[One Wish] Enchanted II

Clunk!

A tray of dirtied dishware dropped onto the counter above Sunstreaker’s head with enough noise to ensure that Sunstreaker paid the carrier attention.

“Ugh. He’s back again,” Sideswipe muttered, a sneer in his voice.

Sunstreaker bit back a sigh. He didn’t bother to look at his twin, who was no doubt griping about one of his many post-affair lovers. Instead, Sunstreaker focused his attention on arranging the treat display to maximum benefit.

“Who? Recoil?” Sunstreaker snorted a laugh. “That’s what you get for making promises you’re not gonna keep.” As Sideswipe was so fond of doing.

‘I’ll comm ya later!’ he always said, and then never did, mostly so they would get so angry with him, he didn’t have to worry about them contacting him later. Attachments were dangerous, he said. He didn’t want them. Just a bit of fun now and again. It wasn’t his fault mechs kept deciding they wanted more.

Aft.

“I didn’t promise Recoil anything,” Sideswipe retorted, his field screeching offense where it pawed at Sunstreaker’s, as if demanding he agree and offer comfort and attention. “But, no. Not him. That white mech. The Elite.”

Oh. Him.

Sunstreaker rose from his crouch and closed the cabinet doors with a little snick of magnetized metal colliding. He searched the dining tables, but didn’t have to look far. The Elite mech always picked the same table.

He’d been in here often enough, Sunstreaker recognized him. Most of their customers were regulars, true, but none of them stood out as much as this mech. He was pretty, Sunstreaker had to admit. Sturdy and polished, poised like others weren’t around here. He stood out as a result, which made him doubly easy to find.

Sunstreaker honestly didn’t know what Sideswipe’s objections to the mech were. Sure he wasn’t Sides’ type, but he was clean, and if he was Elite, he didn’t plan on sticking around. That meant he was available and not interested in getting clingy.

Completely Sideswipe’s type actually.

“If you don’t want to frag him, just say so,” Sunstreaker said with a roll of his optics. Honestly, his twin’s romantic and/or sexual entanglements were exasperating.

“I would, if it was me he had his sights on.”

Sunstreaker blinked. “What?”

Sideswipe sighed and dragged a hand down his face. “Are you seriously telling me that you haven’t noticed he can’t take his optics off you?”

Sunstreaker’s gaze wandered to the Elite mech, but he wasn’t paying Sideswipe or Sunstreaker any attention. One hand held a datapad, which seemed to captivate his interest, while the other blindly directed energon goodies to his mouth for a nibble.

“No, he doesn’t,” Sunstreaker said with a frown.

“Primus, you’re thick sometimes.” Sideswipe groaned and leaned closer, though he didn’t lower his voice at all. “Yes, he does. Want I should throw him out then?”

Sunstreaker reared back. “What for? He hasn’t done anything.”

“So?” Sideswipe shrugged, and looked a bit gleeful as he scratched at his chin. “It’s obvious he wants to. That’s reason enough for me.”

Sunstreaker rolled his optics yet again. Sometimes, Sideswipe’s overprotectiveness bordered on the absurd. And it was irritating.

“I think you’re just looking for a fight, Sides.” He glanced around the display area and counter, but couldn’t see anything else that needed doing. “I’m going to go sketch.” He slipped out from behind the counter, making it a point not to look in the Elite’s direction.

He wasn’t bothered. He didn’t care. Not one bit.

“Set your timer!” Sideswipe called after him.

Sunstreaker ignored him. Yes, he damn well knew to set his timer. He didn’t need his twin nannying him.

He scuttled off to his art room, but curiosity overcame him. He paused in the doorway, glancing over his shoulder at the Elite mech once more. Steady, blue optics looked up at him, and it felt like a bolt to Sunstreaker’s spark.

Heat stole into his cheeks, and Sunstreaker ducked into his art room, feeling more than a little shaky. No way was Sideswipe right. Or maybe he was and the Elite was just looking for a cheap frag. Well, joke’s on him. Sunstreaker wasn’t for sale. Not now, not ever.

Sunstreaker plopped down in his chair in front of his canvas, rolling his limbs to get himself in the mood. He tossed back the covering and peered at his most recent work. Half-finished, it was, and he felt if he was diligent today, he could complete it.

But the more he stared at it, but the more he felt – not contempt, but disinterest. The itch, the burn to work on it wasn’t there.

It wasn’t often he felt restless like this. He did, however, know better than to work on yesterday’s project in this state. So he pulled it from the easel and set it aside, careful to drape a covering over it to protect the expensive canvas.

He pulled an old canvas from the stack. One where he’d made an attempt at something on one side, but after loathing it the next day, had scribbled all over it. He couldn’t justify tossing the expensive plexifilm out, however, so he kept it for scrap drawings.

Sometimes, what he needed was to draw a series of slag sketches before his creativity would unlock. So that’s what he did. Nothing important. Nothing he’d worry about selling. Nothing he’d let himself judge or critique.

He just… drew.

It wasn’t until he’d covered half the plexifilm in messy circles and squares and sharp, jutting lines that he realized he was being watched. That wasn’t unusual. Their customers often stopped and peered in, and most of the time, it didn’t bother Sunstreaker. Sides kept away the obnoxious ones, and only let the truly interested observe.

This time, however, Sunstreaker’s plating tingled. Peripheral vision identified the observer, and despite Sideswipe’s insistence, he was still surprised that it was the Elite mech.

Sunstreaker froze.

“Looking for something?” Sunstreaker asked, just short of a scowl on his lips. If Sideswipe was right about the mech watching him, he was probably right about what the mech wanted.

“You, as a matter of fact.” The mech’s voice was as pleasant as Sunstreaker remembered, with none of the smarmy notes of the usual customers who thought their creds meant they were owed more than the energon and treats they purchased.

Sunstreaker swiveled about in his stool, clutching his brush. “Why?”

The Elite hovered in the doorway, his hands behind his back. “I fear I may have made a terrible first impression. I wish to rectify that.”

Clever mech. Sunstreaker snorted. “That doesn’t answer my question.”

Sensory panels arched and went rigid. “I wish to get to know you,” he said smoothly, the corners of his lips curving into the smallest of smiles. Condescendingly perhaps.

Did he think Sunstreaker so desperate for attention that he’d swoon at a little conversation? Pah.

“I’m not for sale.” Sunstreaker whipped back toward his canvas and focused so hard on it, he glared.

There was a beat. A ventilation hitch, and then, “Beg pardon?”

Sunstreaker’s armor drew tight. A little politeness would not be enough to sway him either, no matter how handsome the mech or how enticing his voice.

“You’ll find an easier frag elsewhere,” Sunstreaker said, careful to keep his tone icy. “Twice more if you have creds to spare.”

“That’s not–”

“I’m busy, mech,” Sunstreaker snapped, giving the Elite a sidelong glare. “Go find someone else.”

“I–” The Elite cut himself off and continued with, “Very well.” Sunstreaker heard the distinct click-hiss of a mech shifting his weight, the Elite finally buying a clue. “My name, by the way, is Prowl.”

Sunstreaker snorted. “Don’t care.”

“Then I apologize for disturbing you.”

‘Prowl’ took his leave as silently as he’d arrived, and Sunstreaker was left alone with his own thoughts, more than a little surprised it had been so easy. Usually the hungry ones were far more insistent, until Sunstreaker had to growl at them and flash a little blade.

Pah. Whatever. So long as he was gone.

Sunstreaker returned his attention back to his canvas.

Bullet dodged.

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[TF] Trial by Fire 14

There was an incessant noise in his periphery. And an incessant irritation prodding at his backstrut, between his wing hinges.

Starscream groaned in protest and blindly swatted at whatever was being irritating. Or at least, he tried to. But his hands were pinned under something heavy and warm, and his systems registered the trickle of another mech’s datastream.

What?

He surfaced from recharge as if he had to claw his way free, sensors slowly booting up, just enough to remind him of the irritation.

“Go away,” Starscream muttered, because honestly, there was only one mech who could be this aggravating.

“No.” Deadlock sounded highly amused. “You two look really cute like that and all, but you’re going to get stuck together if you don’t get up.”

“That’s impossible,” Starscream retorted and forced his optics to online as short-term memory pinged him a helpful reminder.

Rodimus. Data-facing. Recharge.

Oh. Right.

Starscream cycled his optics as he leaned up, having to unwind his arms from where they’d been wrapped around Rodimus’ chassis. He’d fully blanketed the Firebrand with his own frame, and well, Rodimus must have not minded, because his arms were wrapped around Starscream’s chassis, too.

They were still connected at their arrays, and yes, there was a mess – sticky and dried – between them. They wouldn’t get ‘stuck together’ as Deadlock so elegantly put it, but it would require another scrub.

“Maybe. But it would be hilarious.” Deadlock poked him in the wing hinge again.

“Stop that!” Starscream hissed. He flicked his wing away, but unfortunately, not out of reach. “Why are you even in here anyway?”

“Just doing my duty. Checking up on you. Making sure the Firebrand here was behaving.” Starscream could practically see Deadlock’s toothy smirk, even though he wasn’t looking at him. “There was a flock of drones outside your room, too. Nosy little buggers.”

“Led by Scuttle probably,” Starscream muttered with a snort. The newest drone was so attached to Rodimus, that it bordered on ridiculous.

Speaking of Rodimus however…

The Firebrand was still in recharge. Deep recharge. How he could manage that with so much noise, Starscream had no idea. He didn’t even stir as Starscream eased his weight off Rodimus’ frame and to the side, cables drawing taut between them.

“He’s fine. You’re the one being irritating right now,” Starscream said with a huff. His field flicked out, poking Deadlock with rebuke, though he wasn’t sure why he bothered.

“Awww, I’ve been replaced in your spark already? That was quick.”

Starscream rolled his optics and didn’t dignify that with a retort. Instead, he set about gently disconnecting himself and Rodimus, despite how much he’d been enjoying the shallow link. That Rodimus would so freely offer it made Starscream’s spark twirl with unexpected delight.

Rodimus stirred the moment Starscream eased his connector free. A sharp in-vent and a tiny engine rev announced him coming to sentience before his optics unshuttered.

“Hm?”

“Good morning.” Starscream’s lips curved in a small smile as he spooled his cable back into his array. He gave a tiny pat to Rodimus’ port. “Retract your cable, Firebrand. You’re tempting enough as it is.”

Blue optics flickered before brightening. “Tempting?” Rodimus repeated, vocals still layered in static as though he wasn’t quite aware yet. “So you think I’m pretty?” His arms lifted above his head in a full-frame stretch that called to Starscream’s gaze.

Behind them, Deadlock snickered. “Oh, Primus. You two are adorable.”

Rodimus’ optics flashed, and he abruptly sat up, only to hiss and clutch at his head. “Ow, why do I feel like I got overcharged last night?”

“Because you did. In a way. It’ll pass.” Starscream patted him on the chassis, and told himself not to let his hand wander. Even though all he wanted to do was push Rodimus back into the berth and kiss him senseless.

“You’ll get used to it,” Deadlock offered.

Rodimus squinted and looked past Starscream. “Why are you here?” His armor ruffled and his field burst out, as though physically trying to shove Deadlock from the room. His indignation was ridiculously adorable.

Starscream wisely did not say so aloud.

“Just checking in,” Deadlock purred, his optics going half-shuttered in a show of lechery. Of the two, Starscream didn’t know which was the bigger brat. Honestly.

“Well, Starscream’s obviously fine, so you can leave now,” Rodimus muttered, his lips forming a pout that had no business being so cute. He actually had the courage to flick his hands in dismissal.

Starscream managed to muffle his snicker before Rodimus caught it, but the amusement in his field slipped free. Hopefully, only Deadlock picked up on it.

Deadlock shifted his weight, projecting an aura of menace. “Make me.” Peripherally, Starscream caught him baring his denta as he folded his arms over his chestplate.

They’d be friends someday. Starscream was sure of it. Deadlock had a way of getting under your plating, no matter how irritating he could be, and Rodimus had already proven to have the same talent.

“As cute as I find your jealousy, it’s unnecessary,” Starscream said as he shifted closer to Rodimus, who had finally retracted his cable and closed the panel to his array. “And you, stop goading him,” he threw over his shoulder.

“But it’s so much fun!”

Rodimus tossed Deadlock a glare.

Starscream intercepted Rodimus’ attention, sliding his hand up Rodimus’ chassis, between his headlights. “You didn’t tell me good morning,” he murmured as Rodimus’ optics slid back toward him.

“Sorry,” Rodimus said with a sheepish duck of his head. His glossa swept over his lips as he leaned closer. “Make it up to you with a kiss?”

“That’s acceptable.”

Starscream closed the distance between them, letting their mouths come together in a warm, slow kiss. Rodimus curled an arm around Starscream’s chassis, tugging him closer, deepening the kiss with a sweep of his glossa. His field rose up, surrounding Starscream in a secondary embrace, one thick and heavy with affection.

“Mm, that’ll do,” Starscream said as he pulled back, pressing his forehead to Rodimus’.

Rodimus chuckled quietly. “Good morning, Starscream.”

“Ah, young love,” Deadlock drawled and then made several purging noises. “Okay, I’m out. Star, there’s a tray of coolant and energon for you and the kid here. Don’t forget what I asked!”

“I already did, aft,” Starscream retorted as he drew back from Rodimus and rolled his optics. “But thanks for the refreshments.”

The door opened, and a flood of obnoxious, beeping noises became audible. Deadlock planted himself in the doorway and stooped, lifting something from the floor.

“Oh, by the way, this little guy’s been waiting all night,” he said as he turned and abruptly tossed something in their direction.

Starscream’s optics widened, but it was Rodimus who all but launched himself from the berth, snatched the flying object out of the air, and tucked himself into a roll as he landed, coming out of it on his feet. Starscream’s optics widened in surprise and approval. The Firebrand was not as unskilled as he claimed.

“Why would you do that?” Rodimus demanded, his spoiler flicking up as he cuddled one of the drones against his chestplate.

Deadlock arched an orbital ridge. “I have better aim than you think. He would’ve landed on the bed.”

The drone in Rodimus’ arms honked aggressively, its wheels spinning so fast that they whirred. If it could speak Cybertronian, Starscream imagined it would be cursing.

“That’s not the point!” Rodimus snapped.

Deadlock just grinned, denta sharp and menacing. “It’s exactly the point.” He winked and wriggled his fingers. “Later!”

The door slid shut behind him, cutting off the other drones from entering. Which meant that Rodimus probably held Scuttle.

“He’s such an aft,” Rodimus muttered as he turned back toward Starscream, fingers gently stroking over the drone’s back.

One glance and Starscream knew that it was Scuttle indeed. “He’s testing you,” he observed.

“By throwing a drone?”

“It was barely a toss, and Scuttle would’ve landed on the berth just fine.” Starscream waved off Rodimus’ concern. “I would have caught him.”

Rodimus’ lips drew into a pout. “That’s not the point.” Scuttle beeped and wriggled as if agreeing with him, several long trills coming from its frame like it was complaining to Rodimus.

“Don’t let him fool you. He’s just as attached to the drones, though he hides it better.” Starscream shrugged and shifted on the berth, patting the empty space beside him. “Come on. Put Scuttle out and join me.”

Rodimus looked up and grinned. “Put him out, hm?” The grin turned lascivious. “Did you have something in mind?”

Starscream rolled his optics. “Don’t you start, too.”

Rodimus chuckled and obeyed, though Scuttle protested the entire time. Starscream watched as the drone beeped and honked and tried to run back inside, just as it had last night, before Rodimus quickly shut the door.

“He’s really attached to me,” Rodimus said as he came back to the berth, sliding in next to Starscream with a purr of his engine.

“I’ve noticed,” Starscream replied dryly. He peered at the table where Deadlock had left the tray.

He’d been kind enough to share his stock of grounder-grade coolant with Rodimus, and he’d pulled the treats Starscream had been saving out of the storage bin. There was also a cube of mid-grade and a container of flight-grade coolant for Starscream. It was almost enough to earn Starscream’s forgiveness.

Almost.

“Does that upset you?” Rodimus asked.

Starscream leaned over and snagged the tray, dragging it over to the berth between he and Rodimus. There was nothing wrong with spending the day lounging around in the berth with a cute partner, was there? Besides, it would be a good buffer for what was sure to be a tense conversation.

“No,” Starscream answered with a shake of his head. “It would, if you treated him badly, but since you don’t, I’m glad.” He could share one of his drones. So long as it was one.

“I promise to only usurp the one.” Rodimus grinned and peered at the tray. “I love that you still have these by the way,” he said as he picked up one of the treats and popped it into his mouth. “Loses a bit of the flavor after awhile though.”

“Then I suppose you’ll have to make more,” Starscream said and urged the coolant toward the Firebrand. “Drink. I’m sure you need it.”

“Oh, you’re a medic now?”

“The closest we’ve got to one.” Starscream smirked.

Rodimus grinned and obeyed. “Oh, but that does remind me! Wrench gave me a box of stuff for you. It’s in my pack. I guess I have his blessing?” He rolled his shoulders in a shrug. “Can’t ever tell with that old rust-aft.”

“I see his charm hasn’t changed over the years.”

“He has charm?”

Starscream grinned, shoved another treat into his mouth, and sank back into the berth, this time on his back, letting it cradle his wings. He’d save his coolant for later.

Both berth and tray jostled as Rodimus clambered over him, only to cuddle up to his side. “So,” he said as he threw a leg over Starscream’s, his hand sliding along Starscream’s chassis. “What’s next?”

“I’m taking a rest day,” Starscream said. He snagged a pillow and tucked it behind his head, making it easier for him to look at the mech snuggled up next to him. “And we… probably should talk.”

Rodimus stiffened, and his field went still. “Is it a good talk?”

“I’m not throwing you out, if that’s what you’re worried about. I just want to make sure we are on the same page, so to speak,” Starscream murmured. He slid an arm around Rodimus’ chassis, his fingers stroking Rodimus’ spinal strut.

The Firebrand melted against him. “Oh. That makes sense.” He audibly cycled a ventilation. “What do you want to know?”

Starscream braced himself. “Are you sure this is what you want?”

“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t.” Rodimus’ head pillowed on Starscream’s shoulder, his fingers played over Starscream’s belly. “And it’s not because you’re a second choice or whatever. Yeah, I didn’t get my brand, and yeah, I had this whole unrequited love thing going on, but coming to terms with both of those is why I came here.”

Starscream frowned. Unrequited love? He suspected that had something to do with Sunstreaker, and perhaps Sideswipe to a lesser extent. Rodimus had mentioned them enough.

“I see.”

“I’m not sure you do.” Rodimus sighed a ventilation and shifted a little, propping himself on his elbow to look up at Starscream. “It’s like, you think you only have these options, and you think you’re stuck, but then a whole new world opens up to you, and you realize that this is what you’ve been looking for. And you feel stupid-lucky that you found it.”

Starscream’s spark stuttered. He worked his intake. “It was a curious turn of fate that brought you here,” he managed to get out through the static trying to glitch his vocalizer.

“Fate. Luck. Coincidence. Something like that.” Rodimus shrugged and snuggled into Starscream’s side again. “Whatever it was, I’m just glad for it.” His field nudged against Starscream’s, the edges of it trying to knit with Starscream’s own.

Starscream stroked Rodimus’ back gently. “Thank you,” he murmured. “And I apologize for doubting you.”

“I’m getting the feeling you have your reasons. You don’t have to talk about them if you don’t want to though.” Rodimus’ voice was soft and sincere. His ex-vents tickled against Starscream’s intake.

He should at least tell Rodimus something.

Starscream nibbled on his bottom lip. “Someday I will,” he finally allowed. There were too many raw wounds to open himself entirely to Rodimus just yet. “And for what it’s worth, you are welcome here as long as you want to stay.”

“Then I suppose I’m staying forever.” He felt more than saw Rodimus’ grin. “Besides, what would Scuttle do without me?”

Starscream chuckled. “A fair question.” He blindly groped for one of the treats and offered it to Rodimus, who nipped playfully at his fingertips before accepting it.

“So we just… take it one day at a time then?” Rodimus suggested as he traced Starscream’s seams over and over, the touch too light to be arousing, and just shy of being ticklish. “Get to know each other for real. And I guess put up with Deadlock, too.”

Starscream chuckled. “You’ll get used to him.” He curled his arm, stroking his fingers down Rodimus’ backstrut, between his spoiler. “I’m glad you came back.”

“So am I.” Rodmus shifted and pulled himself up, their faces inches apart, and his optics bright and earnest. “It’s the best decision I ever made.”

Another kiss was inevitable, and probably the third and fourth, too. Starscream sighed as Rodimus’ mouth covered his, and his frame, as the heat and affection of the Firebrand surrounded him. It was almost too easy to fall under Rodimus’ sway, to let inexperienced but curious fingers track over his frame, exploring where he’d yet to investigate. Easier, still, to turn his fingers toward Rodimus, tracing seams and kibble still unfamiliar to him.

“Mmmm.” Rodimus hummed into the kiss, heat wafting from his frame to tease against Starscream’s own. “Wait, wait. Before we get started.” He pulled back, licking his lips. “I’ve got something for you.”

Starscream chuckled and leaned in for another kiss, only for Rodimus to lean back with a determined moue of his lips. “Really? Right now?”

“I don’t want to forget again.” Yet, Rodimus’ fingers were no less busy, teasing Starscream’s seams, his frame rocking against Starscream’s as though his processor was of two minds about it.

“Fine,” Starscream grumbled. “If you feel you must. But don’t be surprised if I’m asleep when you get back.”

Rodimus laughed and brushed his lips over Starscream’s. “I’ll just have to find some way to wake you up then.” He nuzzled their noses before he climbed over Starscream and out of the berth. “Be back soon.”

Rodimus left, and Starscream’s berth was instantly colder without him. But the promise of returning sent a flush of warmth through his lines.

Starscream snuggled into the berth, ignoring the tacky, stickiness of his frame and listening to the quiet flutters of his spark. Rodimus had come back to him. For him. He almost couldn’t believe it.

He had no idea what tomorrow or next week or next year would bring. But he was determined to find out, to embrace this opportunity. He didn’t want to lose Rodimus, not as he had so many other things.

He wanted Rodimus to be his.

And he thanked Primus that it seemed Rodimus wanted the same thing.

~

Rodimus slipped out of Starscream’s room and almost tripped over Scuttle, who immediately zoomed into his left foot. He chuckled and crouched to pat the drone on the top of his frame.

“Yes, you missed me. I get it,” he said. “And I’m not leaving again if I can help it. Promise.”

Scuttle beeped and nudged against his fingers as if to say ‘you’d better’ before he twirled away and around Rodimus in uneven circles. Rodimus laughed again and rose back to his feet.

The tower was eerily quiet. He could hear other drones moving around, in their various stations, but of Deadlock, there was no sign. Rodimus didn’t really know what room was Deadlock’s, or where the other mech could be. Frankly, he’d rather avoid Deadlock for awhile longer yet.

He headed downstairs, where he’d left his pack, only to find it wasn’t there anymore. Had Starscream moved it? Probably up to his room then. But first…

Rodimus retrieved a damp rag from the washroom on the lowest floor. They could do an in-depth cleaning later, but it would be a nice gesture to wipe Starscream down. Plus, it would give him an excuse to put his hands all over Starscream’s frame. Not that he needed the excuse.

Rodimus grinned and took the lift all the way back to the level which held the room he’d used the last time he was here. He didn’t know if he and Starscream were going to share from now on or not, but it was probably a good idea for him to have his own space nonetheless. They were still all but strangers.

That would change with time, but until then, a little privacy wasn’t unexpected. Living together would be difficult enough.

His pack was indeed here, sitting in a dusty pile by the end of the berth. Scuttle squeaked in outrage and ran toward the bag, bumping into it and sending a puff of dust into the air.

“Yes, I know. It’s dirty.” Rodimus rolled his optics and crouched over the bag, digging through the contents, which had left it stuffed nearly to the top.

Between his supplies, Wrench’s gift, Sideswipe’s gift, and Sunstreaker’s gift, there was hardly any room left. The item he’d brought for Starscream specifically had shifted to the bottom of the pack, and Rodimus had a moment of panic that it had been broken. Relief whooshed out of his vents, however, when he pulled it free and it was unharmed.

Thank Primus.

He rose to his feet and nudged the bag shut with the tip of his foot. He pushed it under the berth in a clump of grit, which Scuttle berated noisily. Silly thing.

Rodimus chuckled, hefted the item, and turned around, only to startle and nearly drop his gifts. Deadlock was standing there, leaning against the wall by the doorway, his arms crossed over his chassis. Rodimus had neither heard the door open or Deadlock’s footsteps!

Rodimus’ spark nearly leapt into his intake. “What the frag!” he snapped. “How long have you–”

“We should talk,” Deadlock cut in with a tone far too mild for the expression on his face. It was a smile, but only in the faintest definition of the term. “Don’t you think?”

Rodimus narrowed his optics and clutched his armful defensively. “Is this the part where you threaten me?”

Deadlock waved a dismissive hand and shifted his weight from one foot to the other, as if to highlight all of the empty scabbards on his frame. “Threatening you is redundant at this point. I think you already know what I’ll do if you’re here to hurt him.”

“I’m not,” Rodimus snapped as Scuttle made a low, confused sound and huddled against his right foot. “Not that it’s any of your business.” His armor flared and flattened around his frame defensively.

A chuckle rolled out of Deadlock’s frame. His denta – his pointed denta, dear Primus – glinted in the overhead light. “You’ve got bolts, I’ll give you that much.” He tilted his head, leaning harder against the wall. “But my Star’s not a toy. If you’re just here to play, you’ll find out who really earned the title ‘Deathbringer’ around these parts. Got me?”

“I don’t have to prove myself to you,” Rodimus said hotly, his spoiler going high and rigid as his spark pounded in his chassis. Menace coiled from Deadlock’s frame, and Rodimus was probably very outclassed.

But he wasn’t going to bow down and give in either. That wasn’t in his nature. He’d never yielded without a fight.

“The only person who’s opinion matters to me here is Starscream’s,” Rodimus added as he directed a glare at Deadlock. “He’s who I came back for and he’s why I’m staying. I don’t care if you or anyone else doesn’t like it. As long as he wants me here, I’m not leaving.”

Deadlock’s smile grew broader. He pushed off the doors, hands sliding down from their fold, every inch of him screaming danger. “Is that so?”

Rodimus tossed his head and stood his ground. He’d trained with Springer and Sideswipe and Sunstreaker. He wasn’t afraid of Deadlock. The aft had nothing on a furious Sunstreaker who thought he’d been slighted.

“It is,” Rodimus said.

“Hmm.” Deadlock circled him, like a predator might stare down its prey. “You sure? He can be an aft sometimes. He whines when he doesn’t get his way, and he’s got a sharp glossa. I know for a fact he built the drones because he can’t clean up after himself, and he’s got more baggage than a cargo hold. Still sound like someone you wanna take home to your clan?”

Rodimus’ optics narrowed in suspicion as he turned with Deadlock, unwilling to give the other mech his back.

“Yes. I plan on claiming him as soon as he’ll let me,” Rodimus replied, getting a sense now that he was being evaluated and judged. A feeling he didn’t like one bit.

His only consolation was that Starscream was going to go through the very same thing as soon as he met Sunstreaker.

Deadlock laughed, and at least it didn’t sound mocking. “That’s all I wanted to hear, Firebrand,” he said, and clapped a hand on Rodimus’ shoulder with more force than was necessary. “So long as we understand each other.”

Rodimus shrugged out from under Deadlock’s hand and twisted toward the door. He didn’t like the idea of leaving Deadlock alone in here, with his pack open and all too inviting, but he disliked being cornered even less.

“You’re an aft,” he said.

Deadlock grinned, wider and sharper. “So I’ve heard. But an aft that protects the things he cares about, so you better be genuine, kid.”

“I’m not a kid either!” Rodimus growled, tightening his grip on the items in his arms. Scuttle twirled around his feet, nearly causing him to trip. “Just back off and mind your own business.”

“Primus, you’re perfect for each other.” Deadlock’s chuckles grated on Rodimus’ patience. But he flicked a hand in Rodimus’ direction. “Go on then. Before Star hollers for you.”

Rodimus glared. “I don’t need your permission,” he spat before he whirled on a heel and stormed out from the room. Scuttle honked in Deadlock’s direction and spun out after Rodimus with a whine of his tires.

Deadlock’s laughter followed him out. Rodimus twitched and forced himself to cycle several ventilations. He knew an assessment when he saw one, and Deadlock was definitely sussing him out. Rodimus didn’t blame him, but that didn’t mean he had to like it.

He returned to Starscream’s room, pleased when it opened for him automatically, and shooed Scuttle out when he tried to follow Rodimus inside. It broke his spark a little to hear Scuttle’s beep of complaint, but he’d make it up to the drone later.

“About time you got back,” Starscream murmured sleepily. He was stretched across the berth, all inviting, and the tray of goodies had been emptied.

Rodimus would just have to make more, he supposed.

“I was waylaid by Deadlock,” Rodimus replied as he dropped Wrench’s box onto a nearby table and kept the item he’d brought. He joined Starscream on the berth. “He’s really protective of you.”

“Mm. The feeling is mutual.” Starscream rolled toward him and offered the sleepiest grin, one that made Rodimus’ spark flutter. “What did you bring me?”

Now that he was here, Rodimus felt foolish for making such a big deal out of it. Heat filled his face as he perched on the edge of the berth, and Starscream pulled himself upright.

“It’s nothing special,” Rodimus said as he scrubbed the back of his neck with one hand and offered the item with the other. “It’s just, I was thinking about you while I was gone and I made this. And it’s kind of a clan-tradition, that if something is inspired by another person, it’s meant to be a gift. So it’s yours.”

He handed it over, this larger and more detailed carving of Starscream, of what he thought Starscream’s alt-mode might look like based on what he’d been told of Seekers and the kibble on Starscream’s frame. He didn’t know how accurate it was. He’d just been thinking of Starscream and let his fingers do the shaping.

Starscream’s optics brightened as he accepted the carving. He turned it over and over in his hands, his long fingers carefully tracing the shapes and edges Rodimus had worked into it.

“It’s not much,” Rodimus repeated, embarrassed now that he’d made such a point to go get it. In anyone else’s hands, the carving would have been a thing of beauty. But Rodimus’ lack of talent showed all too well, in the uneven sanding, the hesitant lines, the disproportionate wings, and the lack of overall symmetry.

“It’s lovely,” Starscream murmured with appreciation in his voice, and it didn’t even sound false. “I found the others, you know. The ones you left behind. They have pride of place on my desk.”

The heat in Rodimus’ cheeks sent sparks up into his finials. “Really?”

“Indeed.” Starscream looked up at him with a soft, sincere smile. “Don’t underestimate the value of something that’s a gift. It means more than you can know. Thank you.”

Rodimus scooted closer, his spark hammering faster in his chassis. “You’re welcome.” He brushed his arm against Starscream’s, felt the heat of Starscream’s plating against his. “I’m, um, I’m really glad you decided to give us a chance.”

“Of course I did.” Starscream cycled a ventilation, his hands tightening around the carving. “I have been… lonelier than I cared to admit. And I’ve spent the last weeks alternating between being angry at myself for driving you away, and convincing myself it was the best thing to do, because you’d only leave anyway.”

Rodimus’ own ventilations caught in his intake. He held himself still, as if moving would shatter the moment, and the obvious vulnerability Starscream allowed him to see.

Starscream looked down at the carving, his optics softening. “I never imagined that you’d return on your own, or that I’d be so happy to see you. It took me by surprise, I’ll admit.” His thumbs swept over the wings of the carving. “I want you to stay, not that I’ll force you to do so, but know that, if it were up to me alone, you’d never leave.”

“Then I don’t want to,” Rodimus blurted out, because the mix of sadness and happiness in Starscream’s field made his spark ache. He put his hand over Starscream’s, squeezing gently. “Leave, I mean. I came back because I realized this is the only place I want to be.”

Starscream turned toward him, free hand cupping Rodimus’ face as he suddenly pulled Rodimus into a kiss, sweeter than all the ones he’d given before. His field swirled against Rodimus’, warm and affectionate and hopeful. It opened to Rodimus, where Starscream had been hesitant and closed before.

Starscream drew back from the kiss, chaste in comparison, but it left Rodimus warm and tingling. “Thank you,” he murmured.

The heat in Rodimus’ cheeks returned. “For what?”

Starscream leaned his forehead against Rodimus’. “For saving me. In more ways than just the coding.” He brushed his thumb over Rodimus’ cheek before he eased back, leaning away to set the carving on the nearby end table. “Now. I do believe we were in the middle of something earlier.”

Rodimus grinned. “Yes, we were.”

There was opportunity here. Starscream was distracted by reclaiming his balance, and so Rodimus pounced, knocking him back to the berth. He ended up perched on top of Starscream’s hips, the Seeker splayed out beneath him, optics wide and a smile curving his lips.

“Oh, no. It seems you’ve caught me,” Starscream said with an arched orbital ridge and nothing of surrender in his expression. His glossa flicked over his lips as he rolled his frame beneath Rodimus. “Whatever are you going to do now?”

Rodimus laughed and leaned over the Seeker, brushing the tips of their noses together. “First, I think I’ll kiss you,” he said. “And then I think I’ll touch you. Since I’ve got a lot to learn and all, I’d like to get started now.”

Long-fingered hands settled on his hips, holding them gently. “We have all the time in the world,” Starscream murmured.

“I know. But I feel like I’ve been waiting too long already.” Rodimus almost felt stupid for such romantic words, but when Starscream’s face lit up with delight, regret was the last thing on his processor.

Kissing Starscream saved him from saying anything else. As did pressing their lips together, the edges of their fields knitting and forming a single, united rhythm. Heat filled the air between them, desire and longing pulsing in tandem in his spark.

Nothing had ever felt so right until this moment. He’d never been so happy. He felt like he’d finally found where he belonged.

Here. In the middle of the Barrens. With the Deathbringer and his army of cleaning drones, in his tower of wonders with the greatest of them all, the Seeker himself.

This, Rodimus decided, was home.

[TF] Trial By Fire 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ouch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His comm chirped. ‘Star.’

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

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

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

Not this one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not one frag.

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

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

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

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

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

Words escaped him.

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

His processor had flat-lined. Logic failed him.

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

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

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

“You kissed me.”

Rodimus cycled his optics. “Yes.”

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deadlock snorted a laugh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rodimus’ finials twitched. “You know him?”

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

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

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

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

If he wasn’t still so damn adorable…

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

Still.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silence.

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

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

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

He’d survive this, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The words echoed around him.

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

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

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

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

Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.

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

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

He was glad that Rodimus came back.

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

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

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

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

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

“What if I never want to leave?”

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

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

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

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

More question than statement.

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

“He lives here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Primus, he was adorable.

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

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

Frag.

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

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

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

“You were saving them?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

He shook his head. “No. Maybe.”

Starscream’s optics narrowed. “Clarify.”

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

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

“And Sunstreaker is…?”

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

Friend, hmm?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s no excuse. Come on.”

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

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

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

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

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

“We’ll see.”

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

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

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

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

Him.

Starscream shook his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unsurprisingly.

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

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

“Brat.”

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

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

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

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

Cleaning up was a perfect distraction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You never haul my stuff for me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not helpful.

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

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

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

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

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

Starscream laughed. “What imagery.”

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

“I’ll take your word for it.”

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

“Hedonist.”

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

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

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

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

“Don’t mention it.”

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

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

Or maybe there was something here to break the pattern.

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

He trusted in Deadlock’s judgment.

All he had to do was leap.

[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.

[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 05

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe what he needed was a change.

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

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

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

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

Neither of which made it safe for consumption.

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

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

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

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

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

Might as well begin with argon.

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

The door to his laboratory chimed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Primus, he was adorable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m here, aren’t I?”

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

“A scale I can recognize.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It hadn’t all been terrible.

Blurr had always been the best of it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A mixture which was bubbling and boiling violently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No. I can handle it.”

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

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

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

“Are you sure?”

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

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

“Noted.”

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

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

His gaze slid to the code reader.

Sixty-three percent.

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

He couldn’t afford any more distractions.

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Starscream.

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

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

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

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

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

“I wasn’t,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frag. That could have been taken the wrong way.

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

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

“Why did you come here?”

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

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

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

“For what?”

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

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

It was like a dagger to the spark.

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

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

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

Silence.

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

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

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

He turned to go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe it was forgiveness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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