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.
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?”
“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.
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.
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.