[TF] Trial by Fire 10

Life settled into a routine far quicker than Rodimus expected it would.

He wasn’t sure why he thought things would be different. He just had this expectation in the pit of his spark that something would have changed. Or maybe the problem was that he had changed. He wasn’t sure.

He bent to his punishment – cleaning duty twofold, no surprise there – and he rejoined his fellow Firebrands in their daily training. He felt apart from them, however, and when they trotted off in little cliques to laugh and brag amongst each other, Rodimus didn’t join them. He was invited, but he declined.

They’d goaded him, and he’d embarrassed himself, and he was having a hard time reconciling it. They were as strangers to him.

Springer gave him long, sad looks. But when Fangry and Twin Twist called for him, he just patted Rodimus on the shoulder and wished him luck in his cleaning duties. Springer didn’t know how to handle Rodimus anymore than Rodimus knew how to handle himself.

He turned over the bits of turbowolf he’d brought with him to the artisans of the clan. They ooh’ed and aah’ed and made appropriate noises of appreciation, already babbling to each other how best to use the materials. They were also grateful for the metal ingots Rodimus didn’t keep for himself.

He’d found the datapads then, buried at the bottom of his pack. His spark hammering in his chassis, Rodimus pulled them out, feeling touched to the core. His finger swept over the titles inlaid on the back, all of them romances and fairy tales from Starscream’s collection. He’d noticed, and he’d given them to Rodimus.

They were now under his berth, in his personal crate, buried deep where Springer couldn’t find them and tease him. Rodimus kept one in his subspace, for the spare moments he had betweeen training and cleaning, when he could wander off on his lonesome and bury his nose in the pages. They, at least, were much better company.

The Festival of Stars approached, as he knew it would, and then it was here. With it came the moment Rodimus had both dreaded and anticipated. Before getting lost, before Starscream, he’d been eager. He thought he had a chance. Now, he knew what to expect.

Rodimus stood in the gathered crowd, with the entirety of his clan who was not on extended watch or guard duty or couldn’t be spared from their various responsibilities. The bonfire crackled and burned behind him, ready for the celebration afterward. Baked treats wafted their enticing odors and a huge display of engex waited for the inevitable congratulations.

All of the Firebrands clustered together, though Rodimus lingered to the back of the group of a dozen or so mechs, his brother among them. Excitement and energy rippled in the air. Not every Firebrand wanted to be a warrior. Some had other aspirations. The soldier hopefuls, however, were most obvious in their pushing to the front, jostling each other with excited elbows.

Rodimus waited, and surprised himself how little he felt on bolts and brackets. It was like he already knew the outcome.

Warchief Megatron stepped forward and gave his speech, his second and third to his left and right – Soundwave and Wirelite respectively. Rodimus stared at the datapad in the warchief’s hand. He knew it contained a list, just as did the rest of his fellow Firebrands.

The speech ended. The crowd politely clapped. Some of the more newly branded whooped, and quite a few of the Firebrands echoed them. Until Wirelite called for quiet, and Megatron lifted his datapad.

Silence fell.

One by one, Megatron read from the list. Of the names called, Rodimus’ was not among them. It came as little surprise. It didn’t even give him the jolt of disappointment in his spark. He felt too numb for that.

He was not a warrior. He was not suited to be one. He doubted even, by the next commitment ceremony, that he would. Especially since it would be his last. He already knew it was no longer his fate. He was to be a civilian, to serve under the guidance of their Prime.

It was not a terrible fate. It carried its own rewards. It just wasn’t the path Rodimus had always dreamed he’d take. It confined him. Entrapped him. It was not the life he’d imagined for himself.

Rodimus stood back and watched some of his fellow batchmates grin and bow as they rose to accept their brands. Clockwork and Silverspire and Twin Twist, all quivering with pride, bearing the burden as their Warchief personally applied the brands and welcomed them to his warriors.

Silverspire had been the worst of the goaders, insistent that Rodimus’ future depended on him taking this risk. He had always taunted Rodimus, who was one of the smallest of their batch, and never managed to excel at much of anything. He’d always envied Rodimus his friendship with the twins.

They’d turned Silverspire down once upon a time. He never forgot that insult.

Springer was up there, too. To no one’s surprise. He’d taken top marks this time around. His acceptance of the Warchief’s mark was a foregone conclusion. Every one was sure he’d rise to leadership in little time. Many thought he’d take over when Kup retired, if not for the Warchief himself.

And there was Rodimus. At the back of the crowd, counting the demerits on his record and knowing he’d never stand on that podium.

He wondered if he even cared anymore.

Movement in his peripheral vision alerted him to the fact he wasn’t alone. He expected it to be Sunstreaker, offering words of consolation, but the colors were wrong. Bright crimson instead, and of course, Sideswipe.

He grinned at Rodimus, nudging him with a shoulder. “Hey hot stuff,” he said, with that easygoing drawl that never failed to drizzle through Rodimus, igniting heat on the way. “Been looking for you.”

“I’ve been around,” Rodimus murmured. He leaned harder against the wall, as if he could merge himself into the carved metal and become part of the settlement. The sounds of growing celebration felt all too distant to him.

“Yeah, but not in the way I expected you to be.” Sideswipe leaned beside him, their arms touching, the warmth of him both foreign and familiar. “Didn’t see ya at the matches, or the races, or at last night’s game either.”

Rodimus shrugged. “Had other things to do. Besides all that, Kup’s idea of punishment has kept me exhausted.” He scrubbed his hand over his head and offered a wry grin. “You know how that is.”

Sideswipe chuckled. “Sure do.” Once upon a time, he’d been a notorious prankster with boundless energy who was constantly facing Kup’s wrath. “He can be pretty creative when properly motivated, and kid, you scared us all.”

‘All’ was an exaggeration, Rodimus knew. Many folks didn’t notice him missing. In fact, if not for having befriended the twins who made such a big fuss as a result, Rodimus wondered if anyone would have realized he was gone. Sure, Springer had been worried. He’d have probably gone after Rodimus himself if Sunstreaker hadn’t beaten him to it.

But overall?

Rodimus didn’t make much of a mark here.

Rodimus ducked his head. “Sorry,” he said. “It won’t happen again.”

“Oh, I know. I just… you sure you’re all right?” Sideswipe peered at him, gaze dropping to Rodimus’ abdomen but only briefly.

He tried for a pleasant grin. “Course I am. I’m all healed up. Sunny even made me pretty again. Why would you think otherwise?”

“Just a feeling I have.” Sideswipe shrugged, but he didn’t do nonchalant well. He was far too devious for that. “Plus, you’re different, I don’t know. Something about you is different. Not bad, just… different.”

Rodimus squinted at him. “Did Sunstreaker tell you?”

“Tell me what?” Sideswipe scratched at his chin. “You know how Sunny is. He’s a steel trap if he wants to be. Something I should know, hot shot?”

Rodimus shook his head. “No. Never mind.” He shifted his weight and returned his attention to the stage, where the newly inducted warriors lined up behind their Warchief who was preparing to make a speech.

Sideswipe made a noncommittal noise. He pressed his arm to Rodimus’. “You know Sunny and I love ya, right? No matter what you end up deciding.”

Rodimus blinked and gave Sideswipe a startled look. “Deciding? What do you mean?”

Sideswipe shrugged again. “Nothing. Just throwing that out there.” He leaned in close, all but laying his head on Rodimus’ shoulder. “Just in case, you know, you want to go out after whatever’s still got your spark.”

“I-I don’t know what you mean.”

“Sure you don’t.” Sideswipe rubbed his face on Rodimus’ shoulder and looked up at him with a bright grin. “But in case you do figure out what I mean, just know that me and Sunny, we got your back, okay?”

A raucous sound rose up from the gathered crowd then, as their fellow clansmechs clapped and cheered for their Warchief. The newly inducted warriors bowed, beaming with pride. The roar grew louder. The band started to play. The celebration would begin soon.

And Sideswipe beamed up at Rodimus, brimming with affection. It was almost enough.

Rodimus’ spark bloomed with warmth. “Thanks,” he said. “And I mean that, Sides. You and Sunny mean the world to me.”

“We know.” Sideswipe winked and laughed, jostling Rodimus with his shoulder. “You’re staying tonight, right?”

For the dance and bonfire? For the engex and sweet treats and the lead up to mating season?

Rodimus considered skipping it all. He didn’t feel like he had much to celebrate. He no longer had anyone he wished to court.

Kup had given him the evening away from scrubbing, so he could go to the celebration, and a part of him thought maybe he’d rather be cleaning. It sure would be better than standing on the sidelines, staring longingly at all the things he’d never have.

“You know Sunny will be put out if you don’t,” Sideswipe added. “You owe us both a dance. And you’ll also miss out on trying my new, special recipe. One I might even be convinced to share.”

Rodimus managed a smile. “I’ll come.” For their sake, if nothing and no one else’s.

“Sweet.” Sideswipe leaned in and gave him a peck on the cheek. “Save me a dance, okay? We gotta show all these stiffs out here how to really groove.”

Rodimus chuckled. “If you say so.”

“I do, in fact.” Sideswipe grinned and spun away with a little playful salute. “Catch you later.”

And then he was gone, joining the roil of mechs as they seethed away from the stage and surged toward the main courtyard for the party tonight. The bonfire would really grow after sunset, the high grade would be flowing, there would be treats aplenty, and even those on perimeter guard would be spelled later so they could take part.

The Festival of Stars was the single, biggest event in all of the settlement for the entirety of the year.

All in all, it wasn’t a terrible way to spend an evening. Once upon a time, Rodimus would have been jittering with excitement about it. He would have danced with the best of them. He would have joined in the strength challenges and the skill challenges. He’d have drank himself into a stupor, and stuffed himself full of treats until he purged. And he’d have called it a good night.

He supposed he had changed. Maybe even for the better.

Sighing, Rodimus pushed himself off the wall. Best go take a quick rinse, soak, and buff, or Sunstreaker would never let him live it down. He still had to look his best, no matter what. He still had to pretend he belonged here.

It wasn’t like he had anywhere else to go.

~

Starscream leapt across the room and snatched the small box out of Deadlock’s hands before he could think twice about what he was doing. He whipped around, bodily putting himself between Deadlock and his reclaimed prize, while the last few energon treats slid around inside.

“Uh. I take it you don’t want to share those?” Deadlock asked from behind Starscream, his voice richly amused, but also bewildered.

Starscream worked his intake and shook his head. “No.” He edged away from Deadlock and returned the box to the stasis field. “They were a gift,” he added, to clarify. “And I only have so many.”

“A gift.” Deadlock leaned against the counter, watching Starscream intently. “This wouldn’t have something to do with the Firebrand, would it?”

“Insomuch that he made them.” Starscream shrugged and closed the door, sealing the treats safely in the keeper.

“Uh huh.” Deadlock’s grin widened, turning sharklike and feral. “I don’t suppose he made that little car and jet on your desk either.”

Starscream felt heat steal into his faceplate. “As a matter of fact, he did,” he said airily and cocked an orbital ridge at his best friend. “Why?”

“For someone whose existence you claim to be unimportant, you sure do treat the things he left behind specially,” Deadlock drawled. “One might, I dare say, claim that you liked said person.”

Starscream reared back; his wings went rigid. “That’s absurd,” he spluttered, the heat in his face growing. “He was an irritation. An annoyance. A distraction. A distraction I don’t need, if I may remind you, because my very spark depends on it!” He shook a finger in Deadlock’s direction, spilling out the last on the edge of a growl.

Deadlock, however, didn’t so much as flinch in the face of it. “You’re not as solitary as you like to think you are, Starling.” He paused and his voice softened just a tad. “And I’m not around nearly as much as I ought to be either.”

“I don’t blame you for that,” Starscream said and whirled away from Deadlock, his spark doing an unfortunate squeeze-flutter in his chassis. He nearly tripped over Scramble in his haste. “You wander. It’s in your nature. I know that.”

“Doesn’t mean you don’t get lonely.”

“Yes, it does,” Starscream snapped. His spark pulsed harder as if with fear, though there was nothing to be afraid of. “I am not lonely because I like to be alone. I have things to do. My research takes precedence above all else. I don’t have time for… for…”

“Friendship? Companionship?” Deadlock cut him off before he could stalk out the door, leaning toward Starscream with a purr in his vocals. “Romance?”

Starscream folded his arms over his cockpit. “All of the above.”

“Oh, I’ve no doubt you tell yourself that to make the long nights easier.” Deadlock cupped his face, a surprisingly gentle gesture for the often rough and tumble mech. “But behind that snark and bluster, you don’t want to be alone. Otherwise you wouldn’t bother with me, and you never would have bothered with Blurr.”

Starscream stiffened. “We are not talking about Blurr.” No matter how many years had passed, memories of his former lover and current friend would never be easy. Starscream would not admit to the nights he spent pacing the corridors, wondering if he’d made the right choice.

“I know.” Deadlock’s thumbs stroked Starscream’s cheeks. “He’s off-limits, a wound that still isn’t healing. Doesn’t make what I’m saying any less true though.”

Starscream snorted, his gaze dropping from Deadlock’s. He hated it when Deadlock got all schmoopy and earnest. Made it harder to ignore him because he was just so damned sincere.

Made it harder to watch him leave, too.

“What’s it matter anyway?” Starscream asked, and hated how tired he sounded. Tired and disappointed both. “He’s gone. What point in there is admitting that I actually enjoyed his company?”

A small rumble rose in Deadlock’s engine. “You know what, Star. I think you were wrong.”

“Shocker,” Starscream muttered and dragged his optics back to Deadlock. “About what, pray tell?”

“There is someone I need to kill.” Deadlock dragged him close, pressing a kiss to the curve of his mouth. “Soon as you tell me his name.”

Starscream snorted again. He curled his fingers around Deadlock’s hand, slowly loosening them from his face. “For what? Being such a charming pain in the aft?”

“For stealing something without realizing its value,” Deadlock corrected and let Starscream withdraw this time. He knew Starscream too well.

“You’re ridiculous.” Nevertheless, Starscream’s spark did warm. Deadlock’s concern for him was worth all the credits in the universe. “It’s hardly his fault. But I appreciate the thought.”

“You could go after him, you know.”

Starscream rolled his optics and slipped past Deadlock, leaving the energon room as he’d intended to do, and not at all surprised when Deadlock padded quietly after him. Scramble stayed behind, scooping up the crumbs Deadlock had dropped in his grazing.

“No, thanks. If he’d wanted to stay, he would have.”

“Starling, you’re not the most inviting mech. You probably practically threw him out, knowing you.”

Starscream didn’t deign to dignify that with a retort. Even if it was true. He didn’t need distractions, damn it. He didn’t need the hope that Rodimus would stay, however thin it had been. He hadn’t given Rodimus a chance to say ‘no.’

“I have work to do,” he said, without looking over his shoulder. “Kindly entertain yourself for a few hours, if you think you can manage that.”

Deadlock snorted. “Yeah, sure. I can tell when I’m not wanted. I’ll just go down and have a soak. Me, myself, and I. And my hand.” He slipped past Starscream, wriggling his fingers in emphasis. “Alone.”

“Yes, you’re going to self-service. And if you’re attempting to entice me into joining you, it’s not working,” Starscream said, rolling his optics.

“Can’t blame me for trying.” Deadlock winked, bearing a fanged grin. “But if you change your mind…”

“I know where to find you.”

Starscream ignored the irresponsible thoughts that told him to follow and join Deadlock in the oil pool, to take his pleasures when he could.

He had work to do. He had to focus on it. His work was the only thing that mattered.

Nothing else.

~

Rodimus shone like a newly sparked mech. His paint gleamed and sparkled in the light of the bonfire, and once upon a time, he would have been in the middle of the seething mass of mechs dancing and spinning around to the cheerful beat. He would have been laughing, darting from partner to partner, trying to sneak a grope or two maybe, and getting groped in return.

The sense of celebration in the air was suffocating. The buffet table was laden with treats, savory and sweet, from Sideswipe’s fancy candies to puffy oil cakes and metal wafers, and big drums of high grade and sweetened juices for the younger mechs. Later, there would be a fireworks ceremony, courtesy of Flotsam and his love of all things explosive.

Rodimus found himself hovering on the edges, however. He had a cube of high grade, the same one he’d started with, and only half-full besides. He sat on one of the benches scattered around for the elderly and easily fatigued. He sat alone.

He watched everyone: the dancers, the chatters, those hanging out on the fringes, and those up to mischief as they huddled in a small group and whispered together. Even Warchief Megatron was here, a cup of high grade in one hand as he was deep in conversation with Soundwave. Sunstreaker was next to him, Megatron’s arm around his waist, resting casually on his lower back.

Sometimes, he’d lean in to say something to Sunstreaker, who’d smirk around his own engex. Or Megatron’s lips would brush over Sunstreaker’s audial. Flirting in public, the gall Warchief had, but in the end, it was Megatron who blushed while Sunstreaker only looked more sly.

Until Sideswipe came strutting by, clutching a cube of engex, a swagger in his step. He had the audacity to swat the Warchief’s aft with a wink, causing Megatron to startle and whip around, fixing Sideswipe with a glare. Sunstreaker was more demonstrative, socking his twin in the shoulder with a punch hard enough to dent Sideswipe’s armor.

Sideswipe laughed it off, dodging the next swing. Megatron looked more amused than concerned. The twins, after all, made a habit of fighting and wrestling each other. Sunstreaker had yet to kill Sideswipe.

Though the key word here was ‘yet’.

It was nice, Rodimus mused, to see the three of them like this. Sunstreaker and Sideswipe and Megatron. They were all good for each other. The affection they felt was clear. The love and the trust.

Rodimus’ spark twinged. He wanted it, too.

He sipped at his energon and shifted his attention, if only to spare his feelings. He watched the dancers instead. He watched Springer and the other newly branded as they talked and laughed together, their brands shiny even at night.

He found himself wandering if Starscream liked to dance. Probably not, he thought. Starscream didn’t seem like someone who enjoyed noise or crowds. He’d probably like the buffet table though, Rodimus thought with a snicker. Starscream did enjoy the treats Rodimus made.

He probably wasn’t one for dancing though. Which was a shame. Rodimus thought he might like to see Starscream out there, glittering and grinning as he twirled and spun and wriggled with the beat. Or maybe he’d sit back and scowl about how noisy everyone was as he gorged on treats, probably hovering over the buffet table, staking claim on a plate of sour-sweet gummies.

Rodimus grinned at the thought, Starscream hissing and snarling over anyone who came too close to the treats he favored. Maybe he’d even have one of his drones, probably Swift, beeping and honking in further threat.

“Now there is a sight I’ve not seen as a late.”

Rodimus startled, whipping around to see Optimus Prime approaching him. Rodimus leapt to his feet, hastening into a shallow bow.

“Sir! I’m sorry, I didn’t see you there.”

Optimus waved off the apology. “Probably because I was being sneaky.” He gave Rodimus a conspiratorial look. “I’ve found that if I don’t, people spend far too much time worrying about being polite and proper, and not enough time having fun.”

Rodimus blinked. “You’re the Prime, sir.” He shifted uneasily, feeling far more uncomfortable under Optimus’ stare than he did Megatron’s. There was something about Optimus, as though the weight of millenniums of experience peered back at Rodimus. “We should hold you to the highest respect.”

“Mmm.” Optimus lowered himself to the bench Rodimus had just abandoned, leaving enough room for Rodimus beside him. “Centuries since we’ve lived in the city, and still some things linger like an untreatable rust infection.” He gave Rodimus a long look. “I am a mortal mech, and the only thing which makes me worthy is that I have earned the respect of others.”

Rodimus shifted again, and felt his face flush. He dropped his gaze. “Yes, sir.”

“That wasn’t meant as a chastisement, Rodimus. Merely an observation.” Optimus patted the bench beside him. “Come. Sit. I didn’t mean to take your bench from you.”

Somehow, it felt less like an offer and more like a command. Rodimus sat, though cautiously. The last thing he needed was anyone accusing him of offending their Prime. Or insulting him. Or imposing himself. Or anything really.

“You’re, uh, you’re not dancing?” Rodimus asked, trying not to squirm. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen their Prime dancing. Soundwave was not one for letting loose either.

Optimus accorded him a smile, which softened his more stern features. “Not at the moment, no. I haven’t a sense of rhythm, you see, and as large as I am, I fear many the flattened foot by the end of the evening.” He chuckled, low and soft. “Wrench might have my head yet.”

Rodimus grinned, though he couldn’t imagine their stately leader being uncoordinated at anything. Still, it was an amusing mental image.

“And there it is again,” Optimus said, tilting his head.

Rodimus blinked. “What do you mean, sir?”

“You’re smiling.”

Heat stole into Rodimus’ cheeks. He resisted the urge to duck his head. “Yeah, I… uh…”

“That wasn’t a chastisement either.” Optimus chuckled, and his gaze slid away, toward the happily spinning dancers. “You aren’t among them. Though I seem to recall you were often a participant in these celebrations. Am I mistaken?”

Rodimus shook his head. “No. You remember correctly. I’m not in the mood for dancing, I guess.”

“Mm.” There went another one of those non-committal noises. “Might that be because you expected to be among those who were granted their warrior’s badge today?”

Humiliation burned at Rodimus’ finials. This time he did drop his gaze. “Yes, sir.” He stared down at his hands, watched his embarrassingly shiny fingers tangle together. “I’m sure you’ve heard all about my many failures.”

“I did hear you’ve had something of an adventure, yes. Though I don’t recall there being any mention of failures,” Optimus conceded. His hands flattened on his thighs, fingers rapping a rhythm painfully off-beat to the music. “Why do you want to bear the warrior’s badge, Rodimus?”

He startled, not expecting the blunt question. He fidgeted, picking at one of his seams. “It opens up things to me. Things I want. And well it’s the only thing I’m good at.”

Optimus’ gaze turned back toward him again, and somehow it burned. “Is it really?”

Somehow, Rodimus felt like he’d given the wrong answer. “Yes?” he said, though it didn’t sound as firm as he liked. “I mean, Springer’s one. Most of my batchmates are either sworn already, or are on their way. And warriors are important.”

“Whereas civilians aren’t,” Optimus surmised, his tone carefully even.

Oh, Primus. There he went, insulting the Prime, as he hadn’t meant to.

Rodimus flushed. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

“I know.” Optimus was silent for a long moment, his gaze on the dancers, his face in profile, stern but kind. “Megatron and I chose to leave the cities for many reasons, but one of which is that we were through with being judged by our function. And yet, we have somehow carried some of those traditions with us. We still divide ourselves with brands, giving ourselves labels, even when sometimes, some of us don’t fit into those walls.”

Rodimus scrubbed his hands down his thighs. “But that’s the way people are though. We like to have ways to describe ourselves.”

“True. But one must also consider that when presented with a choice of either and or, there leaves little room for those who are neither.”

Rodimus blinked, something in Optimus’ tone suggesting that his words were very important. “What are you saying, sir?”

Optimus audibly cycled a ventilation. “Sometimes we don’t know that there are other options until fate throws them into our path, seemingly by coincidence.”

Rodimus squinted at him. “What?”

Finally, those bright blue optics turned back toward him, almost frightening in their sincerity. “You did not repair yourself.”

Rodimus’ mouth fell open. He fully intended to defend himself, defend his lie, truth be told, but Optimus held up a single hand.

“I am not accusing you or intending to punish you, Rodimus,” he said. “This is merely an observation. We have no law against making friends with outsiders, even those of the Seeker persuasion. Indeed, if you are capable of seeing beyond the rumors and the horror stories, then this is something I wish to encourage.”

There the heat was again, stealing into his face, making his internal temperature rise. “How did you guess?”

Optimus chuckled. “Wrench was the first to suggest it had been Starscream, but I’d always suspected your story was not entirely made of truth.”

“You know his name?”

“Wrench informed me.” Again, Optimus laughed, though it was not so much jest as inner amusement. “They were acquainted, apparently, at some point.”

Rodimus’ jaw dropped once more. He tried to imagine the surly medic interacting with Starscream, and all he could see was a disaster in the making.

“You’ve been quite different since you’ve returned,” Optimus added, though his gaze wandered away again, as though he knew the effect it had on Rodimus. “As if your spark is no longer interested in the paths laid before you.”

“Oh. That.” Rodimus hadn’t even realized Optimus noticed. After all, Rodimus was just a Firebrand, one of many unbranded mechs training and learning as they set their sights on which brand they wanted to bear.

Rodimus scuffed one foot against the ground, watching the dancers as the music changed tempo, to something slow and sweet, forcing the eager singles to the periphery and the couples – mated or otherwise – to the center.

“Just been doing a lot of hard thinking lately, I guess,” Rodimus admitted, something in his spark giving a hard pang as he watched the lovers swaying together. “My frame’s here, but my processor is back out in the desert, watching a Seeker hard at work. It was only a week, I don’t even know why I’m still thinking about him. Or what the point of it is.”

“The point, I would assume, is that you want to see him again,” Optimus said quietly.

Rodimus shook his head and stared down at his lap. “Even if I did, why would I? He likes his privacy. He was pretty darn eager to see me go. The last thing I want to do is intrude again.” He cycled a long ventilation. “Besides, my place is here. I belong here.”

“Belonging is all a matter of the spark,” Optimus corrected and turned to face Rodimus entirely. “Rodimus if there is something – or someone – you want, you should allow yourself the opportunity to seek it. There is no greater regret than never knowing what answer you would have found.”

Rodimus looked up at their spiritual leader and nibbled on his bottom lip. “So… you’re telling me that I should follow my spark?”

“In more words, yes.” Optimus smiled, and it was so genuine and encouraging that Rodimus felt his own spark flutter. Especially when the Prime rested his hand on Rodimus’ shoulder. “We came to the wilds to be free, to choose for ourselves our fate, and not be obligated to any set path. If you find that yours isn’t here, then you are no more required to stay here than any other. Just know that there will always be a home for you here.”

Rodimus’ spark fluttered. “Sideswipe said that, too.” He scratched at the side of his nose. “I guess I’m not very subtle, huh? Since everyone seems to know what I didn’t figure out until now.”

Optimus squeezed his shoulder. “Sometimes, we are blind to the most important things.” His hand slid away, but his field wrapped around Rodimus, warm and encouraging. “You are free to make whatever decision you wish, Rodimus. Though if you do decide to follow your spark, you might want to tell Sunstreaker first.”

Despite himself, Rodimus barked a laugh and gave Optimus a sidelong look. “He was that much a nuisance, I take it?”

“He was very concerned for you,” Optimus confirmed and his optics sparkled. “And quite forceful in his defense of you. He had my brother in quite the mood.”

Rodimus chuckled softly, suddenly feeling lighter than he thought possible. “So I’ve heard. I’ll tell him.” He rolled his shoulders. “I mean, if I decide to go. I still don’t see much of a point, but I guess I’ll never know if I don’t try.”

“And I wish you luck.” Optimus rose to his feet, the smile on his lips shifting targets as he noticed his own bondmate across the way, beckoning to him. Megatron had been dragged to the dance floor by Sideswipe which left Soundwave on his lonesome. “With such a prospective mate, I am certain you will need it.”

In that, like so many things, Optimus was right.

Rodimus smiled as Optimus moved away, keeping to the periphery of the dancing crowd so as not to intrude, as he met up with Soundwave. They pressed their foreheads together, a brief and chaste moment of intimacy, before Soundwave tangled the fingers of his left hand with Optimus’ right. Something was spoken and off they went, vanishing into the crowd and the night. No doubt to join the celebration in their own way.

Where Sunstreaker had gone, Rodimus didn’t know. But he banished thoughts of finding his dear friend and coaxing out a dance.

Sunstreaker was not his to entice. Not that he’d ever truly been.

Rodimus fiddled with his energon before he tipped it back and drained the cube. He had a decision to make. And he could not do so while sitting here.

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[TF] Trial by Fire 09

The scent of a freshly scrubbed speedster announced Deadlock’s arrival, but so did the drape of a warm frame over Starscream’s from behind, arms caging him in and chassis pressed to the back of his wings. Kisses dotted like little gifts all over the curvature of his head until Starscream squirmed.

“What did I miss?” Deadlock asked, amused and warm, his voice drizzling into Starscream’s audial and making him shiver.

“Nothing,” Starscream replied, and gamely tried to wriggle from under Deadlock’s weight, but for all that the mech was shorter than him, he was quite heavy.

Triple-layered armor, apparently. A mech could never be too careful when he lived most of his life alone and wandering.

“Come on, Lock, I’m working,” Starscream said, in vain, as he peered at his datapad but couldn’t seem to focus given the way Deadlock’s hands lingered.

And wandered. Sliding up over his shoulders, curling around to brush his abdomen, and then slipping over his chest. One finger twirled a tiny turbine, sending zings of pleasure through Starscream’s lines.

“Mmm, so I see,” Deadlock purred as his finger went flick, flick, flick, and Starscream’s turbine lazily spun in its casing. “But I’ll bet you need a boost first. Gotta keep your processor sharp, right?” He nibbled at the side of Starscream’s neck, singling out a cable and applying a sturdy pressure to it.

Charge crackled up Starscream’s backstrut. “That is a terrible excuse,” he groaned.

“But is it working?” Flick-flick-flick went the finger while the other hand toyed with his cockpit, trying to ease into the seam.

Starscream shivered and arched into Deadlock’s hands, his array tingling. Especially when the finger abandoned his cockpit and went in search of his dataport, flicking over the latch protecting it.

“Not at all,” Starscream said in an attempt to be droll, but it failed miserably as he pushed into Deadlock’s touch. “I swear the universe is out to distract me.”

Deadlock laughed and pinched at his dataport cover, making Starscream jerk. “I’m the only one who’s been here in months. What else would you find so distracting? Unless…”

He trailed off, tone turning contemplative, and then his hands vanished. Starscream made a noise of protest, but it quickly cut off when Deadlock swung around and deposited himself in Starscream’s lap, straddling him. He draped his hands over Starscream’s shoulders and cocked his head.

“Unless I’ve not been your only visitor,” he purred and leaned forward, hands seeking and finding Starscream’s wings. “Spill it, Starling.”

“Spill what? You’ve missed nothing,” Starscream said with a huff, his hands finding their way to Deadlock’s hips, because if his friend was going to persist in being a distraction, then Starscream was going to enjoy himself.

“Ooo, the lies you tell me straight from your lips.” Deadlock tweaked an aileron and Starscream shivered, his array flushing with heat. “Something’s different. This whole place feels different. And you, especially are different.”

Deadlock leaned in close, pressed his forehead to Starscream’s, sliding forward until their chestplates touched. “Come on, Starling. Tell ole Deadlock what’s going on.”

Starscream laughed. “Primus, you’re ridiculous.” He gripped Deadlock’s hips, letting his thumbs sweep inward, teasing Deadlock’s array housing. “But you’re right. I’ve had a visitor since you’ve last been here.”

“What? Really?” Deadlock reared back, and a scowl twisted his lips, though it wasn’t directed at Starscream in particular. “Who do I need to kill?”

“No one, you bloodthirsty thing.” Starscream snorted, but his spark still fluttered at the offer. It was nice that someone wanted to protect him. “One of the locals got themselves into some trouble at the back door, and I bailed him out.”

Deadlock squinted at him. “You let someone into the tower?”

“Let is a strong word. It was either that or deal with his clan when they came looking for their missing Firebrand.” Starscream leaned in, tried to initiate a nuzzle. “He’s gone now. What does it matter? Don’t you owe me a ‘boost’ as you so elegantly called it?”

“He didn’t hurt you?” Deadlock’s hands swept over Starscream’s shoulders and arms, a small frown on his lips, as though determined to find the smallest injury.

“No,” Starscream replied, bemused. “But I appreciate your concern, Deadlock.”

Deadlock cocked his head. “That can’t just be it though.” He pointed a finger at Starscream, waggling it in his face. “Usually when your research is interrupted, it’s the first thing you rant at me when I show up. So why’d I have to pull this time out of you?”

“What? Do you think there’s something nefarious going on?” Starscream chuckled and resisted the urge to nip at that waggling finger.

“I think there’s something you’re not telling me.” Deadlock’s glossa flicked over his lips, and he leaned forward, nose twitching as though he could pick up the scent of the Firebrand off Starscream’s frame. “You fragged him, didn’t you?”

For someone who spent so much time isolated from society, Deadlock could be astonishingly perceptive.

“Not in so many words,” Starscream said, and of all things, his face heated. “I miscalculated, and didn’t know if my coding degradation would stall until you arrived. I was desperate.”

“And lucky he was here to donate.”

“He saved my life,” Starscream corrected. “I’m still not sure he quite understands that.”

Deadlock snorted. “Right. What would it matter to him? He got to frag a Seeker. Aft probably pranced out of here, trying to calculate who all he should blab to.” He folded his arms, optics darkening.

“While I appreciate your defending my honor, as I said, it wasn’t like that.” Starscream’s tone was wry, even as he tickled his fingers into Deadlock’s seams. “He offered his code and that was it. We did not interface.”

“Hmph. Then you found the honorable one out of the bunch,” he said with a sniff, though he gave Starscream a side-eyed look. “And don’t think I haven’t noticed you trying to distract me. Your fingers are all over my seams.”

Starscream made his optics big and wide. “What fingers?” He kept his tone as innocent as possible, even as he found a bundle of cables and stroked them. “Besides, what else am I supposed to do with a pretty little grounder in my lap? Hmm?”

“I can think of a few things,” Deadlock purred and his hands returned to Starscream’s wings, his engine rumbling noisily. “That is, if you don’t mind the distraction.”

“I wasn’t making any progress anyway,” Starscream said and pulled Deadlock into a kiss, moaning as denta nipped at his lips, and Deadlock rolled his hips in a manner which should be considered illegal.

~

The settlement’s oil baths were larger and more numerous than Starscream’s private one, but they were also cooler. And loud.

Rodimus tried not to make comparisons, but couldn’t help it. Not when he sank into the springwell they’d carved and shivered, because it wasn’t as blistering hot as Starscream’s had been. Or quite so soothing. He missed the enticing scent of whatever minerals Starscream swirled into the oils to make them so appealing. Plus Scuttle wasn’t around beeping at him as if afraid Rodimus had drowned.

To be fair, however, there was one thing Starscream’s private bath didn’t have – a determined and dedicated Sunstreaker.

There was once a time that Rodimus thought getting scrubbed on by a willing partner was an erotic experience that would lead to fun, berthtime shenanigans. He thought maybe that was still possible, so long as his partner wasn’t Sunstreaker, who considered time spent in the oil baths as serious as time spent on the training mat. It wasn’t for fooling around. It was for getting clean and spotless to Sunstreaker’s idea of perfection.

Sunstreaker scrubbed into Rodimus’ seams and armor plate as though the tiniest speck of dirt offended him. He lifted Rodimus’ limbs and spun him around like a drone meant to obey and little else. It wasn’t the soft and sensual, flirtatious sweep of a washrag. It was a determined, ferocious scrub that would have been invasive, if Rodimus wasn’t so used to it. Sunstreaker didn’t know how to say he cared so he showed it instead.

At least he’d be clean afterward, Rodimus thought, and braced himself to endure. It wouldn’t be the first time. Besides, a scrubdown by Sunstreaker was considered a thing of value in the clan. He was being treated. Other mechs were envious of the friendship Rodimus had with the twins, even though they’d scorned Sunstreaker and Sideswipe before.

Rodimus knew, just as much as the twins did, that their interest only came about because Sunstreaker and Sideswipe had successfully courted the warchief. Suddenly, Sunstreaker’s abrasiveness and Sideswipe’s irritating pranks were endearing, rather than off-putting. Now that they had the audial of one of the clan’s highest ranked members.

“So,” Sunstreaker began as he attacked a scuff on Rodimus’ left shin as though it had insulted his twin, “Want to tell me what happened?”

Rodimus winced. “You already know.” He didn’t meet Sunstreaker’s gaze, instead looking around at the other patrons of the bathing room. There was a group of younglings splashing around in the corner, under the bored gaze of their sitter. “I let the idiots goad me into doing something stupid. Then I got lost and had to hide out until the storm passed.”

“You were also attacked by turbowolves and somehow managed to repair yourself in the middle of a storm,” Sunstreaker said, his tone mild, but disbelieving.

“Yeah. Sounds about right.”

Sunstreaker snorted and spun Rodimus around. He bent over to peer at the patch of bare armor on Rodimus’ abdomen. “You didn’t do this,” he said as he gave it a poke before he looked up at Rodimus. “Come on, Roddy. It’s me, not those idiots. You can tell me the truth. Who’d you run into? One of Elita’s bunch? Magnus’? Skyfire’s?”

Rodimus shook his head. “I didn’t come across any of them. Honestly, Sun. I’m the only mech dumb enough not to check the forecast and realize there was a storm coming.” He rubbed the back of his head, lowering his gaze.

“Foolish, too, for actually believing those stupid rumors and letting the other Firebrands goad you.” Sunstreaker gave Rodimus another critical look. “You’re clean enough. Let’s get you dry so I can paint you.”

“Aww, Sun. You don’t have to.”

Sunstreaker cocked an orbital ridge. “None of that was a suggestion, Rodimus. Up you get.” He patted Rodimus’ aft for emphasis. “I’m not letting you walk around looking like that. It’s embarrassing.”

Beaten, Rodimus climbed out of the oil bath and snatched a meshcloth, toweling himself in short, efficient strokes, just as Sunstreaker had taught him. Beside him, Sunstreaker did the same.

In the corner, the younglings were being herded out by their sitter. This time of the day, the baths were scarcely occupied. Most of their clansmechs were on duty or out performing necessary tasks. The few mechs that were present paid them no attention. Frag, Drag Strip looked like he was napping. Rodimus wouldn’t be surprised if he actually was. Drag Strip was the only mech who spent more time soaking in the baths than Sunstreaker.

“You shouldn’t let them get under your plating like that,” Sunstreaker murmured as he finished his own armor and then frowned at Rodimus’ back, only to attack his spoiler with the drying cloth.

Rodimus bit back a sigh and endured once again. It was part of the price of a Sunstreaker cleaning. If he didn’t do a good enough job, Sunstreaker would do it himself.

“Goading you into doing something so stupid, I mean,” Sunstreaker added as he wiped the last trickles of oil from Rodimus’ spoiler and tossed the meshcloth into the recycle bin. “You don’t have anything to prove to them.”

“Maybe not. But I do have to show that I’m capable to Kup and Wirelight and the Warchief.” Rodimus gave Sunstreaker an askance look, though he knew Sunstreaker would never understand.

He and Sideswipe were born warriors, built for it down to the struts. It came easy to them. They had always been certain of their place in the clan. Yeah, maybe they’d wavered when it came to their chosen mate because who would be arrogant enough to court their warchief? But the twins had always been confident of themselves. It was one thing they never lacked.

“Chasing after a myth is not the way to do that,” Sunstreaker retorted. He tugged Rodimus out of the public baths and down the narrower back halls, no doubt to the large room he shared with his twin and their Warchief.

Warchief Megatron and Optimus Prime had larger rooms than anyone in the clan, but they weren’t ostentatious. Both mechs claimed they were nothing special, and to be fair, both had rather large family units that needed the greater space. The Prime’s bond was a carrier mech, one responsible for a half-dozen symbionts, and the Prime himself often held meetings in his quarters. Warchief Megatron was much the same, though he and the twins had not opted to raise younglings.

Yet.

“He’s not a myth,” Rodimus muttered.

Sunstreaker rolled his optics. “I know that. But honestly Rodimus, did you really think finding a Seeker for whatever reason was any way to prove your worth?”

His face heated. He clamped his mouth shut. He didn’t want to talk about how desperate he felt then. How the goading and the teasing and the challenge had made him puff up, made him feel obligated to prove himself. How he felt miles behind his fellow Firebrands and felt he’d never catch up. How his dreams of being a warrior slipped through his fingers. He’d never get to fight alongside Sideswipe and Sunstreaker if he couldn’t take the Warchief’s brand.

He wouldn’t get to travel. He wouldn’t get to see anything. He’d be stuck at the settlement, always at the settlement, with the rest of those too old or young or unskilled to defend themselves. He’d never see the Sea of Rust or the Sea of Mercury. He’d never visit with the other clans and meet new people.

He was too stupid for anything else. Rodimus knew this. If he couldn’t be a warrior, what use was he? He hadn’t the processor for tactics or study. He hadn’t the creativity to weave or sew or build. He was somewhat practiced at a little bit of everything, but skilled at absolutely nothing, and useless everywhere around.

What was he if not a warrior? If he couldn’t seek any of his passions? If he had to settle for security and safety, left behind to rot? He didn’t know if he could bear it, a life like that. He had to be meant for more.

If not a warrior, then what?

Rodimus didn’t have a good answer for that which didn’t make him sound pathetic or like a fool, or worse, both. So he pressed his lips together and folded his arms over his chest.

Sunstreaker sighed. He didn’t press for answers, at least, not while they still walked the public corridors.

When they arrived at the massive quarters Sunstreaker shared with his twin and their Warchief, however, Rodimus knew he was in for it. He braced himself, and tried not to look like he trudged to his doom as Sunstreaker swept aside the swinging door and gestured him inside.

Rodimus had been here before, albeit not as often as the time he’d spent in the small room Sunstreaker and Sideswipe used to share. The largest room was, by far, the main receiving room. Three other doorways led to the shared berth room, an office for the Warchief, and a storage room for all their spare weapons, energon, and supplies.

“Sit,” Sunstreaker said as he gathered up his painting supplies, all of which he kept in a central location for ease of use. Given how often he touched up his own paint, it was no surprise. He had a whole corner of the receiving room cordoned off just for his supplies.

Rodimus planted his aft in one of the chairs expertly arranged throughout the receiving room and cycled a ventilation, preparing himself for a lecture. Or an interrogation. Or both. Sunstreaker could be pretty perceptive when he put his processor to it, and with a victim who couldn’t escape, he had all the time in the world.

“Now,” Sunstreaker said as he moved closer, dragging a wheeled tray with his various instruments arrayed upon it, “are you going to tell me what really happened out there?”

Rodimus squirmed.

“Be still,” Sunstreaker added as he picked up a cloth and a bottle and eyed Rodimus’ midsection intently.

Rodimus fought back a sigh. “I’ve told you what happened.”

“Not the truth.”

Rodimus ground his denta. “How are you so sure I’m lying?”

“Because I know you,” Sunstreaker said simply, as if that was explanation enough.

Sunstreaker frowned, but it was directed at Rodimus’ belly, as he drizzled something on the mesh cloth and started to dab at Rodimus’ armor. The bitter reek of stripper floated up to Rodimus’ nose, and he wrinkled it.

“What does it matter anyway?” Rodimus asked, as desperate to keep the secret as he was to tell someone, anyone, about it in a vague hope that they would understand and help him make sense of it. “I’m back, I’m alive. What’s it matter what really happened?”

Sunstreaker didn’t look at him, focusing intently on the task at hand. “Because it matters to you,” he said softly, and then he looked up, his optics gentle as so few knew they could be. “Do you trust me?”

Rodimus groaned. He buried his face behind his hands. “Sunny, that’s not fair,” he said, just short of a whine. “You can’t pull that on me.”

“You see, that’s where you’re wrong.” Sunstreaker leaned back, and the tray clattered as he set aside the stripper and reached for something else. “I’m a warrior. I can use whatever tactic I like. That still doesn’t answer my question.”

Rodimus’ shoulders sank, even as he shifted at Sunstreaker’s urging, surrendering his abdomen to his friend’s ministrations. He leaned into the chair, trying not to wince as Sunstreaker chipped at the raised edges of the ragged weld.

“You can’t tell anyone,” Rodimus said as he lowered his hands. He gnawed on his bottom lip in between words. “I mean it, Sunny. I owe him my life.”

“Owe,” Sunstreaker echoed, before he nodded firmly. “Consider it locked then. Not even Sides or Megatron will know.” He bent over Rodimus again. “Tell me.”

If there was one person in the entire settlement Rodimus could trust with the truth, it was Sunstreaker. And he needed to tell someone.

So he did.

Quietly, in stuttered bursts and meandering incomplete sentences, while Sunstreaker silently worked on making his abdomen look brand new and then moved on to touching up his frame here and there. He didn’t comment, said nothing until he was sure Rodimus was finished, and that made it easier somehow.

He told Sunstreaker about getting lost, finding the caves, being attacked by the turbowolves and thinking that he’d met his end. He talked about how he’d woken up in an unfamiliar place, in the company of a stranger, who had not only repaired him, but offered his home as a refuge from the storm.

How Starscream had been rude and standoffish, but kind where it mattered. How he was beautiful and smart and ate Rodimus’ treats with evident delight. How he’d let Rodimus read his books and use his training room and explore the universe through the holographs in the Astronomy room. How Starscream had trusted Rodimus with a secret of his own, and then, the code sharing. How it had felt, how strange it had been, but also wonderful.

And then, his own mixed feelings. How a part of him had wanted to stay, because he wasn’t sure there was anything left for him in the clan, and aside from that, he wanted to get to know Starscream better. He was fascinated by everything in the tower. He’d learned so much and wanted to learn more. He loved the drones and Scuttle especially. He wanted to kiss Starscream and mean it.

By the time he finished, Sunstreaker had moved on to buffing him to a shine, his fingers making long, delicate sweeps over Rodimus’ spoiler. It was soothing, like a loving embrace, and Rodimus leaned into it, feeling like a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Being around Sunstreaker, and Sideswipe also, had always been a comfort for him. Springer was his brother, but there was always this sense of competition between them. Whereas being with the twins was more about companionship.

“Well?” Rodimus prompted, once the silence had grown too long and stretched thin between them. He wanted Sunstreaker’s advice. He wanted to hear it from someone other than the stupid hopes building in his own spark.

Sunstreaker set down his buffing cloth and rested his hands on Rodimus’ shoulders. “I’m glad you came back to us,” he said.

Rodimus blinked. “That’s it?”

“Were you expecting a reprimand?” Sunstreaker’s voice was warm with humor, even as he moved around to face Rodimus, crouching to look up at him. “Tell me this, Rodimus. Is taking the Warchief’s badge the only action of worth to you?”

“It’s what I’m supposed to do.”

Sunstreaker shook his head, resting a hand on Rodimus’ nearest knee. “That’s not what I asked.”

Rodimus gnawed on his bottom lip. “If I’m not a warrior, then what am I? What’s the point of anything?” Which, he knew, didn’t answer Sunstreaker’s question either.

“I can’t answer that for you, and right now, I do think you need to answer it for yourself.” Sunstreaker patted his knee and stood up again, cupping Rodimus’ head and pressing a kiss to his forehead. “If I know you as well as I think I do, you’ll figure it out.”

“Thanks. I guess.” Rodimus squirmed in his grip, warmth fluttering out from his spark.

There was still a part of him which resented that Sunstreaker would never be his. He valued their friendship and what they had, but that Megatron had come along and wooed them away hung heavy in his spark. He used to dream about getting old enough, earning his warrior’s badge, and presenting himself as a mate candidate to the twins.

They bonded with Megatron before he ever got the chance.

“You’re welcome.” Sunstreaker released him and stepped back, lips curved with amusement. “Now come on. Let’s find you a meal before I turn you over to Kup’s custody.”

Rodimus groaned and hung his head. “Can’t I just hide here until he forgets about it?”

Sunstreaker chuckled. “I don’t think Megatron will approve, kid.”

“You’re not that much older than me.” Rodimus rolled his optics and forced himself to stand. Sunstreaker was right after all.

He had to face the consequences of his actions. No matter what it meant. Yes, they’d goaded him, but it had been Rodimus’ choice to leave without telling anyone, to barge into the desert with a half-baked plan and an absurd idea of proving himself.

“But thanks,” Rodimus added with a small smile. “For listening, I mean.”

Sunstreaker winked and dragged him into a half-hug, his frame warm and his engine purring and his field feeling the closest to what Rodimus could describe as home.

“Anytime, Roddy. Anytime.”

~

“So tell me about the Firebrand,” Deadlock said, out of nowhere, as they lounged in Starscream’s berth, feeling lazy and indulgent.

Interfacing with Deadlock was always a curious thing. Half-comfort, half-familiarity, all pleasure. Starscream adored Deadlock and the sensations his friend could invoke in him, and there was a soft curl of comfort in his belly whenever Deadlock was around. It was love, but it wasn’t.

Starscream didn’t think he could define it.

The jolt in his spark at the mere mention of Rodimus, however, was something wholly different. And unexpected. Had the Firebrand crawled so deeply under his plating?

Starscream lazily stretched his arms over his head and flopped over to his front, letting his wings twitch and shift in their housing. “Why?”

“Because I’m curious.” Deadlock sprawled next to him, hand slip-sliding over Starscream’s back to tease his seams. “And because it’s rare that you let anyone stick around.”

Starscream twitched a wing and pillowed his head on his arms. “Is that jealousy I detect?”

“Mmm. More like protectiveness.” Deadlock leaned over, getting his mouth on a wing flap, his denta asserting a light pressure.

Starscream hissed, heat coiling in his array, threatening to stir his sated bits back to life. “He’s gone,” Starscream managed to spit out. “What does it matter what he’s like?”

“It just does.” Deadlock’s ex-vents were hot and wet on the edge of Starscream’s wing. “Come on, Starling. Tell me. Was he at least attractive?”

Starscream laughed into the berth cover. “You’re ridiculous,” he said with a groan. “But yes, he was. Red and yellow, these garish flames painted across his chestplate. His alt-mode had a spoiler, and in root mode, it created these adorable faux-wings across his upper back.”

“Mmm.” Deadlock nibbled on his ailerons. One hand drifted down Starscream’s back, flirting over the curve of his aft. “What else?”

Starscream buried his face in his arms, though it did little to stall the light coils of pleasure stirring in his frame. “I think he’s from the Kaonite clan, you know, that big settlement to the east? He wasn’t branded.”

“Look at you, creche-robber.” Deadlock laughed. “Taking code from such a young thing. I shouldn’t be so surprised.”

Starscream shoved himself to his elbows and directed a glare over his shoulder. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Deadlock snorted. “Nothing.” He bit at Starscream’s wing again, optics teasing as they met Starscream’s. “Tell me more.”

“Why should I?” Starscream sniffed and flicked his wing out of Deadlock’s oral range.

“Because I asked.” Deadlock’s glossa swept over his lips, baring a hint of fang. “What’s his name?” His hand rested on Starscream’s aft, a lingering, heavy weight.

“Hot Ro– No, Rodimus. It was Rodimus.” Starscream frowned as he corrected his defaults. “For some reason, he felt the need to tell me an alias. And he came here, like so many before him, because of a rumor. You know the one.”

Deadlock field flickered into anger. “Yes, I know the one,” he growled and his hand curled, claws threatening to curl a strip of paint from Starscream’s aft. “And you let him stay here anyway? Knowing what he wanted from you?”

“I made it quite clear the consequences of any misbehavior.” Starscream sniffed and tossed Deadlock a dark look. “I am capable of taking care of myself, you know.”

“Still a pointless risk.” Deadlock’s hand abandoned his aft sadly, and he pulled himself up, seated with his back to the wall and his knees drawn up. He draped his arms over his knees, hands gesturing. “Especially since he got what he wanted in the end.”

“I didn’t ‘face him,” Starscream repeated and buried his face in his arms, his voice muffled when he added, “I copied his code. I offered to ‘face him, in exchange for his code, but he turned me down.”

“Huh. A Firebrand with a conscience. Who knew they existed?” Deadlock snorted.

“He was quite… unusual.” Starscream offlined his optics, cycling several ventilations in an attempt to dismiss the lowgrade arousal simmering in his lines. “Messy, full of questions, and quite irritating at times but he wasn’t as much of a bother as I expected him to be.”

“Hm.”

Starscream blinked and pushed himself upright, half-swiveling to stare narrow-opticked at his best friend. “I know that tone.” He frowned. “What is it?”

Deadlock twisted his wrists, palms facing upward, a gesture of conciliation. “You tell me.” He tilted his head, optics dark and acute. “Get used to him being around, did you?”

Starscream twisted his frame until he was seated on the edge of the berth, though one leg curled up on it so he could face Deadlock. “You sure you’re not jealous?”

“Nothing to be jealous of. Not like you’re mine.” Deadlock shrugged, but there was nothing nonchalant about it. “Only I know that you don’t like people, yet you seem to have nothing but good things to say about this one.”

“Well, maybe that’s because he turned out not to be an aft like everyone else.”

“Except me.” Deadlock smirked, flashing one sharp fang. “And, well, Blurr.”

Starscream’s spark twinged at the reminder. It had been decades since he’d separated romantically from his former partner, and while that end had come by mutual agreement, it was still an ache of loss in his spark. Visiting Blurr occasionally, for a code refresh or just because, did little to ease the ache.

“You’re still an aft,” Starscream said loftily, trying to chase away the rush of sadness. “Just a different kind.” He hopped down from the berth and stretched his arms over his head. “I’m going to get some coolant. Shall I bring you something?”

Deadlock flopped back down to the berth, taking up such a large amount of space for a frame smaller than Starscream’s own. “Surprise me,” he purred as he wriggled about to make himself comfortable. “And don’t think we’re done talking about this. I know a redirection when I hear one.”

Starscream snorted and waved Deadlock off. He did need coolant, but yes, also, he wanted some distance.

He didn’t want to talk about Rodimus, because he couldn’t put into words the answer Deadlock wanted. Starscream wasn’t even sure what answer he wanted to give.

Best to forget about it.

[TF] Trial by Fire 08

Rodimus returned home to no fanfare, not that he expected any. And it might have had something to do with the fact he’d crept into the room he shared with his brother in the middle of the night. Or maybe no one noticed he’d gone missing.

It was kind of insulting.

Springer was deep in recharge when Rodimus pulled himself through the window, bag first, and slipped into their shared room. On his back, limbs splayed in all directions, Springer snored and his vents rattled.

And yet he was the one better suited to be a warrior.

Rodimus shook his head.

He shoved his pack under his berth and sat on the edge, peering through the darkness at a room that was both familiar and alien to him. It was barely bigger than the one Starscream had given him, and cluttered with both his and Springer’s various belongings. Smelled different, too. Dank and a bit musty, with the reek of old ammunition and whetstone oil clinging to the air.

He’d been gone for two weeks. It felt like longer.

Rodimus shifted back and reclined on the berth, folding his arms behind his head. The berth was lumpy, compared to the comfort Starscream had offered him. The room was noisy and stuffy, and he half-expected to hear the soft brushing noises of Scuttle roaming around the floor before finding a good spot to stand sentry.

He missed the sounds of the sandstorm grating against the glass dome. Which was ridiculous. He’d only been there a week. How could he miss it?

Rodimus offlined his optics. He was home now, and in time for the Festival. That was what he had wanted, right? Well, aside from earning his badge and taking his rightful place in the Warchief’s ranks. He doubted that was going to happen now.

Rodimus ex-vented a soft sigh. Nothing to do but face everyone tomorrow, and he’d be much better off if he rested first.

That is, if he could sleep through Springer’s snoring.

~

Rodimus didn’t think he’d actually slip into recharge, but he must have, because he was startled online the next morning to someone shaking him, almost violently.

“Where have you been, you idiot?”

His processor rattled around inside his head. Rodimus groaned, batting at the hands on his shoulders, his vision fuzzy and his hearing distorted.

“Getoffmerightnow,” he mumbled as he rebooted his sensory suites.

“Get off me, he says. Get off me. Like he hasn’t been missing for two weeks!” Springer’s familiar baritone growled above him, hands giving Rodimus’ shoulders another firm shake. “Get up, brat! Come sneaking in here in the middle of the night like no one’s going to notice! I oughta slap some sense into you!”

Rodimus’ optics rebooted and clarified into Springer’s face, leaning over him, expression a pinched mix of worry and relief and agitation. “I’m awake,” Rodimus grumbled and shoved at Springer’s arms again. “Primus! I’m awake. Back off already.”

Springer stepped back, and Rodimus sat up, rubbing a hand over his head. He must have been totally out, because he felt woozy and disconnected. He peered at his brother, who looked to be settling into a fine grump as he folded his arms over his chassis and glared. Blue optics – Allspark blue, many whispered – were bright with fury.

“Where have you been?” Springer demanded.

“Out.” Rodimus waved vaguely toward the desert. Flippant, he decided, was the way to go. Everyone already thought him an idiot. Might as well let them continue.

Springer’s optics narrowed. “Tell me you didn’t go looking for the Deathbringer.”

“But then I’d be lying, dear brother.” Rodimus flashed a grin full of denta and slid off the berth, stretching his arms over his head. “Besides, you’re the one who told me it was my best chance.” Well, him and Silverspire both.

“I didn’t mean it!”

“Then why tell me?”

“So you’d stop being an idiot!”

Rodimus cut his optics, huffing angrily. “And look how good that turned out.” He dropped his arms and glared. “Nice to know you wanted me to fail. Congratulations. Because I did.”

Springer reared back, and the pity on his face was almost too much for Rodimus to bear. “I didn’t want you to fail,” he said, softer than before. “I just wanted you to realize what your true strength is.”

Rodimus snorted. “My true strength. Right.” He folded his arms over his chassis, suddenly feeling cold, despite the sweltering heat of their room. The forges were on the other side of the main wall after all.

Hands landed on his shoulders, hot and heavy, and Springer’s shadow fell over him, though it wasn’t intimidating. “I’m glad you’re back,” Springer said. “And that you’re safe. What happened?”

Rodimus shrugged dully. “I got lost. Had to hide in some caves because of the sandstorm.” He dropped his gaze, shame canting into his field. “Never even found the Warlock. Came back because I ran out of rations and charge for my bow.”

He didn’t even feel guilty about lying. No one needed to know about Starscream, how he’d spent a week with the Seeker, how Starscream actually wasn’t that frightening or dangerous. He didn’t want to risk interrupting Starscream’s privacy, or for more Firebrands to journey into the desert in hopes of braving the Seeker’s wrath.

Starscream deserved his privacy.

“We were worried, you know. Sunstreaker’s even out right now. Looking for you,” Springer said with a squeeze to Rodimus’ shoulders before he drew back, like he was embarrassed for the show of affection. He rubbed the back of his head, faceplate darkening. “Gave all of us an audial-ful, too. Still can’t believe the Warchief let him get away with it.”

Rodimus’ lips twitched toward a smile. “You know as much as I do who really holds the reins in that bonding.” And it certainly wasn’t their Warchief. The hierarchy firmly went Sunstreaker, then Sideswipe, and then Megatron.

But that was a clan-wide secret. Megatron was still their Warchief, co-leader with their Prime, Optimus. But when it came to his bonds, and their berth, Megatron submitted and quite gladly.

Not that Rodimus could blame him. He’d been in the Twins’ berth before. On bended knee was the best place to be when it came to those two. Especially Sunstreaker. One word from Sunstreaker and the only thing Rodimus could ever think about was dropping to his knees and worshiping the ground Sunstreaker stood on.

Springer snickered. “You’re right about that.” He tilted his head and peered at Rodimus. “You sure you’re okay?” His field gingerly reached out, poking at Rodimus’ own as though seeking the truth and trying to gauge his health.

“Why wouldn’t I be? Other than getting lost in the desert I mean.” Rodimus chuckled and brushed at his armor, only belatedly realizing that reality didn’t quite match his lie.

He was absurdly clean for someone who reportedly had been lost in the wilds for two weeks. And Springer had to have noticed the dullness of recently repaired plating on his midsection. But he wasn’t commenting on it.

Springer’s optics narrowed. “No reason.” He dropped his hand and straightened. “Anyway, hope you’re ready for an interrogation. Kup’s been spitting nails since you’ve been gone.”

Rodimus groaned. “Great.” He moved past his brother toward the door, though with reluctance dogging every step. “He’s going to have me on cleaning duty for a month.”

“Or two.” Springer laughed as he pushed Rodimus out the door. Digging in his heels didn’t help at all. Springer would forever be bigger and stronger than him.

Might as well face his doom. He couldn’t avoid it forever.

~

Rodimus left, and Starscream set about to cleaning, gathering up all evidence that the Firebrand had ever been there at all. He couldn’t do anything about the memories. Perhaps the coding degradation would consume those in time. For now, best to forget. Best to move on.

Rodimus hadn’t stayed. Then again, no one ever did. Starscream liked it that way. He liked his solitude, his peace and quiet. He functioned better in it. He hypothesized smarter.

He could focus. He would find the cure. He would.

He tidied up the room he had loaned to Rodimus for the week, stripping the berth of its cover, putting away what few items had wandered out of their drawers and onto shelves. He opened the window for a gust of fresh air, which brought with it a few swirls of sand. He emptied the trash bin of dirtied static bandages.

There was a quiet, confused beep behind him.

Starscream turned to look as the drone Rodimus had named Scuttle came into the room, slow and cautious, as though searching. It roamed the perimeter before coming to Starscream’s feet. It bumped into the tip of his foot and warbled a low, long note.

“He’s gone,” Starscream said curtly. “I told you, he’s not part of the tower.”

Scuttle bumped his foot again.

“He’s not coming back. Return to your duty,” Starscream said, and ignored the crackle of static in his vocalizer.

Scuttle repeated the long, low note before slowly spinning away. It dragged its frame across the floor, vacuuming up the little mess Rodimus left behind. If it was possible for a drone to be disconsolate, Scuttle certainly resembled the emotion.

Starscream sighed. He went back to cleaning.

He found scraps of plexifilm tucked beneath a pillow, charming little doodles scrawled across their surface. Swirls and whorls and geometric shapes with shading and cross-hatching. It was nonsensical.

He couldn’t bring himself to throw it away. He tucked them into his subspace instead. When he left, Scuttle didn’t follow him. The drone continued to lurk around the room, and Starscream left it be.

Sometimes, it took time to let things go.

Starscream went into the energon prep room and put away all the clean dishes Rodimus had used in his culinary endeavors. At least he’d had the decency to clean up after himself. And well, the treats had been nice.

He found a tray of them tucked into the stasis unit which would keep them fresh until he decided to pull them out and consume them. They seemed to be a mix of flavors and consistencies, from crunches to jellies.

Rodimus had been quite busy in his final hours, hadn’t he?

Starscream took a few but left the rest. They were stable as long as they remained in the stasis unit. He could eat them at his leisure. Make them last. He should have asked Rodimus to teach him how to make them, or at least provide the recipe.

Too late for that now.

Starscream moved up another level, to the windowseat, for a moment stopping to admire the view. Without the sandstorm to obscure everything, he could see for kilometers, until the horizon melted together, a blur of rust-orange and sky-silver. Somewhere, beyond that wavering line, was where Rodimus’ clan had settled.

Starscream sighed and gathered up the small stack of datapads Rodimus had left behind. Something clattered from the stack and tumbled to the floor.

He blinked and looked down. Two metallic objects glinted up at him. Starscream crouched and gathered them up, these two things that fit in the palm of his hand and were barely bigger than his thumb, though twice as wide.

One was a small ground transport vehicle – meant for speed, not unlike Blurr’s non-competing alt-mode. It had a spoiler and thinly etched flames racing up the hood. It had been carved of copper.

The other was a jet, or an approximation of one, not unlike Starscream’s alt-mode, though some of the details were off. It had been made of silver.

I like to make things when I’m bored.

“Clever mech,” Starscream murmured.

He tucked the carvings into his subspace with the doodles.

He moved on, the silence of the tower less so now that the drones were disembarking from their recharge stations. Never was he so glad that he’d constructed so many of them, in moments of boredom, of need, or when he lacked the inspiration for his projects.

Scurry and Scamper were back to patrolling the halls. Saunter was still on the skylight. Starscream was glad he’d thought to upgrade the drone with a sunpowered battery. Scoot greeted him with a cheerful trio of tones as Starscream slipped into the library with his armful of datapads.

Starscream straightened up the shelves, returning datapads to their respective places, snorting a little to himself. Rodimus had voraciously read nearly every fantasy novel and fairy tale in Starscream’s collection. He’d started and stopped a few of the elementary chemistry books as well, but those hadn’t held his attention apparently.

He found more of the plexifilm doodles in the library as well, tucked into the folds of the chair-coverings and pressed between stacks of datapads. There were faces on these, faces Starscream didn’t recognize but were probably members of Rodimus’ clan.

He recognized cartoonish sketches of alt-modes, half-sparked efforts at drawing the turbowolves, and a few iterations of himself as well. The sight of them gave him a sharp pang in the spark.

Brat had only been here a week, but somehow managed to leave a little of himself everywhere apparently.

Last, Starscream ventured down to the oilbath and single-stall washrack, gathering up soiled meshcloths and returning bottles of cleanser to the shelves. He found two more little carvings tucked in a nook around the oil bath, both of them turbofoxes, albeit crude copies of them.

As he opened the washing machine, Stroll ambled out of the washing station and bumped against the tips of his feet. Starscream scowled down at his slowest and laziest drone.

“Haven’t seen you all week,” he scolded as Stroll inched across the ground, painstakingly slow as it started to clean the dripped oil from the stone. “The others have been picking up your slack. Were you hiding in here?”

Stroll honked at him. Lights around its chassis flared and darkened in a slow roll.

Starscream sighed and rolled his optics. He dumped the soiled cloths into the machine and set the automatic cycle. “If you’re not careful, I’ll deconstruct you for parts.”

Not even the threat of deconstruction made Stroll move any faster. If anything, the drone slowed down even further, inching along the set path Starscream had programmed ages ago. At this rate, it would be next year before he cleaned the whole floor once.

Starscream made a mental note to send Stride down here to assist. Again. It wasn’t like the Astronomy room got that dusty anyhow.

His tower clean and tidied, Starscream retreated back to his laboratory. He emptied his subspace into an empty drawer at his main workstation. Carvings rattled around with sheets of plexifilm, which crinkled noisily. Starscream stared at them, gnawing on the inside of his cheek, internally debating.

He reached down, pulled out the carved jet, and set it on his desk, near his stylus holder. He closed the drawer and grabbed the nearest datapad, bringing up the workable copy of the last coding attempt. He would need to see if he could tweak it, or if it was better to scrap it and start from scratch.

His tower was quiet, save for the barely audible hum of all of his electronics. His tower was still, as he was the only resident within. Not even the sound of his drones in action was enough to be considered movement or noise, despite Skip and Scrape studiously scrubbing the floor around him.

He could focus now. He had no distractions. He could get back to work. He could make progress. He could devise a cure. He was alone as he needed to be in order to be successful.

Just the way he liked it.

Right?

~

Kup cuffed him over the head and then hugged him tightly enough that Rodimus’ armor creaked.

“Don’t scare us like that, kid,” he said, his craggy voice rattling and rolling over Rodimus, as the scent of his cygar floated into Rodimus’ chemoreceptors.

“Sorry.” Rodimus’ voice was muffled, smushed as his face was against the old mech’s chestplate, as pale and mottled green as the rest of Kup’s frame. “Didn’t mean to be gone so long.”

“Shouldn’t have left at all.” Kup grunted and pulled back, hands on Rodimus’ shoulders firmly as he gave him a critical look. “And ya got yerself all beat up to boot.” One hand poked at Rodimus’ belly. “What happened here and who fixed ya up?”

Trust Kup to acknowledge what Springer had ignored. His brother, such a loyal mech he was, had deposited Rodimus into Kup’s hands and then vanished, leaving him to the old mech’s mercy.

Rodimus squirmed. “Ran into a turbowolf or two,” he said. “Did this myself. Really gotta thank Sides for shoving that emergency kit into my hand, come to think of it.” Sideswipe had given him that kit ages ago, and as far as Rodimus knew, it was still tucked under his berth. Hopefully, Kup wouldn’t know that.

Kup squinted at him. The cygar moved from one side of his mouth to the other. “That’s a fine job for somethin’ ya did yerself.”

“What can I say? I have untapped potential.” Rodimus grinned and shrugged. “I’ve got the turbowolf bits with me,” he added in a hopeful misdirection. “Well, not with me. Back in my pack in the dorm, but you know, souvenirs!” He beamed.

Kup’s optics grew narrower. He chomped hard on his cygar, streams of smoke wafting up from his nose.

“Souvenirs,” he repeated, and he planted both hands on Rodimus’ shoulders, promptly spinning him around before he proceeded to march, shoving Rodimus along with him. “You’re going to see the healer.”

“What? Wrench? Awww.” Rodimus groaned but knew better than to try and escape. For as old as Kup was, he had a grip like duryllium, and besides all that, he had their Warchief’s highest regard.

As Rodimus’ instructor, he was expected to obey Kup in all things. Resisting would only make things worse. Besides, he was already a black mark on Kup’s record, as useless of a trainee as Rodimus was. The last thing he wanted to do was offend the old mech further.

“He doesn’t even know what he’s doing anymore,” Rodimus complained. Certainly Starscream had done a much better job, not that Rodimus was going to admit that. Their clan was severely lacking in medical assistance right now.

“That may be true. But he knows better than you,” Kup said. “So march.”

Rodimus marched. He pretended that he wasn’t being gawked at either, but apparently his two and a half week absence had been widely noted. It probably didn’t help that Sunstreaker had made a big deal of it. Now, his clanmates stared at him, the branded and the Firebrands alike.

The march of shame apparently.

Rodimus’ spoiler dipped down. The march of shame and disappointment and failure. Kup didn’t mean to embarrass the Pit out of him. Okay, well maybe a little. Nothing like a little shame to motivate after all. But also, it couldn’t be helped.

Rodimus had vanished, and he’d returned with nothing to show for it but a healing wound and a pack full of turbowolf bits. Because he’d gotten lost. Or at least, that was the story as Rodimus would tell it.

Much better that he embarrass himself, then subject Starscream to more Firebrands wandering his way, seeking glory and a challenge. Starscream did not deserve to have his solitude continuously broken, or to be pursued for the sake of something selfish.

Wrench’s clinic – and clinic was a generous term – was tucked in the bowels of their settlement, furthest from the entrance and safest from attack. It nestled deep in the embrace of the mountain they’d claimed as their permanent home.

They ventured out occasionally, during mating season and the ungulate migrations and peak gathering, but they always returned here. There was a petrorabbit colony nearby, and while one had to be careful of their speed and sharp denta, they were good eating. The underground springs, albeit not warmed like Starscream’s, were also a reason to station themselves here.

Wrench, however, never left. The hunters and the gatherers and the unmated wandered, but Wrench and his single, grizzly self stayed locked up in his clinic like he was rusted into the walls. And maybe he was.

Wrench was here when they got here. Wrench graciously allowed them to settle, complained the entire time about all of the mechs in his personal space, but never demanded they leave. He didn’t offer to teach anyone his skills, and no one asked, out of fear or disinterest, Rodimus wasn’t sure. Maybe a bit of both.

He was old. Probably the oldest mech in their clan. Rodimus thought he was half-senile, too. But who else would know? Wrench was all the healer they had. Springer thought he used to be a cityling, a long time ago, long before Optimus and Megatron left and the rebellion first started.

Why did he leave? No one knew. No one asked, or if they did, Wrench didn’t answer. Maybe Kup was brave enough to question the rust-aft, but he wasn’t talking either. Wrench had the Warchief’s and the Prime’s trust, so Rodimus supposed that was enough.

“Well, brat, what have ya done to yourself now?” Wrench demanded as Kup shoved Rodimus inside and Wrench snatched him up like he was a sparkling.

Wrench was big. Easily the same size as their Warchief, and his armor was pockmarked with rust. He creaked and rattled, but somehow, was one of the strongest mechs around here. He picked Rodimus up like he weighed nothing, and deposited him on the examination berth with a gentleness that belied his forceful personality.

“Just a little tussle with a turbowolf. Nothing to be worried about.” Rodimus beamed his most charming beam. It had gotten him out of trouble before.

“Pah. I’ll be the judge of that.” Wrench bent over and peered at Rodimus’ midsection as Rodimus abruptly leaned back on his elbows. “This the young’un you’ve been lookin’ for, Kup?”

“One and the same.”

“Lucky mech.” Wrench harrumphed and prodded at Rodimus’ armor, right where self-repair had worked mightily to make him whole. “And some elegant work for a self-patch.”

Wrench lifted his head, gold optics narrowing. “Did this yourself, did ya?” he asked, tone curious and a bit incisive. “Maybe came across those turbowolves while wandering out by the viper runs, eh?”

Rodimus squirmed. “Could’ve been,” he hedged. “Dunno. My GPS was fragged by the storm so I don’t know where I ended up.”

“Mmm.” Wrench’s reply was noncommittal, even as he poked more at Rodimus’ midsection, and the wash of a scan made his plating prickle. “Well, you’re healing fine as far as I can tell. Gonna need a strip and wax and repaint, but otherwise, no sign of infection or rust. Good job, kid. Maybe you’ve got the makings of a medic in you.”

Rodimus snorted. “No thanks.”

The door to the clinic rattled open. Three pairs of optics swung toward it, only one of them not the least bit startled, only to find their Warchief darkening the doorway. Stooping a little, as it were, to come inside. There was plenty of ceiling space within the clinic, not so much in the doorway. Especially for a mech like their Warchief.

Megatron was big, not quite the biggest in their clan, but almost that. His broad shoulders barely fit in the doorway, his arms bristling with energon sword mounts, though the single connector for his massive cannon was empty. Treads lined his legs, announcing his tank alt-mode, though rumor had it he had more than one. Blue optics peered out at Rodimus from the cowling of his plated helm, reported to protect a vast sensor array beneath.

Megatron’s optics swept through the interior before finding and focusing on Rodimus, who might have curled a little into himself under the weight of his stare. Megatron was intimidating. No matter how much Sunstreaker told him there was nothing to be timid about, Rodimus still felt the urge to apologize and bow in Megatron’s presence. Even if he hadn’t done anything wrong.

“There you are,” Megatron said, and Rodimus flinched. “You’ve had my mate in quite a mood, I’ll have you know. Both of them.” He straightened as much as he was capable, the plates of armor on his arms twitching.

“If you’re going to yell, take it elsewhere,” Wrench said as he straightened to his full height, which made him the only one in the room on an even keel with Megatron. “This is a place for healing.”

Megatron’s optical ridges drifted upward. “I’m not sure that Rodimus counts as a patient, and you have no others.”

“But that doesn’t mean I don’t want peace and quiet,” Wrench retorted. He put a hand on Rodimus’ back and urged him off the table. “You’re fine. So ya can hop down and face your punishment if ya like.”

“Fantastic,” Rodimus muttered, and obeyed. He glanced at Kup, but his trainer was grinning around his cygar, optics bright and amused. No help to be found there.

Rodimus squared his shoulders and looked up at Megatron. “Is he back yet?” He didn’t even have to specify whom he meant. The look in Megatron’s face meant he knew.

“He will be shortly.” Megatron beckoned him, his field flickering with amusement and aggravation both. Emotions he often had when his bonds were involved. “Come.”

Rodimus hesitated.

“I’m not going to yell,” Megatron said with an impatient second beckon. “I’ve been assured that Kup will be handling your punishment, and I trust him to choose one that is appropriate.”

“Pleased to be havin’ your faith,” Kup said with a swagger as he winked at Rodimus. “Last I checked, the entirety of the dorms needed a good scrubbing. I was just about to call for volunteers, too.”

Rodimus groaned. Hadn’t he suffered enough?

He didn’t drag his feet, but he slouched as he joined his Warchief, a mech he had always admired, the weight of his failure sitting on his shoulders. The thinnest hopes he carried that he’d take the warrior’s brand at his graduation, crackled and crumbled. After this, no way would he gain the Warchief’s approval.

“Good luck!” Wrench called after them, sounding far too gleeful for Rodimus’ comfort. Armor creaked and rattled like a wordless croon of the death march.

Rodimus had a feeling he was going to need quite a bit of it.

~

~

A week went by before Starscream’s front door pinged. His spark leapt in his chassis, and he didn’t want to admit to himself how excited he was. How he threw down his stylus and leapt to answer it.

The peace and the quiet had been welcome at first. He’d sighed with relief and thrown himself into his research, convinced that now he could finally get something done. Without distractions or nosy clanlings, surely he could concentrate. Surely he’d make progress.

Surely he wouldn’t find himself humming quietly a song that he’d only just learned, or calling out for someone who wasn’t there to hand him a device, or going into the energon room and being surprised to find it was empty.

He called himself an idiot. A fool. He called himself many unkind things for daring to miss a mech who never intended to stay.

Solitude suited Starscream. It was how he functioned.

So why, then, was he leaping down to the bottom floor, an unexpected delight in his spark, as he keyed in his code to unlock the front gate. He was smiling, he discovered, and forced himself to wipe the expression off his face. He would never live it down if Rodimus discovered he was missed.

The gate slid open, and the door as well. Starscream schooled his expression into something better crafted, hoping he looked bored and slightly irritated.

But the mech who darkened his doorway, who stepped inside shaking grit from his cloak, was not Rodimus.

“Well, that’s a cheerful greeting if I ever had one,” Deadlock drawled as he arched an orbital ridge, looking Starscream up and down. “Usually I have to drag you from your nest to acknowledge me. Miss me that much?”

Starscream scowled. “You’re late,” he said. His mood plummeted despite efforts to keep himself buoyant. Oh, he was delighted to see Deadlock, but disappointment seethed inside of him nonetheless.

Deadlock blinked and arched an orbital ridge. “Since when have I had a schedule?” he asked, and threw his cloak at the hook by the door. It missed and plopped onto the floor, sending a spray of grit across the floor that would summon the nearest cleaning drone post-haste. “And what, can’t a longlost friend get a hug when he returns?”

He stepped close to Starscream. Starscream stopped him with a hand on his chestplate, grimacing as some kind of sticky grit clung to his palm as a consequence. Gross.

“Absolutely not,” he declared. “You’re filthy. What the slag happened to you?” He was already attracting drones as it was. They were appearing from the woodwork, drawn by the sound of filth, Starscream imagined.

Especially Stomp, who should have been cleaning the training room, but never failed to follow Deadlock around like a second shadow whenever Deadlock was home. Stroll liked Deadlock, too. Mostly because Deadlock didn’t yell at him and never tried to get him to clean.

Deadlock grinned, fangs bared and gold optics bright. “Got into a tussle with the local wildlife. Maybe a clanling or two. Nothing I couldn’t handle.” It was barely bragging.

For Deadlock.

“A tussle,” Starscream repeated flatly. His nose twitched. He could smell, even from here, the stench of spilled energon. Mostly white, with bits of red and yellow and black, Deadlock was now a muddy brown and when he moved, grit grated in his hydraulics and flaked down.

Had he rolled through the fragging Sea of Rust?

“Or two,” Deadlock confirmed. He had the audacity to wink.

Starscream rolled his optics. “Idiot.” He stepped back from his friend and pointed down the ramp. “March yourself to the washrack and get clean, then spend at least an hour in the oil pool. Do try not to track filth everywhere you go.” Though he supposed it didn’t really matter. Stomp would eagerly clean up after Deadlock, where he balked at all of Starscream’s commands.

Deadlock chuckled and leaned in close. “Aww, you really do love me.” Close enough to feel his ex-vents now, and Starscream grimaced at the thought of any of that sticky mess getting on his armor.

He shoved Deadlock’s face away from his. “Go!”

Unperturbed, Deadlock laughed and moved past Starscream, obediently toward the downward-sloping ramp. “I’m going.”

“And you’re going to clean whatever mess you make!”

“Ffft.” Deadlock made a noise, a cross between a vent cycle and a hydraulic hiss. “Stroll will do it for me, Starling.” The tips of his finials vanished as he descended, though Starscream did hear him mutter, “Why even have a cleaning drone army if you’re not going to use it? Sheesh.”

Shaking his head, Starscream went back to his lab. Once Deadlock got into the hot solvent and then the oil bath, he’d loiter around for hours. Such luxuries weren’t often available to him in his wanderings, so he lazed about whenever he came to visit, until the idea of staying in one place became too much for him.

Starscream batted away the rest of the disappointment.

At least with Deadlock here, the loneliness would ease. He had missed his dearest friend after all. And the company would be nice.

For now, however, back to work.

~

Rodimus waited for the lecture.

Surprisingly, it did not come. Megatron walked with him in silence. Kup parted from them at a fork in the corridors, with a promise that he’d see Rodimus later, for an overdue conversation and to get him back into the training rotation. He left Rodimus alone with Megatron, and Rodimus tried not to fidget.

He trailed along behind his Warchief, dully noting that they were heading for the settlement exterior, beyond the weight of the mountain above them. Rodimus blinked in surprise. He’d thought he’d be dragged to Megatron’s office for his chastisement. Or perhaps Megatron wanted to make a public spectacle of it?

Great. Just great.

“So…” he ventured, when the silence dragged on and impatience won out, “how much trouble am I in?”

Megatron snorted and cast a look over his shoulder. “That is for Kup to decide. For now, I am only angry for the upset you caused my bondmates.”

“Oh.” Rodimus didn’t know if that was a relief or not.

“That was irresponsible of you, Rodimus, to do what you did. And I don’t particularly care what reason you had for doing so, but for your own sake, I suggest you think long and hard before you make such a mistake again,” Megatron said, without looking at Rodimus, the chastening easily carrying over his shoulders to rattle into Rodimus’ audials.

His armor clamped down tight. His ventilations hitched. “I’m sorry,” Rodimus said. “I didn’t expect to be gone so long. Honestly. The storm caught me by surprise.”

“If you had paid attention to the forecast, you would have known it was coming.”

Rodimus winced. He lowered his gaze. “Yes, sir.”

Megatron sighed and lifted a hand, rubbing his face Rodimus noticed peripherally. “However, I meant what I said. Your punishment is Kup’s to decide.”

They stepped out of the settlement, passing through the gate with a nod to the warriors stationed there, the newly branded who were still learning their duties in the clan. Guard duty at the main gate was one of the easiest task in the settlement. Guard duty at the fences, however, carried the greatest risk. That particular duty was for the experts.

“Well,” Megatron added as he half-turned toward Rodimus, something like a smirk curving his lips, “Kup and my bonded.”

That was all the warning Rodimus had before someone barked his name and hands snatched at his shoulders, spinning him around. He yelped, but it was muffled in a golden chestplate as he was pulled into an embrace twice as tight as the one Kup had given him. He smelled fancy wax and polish and knew, in an instant, who it was.

“You little fragger,” Sunstreaker hissed into his audial, his armor hot as though he’d been racing out on the flats and transformed in a hurry. “I’m going to fragging kill you for making me worry.”

“Wouldn’t that kind of defeat the purpose of worrying about me in the first place?” Rodimus asked as his ex-vents fogged Sunstreaker’s windshield.

Sunstreaker growled and shoved him back, hands tight where they gripped Rodimus’ shoulders. Blue optics were sharp and cutting as they looked Rodimus over from top to bottom, assessing in an instant.

“You’ve been injured,” he observed.

“Turbowolf,” Rodimus offered.

Sunstreaker’s optics narrowed. His fingers dug in tighter. “I have spent the last week searching for you,” he said in a carefully chosen tone. “Every day, from the moment the storm eased, I have led a search party. I expected to only be lucky enough to find your empty frame.”

Rodimus winced. Guilt clawed at his spark, where Kup and Megatron and Wrench had only managed to startle him. He hung his head.

“I’m sorry.”

Sunstreaker’s grip eased. He cupped Rodimus’ head instead, thumbs pressed against his cheeks, hands cradling his jaw. He made Rodimus look up at him, and it was hard to meet Sunstreaker’s optics, because Sunstreaker could be so very sharp and cold sometimes. But also, he could be gentle and concerned, and those were the hardest to bear.

“You are never going to do that again,” Sunstreaker said, as if it was a foregone conclusion.

Rodimus nodded as best he was capable. “Never,” he said.

“Good.” Sunstreaker hauled him in, pressed a kiss to his forehead. “Now you’re filthy and you need a repaint and I deserve an explanation. So you’re coming with me.”

Rodimus might have whimpered.

Megatron laughed.

He supposed, in the end, it was still good to be home.

[TF] Trial by Fire 07

Starscream’s first order of business was to run a diagnostic, not that he needed an external scanner to tell him what his systems were already reporting – his coding degradation had not only stalled, it was reversing itself. By morning, he’d be back to one-hundred percent capacity, all of his systems running smoothly, and no longer at risk of losing spark containment.

Rodimus’ coding had even contained some perks. Better efficiency at processing fuel during speed bursts, accuracy in aiming, and an intense craving for rust sticks.

Starscream shook his head with a chuckle. Brat liked the sweet things. Why was he not surprised?

The scanner beeped at him, displaying results that were no less than Starscream expected. Rodimus’ code was, while not pristine, so far removed from his own that it was as much boon as it was a saving grace. Starscream suspected that it might even be of use in forming the substitute code for his experiments.

How lucky he was to find Rodimus on his backstep.

It was almost a shame the Firebrand had to leave in the morning. He was a pain in the aft. A nosy one, who seemed to always be there when Starscream turned around, and clumsy on top of it all. Earnest and determined, with a passion for learning unlike any Starscream had seen in quite some time.

He’d offered his coding to Starscream without asking for anything in return. He’d offered it, despite being taught that Seekers were evil code-stealers and that he should be afraid.

There was a spark of platinum beneath that garishly flame-painted chestplate, apparently. A charming one, too.

Starscream sighed and scrubbed a hand down his face. Best not to dwell on it. Rodimus would leave in the morning, as he well should, and Starscream could go back to his peace and quiet. To his studies and his experiments and his desperate hope for a solution.

He’d come out here to the edge of the Barrens for a reason, after all, and constant companionship was not one of them. He worked better alone, without distractions. He was absolutely not lonely. He had the occasional visitor and that was enough.

Besides, it wasn’t as if Rodimus wanted to stay anyway.

Starscream harrumphed and disconnected the scanner, setting it gently on his work bench.

Refreshed coding or not, he was still exhausted. While his frame hummed from the upload and the cabling – he’d overloaded after all, though not quite as vividly as Rodimus had – Starscream still felt the tug of recharge. That and energon.

He would fetch a cube for himself, leave a cube for Rodimus – perhaps with a handful of rust sticks, and then sink into his own berth.

Come morning, he would bid Rodimus farewell.

After all, he had work to do.

~

Rodimus onlined, his engine purring, his frame thrumming, and a sense of satisfaction pulsing through every line and cable. He rolled over onto his back with a little engine rumble of happiness, his spoiler twitching.

He felt, well, he felt like he’d had a whole night of wild interfacing with overload upon overload. He shoved a hand down his frame, groping at his interface array, but found himself to be dry and clean.

That was odd.

Rodimus’ optics unshuttered, his vision slowly clarifying in the brightness of his room. Memories returned, albeit slowly, and his faceplate burned as he remembered just why he felt so darn good.

Starscream and cabling, an overload that had nothing to do with his array, and the unique sensation of being connected to another mech.

Rodimus sat up, stretching his arms over his helm, feeling well-rested all the way to his core. Well, except for his tanks, which were pinging him for a refuel. And look at that, there was a cube on the nightstand, capped to ensure freshness.

He swung his legs over the side of the berth and snagged the cube. He popped the seal and gave it a whiff.

Sweet with a hint of tang. His favorite.

Rodimus grinned and slurped it all down, the energon settling into his tanks with a happy burst. He felt more than a little spoiled actually. Too bad he would have to leave. It was kind of nice being here. It was quiet. There weren’t any heavy expectations on his shoulders.

He didn’t belong here, and he highly doubted Starscream would want him to stay. The Seeker seemed to tolerate his presence at best. Rodimus was nothing more than an intruder, as he always seemed to be wherever he went.

It was time he left Starscream to his work.

Rodimus finished the cube and hopped off the berth. He surveyed the room that had been his for a little under two weeks. He would make for a poor guest if he left it a mess, so he tidied it up as best he was capable. He stripped the berth and changed the covers, remembering well the cleaning facilities. He gathered detritus and straightened up the furniture, but there was honestly little to show for how long he’d been there.

It occurred him that he’d need his energon bow and other belongings back.

Rodimus moved to the narrow window, peering out into the morning. The world looked different through the shifting opalescence of Starscream’s holographic generator, but it was enough that he could see the sandstorm had passed. The land beyond was wiped clean, as it often was in the wake of a storm, smooth and untouched.

He’d leave footprints behind him. He couldn’t drive, the road was far too buried. But the long walk would give him plenty of time to think of a story, he supposed.

Rodimus rubbed his face and turned away from the window. The sooner he got started, the less camping he’d have to do. He was only three solar cycles out from home, but there were many hungry mechanimals who would be roaming freely now that the storm had passed. Rodimus didn’t want to run into a single one of them.

He looked around the room once more, to ensure he left nothing behind, and then keyed his door open. It slid aside with a merry beep, and Rodimus stepped into the corridor, nearly colliding with Starscream in the process. The Seeker responded quicker, his hands landing on Rodimus’ shoulders to keep them from colliding.

“You are awful energetic this morning,” Rodimus said as his spark thumped and his armor turned warm where Starscream touched him.

The Seeker gave him a wry smile. “Yes, well, that is in part thanks to you. My coding degradation has halted, and I’m nearly at one-hundred percent capacity now.” His hands slid free, tucking behind his back and beneath his wing hinges. “My thanks.” He dipped his head.

Rodimus rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, like I said, it’s only fair, right? You saved my life, so I save yours.” His finials heated. “And it’s not like I didn’t enjoy it.”

Starscream chuckled. “I am relieved that you did.” His smile dipped as his gaze slid past Rodimus, to the window at the end of the hall. “The storm has passed.”

“Yeah, I noticed.”

“You will be leaving then.”

Rodimus honestly couldn’t tell if it was a statement or a question. “I’d better,” he said, awkwardly shifting his weight. “My brother is probably looking for me, and my trainer has no doubt concocted all kinds of punishments.”

“I assumed as much. I brought your belongings to the door.”

Wow. In a hurry to be rid of him much? Any thoughts Rodimus had in thinking Starscream wanted him to stay turned to ash.

“Uh, thanks for that,” Rodimus said. He stepped out into the hallway and turned in a slow circle. This was usually the time Scuttle ambushed him, chirping merrily as he spun around Rodimus’ feet.

The drone was nowhere in sight. Odd.

“Hey, have you seen Scuttle?” he asked.

Starscream could have been a statue, for all the emotion his frame language gave away. “All of the cleaning drones are in their recharge stations at the moment.”

“Oh.” Disappointment slumped his shoulders. Rodimus scratched at his chin. He supposed it was silly to want to say goodbye to a cleaning drone. “That’s good, I guess.”

“It can be,” Starscream said and spun on a heelstrut. Rodimus assumed he was meant to follow. So he did, though disappointment rang strongly through him. He kept it from his field however. No need to let Starscream know the truth.

“I packed supplies for you, energon and the like,” Starscream said as they stepped into the lift. “Also the bits of the turbowolves I have no use for. I assume your clan can find something for them.”

“Yeah, we can. Thanks.”

The lift donged as it deposited them on the ground floor, doors rumbling open. Starscream departed swiftly, leading Rodimus to a set of heavy double doors which Rodimus had passed multiple times. He’d inspected them once, noting several layers of protection as well as a very complicated lock.

There was a familiar satchel on the floor and a second one next to it, with his deactivated energon bow propped up on the wall beside him. Starscream wasn’t lying when he’d said he’d prepared everything for Rodimus’ departure.

Starscream bent at the waist to lift both satchels before he offered them to Rodimus. “Keep the other,” he said.

Rodimus accepted the heavy bags, slinging the strap of one over his shoulder. “Are you sure?”

“It was left here by another temporary visitor. I have no attachment to it,” Starscream replied, his face smooth of emotion, and his field equally flat. “It is yours.”

No attachment, huh? Just like he’d apparently avoided managing any such thing for Rodimus, too. He must have imagined those moments.

Rodimus’ hand tightened around the strap. “Thanks,” he said, a word he felt like he kept repeating because he didn’t know what else to say. Words danced on his glossa, but Starscream’s demeanor killed each and every one. “You know, you keep giving me a lot of gifts, and you don’t have to.”

“No, I do. I don’t think you understand how much you saved me.” Starscream’s optics widened as though the admission had been an accident. His wings twitched, and he stepped to the door, putting his hand on the field-scanner panel. “This is the least I can do.”

The door whooshed open, a blast of hot, dry air slamming Rodimus in the face. He winced, his lens shutters automatically slamming down to protect his optics. The urge to stay, to go back to his comfy berth and the private oil bath and all the interesting doodads made his legs wobble.

“If you are ever out this way again…”

“Use the front door next time?” Rodimus quipped as he moved toward the door, pausing in the threshold to look back at Starscream. He grinned, though it wobbled on the edges.

Starscream lifted his chin. “I was going to say ‘don’t be a stranger’ but yes, use the front door. I don’t want another spark-attack.”

“Sir, yes, sir.” Rodimus tossed off a sloppy salute and an even sloppier grin. “Thanks for the hospitality, Star. Good luck with your experiments.”

“And you, too.” Starscream paused, as though hesitating before he shook his head. “Goodbye, Firebrand.”

That, as Springer would say, was that. Was there anything as definitive as a ‘goodbye’?

Rodimus’ spark gave a wavering warble, and before he could let it affect his field, he stepped out of the frame, the door immediately shutting behind him. He heard it click and lock.

Rodimus cycled a ventilation as heat instantly swallowed him. He slung off the pack and dug around in it, producing the tarp he’d first left his clan with. He draped the tarp over his shoulders before he made his way out.

The holographic array was not solid-state. He passed through it easily enough. When he turned back to look, he didn’t see Starscream’s squat, but neat little complex. He saw a sheer cliff, impossible to climb, and the ground around it pockmarked with holes. Sandviper holes.

No mech in their right mind would get near those.

Starscream had hid his home well.

Rodimus sighed and adjusted the pack over his shoulder.

Time go to home, he supposed.

After all, it was where he belonged.

~

The door closed with a defining thunk, and Starscream sighed. He leaned against it, shuttering his optics to the sound of the locks sliding into place, each louder and stronger than the last.

His spark ached.

Starscream told himself it was because the last of the coding was settling into place, finding a home in his core script. He always ached in the aftermath of a new download, especially with a partner he’d never data-faced with before.

The last of the locks thudded into place, and Starscream was left with the silence. Not even the roar of the sandstorm remained to break it up. With the drones all on their recharge platforms, except Saunter who scuttled along the skylight, it was quiet in his tower. A silence that wrapped around him, and swallowed him whole.

He used to prefer the quiet. Now he found it too loud for comfort.

He missed Deadlock. That’s all it was.

Starscream unshuttered his optics and pushed off the door. He took the long way toward his laboratory, where he should have spent the entirety of the week, if only he hadn’t been distracted.

It was for the best. This was the way things were meant to be. He had to get back to work, to live in the solitude he demanded, for the betterment of himself and his kind.

He’d never needed company before. One charming Firebrand certainly wasn’t going to change that.

Not now. Not ever.

[TF] Trial By Fire 06

Day six of their forced proximity dawned.

Hot Rod continued on as he always did, probably with his nose buried in one of the datapads he’d pilfered from Starscream’s library. Or perhaps he was in the training room, going through one of the numerous kata the trainer-bot had taught him. Or on the window ledge carving the discarded metals. Or even in the Astronomy room, cycling through the skyscapes, his optics wide with wonder.

Starscream was left with the silence of his tower, save for the whoosh and rattle of the raging duststorm. Well, less raging now. The intensity was easing. It seemed his calculations were accurate. His predictive software approached perfection.

Hot Rod would be gone tomorrow. Starscream had run out of time.

He cycled a ventilation. He settled down into his chair – comfortable, not the stool – and plugged the code reader into the medical port on his wrist. He waited, on bolts and brackets, for the read out, and nearly sobbed aloud when it came back to him.

Coding degradation at fifty-eight percent.

He could, possibly, survive until Deadlock’s return. Not conscious, perhaps. Autonomics would kick in, preserve his spark for a few more days until that coding degraded. But Deadlock’s return visits were never guaranteed. It was within a two week period. He could be early. He could be late.

Did he dare risk it?

It was too late to contact Skyfire. By now, his clan was on the other side of the Manganese Mountains, out of reach of Starscream’s communicators. And heading to the cities in his current state was a deathwish.

Starscream removed the scanner and eyed the innocent device on his desktop. It was little more than a memory stick, and it contained a copy of the newest iteration of his substitute operating code. One he’d finished late last night, when he’d forced himself to stay online, working furiously to make up for allowing himself to be distracted. It was important. Necessary. Something that would save the spark of every Seeker on Cybertron if only he could get it to work.

What did he have to lose by trying it now, save that miniscule chance Deadlock might show up early and spare him the embarrassment of begging the Firebrand for help?

He couldn’t take the risk. He had to trust in himself and in his work. Or at least trust that he’d survive the test.

Starscream cycled a ventilation and grasped the memory stick. He stared hard at it, his port twitching at his hesitation, and his processor spinning around the numbers.

Fifty-eight percent. Fifty-eight percent. Fifty-eight percent. Fif–

He inserted the stick and activated the coding software before he could convince himself to abort the process. He braced himself against the desk as dizziness made him sway. He felt the foreign code trickling through him, mingling with his own, bolstering and rewriting. It itched, like a rust infection he couldn’t reach.

Starscream groaned. He flushed, felt hot all over, except for the chill deep in the pit of his tanks. His port ached. His processor spun into mighty circles.

The upload finished.

Starscream pulled out the memory stick with shaky fingers and set it aside. His vision wobbled. He couldn’t feel a difference, but the foreign code worked through him like hot slices of an energon blade. There was an… incompatibility. Rejection. The source code peered and disapproved.

His tanks clenched. He clamped down on the need to purge.

He plugged the scanner back into his port. He gripped the desk to keep himself upright, even though it felt as though his gyros were spinning. This… wasn’t right. He knew how it felt to have a coding boost from a willing donor. The surge of energy, of life, the unfurling of new data, new coding tricks. This was the complete opposite.

The scanner beeped. It took Starscream a frightening amount of time to focus on the read out.

Coding degradation at twenty-three percent.

Damn it. Damn it.

Starscream threw the memory stick away. It clattered across the table before sliding off the other end and bouncing across the floor. It likely broke. Not that it mattered. It was useless now.

The coding upload had failed. Again. And worse, this time it had further corrupted what coding he’d had.

Starscream dug furrows into the desk with his talons. His vents came in sharper bursts.

He had no choice now. None. If he wanted to live, if he wanted to survive, to continue, he would have to ask Hot Rod. He would have to bow his head and submit himself, like he hadn’t in centuries, to the whim of another mech.

It was only his self-respect, he reasoned. He could claw his way back to it again. But oh, how it stung. Such a heavy price to pay.

It had to be done.

~

Rodimus rounded the corner, unable to decide if he was excited he could leave for home tomorrow, or disappointed that he would be returning a failure. Part of him wanted to linger, to spend more time here in this laboratory, with Starscream as waspish as he was, and yet sometimes charming, too.

Said Seeker had spent the entirety of the day locked in his laboratory. He hadn’t even answered the door when Rodimus pinged it, hoping to lure him out with more treats. Rodimus had been left to entertain himself, which he had, but couldn’t shake the disappointment. He’d thought he and Starscream had become, well, not friends, but maybe they’d learned to respect one another. Tolerate one another? Come to an understanding?

Something.

Starscream had gone back to the cold distance so quickly. Rodimus had hoped that he could leave tomorrow feeling as though he’d made a friend at the very least. Beneath that bristly exterior, Starscream was fascinating, and lonely, if Rodimus had a guess, and Rodimus knew something about what it meant to feel alone.

It was probably all Rodimus’ fault. He’d made too much of a nuisance of himself, and a distraction both. He’d caused Starscream’s experiment to fail yesterday, and that must have been the last grit in the gear.

He sighed, scrubbed a hand down his face, and then froze when he realized he was no longer alone. Starscream loitered outside of the room he’d loaned to Rodimus. The Seeker leaned against the wall beside the door, his posture casual, but the rest of him less so as his armor was clamped tightly and his expression unreadable.

Rodimus tilted his head. “Um, what’s going on?” He hadn’t broken anything, he was sure of it. Behind him, Scuttle bumped against his heel and chirped indignantly.

“Well, Hot Rod, it seems I am going to grant your wish after all.”

Rodimus cycled his optics and drew down his orbital ridges. “What do you mean?”

Starscream pushed off the wall, dropping his arms from where they’d been folded across his chestplate. The motion seemed to draw the overhead lights toward his frame, highlighting paint that gleamed as though he’d been freshly waxed and polished.

“You wanted to berth the Warlock,” Starscream said and rested a hand on his hip, frame angled as though to show off all his best features. “Here I am. But I want something from you in exchange.”

Rodimus gnawed on the inside of his cheek. This was really weird and sudden, and he couldn’t help but notice how very twitchy Starscream was. The Seeker’s field, usually well contained, was all over the place, and pushing at Rodimus’ own.

“What?” he said, maybe a little dumbly. Starscream wasn’t making any sense.

Starscream sighed a ventilation, which he seemed to do a lot. “Must I spell it out for you?” He rubbed at his forehead. “You can frag me for whatever bragging rights your backward clan finds acceptable, and in exchange, I want to borrow your coding.”

No. He still wasn’t making any sense.

“You want to frag me,” Rodimus repeated slowly, and looked around for the cameras. Was Starscream recording this? Trying to humiliate him? “But you want me to let you copy my coding first?”

“Look, it’s a simple exchange of favors, is it not?” Starscream demanded, his tone impatient. His wings twitched faster as the press of his field became more urgent.

Rodimus shook his head. “I don’t understand. You’ve been turning me down since the solar cycle I woke up here. What changed?”

“That’s none of your business!” Starscream snapped, and crossed his arms over his chestplate. “Are you going to take the deal or not?”

It was Rodimus’ turn to fold his arms. “I don’t think only with my spike, you know.” He peered at Starscream, noticing the wan shade of the Seeker’s face and the tremble in his fingertips. “Is there something wrong with you?”

Starscream’s ventilations stuttered, his lips curving downward in a frown. “You know nothing of Seekers, do you?”

“Only the stories and I’ve learned that most of them are false now.” Rodimus shrugged. “There aren’t any in my clan. Never have been. Why would I know anything?” He peered at Starscream. “What am I missing?”

Starscream stared at him for a long moment. He wavered on his feet and slipped back toward the wall, leaning against it. “Our coding deteriorates over time. Breaks down. Causes glitches. Instabilities and eventually…”

“You die?” Rodimus’ optics flared with shock. “So wait. Is that why–”

“Yes,” Starscream interrupted with a long ventilation. “We need unmarred coding to refresh our own. Like a temp patch on a wound.”

Rodimus shook his head, his processor spinning. This was a lot to take in all at once. “But you’ve been living here alone. For years.”

“I’ve had visitors,” Starscream said dryly. “I’m going to spare you the details because you aren’t owed them.” He dropped his hand and gave Rodimus a long look. “Have I satisfied your curiosity enough? Are we in agreement?”

Rodimus reared back, his spark hammering in his chassis. “What? No!”

“Why not? Is this not what you came here for?” Starscream actually looked insulted, his wings twitching faster. “Or am I too unappealing for you to bring yourself to activate your spike?”

Rodimus shook his head so hard it left him a touch dizzy. All of the sudden his plating crawled, and he’d never been less aroused in his life. Somehow it just felt wrong. Wrong for Starscream to agree to ‘face with him only so he wouldn’t die. That wasn’t seduction. That wasn’t overcoming the odds to defeat or berth the Deathbringer himself.

That was… well, it was just wrong.

“Do we have to frag?” Rodimus asked.

Starscream scoffed. “Apparently I am that unappealing.” He pushed off the wall again and turned down the hallway, away from Rodimus, but he stumbled in the midst of doing so.

Rodimus chased after him and cut Starscream off, skidding to a halt in front of the Seeker. “That’s not what I meant!” he rushed to say and felt his face heat. “I just meant, you know, that you shouldn’t have to take my spike just to get something you need to live. You know?” He rubbed the back of his neck.

There was no honor in it. There just wasn’t. He’d never live with himself if he accepted Starscream’s exchange. He’d never claim it as a victory. He’d always feel tainted by his own selfishness and dishonor.

Starscream’s optics widened. His gaze flicked up and down Rodimus’ frame. “Wait,” he said. “What are you saying?”

Rodimus dragged in a heavy vent. “You can copy my coding. You don’t have to frag me for it. I mean, not unless you have to be fragging me for it to work.” He rolled his shoulders in a shrug that was far from dismissive. “I just want to help.”

Starscream stared at him. “Seriously?”

“Yeah.” Rodimus swept his hand over his head, feeling like an idiot, the embarrassment burning in his cheeks. “I mean, it won’t hurt, will it?”

Starscream shook his head. “No. Not at all. In fact from what I’ve witnessed and heard, it’s actually quite pleasurable.” His field evened out, turning warm and pliant. “It’s just data-sharing basically. A step up from med-cabling.”

Rodimus cycled an unsteady ventilation. “Well, that doesn’t sound too bad. I can do that.” He offered Starscream a smile, though it was probably shaky. “That is if it’s okay with you.”

“I wouldn’t have asked you if it wasn’t.”

“Or if you didn’t have any other choice, right?” Rodimus asked.

Starscream’s wings twitched. “There are times when one must choose between survival and dignity. I have always favored the former.”

That was terribly sad to hear. Rodimus was at once even more glad that he’d chosen to help rather than take the opportunity for what it was.

He nodded. “So, uh, if we do this, you’ll be able to read my coding, right?” he asked as he mentally reviewed all that he knew about cabled interfacing, which amounted to very little. It wasn’t common in his clan. Or by any of them. Not when so many clanlings attributed it code-stealing Seekers.

“To an extent,” Starscream conceded. He lifted his shoulders in a shrug. “I won’t be able to alter or affect it, however. The integrity of your own frame is safe.”

Rodimus cycled a ventilation. “Then you’ll probably find out that I lied to you,” he said, and flinched as Starscream’s expression darkened. “Not about something big,” he hastily added. “Just, I told you my given name, not my chosen name.”

Starscream blinked, his forehead drawing downward in confusion. “Why?”

“Didn’t want you to know who I was. Not that it matters because you still don’t.” Rodimus laughed, though it was self-deprecating. “My name is actually Rodimus.”

“Fair enough.” Starscream tilted his head, the fire in his optics dimming. “It’s hardly the worst lie I’ve ever heard.”

“Yeah, but it’s never good to start off with dishonesty. I should have known better.” Rodimus coughed into his hand and shifted his weight. “So do you want to do this now or later or in your room or what?”

Starscream’s lips curved in something like a smile, a real one, and wow, it was kind of nice. Pretty cute, too. They were so rare that Rodimus wished he could take a picture, just to remember it.

“If you are amenable, I would accept your assistance now,” Starscream said as the tight clamp of his armor eased. “I fear I am running short on time.”

Rodimus nodded. “Okay then. Um…” He pointed to his door. “Come on in. Well, it’s your room to start with but you know, we should go in.”

He was nervous. He was babbling. He needed to stop before he looked like an even bigger idiot than he was.

Starscream turned around without speaking and opened the door. Rodimus followed him inside, anxiety sending a low treble through his spark. Despite it all, Starscream was pretty much a stranger to him, and Rodimus had never crossed cables with anyone, not even his closest friends. Cable-crossing was miles above interfacing in terms of intimacy. The closest thing Rodimus could compare it to was shallow merging, and he’d never engaged in that either.

Cheerful beeping attracted his attention. He looked down to see Scuttle surging ahead of him into the room, and two other drones milling around Starscream’s feet, bumping against his thrusters.

Starscream must have heard them also, as he turned around and looked at the floor with a frown. “There is nothing for you to clean here. Back to your stations.” He made shooing motions at the three drones.

Two flashed their lights at him and obeyed. They spun around Starscream in tight circles before changing course and zipping out the door.

Scuttle, however, seemed to hunker down. It made an undignified blat noise, that Rodimus could only interpret as ‘frag you.’

Starscream huffed and planted his hands on his hips. “None of that now,” he said with a sharp look. “Out you get!” He pointed to the door.

The sound Scuttle then made surely was not polite.

Starscream’s optics widened as though he’d been insulted. Rodimus tried his best not to laugh as he crouched.

“Scuttle,” he said, careful to make his tone stern. “You heard Starscream. Out you get.”

Scuttle wriggled in place before it rose up and beeped, more positively this time. It spun around and obediently went out the door.

Starscream huffed. “Obstinate sparkling.”

Rodimus chuckled and stood back up. “I think Scuttle’s cute,” he said. “Well, all of them are, but Scuttle especially.” He pressed the panel so that the door would close. Suddenly, the room felt a lot smaller.

He turned around to face Starscream again, the Seeker giving him an odd look, as though he were trying to figure out a complicated equation.

“So, uh, how do you want to do this?” Rodimus asked.

Starscream hiked up onto the berth, his legs hanging over the edge. He looked at Rodimus, but there wasn’t as much confidence in his expression as Rodimus would have expected.

“Whatever makes you comfortable,” he said with a shrug that felt like forced nonchalance. “We will need to be close, you understand.”

“I trust you,” Rodimus said, and surprised himself with how much he didn’t hesitate at all. He hadn’t known Starscream very long, but apparently his instincts had decided it was long enough.

Starscream’s smile broadened, even more sincere than before. “Then care to join me?” He patted the berth next to him as he pulled his frame further onto it, until he rested his back against the wall at the head of the berth.

Rodimus climbed onto the berth, eying Starscream for a long moment before he decided to go with the flow and planted himself right in the Seeker’s lap. Starscream made a startled sound, his hands going to Rodimus’ hips, even as Rodimus scooted forward, his hands resting on Starscream’s shoulders.

“We have to be close, right?” he asked with a cheeky wink.

“You continue to surprise me, Firebrand.” Starscream’s hands gently patted his hips before they swept up to his waist, warm and present against his plating. “Where is your port array? Mine is located on my lower back, below my wing hinges.”

“Well, that’s inconvenient,” Rodimus said with a laugh. He patted his left abdominal panel. “Mine’s here.”

Starscream smirked. “Then it appears neither of us are standard.” His wings fluttered in what little space was allowed between him and the wall. “You understand I’ll need to connect to you, yes?”

Rodimus nodded, and in a show of trust, went ahead and triggered his panel to open, shivering a little as the warm air wisped over his connectors. He’d never bared them to another before, and it was strange how he felt shy about it.

“Shiny and new,” Starscream murmured as his gaze dropped down to Rodimus’ port. One of his hands swept inward, fingers flirting over the connectors.

Rodimus shivered, a low thrill shooting through his frame at the light touch. His spark throbbed with need, his fans spinning up to low speed. That had felt good. Like Starscream had touched his anterior node cluster or rubbed his spike head.

“Either you’ve never done this before or you take scrupulous care of your equipment,” Starscream commented, the tips of his fingers brushing over Rodimus’ connectors again.

A low whine eeked out of Rodimus’ vocalizer. He arched toward Starscream, his ventilations stuttering.

“Th-the former,” he stammered and felt his faceplate flush with heat. “Is it supposed to feel like that?”

“Better,” Starscream replied.

There was a distant click before Starscream’s hands faded away from his port array. Rodimus tried not to mourn their loss, even as he looked down to see Starscream awkwardly reaching behind himself.

“Let me help,” Rodimus said, stirring himself into action.

He leaned forward, slipping a hand behind Starscream, groping blindly for the Seeker’s cable array. He knew he’d found it when his fingers slid over connectors, and Starscream shivered, arching toward him. Taloned hands returned to his hips, squeezing gently. Starscream’s field bloomed with warmth and swelled over Rodimus’, tangling in all the edges of his and pulsing at him.

Rodimus fumbled for several seconds more before he located the prongs of Starscream’s cables and was able to draw them free, one on each side of the Seeker’s chassis. They, unlike Rodimus’, reflected their frequent use. The metal of the prongs was a duller sheen, and the cables themselves were frayed.

Nevertheless, Starscream shivered harder as Rodimus ran his thumbs over the prongs. He slowly unspooled the cables and drew them toward his own port array.

“You’ll help me, right?” he asked as he struggled to look down at himself.

Starscream’s hands closed over his, gentle as they took the cable-tips from his fingers. “Yes,” he said and added, “because as charming as it would be to watch you fumble, perhaps that is better saved for another time.”

Rodimus flushed and felt the heat all the way to the tip of his finials. “Another time?”

“If there is one,” Starscream amended and focused his attention on Rodimus’ port array, his optics a touch brighter than they had been before. “Are you certain you want to do this? I won’t blame you if you don’t.”

Rodimus shook his head. He was glad Starscream was willing to give him an out, but he couldn’t do it. He could feel the hunger in Starscream’s field. The desperation, too. Starscream hadn’t lied when he said he needed this.

He curled his fingers around Starscream’s wrists and tugged the Seeker’s hands closer to his port array. “I’m sure.”

Rodimus shivered as the tip of Starscream’s connector nudged against his receiving port, and a light shock of charge danced between them. It was like a bolt of unexpected pleasure straight to his sensornet. His engine hummed, armor loosening as his uncertainty vanished.

“Very well then.” Starscream’s field pushed at Rodimus’, warm and fluid as it coated Rodimus in appreciation and gratitude. “Here I go.”

Rodimus braced himself, his hands sliding up Starscream’s arms, from his wrists to his shoulders. He could see very little beneath the rise of his chestplate, but the sensation was more than enough.

The light touch of connector to port. The tiny nips of charge exchanging between the two. And then the quiet click as the first cable snapped home, which was then immediately followed by another click.

Rodimus waited, unsure what to expect. At first there was nothing, just the sensation of his ports growing warm as Starscream’s connector nestled within them. Then he felt Starscream’s presence tapping at his firewalls, a polite request for permission.

“You needn’t drop them entirely,” Starscream murmured as his hands slid to cupping Rodimus’ waist, his thumbs stroking over the flat of Rodimus’ abdomen. “Shallow permissions are enough.”

Rodimus nodded, unable to trust his words. He allowed Starscream access and shivered as he felt the odd sensation of an alien presence sifting into his system. It crept in warmly, cautiously, as though taking great care not to harm.

Then came the first pulse of charge. It drizzled into his port like a snap of static electricity and Rodimus twitched. Heat pooled low in his abdomen, sinking toward his array. His grip on Starscream’s shoulders tightened before he made himself let go.

Another pulse of charge lit up his port array. It was a languid pulse, like an afterthought, yet it still set Rodimus’ internals ablaze with need.

“Primus,” Rodimus moaned as his backstrut arched, his hands clawing the air before they curled around Starscream’s forearms. Pleasure licked through his lines like dipping into a hot oil bath, and his vents stuttered.

Starscream’s fingers stroked a soothing path against his mid-section, his thumbs tracing the port housing. “See,” he murmured, his vocals rich and syrupy and dancing in Rodimus’ audials. “Not painful at all.”

“The complete opposite,” Rodimus gasped as his hips moved of their own accord, rocking toward Starscream, his array throbbing with an unexpected need.

More charge slithered into his port and while he dimly sensed the data transfer, it was secondary to the pleasure suffusing every inch of his frame. It was like Starscream was stroking him on the inside, featherlight touches that danced across every node and set his sensornet afire.

Rodimus panted for oral ventilations, feeling as though he couldn’t seem to ventilate otherwise. He licked his lips, resisting the urge to free his equipment, his spike and valve both throbbing in hungry demand. His spark was equally intrigued, spinning faster and faster within his chamber.

And still Starscream continued.

His thumbs stroked Rodimus’ port housing, occasionally dipping inward to caress where they were joined, each light touch sending another jolt through Rodimus. The data transfer increased in speed, each pulse along the cable like a tap to Rodimus’ nodes. He twitched, his hands squeezing Starscream’s arms to the same beat as the data transfer.

“Hnngh.” Rodimus moaned and his face heated as he did so. But he couldn’t help it. The pleasure was consuming him. “I think – I might – I’m gonna–” Not complete a sentence apparently, but his vocalizer kept stuttering, and it was hard to focus on anything beyond the throbbing of his frame.

“It’s all right,” Starscream murmured. “It is quite common for mechs to overload. Do not hold back on my account.”

Rodimus struggled to lift his head, and barely managed a sheepish grin. “H-holding back… isn’t an option,” he struggled to say before another shudder danced down his spinal strut and his valve clenched on nothing.

He hoped he wasn’t leaving a mess on Starscream’s lap. It was all he could do to keep his panels closed, even as his spike throbbed in its housing, and his valve cycled faster and faster.

He hung his head, unable to keep it up any longer. His optics shuttered, vents coming sharper. Thoughts and awareness turned inward, to the hot and languid pulses of data, as Starscream fed off his coding.

Dimly, he realized that Starscream trembled beneath him, that he was no less affected by the transfer. Only, he was better used to it, and maintained better control. Yet, his frame exuded heat, and charge crackled in his seams, and his field caressed Rodimus’ like a lover might. His vents, too, came in faster bursts, his frame moving beneath Rodimus’ in little shifts and twitches.

It was actually pretty hot.

Rodimus lifted his gaze and drank in the sight of Starscream’s face flushed, his optics brighter if not unfocused. Starscream was nibbling on his bottom lip, his wings twitching behind him. Yet, he trembled as he held back, his vents fluttering and the turbines on his chest spinning a little.

Rodimus wanted to kiss him suddenly. Wanted to press his lips to those swollen ones and taste Starscream’s surprise with his glossa. He wanted to scoot forward, drop his aching valve on Starscream’s spike, and drown in pleasure. He wanted to ride Starscream while they were still connected until he couldn’t see straight.

He wanted…

Rodimus’ hands tightened on Starscream’s arms and he prayed he didn’t dent the armor with his fingertips. His backstrut arched again, hips rolling forward, the heat coiling tighter and tighter in his abdomen.

“I am almost done,” Starscream murmured, but it sounded like it came from a distance, a buzz in Rodimus’ audials.

If he’d had the energy to spare for it, he would have chuckled, would’ve remarked with something cheeky like “so am I.” But all the processing power he had left was focused on pleasure, on the tiniest pull of Starscream’s presence in his systems, slurping up a copy of his code as though it were the finest of engex.

Each tug felt like a stroke to his spike. Each trickle of charge was a lick to his anterior node. Each careful sweep of Starscream’s fingers was a caress to his sensor net.

Rodimus moaned again, something staticky and broken, and lost his fight with gravity. He sank fully into Starscream’s lap, hips moving of their own accord. He arched, again and again, rocking toward Starscream’s chassis in mimicry of interfacing, while his array pulsed and pounded behind the locks he’d set up to keep his panels closed.

Need tightened and tightened within him, like a wound spring, until it abruptly burst. Rodimus threw his head back, gasping out a ridiculous sound as he overloaded, pleasure pounding through his lines with all the force of a sandstorm. It whirled around him, swept him up, sent him spinning through space.

Rodimus came back to himself ventilating unevenly, his chassis lurched forward and resting against Starscream’s chestplate. His head was pillowed on one of Starscream’s shoulders, his hands clutching Starscream’s hips. Little jolts of charge radiated through his frame, making him shiver.

Despite it all, he felt good. Sated. Languid. Like he could recharge right here and now. He nuzzled into Starscream’s intake as the dimmest sense of connection still buzzed between them.

Starscream was petting his back. Short, soft strokes of his palms down Rodimus’ armor. His engine purred softly. The cables hung limp between them.

Rodimus mumbled something that might have been words. He heard Starscream chuckle, the amusement rumbling within the Seeker’s chassis.

“Welcome back,” he said.

Rodimus groaned and forced himself to sit back up, though it made the cables pull between them, giving a light tug on his port array. It was enough to make him shiver, his backstrut tingling.

“That was intense,” Rodimus said as he reached down, fingers brushing his array, exploring where cable met port, resulting in another warm shiver. “Is it always like that?”

“It depends on the mech. And how often you participate,” Starscream replied. His vocals were light, careful. As though he were afraid of Rodimus’ reaction. “Here. I’ll disconnect myself.”

Rodimus shook his head. That wasn’t what he was trying to imply at all, but the words wouldn’t come, his thoughts far too fuzzy. Starscream disconnected before Rodimus could get them out. The loss of his datastream, however much of a trickle it had become, was dizzying, and Rodimus swayed in Starscream’s lap.

He grasped Starscream’s shoulders, and cycled a long, slow ventilation until the dizziness faded, leaving nothing but sated exhaustion in its wake. Primus, what he wouldn’t give for a soak in the oil bath, a cube of midgrade, and to fall into recharge here in this berth.

“Are you well?”

“Well enough that I so wouldn’t mind doing that again,” Rodimus admitted with a little laugh.

He squirmed on Starscream’s lap, feeling the mess behind his panels. He couldn’t believe he’d overloaded without so much as a touch to his spike or valve. That was incredible.

Starscream quietly retracted his cables. “I’m relieved I haven’t scarred you for life,” he said wryly.

“Far from it.” Rodimus palmed his port array closed. “If anything, you’ve given me something new to do in the future.”

Starscream genuinely laughed. “Hedonist,” he said, and gave a little squeeze to Rodimus’ hips. “Now if you don’t mind, my wings are cramped, and I’m in need of energon and recharge.”

“I am, too,” Rodimus admitted and shifted his weight to the side, letting Starscream scoot out from beneath him.

Primus, he was exhausted. Maybe he’d skip the energon and go straight to berth and worry about the rest later. He’d felt like he’d engaged in a night of marathon interfacing, not a single instance of cable-swapping. It was the good kind of exhausted, but still!

Starscream slid off the berth, and Rodimus stretched across the space he abandoned, sinking onto his front with an exhausted huff. He felt wrung dry and worn out, and recharge sounded really, really good right now.

“What happened to wanting energon?” Starscream asked, sounding amused.

Rodimus groped for the nearest pillow and tucked it under his head, folding his arms beneath it. “Maybe later,” he mumbled, rubbing his face against the softly woven mesh. “’M tired.”

Starscream chuckled again. “That is not uncommon.” A hand rested on Rodimus’ shoulder, giving it a light squeeze. “Recharge as you will. I’ll leave some energon on the table for you.”

“Thanks.”

“It is I who should be thanking you.” Starscream’s field brushed up against his, warm with gratitude.

“Pfft.” Rodimus turned his head, peering at Starscream through slitted optics as the Seeker headed toward the door. “You kind of saved my spark, so I guess that just makes us even, right?”

Starscream paused at the door, and he turned back to look at Rodimus. He couldn’t read the Seeker’s expression, but Starscream’s lips did curve into the smallest of smiles.

“Yes, I suppose it does,” he said and dipped his head in a nod. “Recharge well, Rodimus.”

“You, too.”

The door clicked shut behind Starscream, and Rodimus wriggled to get more comfortable on the berth. His entire frame still thrummed from the aftermath of his overload, but it was the good kind of hum. A satisfied kind of hum.

His engine purred, and he squeezed the pillow beneath him.

A part of him wished he didn’t have to leave in the morning. He wouldn’t mind trying that again, but more than that, he felt he’d really built something here. A friendship, or more perhaps. Something he was now loathe to lose.

Rodimus sighed and offlined his optics.

No point ruminating on impossibilities.

[IDW] A Steady Hand

Drama. Queen.

Ironhide thought he’d met the epitome of the title when he’d spent those years with Sunstreaker, even as wracked with guilt as the kid was. But watching Starscream pace back and forth in the conference room, snarling and gesticulating wildly as he ranted, Ironhide thought Sunstreaker could learn a lesson or two.

Or three.

Worse was Starscream’s field. A nauseating maelstrom of agitation, outrage, and unmitigated exhaustion. No wonder he was a mess. Did he recharge? Refuel? Or was he surviving merely on spite and concentrated engex?

Ironhide hadn’t seen a mech wound this tight since Chromedome rejected Prowl and took off on the Lost Light with Rewind.

Primus.

At least Starscream didn’t have a penchant for flipping tables, otherwise this one here would already be in pieces.

Ironhide’s head ached just sitting here. In the ranting, he thought he might could make out a few choice phrases, most of them directed at Cybertron’s general populace, though the council and the various colonies were getting their fair share of rage, too.

Did Starscream even realize he wasn’t alone? Or did he assume Ironhide left with all the others? Had he not even checked?

Oh, and there he went again, hissing angrily at the empty space on his right, wings rigid and trembling, plating drawn tight, energy field a sickening spiral of self-loathing. Wonderful.

Honestly, Starscream might not’ve been the leader everyone particularly wanted, but he was the one they had. He had the potential to do a halfway decent job of it, too, if he gave himself half a chance. That was, if the stress didn’t get him first.

Cybertron couldn’t afford a leader who was off his rocker. They’d had enough of that already. And since no one else was up for the job of making sure their lord or president or whatever Starscream called himself was sane enough to handle it, Ironhide supposed he’d take one for the team.

Well. He supposed there were more difficult challenges. Though at the moment, he couldn’t think of a single one.

Ironhide propped his head against his knuckles. He coughed loudly, putting in an engine rev for good measure.

“Yer gonna snap a neural line if ya keep this up, yer highness.”

Starscream cut off mid-rant and whipped around, his pretty face flushed with outrage as his wings went high and tight.

“What are you still doing here?” he screeched, hands fisted at his sides, wing tips quivering and his optics flashing.

“Watching a plane crash in slow motion apparently.”

Starscream’s field boiled, shifting the full force straight at Ironhide, thoroughly expressing his indignation. Well, at least he was directing it outward now.

“Seriously,” Ironhide continued, because he’d already died once, what did he have to lose? “Ya ever thought about takin’ a deep breath and not workin’ overtime?”

Starscream gaped at him as though he couldn’t believe his audials before he shook his head. “Sometimes, I’m not sure what language you’re speaking in,” he huffed. “And no. I’m the–” And here Ironhide braced himself for the long title he knew was coming “–High Chancellor of the Refulgent Cybertronian Dynasty, Emperor Perpetua and Defender of the Realm. I don’t have time for nonsense.”

And there it was. Primus, such a mouthful. How could he get all out in a single ventilation anyway?

Anyway. Nonsense, huh?

Maybe that was part of whatever was crammed up Starscream’s thruster. Mechs weren’t naturally this obstinate.

Not even Prowl, Primus bless the poor kid. He needed someone to look after him, too. Someone who wasn’t already conjunxed up to someone else. Prowl never could stop hungering after things that stopped being his ages ago. Had a classic case of wanting things he couldn’t have, that way he could rant and rave at the universe when he didn’t get it, and blame people not himself.

Come to think of it, Starscream was a bit like that, too. And as history had proven, neither of them had really benefited from a punch to the face.

As fun and needed as they might have felt at the time.

Ironhide tipped his head. “Should think about makin’ some time,” he pointed out, because Starscream was the focus here, not Prowl, though the parallels were there. Ironhide wanted to smack himself for not noticing it before. “Yer drivin’ yerself crazy, and it’s embarrassin’ to watch.”

Starscream’s face colored. “I’m fine!” he insisted, just short of a hiss.

Ironhide snoted and leaned back in his chair, folding his arms behind his head. “And I’m Omega’s second cousin twice removed.”

There Starscream went, gaping again. “I… what?” He looked at Ironhide as though he were a particularly convoluted scientific equation.

Ironhide shook his head. “You ain’t even fine. Ya need ta relax before you crash and take us all with you.” Pits, even Prime had relaxed every once in awhile, though it had taken some dragging to get him out of the office, where he was convinced some teensy bit of data held the clue to getting through Megatron’s thick helm.

Starscream shook himself as though gathering back his wits. “Is that concern I detect?”

“And a dose of self-preservation.” Ironhide smirked, affecting a lazy sprawl in his chair. “C’mon. Surely a self-serving mech like yourself has a few vices. Hot oil bath, mebbe. Fancy music and a good novel. Playin’ tag with missiles. Tugging on the tail of a tiger. Something.”

Starscream folded his arms over his cockpit and cocked his hip. “If I did, I certainly wouldn’t share them with you.”

“Fair enough.” Ironhide shrugged, played into nonchalance. “But if I might offer some advice–”

“Oh, like you haven’t already.”

“–take some time off tonight,” Ironhide finished, ignoring the snide aside. He’d spent years alongside Sunstreaker for Primus’ sake. Snark was par for the course. “Do whatever it is ya do to relax. Because right now, yer kinda… manic.”

Starscream worked his jaw. “Manic.”

“Manic,” Ironhide confirmed. “And yeah, mebbe it ain’t none of my business, but the council isn’t goin’ ta get any easier to handle if ya start fallin’ apart, and frankly, I don’t wanna see whatever might try to claw its way into yer place.”

Starscream stared at him for a minute longer before his lips slowly curled into a smirk that Ironhide knew all too well. “That is concern I’m hearing.” He dropped his arms and circled the table, one hand dragging along the smooth surface in an audible slide. “Why, Ironhide, I didn’t know you cared.”

Ironhide might have tensed. He wasn’t afraid of Starscream, per se, but he suddenly got the distinct feeling he was being stalked, despite seeing the Seeker strutting toward him in plain view. There was something rather predatory about the look in Starscream’s optics, and Ironhide wasn’t sure he was prepared to deal with that.

But then, like he’d noticed, wasn’t anyone else stepping up to the plate. Sometimes, ya just had to mech up and take yer licks.

“It’s one of my shortcomings, I ‘spose,” Ironhide drawled. “Can’t help but look after my leaders.”

“And now you’re actually acknowledging me? Will wonders never cease.” That was nearly a purr, if you asked Ironhide, and he didn’t even know Starscream could purr.

He shrugged again, not failing to notice that Starscream’s field had turned from a chaotic mess, to a syrupy pulse. “I ain’t the type to stick my head in the sand just ‘cause something’s happened I don’t particularly agree with. Gotta roll with the punches or find myself on the mat.”

Starscream scrubbed a hand down his face. “You and your charming idioms. You spent far too much time on Earth, Ironhide.”

“Well, I was also dead fer awhile. These things happen.”

Starscream stared at him before slipping into a rolling chuckle. “Yes, they do,” he said, amusement rich in his vocals. He was close enough now that Ironhide could smell the sweet richness of his wax.

Mech shined himself up as much as Sunstreaker did. Vain drama queens, the both of them. No wonder they got on. Or well, did. Probably not so much now that Starscream was half to blame for Sunstreaker’s treasonous act. Not that Ironhide could blame Sunny.

Wasn’t right, what those humans did. Not right at all, and downright creepy. Just thinking about it made him shiver, and not in a good way. Still wasn’t good, that Sunstreaker betrayed him, but Ironhide could understand it.

“But you know, Ironhide, I think you’re right,” Starscream continued with a purr that was actually intriguing. “I do think I need to relax. Take a load off, as you might say.”

Ironhide smirked. “Damn straight, I’m right.”Maybe he felt a touch too smug, but it was a rare thing to hear Starscream admit anything like that. “Wow, Screamer, didn’t think you actually had the capability to be reasona– what the frag are you doing?”

“There’s really only one way for me to properly relax,” the Seeker stated as he swung himself into Ironhide’s lap, straddling him as though he belonged there, his frame outright warm and silken where his armor slid over Ironhide’s. “I’ve found that several overloads do the trick just fine.”

Ironhide tried not to splutter, but it was hard when one found themselves with a sudden lapful of Seeker, especially one as armed, dangerous, and mercurial as Starscream. “Then find yerself a facin’ partner!”

“Oh, but I did,” Starscream purred and draped his arms over Ironhide’s shoulders, hips rolling in a sinuous wave that Jazz would’ve envied. “After all, here you are, so very worried about my mental state, and here I am, suddenly swayed by your charm.”

Despite himself, Ironhide’s hands found their way to the smooth plating of Starscream’s thighs, curling around the polished white of them. “I ain’t playin’ games, Seeker.”

“Mm, neither am I.” Clever fingers crept into the seams around his shoulders, teasing the thick cables beneath. “You’re the one concerned about my stress level. So I think you should be the one to do something about it.” Starscream’s lips curved in a smirk, his optics glittering.

Ironhide snorted. “Right. I’d break a delicate thing like you, and then there ya’d be, gloating to everyone about the brutish Autobots.”

Starscream’s thighs pressed in against Ironhide’s hips, and he leaned back, effortlessly grinding his interfacing panel against Ironhide’s abdomen. “But factions don’t matter anymore, remember? Besides, I’m a lot sturdier than I look.”

Ironhide’s hands seemed to have a mind of their own, sliding upward as they did, until he cupped Starscream’s hips and swept his thumbs in toward Starscream’s interfacing array, which felt warm to the touch. Well, at least Starscream wasn’t faking his interest. That was some genuine arousal there, and in his field, too.

“Well, maybe I just ain’t interested,” Ironhide retorted, because like frag he was going to be so easily swayed by a pretty face. Even if it was accompanied by some glossy wings begging for a firm grip.

Starscream barked a laugh that wasn’t at all unpleasant. His thighs pressed in, locking in place almost, as his fingers found new cables to manipulate, sending little trills of pleasure right into Ironhide’s sensory net. “Then whose hands are on my hips, hm?”

“Someone who’s clearly lost his processor,” Ironhide declared and leaned in, inhaling deeply, dragging in Starscream’s scent – sweet polish, ozone, and the tang of thruster burn. His hands slid up, cupping Starscream’s waist, thumbs sweeping the bottom edge of his turbines. “Because this is definitely a bad idea.”

Starscream hummed with amusement. “The bad ideas are always the best ones,” he purred, and Ironhide heard the click of an interfacing panel sliding aside. Starscream’s hands drifted down, resting on Ironhide’s arms, where his fingers twirled at the rims of his tires. “So do I have your attention?”

Ironhide snorted. “Ya already know how pretty ya are. Don’t go fishin’ for compliments.” Hands inched up just a bit further, until he found the bottom edge of Starscream’s wings, giving them a pinch that was just enough to make Starscream shiver and arch toward him. “Though ya do look mighty fine when ya do that.”

“Touch me more, and I’ll put on an even better show.” Starscream’s glossa swept over his lips, and he vented heated bursts. “Show me what you got, Autobot. All this tension isn’t good for relaxing.”

Ironhide rolled his optics. “Needy Seeker.”

“Rusty aft grounder,” Starscream retorted, but it was with a laugh that belied the insult. He rolled his hips, and Ironhide felt the smear of hot lubricant against his panel. “Come on. I don’t have all night. Less bantering, more fragging.”

Ironhide curved his hands around, thumbs stroking the slats of Starscream’s front turbines, and was rewarded with a full-frame shudder. Starscream’s field slid over his, hungry and sizzling. Experimentally, Ironhide gave the turbines a little flick, set them to lazily spinning, and Starscream moaned, chassis arching toward him.

Fingers curled hard against his tires, like claws as they dug in against the pliable rubber. Starscream huffed and licked his lips.

“I thought you were worried about breaking me,” he said, thrusters kicking against the floor as he worked his hips, scraping his array over Ironhide’s groin armor. “Is my big, bad Chief of Security really just a mesh cloth inside?”

Ironhide chuckled. “Yer tryin’ to goad me.” He leaned in closer, nosing his way to Starscream’s intake, where shiny cables demanded to be tasted. “It ain’t gonna work.”

“Are you sure? I can be quite… provocative.” Starscream’s tone was as sly as his hands, which flattened over Ironhide’s windshield, fingers scraping the clear transsteel.

Fire drizzled through Ironhide’s lines. His array pinged him, reporting a need to relieve pressure, and demanding he take advantage of the wet heat so very near. He groaned and decided there wasn’t a point in denying himself. Starscream couldn’t get any clearer about what he wanted.

Still… Best not to let him realize just how appealing he was. Mech like him had a big enough ego as it was.

“And I’m still gonna move at my own pace,” Ironhide said, giving a nip to those shiny cables and feeling Starscream moan against his lips.

He leaned forward as Starscream leaned back, not that there was anywhere to go with the table right behind him. Starscream’s back hit the table edge right below his wings, leaving him trapped and at Ironhide’s mercy.

Right where Ironhide wanted him.

He finally freed his spike, groaning as it pressurized and slid against the tempting slick of Starscream’s valve, brushing over swollen lips and getting smeared with sticky lubricant. Starscream’s valve rim fluttered against his spikehead in a wordless invitation.

“Yes,” Starscream hissed, sounding triumphant. His thrusters scraped the floor as he ground against Ironhide, rolling his valve over Ironhide’s spike and liberally slicking it with lubricant. “It’s about time.”

Ironhide purred a laugh. “Yer a little hedonist, ain’t ya?” he asked as he fingered Starscream’s chest turbines, delighted by the way they spun beneath his touch. The raised hubs intrigued him as well, and he brushed the pad of his thumbs over them.

Starscream’s quickly drawn vent was telling. As was the way his chassis arched and his hands dug into Ironhide’s seams, fingers hooking around his armor plate and trying to tug him closer.

“And you’re a tease,” Starscream huffed, his fingers sinking in until his talons left little pinpricks on Ironhide’s substructure.

He arched an orbital ridge. “Oh, am I?” Ironhide challenged and nabbed those turbine hubs between thumb and forefinger, giving them a pinch.

Starscream legitimately squeaked, his field flushing with heat as his face darkened. He shuddered, head to foot, and ground down hard against Ironhide’s spike, damp valve rim leaving a wet swath along the crown of it.

Ironhide felt an unholy glee rattle up and down his spinal strut. “Like that, did ya?” he asked, and fondled those turbine hubs thoroughly, giving them a pinch and a roll and a squeeze and a stroke.

Starscream’s wings absolutely fluttered, and he gasped as he arched toward Ironhide, his hips making urgent little rocks. His fingers dug in, claws snapping out, pinching Ironhide’s cables, but a little pain was nothing more than spice, and Ironhide’s engine growled.

“You definitely did,” Ironhide growled with another sharp pinch to Starscream’s turbine hub.

Starscream tossed his head back and moaned, thighs trembling on Ironhide’s lap, his hands curling around Ironhide’s wrist. Not to stop him, no, but to keep him in place, his vents sputtering and his fans roaring.

“You are a fragging tease!” Starscream seethed, his optics bright with hunger, lips pulled back in a fanged snarl. “Frag me already!”

“I intend ta,” Ironhide purred, his own vocals dipping into a darker register as heat spun through his lines, and his spike throbbed, frotting over and over the welcoming slick of Starscream’s valve. “Until ya live up to yer namesake.”

Starscream’s optics flashed. “Prove it!”

With. Pleasure.

Ironhide reluctantly abandoned his ardent attention on Starscream’s turbines, much to the Seeker’s hissing displeasure, his talons pricking beneath armor plates around his wrists.

“Calm yer jets,” Ironhide growled as his hands slid to the Seeker’s waist and then his hips, gripping them firmly.

Starscream hissed and bucked, Ironhide’s spikehead nudging against his valve rim before popping free again. They both shuddered, and urgency tugged at Ironhide’s lines. He dragged in a deep ventilation and held Starscream’s gaze.

“Ya tell me ta stop, ya hear?” he said, low and deep, even as his frame thrummed and his vents staggered and the urge to thrust clawed at him.

Starscream snarled. “You’d have to start for me to tell you stop, Autobot!” He writhed in Ironhide’s grip, wings fluttering, as he ex-vented bursts of volcanic heat downward. “Frag me you rusty old heap! Do it!”

Ironhide tightened his hold on Starscream’s hips, lifted and thrust upward, sinking into Starscream’s valve in one deep push. Starscream’s backstrut arched, a sharp keen leaving his intake, as he threw his head back. His valve rippled around Ironhide’s spike, calipers squeezing to draw him deeper, and Ironhide shivered.

Hot. Tight. And nips of charge snapping at his sensor nodes. Primus, Starscream felt good.

Pleasure pulsed in Ironhide’s lines. Starscream writhed in his lap, hips squirming, vents billowing, his face dark with pleasure, little gasps and cries spilling from his lips. Sexier than he had right to be, truth be told.

Ironhide growled and bent forward, optics focused on those gleaming turbines. He wanted to hear more of those keens, to make Starscream whimper for him. His hands tightened on Starscream’s hips, hauling the Seeker in close, until the nearest turbine was in reach.

Ironhide licked his lips and dove in, glossa flicking over the turbine spoke, making it lazily spin. Starscream nearly shrieked, his hands gripping Ironhide’s arm tires as he slammed his hips down, valve spiraling tight on Ironhide’s spike.

That was a good reaction. Let’s go double for another, yes?

Ironhide ex-vented hot and wet, then aimed for that shiny turbine hub, all peaked and pointed, like a pair of sensor clusters on Starscream’s chassis. He drew one into his mouth, flicked his glossa over it, pressed it between his denta.

The response was electric.

Starscream surged, his chassis pushing toward Ironhide’s mouth, his frame a sinuous wave of need. His engine roared, his field a volcanic blast of need.

Ironhide didn’t so much as thrust into Starscream, as the Seeker rode him, thrusters scraping against the floor, hips rolling as he fragged himself on Ironhide’s spike. His valve squeezed and clutched, hot and crackling as he chased his pleasure eagerly.

He growled and bent Starscream back, mercilessly assaulting those turbines with his lips and glossa and denta. He licked and sucked and nibbled and bit, while Starscream shrieked and writhed in increasingly frantic motions. One clawed hand clutched at the back of his head, holding him in place, as he sank down for a deep and heavy grind, overload sweeping through him in a heavy pulse.

Ironhide shuddered as Starscream’s valve spiraled tight, and his calipers rippled up and down around Ironhide’s spike in milking waves. His thighs clamped against Ironhide’s hips, and he tossed his head back with a wail, shoving Ironhide’s mouth against his turbine.

Which was mighty fine as Ironhide laved it with attention, paying special attention to that little hub which demanded he suckle on it.

Talons dug into his right arm tire, even as the other pricked at the back of his head. Starscream made a litany of hungry noises, his hips surging and falling, riding hard on Ironhide’s spike, his frame surging quickly back toward ecstasy. His valve squeezed and released, lubricant squelching between them, as charge crackled out from his substructure, filling the room with the scent of ozone.

Ironhide glanced up the length of the Seeker’s frame, over the rise of his cockpit, and saw Starscream flush with lust, his optics half-shuttered and burning like embers, his lips dragged between fanged teeth. His wings twitched before he tossed his head back, completely surrendering to the pleasure, not a trace of his earlier agitation to be found.

Mission. Accomplished.

And then Starscream’s hand was pressing his head again, as he made all of these urgent noises, which shot straight to Ironhide’s groin and made his spike pulse with need. He groaned around his mouthful of turbine, heat running rampant through his frame. His fingers flexed and squeezed around Starscream’s hips until he gentled his hold, slid his hands up and played with Starscream’s wing mounts.

Starscream keened and slammed down against him, frame tripping into another overload, one stronger than the first if the charge lighting up his frame was any indication. His valve clamped down, tight and hot, charge biting at Ironhide’s spike, the flexing of his calipers dragging along every throbbing node.

Ironhide growled around Starscream’s turbine hub, overload slamming into his frame as he bucked up into Starscream, transfluid spurting from his spike. Every cable went tense, his armor flared, and pleasured spiraled high and tight until it burst again, sending shards of ecstasy across his sensory net.

It lingered, making him shiver, until Starscream growled and abruptly tugged Ironhide’s head away from his turbine with a following hiss.

Ironhide chuckled and grinned up at him, licking his lips. “Sensitive?” he asked as swept a hand over the one turbine he hadn’t paid fair attention to. Next time maybe.

Starscream all but squeaked again and grabbed Ironhide’s wrist with his other hand, pulling it away from the lazily spinning turbine. “Yes. Obviously,” he said, with a roll of his optics. He even leaned back against the table as though trying to take temptation out of reach.

“But such fun until then,” Ironhide purred with a smirk. He did drop his hands to the relative safety of Starscream’s hips however.

He still tingled all over, and his spike nestled snug and comfortable in Starscream’s welcoming valve. He wouldn’t mind a second (or third) round, point of fact, and wondered if the lazy satisfaction in Starscream’s field meant he was done, or resting for a second go.

Starscream’s elbows braced on the table behind him, his wings lightly fluttering. “Fun indeed,” he drawled. “You were appropriately adequate, my dear Chief of Security.”

“Adequate.” Ironhide echoed the adjective and snorted. “Two overloads out of you, screamin’ ones I might add, and all I get is ‘adequate.’ Ya ain’t hard to please, are ya?”

Starscream’s lips curled and his armor shifted and resettled around his protoform, the whir of his cooling fans sending puffs of heat down against Ironhide’s frame.

“They’ll do,” he said with a tilt of his chin upward, and a casual examination of one of his fingertips. “I certainly feel more relaxed.”

“Well, so long as you’re appropriately satisfied, yer highness,” Ironhide drawled and rolled his optics.

He squeezed Starscream’s waist, shifting the Seeker back a few inches, enough that he could slip free of Starscream’s valve and retract his spike, however reluctantly. It had grown quite fond of the snug heat of Starscream’s valve.

“Think mebbe ye’ll be less of an aft from now on?”

Starscream arched a single orbital ridge. “From now on? Just how magical do you think your spike is?” He laughed, and there was something rather cute about the genuine, uninhibited sound. “Oh, that’ll keep me pleasant for a day or two.”

Ironhide snorted. “I ain’t trompin’ up to yer high tower to service ya on demand. Ya better see about findin’ someone a bit more permanent.”

“Oh, I do. He’s merely… mmm, off-planet at the moment.” Starscream smirked at him, dragging his gaze back toward Ironhide, full of self-satisfaction as he arched his backstrut, the overhead lights catching a gleam off his cockpit. “But you’ll do as a substitute until he returns.”

Megatron? Ironhide wanted to ask but feared a claw to the face if he dared, and while that wouldn’t permanently incapacitate him, it wasn’t much fun either. Besides, it wasn’t really any of his business who Starscream clanged, was it? So long as everyone involved was having a good time.

“Glad to know I’m good enough for that.” Ironhide rolled his optics. “So ye’ll just let me know whenever ya wanna borrow my spike, is that it?”

Starscream chuckled and slid one hand down the front of his own frame, fingers slipping over the wet, sticky rim of his valve before they withdrew, and his panel closed. “This isn’t all my lubricant, Autobot,” he pointed out, holding up his damp fingers and giving them a wiggle. “You enjoyed yourself.”

“Never said I didn’t.” Ironhide shrugged and lifted his thighs, jostling the Seeker in his lap and forcing Starscream to shift his weight to stay balanced. “Just wanted to make sure we’re clear.”

“As crystal. I’ve no interest in claiming you.” Starscream’s other hand, the one not sticky with mingled fluids, rested on Ironhide’s windshield, rapping a nonsense rhythm. “Though I am absolutely delighted to discover that you are far more fun than I gave you credit.”

Great. Starscream might not have claimed him, but Ironhide had the feeling he was still owned.

“Thanks,” Ironhide drawled. “I think.”

He gripped Starscream’s hips and effortlessly lifted the Seeker, planting his aft on the table’s edge, so that he had enough room to stand. His thighs and groin were a mess of fluids he’d have to rinse off, or try to wipe off in vain, but maybe he oughta walk out of here strutting.

He dropped his hands to either side of Starscream’s frame, planting them on the table, and he leaned close to the Seeker, their noses nearly touching.

“Anythin’ else I can do for ya, yer majesty?”

Starscream smirked and tossed his head, wings giving a flutter behind him. “That’ll do, peasant.”

Ironhide snorted and pushed back. “You’re welcome,” he said, and stretched his arms over his head, easing a crick in his shoulder. “Now I gotta trainin’ session ta oversee, and yer aft is gonna have a wash and a recharge, right?”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Starscream drawled, effecting a lazy recline on the table’s edge. “Whatever you say.” His amusement tickled at Ironhide’s sensor array.

Contrary Seekers.

Ironhide shook his head and departed, not missing the fact that Starscream loosed a self-satisfied sound as he hopped down from the table. Arms stretched over his head, wings drifting downward, armor less clamped and field singing sweetly.

Mission accomplished.

Oh, it’d take a lot more than a single ‘face to tame that one, Ironhide thought. But he eventually got Optimus to follow his lead when it mattered, and he’d sometimes managed to get Prowl to take a breather even though they rarely saw optic to optic on most things, and Red Alert would let him take over the helm for a rest, and he’d often left Jazz a sated, snoring heap in a berth.

In time, Ironhide suspected he could get under the plating of this one, too. Leaders needed looking after, he’d learned. Someone to keep their sanity together. And since no one else was up for the task, Ironhide stepped up to bat. Hardly a trial, at any rate.

He kinda liked this fragile not-quite-peace, and he wanted it to stick around. Even if it meant cozying up to Starscream, who wasn’t half-bad so long as you didn’t insult him and let him keep full control of the situation. Kind of fun to spar with actually.

Frag yeah.

This was going to be a Pit of a lot of fun.

[IDW] Again and Again

There were many things about Tarn that Pharma loathed.

But his face was the worst of it, that prominent Decepticon badge like a constant reminder of Pharma’s shame.

He hated how Tarn peered at him through the ocular slits, optics like brimstone and melted slag.

He especially hated how good it felt to have those ridges and sharp angles scraping over his valve rim. How Tarn’s clawed hands cradled Pharma’s thighs so delicately, keeping his array pressed to Tarn’s mask.

Heated ex-vents caressed his most sensitive plating – damp and scorching. His nub tapped back and forth over the downward point on Tarn’s mask’s nasal ridge. Pharma’s hips rocked, lubricant dribbling freely, surely seeping down to coat Tarn’s actual face.

Pharma shuddered and moaned. His hands clawed the air as his wings fluttered.

Tarn purred, the sound a wave of vibration through Pharma’s center.

He hated how good it felt. How the pleasure rose and crested inside of him, until he ground his desperate valve over that purple badge, again and again and again.

How Tarn hummed as though he savored Pharma’s pleasure. “Again,” Tarn urged.

And Pharma moaned as he started to move, slow and steady, scrapes of rough edges against his swollen rim.

He hated all of it. Especially how he couldn’t seem to get enough.