[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.


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