’d wounded one. He counted footsteps. The quick glance had been a blur, but he thought he’d counted two, and only two. Hopefully, he had felled the first one.

The energon bow was useless in close quarters. He had a knife tucked into his right thigh panel. It was a last resort.

Frag, but he should have been more prepared.

Rodimus’ ventilations heaved. His spark throbbed. The turbowolves were getting closer.

So was that wall.

“What the frag!” Rodimus cursed as he skidded to a stop, barely crashing into what was quite surely a dead end. He had nowhere else to run.

Rodimus whirled around to face his doom, trembling hands grasping his energon bow, optical lenses dropping back down over his optics just in time for him to see the two bodies lunging toward him. One of them dripped energon.

Rodimus yelped and fired. The arrow soared into the darkness, cutting through the remnants of an ironspider web and setting it ablaze. By sheer luck, it slammed into a turbowolf, sending the beast crashing to the ground.

There was no time to celebrate. Rodimus twisted to the side, trying to avoid the lunge of the second turbowolf, and it still caught him. It barreled against his left side, tipping him off balance, and Rodimus tumbled to the ground. He grunted, his energon bow fizzling out, and scrambled for his knife.

The turbowolf snarled. Something wet and oozing dripped onto his armor. Strong talons clawed at him, and Rodimus howled as they bit deep, through armor to cables and lines beneath. He flailed, lashing out with the small knife, his spoiler halves chiming agony at him. One was bent. He’d bent one.

The turbowolf’s pointed denta snapped inches from his nose. Rodimus shouted and beat at it again, knife plunging, tip skittering across the pleated folds of the turbowolf’s armored body. He beat on the turbowolf with his fist, trying to roll the beast off him.

Claws raked at his abdomen, leaving streaks of blazing fire behind. Fangs lunged at his intake. Rodimus rolled sharply to the left, his free hand slamming against the turbowolf’s throat, shoving back. He stabbed up and at an angle, directly into the turbowolf’s midsection.

The tip of his blade caught on something and then bit deep. Hot fluids splashed down on his hand. The turbowolf snarled and lunged, his denta closing down on Rodimus’ shoulder. It was Rodimus’ turn to howl as he stabbed, again and again, thrashing to try and get the turbowolf off him. The weight bore down on him, pinning him and energon flowed freely from his numerous wounds.

More fluids gushed out over his fingers. It took him far too long to realize that the turbowolf was still, that its fangs had loosened their death grip on his shoulder. Rodimus vented heavily, his spark throbbing and his processor spinning.

It… was dead?

Rodimus panted. The knife remained shoved deep, hot fluid staining his fingers. The wolf’s respirations no longer beat down on his face, stinking of whatever it had last consumed. It didn’t matter what it was; Rodimus called it death.

Rodimus’ own fans roared. All the rest was silence. He’d survived. He’d lived. He… was getting crushed under the weight of this damn beast. Energon pooled beneath his frame, his processor spinning faster and faster, until gray spots danced in his optical feed.

That wasn’t good.

Rodimus thrashed beneath the turbowolf and howled when claws dug deeper into his internals, locked as they were around something important. Pain lanced through his frame, sending jagged bursts of light through his optical feed.

“Get off me!” Rodimus growled, shoving both palms at the turbowolf’s chest and giving it a heave.

With a sickening splat and crunch, it pulled free, most of its weight tumbling off of Rodimus, but it tore something free in the process. Something that bled energon and another fluid. Something he probably needed.

Rodimus touched his abdomen with trembling fingers, unable to guess the color with the flickering of his forelights. His world spun and spun. Darkness reached for him with icy fingers, tugging at his consciousness. He tried to flop over, away from the turbowolf corpse. He tried to claw his way free.

He needed to get up. He needed to try and bandage himself. He had to get home. Springer would be worried. They wouldn’t know where to look for him. They wouldn’t–

Energy abandoned him.

Rodimus’ entire frame shook. Darkness encroached his vision.

His lips cracked in a sardonic grin. Three turbowolf kills and not a damn person would ever know about it.

What rotten luck.



The proximity alarms startled Starscream out of a complicated equation. He cursed as his wings went rigid, and the numbers fell apart in his processor, leaving them a jumble on the holographic board in front of him.

Slag it all to the Pit. And he was so certain he was on the right train of thought. Starscream glared at the board, but he’d lost track now. He couldn’t remember where he was going, or where he’d come from, and that fragging alarm wasn’t helping.

Starscream muttered another invective and slammed his stylus into the holding cup. He whirled toward his console, slamming a palm onto the activation switch. The alarm cut off with a shrill hiss as his monitor powered up, giving him a staticky view of his back door.

It was probably the damn turbowolves again, fighting for territory. They were quite effective at keeping out nosy wanderers, but irritating at times like these.

Starscream snarled as he peered at the screen, swatting the monitor to make the fuzzy image clarify into a monochrome view of his back door. That… was not a turbowolf.

It was a mech, though Starscream did not know to which clan he belonged. He certainly wasn’t a cityling, not with the tattered tarp and the powered down crossbow lying next to him.

What in Primus’ name was a clanling doing on Starscream’s backstep? Usually they traipsed up to the front door, belligerently demanding entrance, convinced they had nothing to fear and everything to gain.

Starscream ground his denta. He should just leave the brat out there, but then he’d have to clean up the mess later, and with Starscream’s luck, someone would come looking for him. Perhaps his whole clan even and then Starscream would have far more visitors than he ever wanted. Armed visitors, more likely, convinced their resident monster had eaten their precious heir or such slag.

He couldn’t just leave the brat to rot.

Starscream sighed a ventilation and snagged the closest weapon he had on hand – a sonic blaster. Just in case the turbowolves were guarding their prey, if the brat hadn’t killed them.

He rode the lift down to the lowest level, irritation building to a steady froth within him. There was a reason he chose to live out in the middle of the wilderness alone, and it wasn’t just because he didn’t like others. It was also because he didn’t want to be disturbed in the middle of highly important calculations! And yet, it never failed.

Starscream stalked down the narrow corridor to the back exit and manually unlocked the door, disengaging the holographic projector at the same time. The little lost clanling would have only seen a rocky dead end, rather than the metal door Starscream had wedged there. Why was he even venturing into that dark mountain in the first place? What was he looking for?

Both questions Starscream would demand answers for as soon as he got the opportunity.

The door clicked, and Starscream yanked it open, pointing his sonic blaster into the gloom first. Nothing with teeth or fangs leapt at him, and a quick scan of the tunnel pinged back negative. Nothing but the lost clanling and two turbowolf corpses.

Two, hmm?

The little lost clanling was something of a warrior, wasn’t he? Or maybe he was just lucky.

Starscream tucked away his sonic cannon and knelt down next to the clanling. He was brightly colored, or at least Starscream assumed so beneath the energon streaks, sand-dust, and paint scrapes. The tattered scrap of fabric twisted around his shoulders was nothing special either.

Starscream pressed a hand to the clanling’s chestplate and felt the strong pulse of a spark beneath. He still lived, though he would need some medical care. Because of course. Once more, Starscream’s solitude would be broken.

He cast a glance over his shoulder at the turbowolf corpses. He would return for those, he supposed. There was no need to waste such good materials. For now, however, he would focus on taking this clanling indoors and make sure he didn’t offline.

His calculations would just have to wait.



Rodimus came online with a gasping ventilation, his frame jerking. There was a light, a bright one, glaring down at him, and he was warm. Why was he warm? The last thing he remembered was the turbowolves lunging for him, and frantically stabbing out with his blade.


“Bright!” Rodimus gasped out, slinging an arm over his face as he curled away from the light, feeling as though something had punched him in the chassis. His spark throbbed angrily, his cables feeling strung taut.

The glare faded to a dull glow. Rodimus’ spark hammered in his chassis, and he slowly lowered his hand, shadows dancing in his visual feed. He couldn’t see anything but dark shapes and something moving in his periphery. Something like another mech.

“Who are you? Where am I? What’s going on?” Rodimus groped for his crossbow, but it was no longer attached at his side. “Where’s my bow!?”

“Easy,” the mech murmured, his vocals soft and soothing, and with a hint of a weird accent that Rodimus couldn’t quite identify. “You are in my spare room. You are safe. I’ve disarmed you for my own safety.”

Rodimus swung his gaze back toward the mech. “Who?”

“That is a question I want you to answer first,” the mech said as he reached for Rodimus’ arm, encircling his wrist with long, talon-tipped fingers. “What are you doing in my territory, Firebrand clanling?”

“Your territory?” Rodimus echoed. He rebooted his optics, and hissed with relief when his vision clarified into a…

Seeker. What the frag was a Seeker doing out here? And such a pretty one, too. Rodimus’ face flushed with heat as crimson optics examined him curiously. The Seeker was predominantly gray with bits of red and blue arranged throughout his frame and something in his appearance was familiar.

Wait. The Warlock of the Wastes. The Deathbringer. The Mad One.

He was a Seeker. And there was a Seeker currently gripping his wrist, his free hand reaching for Rodimus. Reaching with a datacable as though he intended to plug right into Rodimus’ wristport.

And he was a Seeker.

“Stop! What are you doing!” Rodimus jerked his hand free and twisted away from the stranger. “Don’t steal my data!”

The Seeker blinked and gave him a confused look. “I’m not stealing your data, you idiot. This is your medical port, not a ‘facing port.”


The Seeker rolled his optics and leaned back, rubbing his fingertips over his forehead. “Primus save me from Firebrands.” He peered at Rodimus under the hood of his hand. “Let’s try this again. Who are you and why are you here?”

Rodimus dragged himself back on his elbows and winced when his head hit a wall. He pulled up his feet, putting his knees between himself and the Seeker. His whole frame ached, his shoulder and abdomen the worst of it, and he could smell the stench of spilled energon and weldfire.

“I know who you are,” he said, and he hated that his voice wavered. How could he be a warrior and still be this much of a coward? “You’re the Warlock. The Deathbringer. The–”

“The Mad One. The Flighted. Yes, yes. I’ve heard it all before.” The Seeker waved a dismissing hand. “Or you could also use my designation, which is Starscream. Frankly, I’m rather fond of that.” He crossed his arms over his cockpit. “Now, answer my questions, bratling.”


Rodimus shaped the name with his mouth. It was a nice name. He wondered what the Seeker had done to earn it.

“Well?” Starscream prompted, baring his pointed denta in a snarl.

Rodimus swallowed thickly. “H-Hot Rod,” he said. It was only a small lie. Honestly, he didn’t even know why he’d give his original designation. “And, uh, I got lost. There was a sandstorm. So I took shelter.”

Starscream stared at him. “I don’t believe you.”

“I’m not lying!”

The Seeker held up a hand as though it would hold off Rodimus’ indignation. “Oh, I believe you got lost. And I believe in the sandstorm.” The hand twisted at the wrist and gestured to the left.

Rodimus followed the gesture with his optics, toward a tall, narrow window through which he could see nothing but swirls upon swirls of sand. So. The storm continued to rage. And judging by his chronometer, he’d been out for half a solar cycle.

If he’d stayed out there, he would have perished.

“What I don’t believe is that you stumbling around this general area is a coincidence,” Starscream finished, dragging Rodimus’ attention back toward him. He’d crossed his arms back over his chassis. “Do you think me unaware of the rumors that persist in your clan? Of the challenge the Firebrands have laid for one another?”

Rodimus felt his faceplate flush before he could school his expression into something that didn’t immediately give him away.

Starscream chuffed a vent at him. “That’s what I thought.” His field roiled out then, tapping against Rodimus’ with offense and disgust. “For the record, I will not be entertaining your delusions of bravery and honor and I’m not going to satisfy your need to prove yourself. Understood?”

Rodimus jerked his head into a nod.

“Good.” Starscream’s mouth curved downward into a deeper frown. “I won’t toss you into the sandstorm, though Primus knows I have the right, but as soon as it’s gone, so will you be. Am I clear?”

“Yes.” Rodimus chanced a look around, taking in the small room, mostly empty of equipment, though the walls were plastered with posters full of science gobbledygook. He dragged his gaze back to Starscream. “Oh, uh, thanks. For, you know…” He made a vague gesture. “Not leaving me to die.” He tried his most charming grin.

It did not work.

Starscream huffed another ventilation. “Don’t make me regret this,” he said, jabbing a pointed forefinger toward Rodimus. “And if you attack me, or touch me, or make even so much as a threatening gesture in my direction, you’ll learn how I earned the title Deathbringer.”

Rodimus absolutely did not squeak. But he did nod his understanding, his spark hammering within his chassis. This little slip of a Seeker – okay, not so little, he was of a height with Rodimus at least – should not be so frightening. There was a menace in Starscream’s expression, however, that couldn’t be discounted.

“Then we understand each other.” Starscream dropped his arms and spun on a heelstrut, stalking toward the door. It opened with a press of his palm, rattling aside to clear the path.

“Wait!” Rodimus unfurled from his protective huddle against the wall and swung his legs over the side of the berth. “Don’t lock me in here.”

Starscream cycled his optics. “You’re not a prisoner,” he said with a snort. “You can go anywhere in the complex that allows you access.” He rapped his fingers on the doorframe, taloned tips making a sharp staccato. “By my calculations, the storm will rage for another seven solar cycles. Do try to stay out of my way until you can be on yours.”

With that, Starscream swept out of the door, and it clattered shut behind him, leaving Rodimus in the humming silence of the small room. Which was apparently to be his own for the next week.

Rodimus cycled a ventilation and hopped to his feet, gingerly stretching his arms over his head. He gave a cursory glance down at himself. He was still dinged and scratched, and he could feel the gritty grains in his joints. His abdomen ached, however, and movement would be a trial. But the slashmarks had been cleaned and covered by static bandages, and his energon levels were steady. He touched his shoulder, felt the gouges of fangs in his armor, but the holes been patched with a colorless putty filler.

His energon bow was still gone, no surprise there, but his pack sat on a nearby table with his tarp folded next to it. It looked more than worse for wear and was probably better suited for the scrap-heap at this point, but maybe it could be salvaged. He would have to work on it later. If his kit hadn’t been lost.

Rodimus let it be for now.

He moved to the window, trying to peer out into the storm. His internal compass was still spinning dizzily, but if he was truly in the Warlock’s tower, then he had an idea of where he was. Home would be a day’s drive south, or three day’s walk depending. He must have spent most of the week wandering around in a circle.

Primus, but this was one story he did not want to tell. He was supposed to be challenging the Warlock, not getting rescued by him. He’d never earn his badge at this rate. He should have known better than to take a short-cut.

It was probably just one of those stories anyway. One of those bold challenges that no one expected anyone to try for, and Rodimus was the idiot who boasted he could do it.

There’d be no challenging Starscream now. The Warlock had made that quite clear. And seducing him? Pah. Rodimus was more likely to have his spike ripped off and ground to bits than succeeding in that avenue.

Rodimus vented and leaned against the window ledge, one hand curled around his midsection, where heat gathered and throbbed around the bandaged wound. His frame temperature was higher than usual, but he suspected that was because his repair nanites were working over time. He didn’t feel overheated otherwise.

Outside, the storm raged. Dust swirled and spattered at the window, raining bits of rust and sand against the transteel. He’d be dead if he’d been caught in that. His collapsible tent would have been a poor shelter. He should have checked with Soundwave before setting out, but he hadn’t wanted anyone to know what he was doing.

He hadn’t wanted someone to stop him.

It all sounded so stupid now.

Seek out and defeat the famed Deathbringer. Or, as Silverspire suggested, seduce him even? Anything that meant Rodimus could return with victory in the face of overwhelming odds.

Rodimus snorted. He never should have let those idiots goad him. Now who was the idiot?

He was.

Rodimus sighed and turned away from the window. It was going to be a long week, but no way could he spend it cooped up in this room. He wasn’t stupid enough to attack Starscream. But maybe he was just stupid enough to see if he could charm the Seeker. Surely Starscream was lonely out here? Right?

Maybe. Rodimus wasn’t sure yet. But he sure as frag wasn’t going to cloister himself in this room.

He wanted to earn his badge. He wouldn’t by hiding away from the so-called Deathbringer. If he was lucky, maybe he could bring back a souvenir? Something to brag about? It was worth a shot.

Rodimus shrugged and then hissed at himself in chastisement. His shoulder ached, the pain dull and ignored until now. Compared to his abdomen, it was a mere scratch. But he could still feel where the turbowolf’s fangs had sunk in deep. Thank Primus it hadn’t been a rustviper. He doubted he could have lived through that venom.

He should probably just go back to recharge. But he wanted to know his way around first. What if there was an emergency and he needed to escape? He couldn’t relax without knowing if there was something to be worried about.

With that in mind, Rodimus moved toward the doorway, albeit at a slower pace than his usual stride. He half-expected the door to deny him, but it slid open as he approached, triggered by a motion detector no doubt.

Starscream hadn’t lied.

That was a good sign.

Rodimus cycled a ventilation. He braced himself. And then he ventured out into the Seeker’s lair.



The Firebrand wasted no time in strolling out of the small side room and poking his nasal ridge all around Starscream’s laboratory. Though he was at least hesitant about it. He kept his hands to himself, didn’t try to hack locks on doors that didn’t admit him, and didn’t set about destroying anything either.

Starscream tracked Hot Rod as a matter of course. He had his security system attuned to the clanling, if only to ensure nothing happened to the mech. And all the better to make certain he wasn’t surprised.

It had nothing to do with admiring the Firebrand’s sleek frame, his bright colors, and the charming way he looked at Starscream with wide, startled optics.

Starscream snorted and bent back over his project. He’d set aside his calculations for now. He couldn’t concentrate on them with a Firebrand loitering about his laboratory, even if said Firebrand had just discovered Starscream’s private oilbath.

Good. The brat could get cleaned up and stop dripping grit all over Starscream’s floors.

A week, Starscream fumed, and that was if his calculations were correct, which of course they were. What a terrible time for a sandstorm, for temptation.

Hot Rod was not the first Firebrand to wander into Starscream’s territory, but he was the first who’d been allowed further than the front gate, who hadn’t been driven away with scorchmarks, dents, and dings.

Starscream never understood these clans, who concocted wild stories and made them legends. He used it to his advantage of course, allowing their fear of him to prevent unwelcome visitors.

Save for the brave few who thought they could earn their badges by taming the Mad One, either in the berth or on the field of combat. Though of course they usually opted for the former rather than the latter.

Some things were universal, Starscream supposed. And the desire to berth a Seeker, code-stealer or not, was one of them.

He sighed and scrubbed at his forehead. He was not focusing on this project or any other right now. Not while a clanling roamed his tower. The risk of getting interrupted was too great. That and intermittent bouts of irritation mixed with longing did not make for good concentration.

Hot Rod was attractive in his own right.

Pity he had arrived here already intent on using Starscream for his own ends. My, how that sounded familiar.

Starscream pushed to his feet and spun away from his desk, only for a wave of dizziness to assault him. He grasped for the edge of the desk to keep his balance, while he paused and ventilated, waiting for the vertigo to pass. Yellow caution warnings streamed through his central cortex, his fans stuttering before they spun, to cool his frame from a rapid increase in temperature he’d somehow missed.

That… was not good.

Dizziness abated, Starscream slowly turned back toward his desk and bent to grope around in a side drawer. There was a code-scanner in here, he knew. He kept them stashed all about the complex. As a Seeker, it had become something of a necessity, especially for a Seeker who chose to live on his own.

He fumbled the handle of a scanner, and Starscream pulled it out with nothing short of alarm. He jammed the scanner into his dataport and peered down at the display, praying to a deity he no longer trusted that it would give him an optimistic answer.

Coding degradation at eighty percent.

He ground his denta so hard he tasted sparks. Primus bedamned. He didn’t know whether he should consider the Firebrand’s arrival fortuitous or a curse. He did not want to give the little brat what he’d came here for.

But eighty percent.

He might not have a choice in the matter. It had been half a stellar cycle since he’d last visited Blurr, and his coding reflected that. He could have made it several lunar cycles more, long enough for Deadlock’s annual visit, if he hadn’t been so hasty in testing the synthetic uploads.

Damn him for his impatience. For being so desperate for a solution that he’d now landed himself in this predicament.

Starscream yanked the scanner out and slammed it to the tabletop. He heaved a ventilation and pretended his fingers weren’t trembling.

Eighty percent. He would last the week for certain. He would last well into next week. He would not last until Deadlock returned, unless the roaming speedster decided, for once, to appear early. Starscream could not take that risk, and he could not contact Deadlock either. He would make the attempt, but he had little belief it would succeed.

Deadlock roamed for a reason.

Starscream pressed the heel of his palm to his forehead. He dimmed his optics, cycling several unsteady ventilations.

He could attempt the journey back to the cities and make contact with Blurr once more. But with his luck, he’d arrive in Iacon, only to find his former lover at a race in another citystate, too far for Starscream to travel safely. He could take a risk and seek out Skyfire, but that would mean crossing over Elita’s territory and frankly, Starscream was not up to that challenge right now.

The next synthetic prototype was not ready for testing. He no longer had the time to dally on it. He needed to devote every moment of free time to working on it.

For if it failed again, he would have no choice but to seek out Hot Rod’s company, and that was something Starscream was reluctant to do for obvious reasons.

Damn it all.