[TF] Trial By Fire 12

There was a buzzing in his audials. A persistent, irritating, buzzing.

Starscream growled and batted at it absently, but struck nothing. He frowned harder and surfaced from his calculations, just as the buzzing turned into both words and a low, persistent chime.

“What the frag is that noise?” he asked, to no one in particular. It wasn’t as though he expected his drones to answer.

“I think someone’s at the front gate.”

Starscream startled and whipped around. Primus all mighty! He’d forgotten Deadlock was in the laboratory with him, a fact which amused his friend greatly as Deadlock burst into laughter and uncoiled himself from the seductive lounge he’d assumed. He rose to his pedes, stretching his arms over his head.

“Or am I wrong?” Deadlock asked with a cheeky grin.

Starscream shook himself and shuffled over a few steps, tapping his claws over the console to bring up his security system. His joints protested, reminding him that he’d been bent over his desk for the better part of the day.

Ouch.

But the blinking indicator on the screen did not lie. There was indeed someone pinging his front entrance. Someone who had walked right through his concealing hologram, so either they got lucky or knew exactly where to look.

Starscream sighed. “It’s probably another Firebrand thinking to berth the Warlock of the Wastelands.” Perhaps Rodimus had lied and spilled his internals after all.

Starscream rolled his optics. He should have known better than to trust a clanling.

“I’ll handle it.” Deadlock flashed his fangs, his optics gleaming. He said that with a little too much glee, in Starscream’s opinion, but whatever entertained.

Starscream waved him off. “Feel free. You’ve been lazing around here anyway. Might as well earn your keep.”

“I thought I did that by fragging you,” Deadlock purred as he leaned in, nipping on Starscream’s audial.

He was far too fast, however, for the smack Starscream tried to give him. Deadlock danced out of the way, and right out of the laboratory, off to do his duty of chasing away whatever unwanted guest had come. That he left with a laugh was just topper on the oilcake.

Starscream sighed and tried to get back to work, though amusement now tugged at him. Trust Deadlock to remember all the best ways to pull him out of his head. Though, frag it all, he’d completely lost his place in his equations now.

Not that it was as big of a concern now as it had been back when that Firebrand, Rodimus, had been here. Starscream’s systems were purring like a well-oiled machine, high on Rodimus and Deadlock’s code alike.

So long as Deadlock was here, Starscream could take it easy. And feel a little less lonely. He hadn’t realized how empty his home and laboratory were. How much the sounds echoed. Not even his drones could fill the silence.

Starscream often talked to himself in lieu of conversation with another sentient being, honestly. Not that Rodimus was the epitome of intelligence, but he’d been entertaining. Humorous. Charming when he didn’t try so hard.

Starscream scrubbed a hand down his face. This was pointless. He was ridiculous. Mooning over some pretty Firebrand who was no doubt already riding high on his bragging, sprinting eagerly toward that branding ceremony he so desperately wanted. Compared to that, what did Starscream have to offer, here in isolation maintained by fear and cheap theatrics?

His comm chirped. ‘Star.’

“What?” he demanded, both aloud and over the comm. “Is one lost clanling too much for you to handle?”

‘No, you aft,’ Deadlock replied, no offense in his tone. ‘You have a visitor.’

Starscream set down his stylus with an annoyed click and turned away from the table. “I’m aware of that. You’re supposed to be chasing them away.”

Not this one.

Aggravation peaked. If this was another one of Deadlock’s not at all hilarious jump scares, Starscream was going to rip his spike off for real this time. He did not appreciate being startled.

He stalked out of his laboratory and didn’t bother with the slowly spiraling ramp. Instead, he leapt over the edge of the railing, and with carefully directed bursts of his thrusters, dropped down to the ground floor.

“This had better be important,” he snarled as he came around the bannister, hands drawing into slow fists. “I’m not in the mood to–”

A mech stood in the doorway. A very familiar mech, in painfully bright shades of red and orange and yellow, though some of it had been scoured away by heat and sun. A familiar cloak sat across his shoulders, less frayed since it had been patched, and he carried a bag slung over one of his shoulders.

“Like I said,” Deadlock drawled from where he’d stepped aside, as though making it a point that Rodimus would be the first thing Starscream saw. “It’s for you.”

Starscream flicked his wings. “I can see that,” he said curtly, and told his fool spark to stop beating frantically. “What are you doing here?”

Rodimus’ smile slipped, but didn’t fade entirely. He fidgeted. “I was in the neighborhood,” he said, but if he was trying to be flippant, it fell flat. “And I realized, you know, I left something behind.”

Starscream’s optics narrowed. He’d all but scrubbed his tower from top to bottom and he’d gathered everything Rodimus had forgotten, most of it scraps that he’d assumed were meant to be discarded. Unless, of course, Rodimus meant the little carvings. Starscream might have mistaken those to be gifts.

Too bad. They were his now. He refused to return them.

“Oh, really? And what was that?” Starscream asked, folding his arms over his cockpit. Did he look defensive? Probably. Did he care?

Not one frag.

Rodimus fidgeted again. “It was… uh…” His optics slid toward Deadlock as he gnawed on his bottom lip. The hand holding the strap of his bag tightened. “I mean…”

“Just spit it out, Rodimus. In case you’ve forgotten, I am a busy mech,” Starscream snapped, without caring how rude he sounded. Or how Rodimus flinched.

The brightness of the Firebrand’s optics dimmed before he shook his head. “Oh, slag it,” he muttered, and dropped his bag with a dull thunk. He strode inside as though he had the right, like he belonged.

Starscream scarcely had time to blink, much less contemplate Rodimus’ strange behavior, before the distance between them was nothing. Rodimus’ hands cupped his face, his mouth falling over Starscream’s in a rushed, desperate kiss.

Starscream’s optics widened. He might have squeaked. Rodimus’ glossa never touched his, but the pressure of his mouth was warm and firm, the stroke of his field equally so. His fingers held Starscream so gently, and then the kiss was over, Starscream’s lips tingling in the aftermath.

Words escaped him.

Starscream stared, surprised, his lips parted as Rodimus looked at him, probably expectant. His hands slid away from Starscream’s face, his field shifting from determined to uncertain. And it only darkened further the longer Starscream said nothing.

His processor had flat-lined. Logic failed him.

Rodimus had kissed him. Kissed him like it meant something. Like he’d been wanting to do that for a long, long time. Like Starscream was someone precious he’d missed.

“I… uh… I’m sorry,” Rodimus stammered, his optics slanting toward Deadlock nervously. His armor clamped as if awaiting an attack. “Should I not have done that?”

Starscream’s glossa swept over his lips, but the kiss had not been enough to let a taste linger. They hadn’t kissed before. He hadn’t known it could be so sweet.

“You kissed me.”

Rodimus cycled his optics. “Yes.”

“Why?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Rodimus asked, and he shifted from foot to foot, still side-eying Deadlock nervously. “Isn’t that what one mech does when he likes another one? Though considering I’m still trying to figure out if you’re going to punch me or not, maybe I’m wrong.”

Deadlock laughed, and it came out more of a wheeze, as though it was all the laugh he’d allow himself. “He ain’t gonna deck ya, kid.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” Rodimus retorted, and he looked at Starscream again, something painfully earnest in his voice. “Please, say something? I mean, if I was out of line, I’m sorry, and I’ll leave now.”

Starscream shook his head. “You surprised me,” he said, and his lips quirked into a smirk, relying on it to cover up the way his spark was suddenly pulsing a faster rhythm. “And that barely qualifies as a kiss.”

Rodimus’ mouth dropped, and it was Starscream’s turn to take him by surprise, to hook his fingers in the jut of Rodimus’ chestplate and yank the Firebrand close to him. Their mouths clashed together, with more fire, more pressure, and Starscream introduced his glossa, let it ask permission before Rodimus’ joined the fray.

He tasted like grit and mid-grade, but it was the heat of the kiss, the eagerness of it, that made Starscream’s circuits sing. A low sound rose in his intake, and Starscream didn’t dare identify it. Instead, he ended the kiss, pulling back slowly, his glossa sweeping over his lips as though trying to hold on to the feeling.

They stared at each other, Rodimus a little dazed, Starscream still struggling to find the words that wouldn’t betray him. He had so much to say, and was wary of all of it.

“Okay,” Rodimus finally said, and his field unfurled, pressing up against Starscream’s in warm entreaty. “You’re right. That was a better kiss.”

Deadlock snorted a laugh.

Starscream’s lips curved. “Yes, it was.” He loosened his grip on Rodimus’ chestplate. The awkwardness was setting back in, and he wasn’t sure how to address it.

He ignored it for the moment, moving past Rodimus to hit the panel for the door to close. Bursts of wind had swept a thin layer of sand over the entry floor. He could already hear the zoom and beep of approaching drones – Scurry and Scamper most likely. Though if Scuttle had any indication Rodimus was here, it would make an appearance, too.

“So I’ll just leave you two to talk,” Deadlock said, his voice weirdly loud in the awkward silence, or perhaps because of it. He was already backing away from them. “Star, I’ll be in my room if you need me. Firebrand? You watch yourself.”

Rodimus twitched when Deadlock addressed him, and offered a nod of understanding. Deadlock patted Starscream on the shoulder, with a little squeeze, and then he turned for the ramp, climbing upward.

“He’s very protective of you,” Rodimus observed, perhaps meant to be a statement, but Starscream read the question in his voice. If there was jealousy in his voice, Starscream wondered if he imagined it.

“We escaped the cities together.” Starscream folded his arms over his cockpit and circled around Rodimus, facing him once more. “We’re protective of each other. But if you’re trying to ask whether or not we’re mates, the answer is ‘no’.”

“Oh.”

Starscream sighed and scrubbed at his face, unsure how to catalogue Rodimus’ comment. “Why did you come back, Rodimus? What did you hope to accomplish?”

“I thought the kiss was self-explanatory.” He rubbed the back of his head, gaze drifting downward. “I spent this whole time trying to forget you, and I failed. So I came back to see if you felt the same way.”

He wanted to believe the Firebrand. And yes, Rodimus was still a Firebrand as far as Starscream could tell. He bore no brand save the usual markings that identified his clan and family unit.

“Or maybe you needed proof of your dalliance with the Deathbringer,” Starscream drawled with another slow circle around Rodimus. He hadn’t survived this long by being stupid.

Rodimus’ optics widened with genuine distress. “No!” He shook his head and slashed a hand through the air. “That’s not it at all. I didn’t even tell anyone I found you. I mean, yeah, Wrench seemed to figure it out pretty quick, and I had to tell Sunny or he would’ve given me that sad look, and I think Optimus is prescient or something, but I swear I kept your secret where it matters!”

“Wrench?” Starscream blinked and a little laugh burbled out of him. “That rusty old aft is still functioning? Primus, I thought he had one foot in the Pit even when I met him a century ago!” Come to think of it, Rodimus had mentioned the name before but for some reason, it hadn’t registered then.

Rodimus’ finials twitched. “You know him?”

“Of course I do! He helped me find this place, and taught me enough medical skills to get by.” Starscream gestured at Rodimus’ abdomen, which clearly benefited from seeing an actual medic compared to Starscream’s amateur attempts. He could hardly tell that Rodimus had been injured. “How else do you think I knew how to patch you up?”

Rodimus shrugged and gave Starscream a sheepish look. “Code-stealer,” he said, echoing the many, many titles Starscream had acquired out here. “I figured you just, I dunno, absorbed it from someone.”

“Absorbed?” Starscream burst into laughter, the idea of it so absurd he couldn’t fathom anything else. “That’s not how it works!”

Rodimus’ face heated. “Well, I don’t know!” He crossed his arms, spoiler lifting up and down. “It’s not like they teach Seeker customs or anything.” He huffed a ventilation, embarrassment wafting in his field. He stared hard at the ground, heat sparking his finials.

If he wasn’t still so damn adorable…

Starscream’s grin widened, and the tension started to ease away. He believed Rodimus. He wasn’t sure why he did, but if Wrench liked the kid, Starscream supposed the rust-aft knew what he was doing. Wrench was a decent judge of character.

Still.

“I’ll explain later,” Starscream said, and tried to steer the conversation back on track. Rodimus had just admitted that several mechs knew of Starscream. “Who is Optimus?”

“Our Prime,” Rodimus answered, his shoulders still hunched. “Sort of our spiritual and civilian leader, I guess.”

Starscream tilted his head. “And he figured out you’d met me?” Should he consider himself in danger? Did this Optimus believe Starscream to be a threat?

“I guess I’m not as good a liar as I think I am. I told everyone I ran into another clan and they helped fix me up.” Rodimus shrugged, his field retreating back into his frame, as misery leaked out. “It wasn’t hard to get people to believe that I’d gotten myself into trouble, in over my head, and as a result, failed at everything I set out to do.”

Starscream stepped closer. “But you didn’t fail.” His spark squeezed. Rodimus had not bragged. The irritating, arrogant Firebrand could have boasted about all manner of things, but he’d opted to conceal Starscream entirely. Or, well, as much as he could at any rate.

Rodimus huffed a ventilation and rolled his optics. He looked up, making a broad gesture at his own chestplate. “Do you see a brand on my chassis?”

That rankled. Or it hurt. Maybe both. It felt like a smack to the face, a reminder that he wasn’t good enough either. That people left him for a reason.

“Good to know I’m a last resort.” Starscream arched an orbital ridge, holding onto his composure with a thin thread.

Rodimus went still, his optics wide with horror. “That’s not what I meant!” he spluttered. His mouth opened and closed as though he were going to argue further, but couldn’t find the words.

Starscream sighed and scrubbed at his forehead. “And if you’d gotten the brand you wanted, would you even be here right now?” That, indeed, was the important question.

Silence.

Starscream dropped his hand and stared at the Firebrand, whose gaze had once more dropped. Rodimus gnawed on his lower lip, hands fisted at his side. At least he hadn’t blurted out a false answer. But he hadn’t immediately responded in the positive either.

“That’s what I thought.” Starscream spun on a heelstrut so he wouldn’t have to look at Rodimus and betray the disappointment building in his own expression. “I live out here alone because I want to. I had grown fond of your company, yes. And I had been feeling lonely. But I have more self-respect than to be some kind of consolation prize.”

It would hurt, but what in Starscream’s functioning hadn’t been pain? He’d survived slavery. He’d survived city life. He’d survived countless foreign planets in search of fertile grounds to seed.

He’d survive this, too.

Rodimus’ engine growled. “That’s not what you are. That’s not what I meant.” Air hissed from his vents. “Yeah, okay. I didn’t make warrior. I didn’t earn my brand, but I also didn’t try very hard. I wanted it for all the wrong reasons anyway.”

Starscream folded his arms and drew his armor in tight. “I’m listening.” Not that it would change anything. He wasn’t going to be anyone’s back-up plan. Either he mattered, or he didn’t. He refused to tread the line.

“I just… I wanted to be important, okay?” Rodimus said, his vocals taking on something like a plea. “To feel like I finally belonged, that I mattered. And warriors, they’re important. They’re special. They earn things.”

Starscream nibbled on his bottom lip. There was yearning in Rodimus’ tone, something beyond wanting a brand. Something, perhaps, he’d lost because he hadn’t been branded.

“And I’m just not good at anything else!” Rodimus added with a fierceness to his voice that sounded pained. “Though I’m barely good at fighting. My brother, now he’s the warrior. Springer’s going to be Warchief someday. Everyone says so. And here I am, the frag up. Always left behind. Good, but never good enough.”

Rodimus ex-vented loudly, his armor creaking. “But when I was here, I didn’t have to pretend. You didn’t know anything about me. I could just be me, and I was, and yeah, you were annoyed to have company, but you weren’t annoyed because it was me. And when we finally started talking, you actually looked at me. Talked to me. It was the first time I ever felt like I was me.”

Starscream slowly turned. It was a babbling mess, but it was earnest. It was honest. And it resonated inside of Starscream, making his spark ache.

Rodimus stared at the floor, seeing without seeing, his optics bright and pained. His hands were fists at his side, his spoiler halves vibrating.

“I thought I belonged with my clan, that’s the way things were supposed to be, but as soon as I was gone, all I could think about was how much I wanted to be back here. With you.” Rodimus worked his intake and lifted his gaze. “I don’t know if that would have changed if I’d earned my badge. I don’t know if that would change how I felt about where I belonged. But I do know that I never felt like I mattered until I was here with you.”

Rodimus shook his head. “I know that doesn’t make any sense. I was only here for a week and half the time, I was a little brat. But that’s the way things go sometimes.” His lips curved, but it wasn’t a genuine smile. “You’re not a last resort, Starscream. I left everything I know behind because I chose to. I chose you.”

The words echoed around him.

“Why?” Starscream asked and surprised himself with how hushed his voice was. As equally pained and desperate as Rodimus’ own. “I have nothing to offer. I’m a Seeker. I’m meant to be disposable. Any member of your clan is worth more than the greatest of us, in the optics of the citylings.”

Rodimus shook his head fiercely. “I don’t believe that, and I know you don’t either.” He lurched forward, hands lifting before he seemed to think better of it, and he tucked them back at his side. “You’re the most intelligent, fascinating, and amazing mech I’ve ever met. Don’t let anyone else make you think otherwise.”

Warmth flooded Starscream and made his spark flutter and thank Primus, Deadlock had gone upstairs. Because he’d tease Starscream for years if he saw even an inch of the pleasure that suddenly lit up his face.

Maybe Rodimus was lying. Maybe this was all some clever, clanling ploy. Maybe Rodimus was just as confused now as he had been when he left, and he still didn’t really know what he wanted.

Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.

The uncertainty didn’t stop Starscream from closing the distance between them. From curling one hand around Rodimus’ arm and the other cupping Rodimus’ face. It didn’t stop him from pausing long enough to search Rodimus’ optics before he leaned in and slanted his mouth over Rodimus’ again.

It felt so good to kiss Rodimus. So right. The Firebrand’s code still hummed within him, twisted and tangled with his own. Rodimus’ field brushed against his, warm and hopeful, yearning. He made a muffled sound and Starscream deepened the kiss, tasting him again, pressing their frames together, smelling the rust desert around Rodimus. His spark did cartwheels, whirling around in his chassis, and he dared call it delight.

He was glad that Rodimus came back.

Starscream ended the kiss and pressed his forehead to Rodimus’, feeling Rodimus jitter against him. “I believe you,” he said.

Relief exited Rodimus in a whoosh of ex-vent. “I’m glad.”

Starscream grinned and pulled back. “Come. Let’s get you some energon.” His hand slid down Rodimus’ arm, his fingers tangling with Rodimus’ slack ones. Sand and grit scratched at his paint, but he’d worry about that later.

Rodimus stared at him. “I don’t have to leave?”

Starscream squeezed his hand. “No.” He tugged, pulling Rodimus with him toward the lift, rather than take the ramp upward. “You can stay as long as you want to.”

“What if I never want to leave?”

Starscream’s spark throbbed. He hoped his tone managed to stay even. “Then I suppose I better get used to having a roommate.”

Rodimus squeezed his hand. “Guess so.” His field reached for Starscream’s, tentative at first, but gaining in confidence as it nudged warmly at Starscream’s.

He relented, letting the presence of the Firebrand wrap around him, still that odd mix of stranger and familiarity. The lift took them upward, Rodimus’ fingers still entangled with his own, as though he didn’t want to let go.

“Or, uh, two roommates, I guess,” Rodimus ventured as the lift stopped and rattled open, depositing them on the third level. “Since Deadlock is here…?”

More question than statement.

Starscream snorted. “He’s here. But he doesn’t stay. He comes back, however, so don’t think it’ll be the last you see of him.”

“He lives here?”

“Inasmuch as he ‘lives’ anywhere.” Starscream shrugged, and hoped he sounded more casual than he felt. “Deadlock wanders. It’s what he does.”

He didn’t let go of Rodimus until they were in the energon room. He nudged the Firebrand toward the table as he moved to find something for him to drink. Probably mid-grade, given how rough his engine sounded.

Scramble immediately beeped into view, crashing into the left side of Rodimus’ foot. The clanling bent down to pat the drone before he slipped into a seat.

“That’s pretty impressive,” Rodimus said. “For a former cityling to survive out here, all alone, without a clan to support him. He must be a great warrior.”

“He may have lived in the city, but he’s no cityling. Not with the life he lived.” Starscream chuckled. “And to hear him say it, he is a great warrior. Compliment him enough, and he might deign to spar with you.”

“Really?” Rodimus perked up. His optics brightened with that glow Starscream had long come to recognize as enthusiasm.

Primus, he was adorable.

“You’ll have to ask him.” Starscream said rummaged through the storage bin, seeking out the flavors he knew Rodimus had been fond of. As he did, his elbow jostled a very familiar box, and it went tumbling out before he could catch it.

The box hit the ground, and Scramble came thundering across the floor, nearly running over the box in its haste to clean up what it perceived as a mess. Thereby calling more attention to it.

Frag.

“Hey, are those the treats I made?” Rodimus leaned around the edge of the table to look, getting a good glimpse before Starscream swept up the box and crammed it back into storage. “You still have them?”

Embarrassment tugged at Starscream’s field. He filed it down and away. “There aren’t many left,” he admitted as he finally located the rust sprinkles and closed the bin with his hip. “I’m many things, but the chemistry of candies is beyond me.”

He would not mention the two pans he’d burned to slag in an attempt to recreate the tasty treats. Rust sticks he could handle. They were a matter of patience. The sweet and gooey treats Rodimus made were another matter entirely.

“You were saving them?”

Starscream dropped a cube in front of Rodimus and sprinkled it liberally with rust before he slid into his own chair. “Trying to make them last, more like.”

Rodimus beamed at him. “I’ll make more,” he said. He tugged his energon close and sipped at it. “Sides even showed me a couple new recipes and maybe you’ll like those, too.”

“Sides?” There was affection in the way Rodimus said the name. Starscream refused to admit the tiny curl of jealousy that bobbed in his spark then.

“A friend,” Rodimus clarified. “He’s a warrior, but making treats is kind of his signature thing. Everyone loves them.”

Starscream’s lips curled lightly. “I’ll bet they do.” He paused and considered. “Is he going to come looking for you?”

Rodimus sipped on his midgrade, still looking as though he expected to get thrown out the door any moment now.

He shook his head. “No. Maybe.”

Starscream’s optics narrowed. “Clarify.”

“I told Sunstreaker I was leaving and where I was going, so he’s not going to send out a search party,” Rodimus explained and looked into his cube as though it held the secrets of the universe. “But, I don’t know, he might come anyway. Just to check on me.”

Starscream frowned. Rodimus had mentioned a brother. But he thought that mech’s name was Springer. Was Sunstreaker perhaps the ‘Sunny’ Rodimus had mentioned earlier?

“And Sunstreaker is…?”

“The Warchief’s mate. Or well, one of them anyway. His spark-twin is Sideswipe, and they both mated our Warchief.” Rodimus toyed with the cube, his attention suddenly skittering off to the side, as if Scramble’s dejected circle around the floor was fascinating to him. “They’re the closest thing I have to a best friend.”

Friend, hmm?

Starscream wasn’t constructed yesterday. He knew that tone, that flush in a field. He knew longing and regret when he heard it.

He leaned back, studying Rodimus closely. “You said being a warrior would have earned you things.”

Rodimus nodded and tipped back the cube, swallowing half of it quickly. “Yeah. I mean, it’s not the only way to go, but it’s what I had my best shot at.”

Starscream tilted his head. “Uh-huh. And would it have gotten you those twins as a mate?”

Rodimus’ optics widened. His face heated until it turned pink, which was a lovely color on him, but it also was all the answer Starscream needed. He ducked his head, finials twitching.

“It’s not like it would have been a reward or anything. It’s just maybe they would have actually seen me if I had the badge.” His shoulders hunched as he sighed a vent. “But then, what am I compared to the Warchief?”

Starscream frowned. Rodimus’ self-esteem was a tattered thing. “Romance might have never been in the stars for you three, but don’t discount the value of that friendship either. I suspect even with a badge, they’d have never been yours.”

Rodimus’ head ducked so far, Starscream could only see the top of it. He toyed with the energon, curling into himself.

“And you should consider yourself lucky that this Sunstreaker cares enough to be worried for your wellbeing,” Starscream added.

“I do.” Rodimus in-vented heavily and looked up. “Deadlock’s like that for you, I take it? He seems pretty, um, attached.”

“We have a history. We’ve been through a lot together.” Starscream tried not to smirk at the jealousy in Rodimus’ tone. It was pretty cute. “I can always rely on him to be there for me. But that doesn’t mean he stays.”

Rodimus nodded slowly. “I see.” He finished off his energon and tossed the empty cube into the washbasin. “So, uh, now what?”

Starscream rose to his feet. “Now you need a wash. You’ve been tracking grit all through my tower, and my drones are going to have fits when they see it.”

“I’m not that dirty.” Rodimus snorted. “Besides, it’s kind of inevitable. You do realize we’re surrounded by desert, right?”

“That’s no excuse. Come on.”

Rodimus snorted again and slid out from the table. “It’s that how it’s going to be from now on? You order me around and expect me to obey?”

Stascream tossed a smirk over his shoulder. “Is that going to be a problem?”

“You know, you and Sunstreaker are either going to hate each other, or be the best of friends,” Rodimus said with a shake of his head. “Because I’m pretty sure that’s his philosophy, too.”

It was Starscream’s turn to snort. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“Least you’re gonna scrub my back, right?” Rodimus asked as he slipped past Starscream, turning back to give him a cheeky grin and waggle of his spoiler.

“We’ll see.”

The door opened, and a flood of drones came beeping and booping inside, swarming over the floor and bumping against Rodimus’ feet. Starscream stared as Rodimus giggled like a sparkling and crouched down, scooping one of the drones out of the flood.

“Scuttle!” he said brightly, rubbing his cheek against the top panel of the drone as it beeped and trilled at him, lights flashing in a pattern that was almost hypnotic. “I missed you!”

“That’s a cleaning drone, Rodimus,” Starscream said flatly.

“So?” Rodimus arched an orbital ridge at him before he returned his attention to Scuttle, whose tires were spinning eagerly. “Scuttle was the first friend I made here. I like him.”

Him.

Starscream shook his head.

“These other guys missed me, too, huh?” Rodimus said as he looked down at the drones milling around his feet, even poor Swift, who was so excited all he could do was spin in a dizzying circle.

Rodimus crouched to set Scuttle back among its brethren, the noise of the flock almost deafening. Yet, all Rodimus did was laugh and try to pet every drone within reach.

“Yeah, yeah. I’m back. Nice to see you all, too,” he said.

Primus, even Stroll had dragged his aft up here. And Starscream hadn’t seen the oil springs drone since Stroll first emerged after Rodimus left. Not even Deadlock could coax the sulky one out of hiding. Saunter wasn’t here, but that wasn’t much of a surprise.

“You’ve usurped my drones,” Starscream said.

Rodimus looked up at him with a genuine smile and a sparkle in his optics. “They’re not just drones. You don’t have to pretend they are anymore, Starscream.”

Until that moment, Starscream hadn’t known he could fall harder for the clanling. There was no inch of judgment in Rodimus’ gaze, and the affection he felt for Scuttle and the others was absolutely genuine.

Starscream folded his arms over his cockpit. “They’re swarming you because you’re so filthy,” he said, to hide how fast his spark was beating.

Rodimus chuckled. “All right. I can take a hint.” He planted his hands on his thighs as he pushed himself back to his feet. “I’ll take that shower.” He waded through the drones, waving his hands at them as he did. “C’mon, sparklings. Your boss is frowning at me.”

The drones chittered and chirped, but obediently made a path for him. Most of them scattered out the door, perhaps going back to their duties. Scramble stayed behind, as he was supposed to, and Stroll followed at a leisurely pace. Scuttle, however, stayed glued to Rodimus’ heels.

Unsurprisingly.

“Rinse off before you soak,” Starscream reminded him.

Rodimus swept his hand out and tilted forward in a deep bow. “Yes, your highness. Whatever you ask of me.”

“Brat.”

Rodimus winked and then he was gone, out the door.

“I’ll join you in a minute,” Starscream called after him.

“You’d better!” Rodimus’ voice floated back to him from the hallway before the noise of the drones gradually eased away.

Starscream cycled a ventilation and distracted himself by tidying up the small mess they’d made. He needed a moment to get himself together. He felt himself being pulled into Rodimus’ pace, and there was far too much unspoken right now to just dive in blindly.

Cleaning up was a perfect distraction.

Storage room tidied, Starscream headed back to the ground floor. There, he spied the pile of things Rodimus had brought with him, sitting in a dusty lump by his front door. Spinner was bumping into it, beeping angrily, before it bounced off, spun, and attacked once more.

Poor thing. The second-made, just after Swift, had only slightly better coding, though the key word was slightly. Spinner liked to hide, not because it was lazy like Stroll, but because it preferred dark, shadowy places. But the untouched mess at the front door, left behind by the gaggle of drones who flocked to Rodimus, must have bothered Spinner enough to emerge.

“Calm down, Spin. I’ll get it,” Starscream sighed as he stooped to scoop up Rodimus’ belongings. They consisted mainly of two packs, both of which were heavy, and one of them clanked noisily. Starscream stopped himself from nosing around inside of them, but only just.

Spinner chirped happily and dove forward, sucking up the debris left behind in their absence. No doubt it would clean up the mess and then zip back to its hiding spot, where it would huddle until night-time. Spinner preferred to patrol when the tower was dim and silent. It also liked Deadlock when he took to meditating.

Starscream climbed the ramp to several levels up, and the spare room that had been Rodimus’ several weeks ago. He hadn’t changed anything since Rodimus left. So he dumped Rodimus’ bags on the berth. The Firebrand could sort through them later if he wanted. Scuttle would probably clean up whatever mess they shed, too.

Starscream turned and looked behind him. There was a light trail of rust dust and grit in his wake.

Oh, well. He had an army of cleaning drones. Surely one of them would get to it soon enough.

He left the room, the door sliding shut behind him, his spark continuing to do that happy little spin and throb it had started from the moment he saw Rodimus. It was ridiculous. It was unfair. It was–

“You never haul my stuff for me.”

Starscream paused and looked up. Deadlock was on the level above him, where a decently sized open space was considered ‘his.’ Deadlock wasn’t one for walls much, and didn’t like the confines of a room.

Currently, Deadlock leaned against the rail over the overhang, much like a balcony, and looked down at Starscream, his expression unreadable. He had one arm folded, the other elbow propped on the rail, supporting his chin.

“That’s because you have impeccable manners. Sometimes.” Starscream lifted an orbital ridge. “I take it you were eavesdropping?”

Deadlock smirked and launched himself over the railing, landing on the floor in front of Starscream with far less noise than he should have made. “Do you believe him?”

Starscream tilted his head. “Do you think that’s a mistake?”

Deadlock rolled his shoulders and moved closer, the edges of his field winding with Starscream’s own. Comfortable. Reassuring. A promise.

Rodimus had only to twitch wrong, and Deadlock would make him pay.

“If it is, it’s your mistake to make,” Deadlock said.

Not helpful.

“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Starscream muttered. His functioning seemed to be a collection of mistakes.

Deadlock cupped his face and pressed their foreheads together. “For what it’s worth, I think he’s sincere.”

Starscream gripped Deadlock’s arms and offlined his optics, drawing on the familiar and comforting field of his closest friend. A mech he loved, perhaps in not the romantic sense, that of a conjunx. But loved all the same.

He was terrified. He hoped it didn’t show.

Deadlock pulled back, looking Starscream directly in the optics. “But if he isn’t, and this is all some ploy to use you, I won’t hesitate to rip out his cog and make him eat it.”

Starscream laughed. “What imagery.”

“Seen it before. Not pretty. Excruciating, from what I hear.”

“I’ll take your word for it.”

Deadlock rose up, pressed a kiss to Starscream’s forehead, and let him go. “I’ll be here if you need me. But right now, you’ve got a cute little Firebrand soaping himself up downstairs, and if you don’t take advantage of that, I might have to beat you to the punch.”

“Hedonist.”

Deadlock shrugged and smirked, fangs flashing in the overhead light. “He’s got a nice aft. Let me know if he’s up for a threesome, yeah?”

Starscream barked a laugh. “I’ll try and remember to bring it up. But don’t hold your vents. His past isn’t as checkered as ours.”

“Yeah, but a bot can dream.” Deadlock flicked his hands. “Go. Shoo. Or I’ll beat you to it.”

Starscream held up his hands. “I’m going.” He moved to the edge, looking down the central column for a speedier descent again. “And Deadlock? Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it.”

Starscream leapt, calculated bursts of his thrusters slowing his descent until he landed on the ground floor. Because Deadlock was right. He did have a cute Firebrand in his oil bath, and maybe nothing would come out of it, maybe something would.

Maybe it would only end in sparkbreak. Maybe it would be another loss to add to the tally. Maybe he’d find himself alone and abandoned all over again.

Or maybe there was something here to break the pattern.

The only way to find out was to take a vent and leap. To try one more time. To have a little faith even.

He trusted in Deadlock’s judgment.

All he had to do was leap.

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