[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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[SoF] Tangled Threads

My Sun, 

I love you. 

There I said it. Three little words. Funny how it took me so long to get them out. Yeah, you already knew it, just like I knew it, but the important part is in the saying it. Right? 

It’s too late for them to mean anything, I know. And I’m okay with that. You’re happy with Megatron, and that’s all I could have ever wanted for you. I want you to be happy, to smile, to belong. Even if it’s not with me. 

So I have to go. It’s not because of you, it’s because of me. I have to go because you’re right. I left something out there. And I think if I don’t go back for it, I’m going to regret that even more than never telling you those three words. 

I don’t want to regret anymore. So I have to do this. It’s a matter of–

“How many more times are you going to read that?”

Sunstreaker dimmed the screen of the datapad and tilted it against his chestplate. His gaze slanted to the left, where Megatron’s rumbling vocals had pulled him out of another review of Rodimus’ letter.

“Until I stop feeling guilty,” he murmured as a silver arm slid over him, tugging him into Megatron’s embrace.

Megatron nuzzled against his shoulder, ex-venting a soft sigh. “I believe the purpose of the letter was to assuage your guilt, love.”

“Maybe.” Sunstreaker tipped his head, leaning it against Megatron’s. “I’m starting to wonder if I didn’t say anything, not because I wanted to spare his feelings, but because I was protecting my own.”

“Mmm.” Megatron pressed a kiss to his shoulder armor, his field tangling around Sunstreaker’s firmly. “That may be true. And it may not be. Matters of the spark are never so clear.”

Sunstreaker swallowed a sigh and powered down the datapad, leaning over to rest it on the nightstand. “It doesn’t bother you?”

“I have never doubted your feelings for me.” Megatron’s ventilations evened out as he started a slow-cycle into recharge. “I understand that love has layers, and what we share is different than what you feel for him.”

Sunstreaker let the words wash over him, absorbing their meaning. Megatron did not push, which he was grateful for. He loved that about Megatron, point of fact. That he never became irritated because Sunstreaker was slow to understand the emotional or social implications of things. That he took time to absorb the more abstract aspects of interaction.

Sunstreaker cycled a ventilation. “Sometimes, I wonder if I deserve you,” he murmured, a moment of painful honesty, one he’d never voice where Sideswipe could hear, because he’d already heard Sideswipe’s objections to his own feelings of self-inadequacy.

“Of course you do.” Megatron’s tone was so candid that it rejected argument. “We deserve each other.”

Sometimes, Sunstreaker wondered.

His processor wandered back, to his memory core, to nearly a month prior, when fear had seized his spark and almost sent him into a blind panic. When the force of his feelings, and what they meant, had thundered through his audials, forcing him to confront a truth he’d been burying for years upon years.

It wasn’t the ferocious way Springer had pounded on the door that drew out the terror. It was the look in Springer’s optics as he said one of the worst things Sunstreaker had ever heard. The words washed into his audials and sent a flood of ice through his lines.

“What do you mean he’s missing?” Sunstreaker demanded, voice low and cold, through clenched denta, through control slipping between his fingers.

Sunstreaker did not yell or panic. No matter what anyone said, neither of those reactions emerged from his chassis. It only felt like they did.

“Meaning we can’t find him,” Springer replied, just short of a snarl, his optics narrowed. “Which is the only reason I’m talking to you right now.”

It took all Sunstreaker had not to punch Springer. Though there was still time. He and Rodimus’ batch-brother had never seen optic to optic on much of anything. Springer didn’t approve of Sunstreaker or Sideswipe, not even after they mated the Warchief.

Sunstreaker had no idea why.

No. Scratch that.

He had an inkling.

“I don’t know where he is,” Sunstreaker gritted out, rising to his full height, his armor clamping down tight around his frame. “So why don’t you? Aren’t you his brother?”

Springer’s engine growled. He shoved a fat finger in Sunstreaker’s face. His field surged forward, as aggressive as his tone. “Warchief’s mate or not, I will fight you, so don’t test me.”

“Try me,” Sunstreaker snarled, his hydraulics tensing, his field coiling around him, ready to strike back.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa.”

Red armor intercepted them, neatly slotting between Sunstreaker and Springer like he didn’t have a fear in the world. Sideswipe. Of course it was Sideswipe. Probably roused by the same noise that had driven Sunstreaker from his berth and the warm embrace of his mates.

Springer had better hope he hadn’t woken Megatron, too.

“You two can fight over who loves our boy more later, all right? Maybe we should focus on finding him first.” Sideswipe’s back knocked against Sunstreaker’s chassis in warning. He could just imagine the grin on his stupid twin’s face. That easygoing, but warning grin he gave to many a Firebrand thinking they could test the Warchief’s mates.

Springer set his jaw. “That was the plan,” he ground out, but wisely backed off a pace. “He didn’t show up for training, and no one’s seen him since before the storm started.”

“Okay,” Sideswipe said, hands raised still, like he wanted to be a red barrier, like he didn’t want to pound Springer’s stupid face in himself. “When was the last time anyone saw him?”

Sunstreaker kept his mouth shut. Only because his glare said it all, and Sideswipe was right. He cared more about finding Rodimus than he did about teaching Springer a lesson. He could dent the arrogant aft all he wanted after they found Rodimus safe and sound.

“After weapon instruction. Yesterday,” Springer answered, and Sunstreaker heard it like a roar in his audials, a great rushing wind. He knew, immediately, what had happened, just like he knew the guilt echoing in the glyphs of Springer’s answer.

“When he was talking to Silverspire and Torque?” Sunstreaker demanded, already knowing the answer, as the anger started to twist and coil in his internals.

Sideswipe tensed in front of him. “Sunny.”

It was a warning.

“It was a conversation,” Springer said, but his gaze went shifty, and his hydraulics creaked as he adjusted his weight.

It was guilt. Sunstreaker knew it when he saw it. He might be dumb when it came to most social interaction, but Sunstreaker knew the foul stench of guilt.

Sunstreaker’s engine snarled. He spun on a heelstrut and stomped away from both of them, the rage building to a fine froth. Those aft-headed slaggers were taunting Rodimus again, he just knew it.

“That’s not going to help find him!” Springer shouted after him, exasperation thick in his tone, his feet rooted in place like the guilt had sprung glue to keep him there.

Sunstreaker ignored him.

Sideswipe made a noise and chased after him. “What are you doing?” He made a grab for Sunstreaker’s arm, but he twisted out of the way, too quick.

“Getting answers,” Sunstreaker said, the fury thick in his frame, in his intake, boiling out through his lines, drawing his hands into tight fists.

Sideswipe’s engine growled. He balked, his field chased Sunstreaker. He made a sound as if he was going to argue, before he spun on a heel and went stalking back to their quarters. To Megatron, who should still be sleeping.

Good.

Sunstreaker had answers to find. And he knew exactly where to start looking.

Three corridors over, around the curve, and a level down, to the common room where the Firebrands, the newly trained, and the newly hopeful gathered. Times like these, heavy storms on the horizon and roaring overhead, the younger mechs crammed together to play games, chat, wile away the time and burn off restless energy.

Sunstreaker’s prey clustered together in a corner, laughing loudly, crouched as they were over some kind of card game with chore chips as stakes. The common room quieted the moment Sunstreaker was spotted, and a hush followed him as he cut through the crowd with ease. Sometimes, he was glad that his reputation preceded him. Mating the Warchief hadn’t tempered it that much.

His prey spotted him and none of them had the good sense to bolt. Instead, they stared back, like dynadeer in a hunter’s sightline. Questions hovered on the tip of Sunstreaker’s glossa, his engine growling in anticipation.

They started gibbering the moment they saw him. He didn’t even get a chance to pound the truth out of them, which was both frustrating and a relief.

“It’s not our fault,” Silverspire blurted out.

“He’s the idiot who believed us,” Clockwork agreed.

Sunstreaker didn’t raise his voice. He didn’t have to. “Where is he?”

“Probably trying to find the Deathbringer. Like an idiot,” Torque said from half-behind Silverspire’s bulk.

All three cringed behind the table, as if it would protect them from Sunstreaker’s wrath. Clearly, they hadn’t been paying much attention.

“The Deathbringer,” Sunstreaker echoed, and shot them all a scathing glance. “And where would he have gotten an idea like that?” Another ripple raced down his spinal strut. His engine growled.

Torque quailed.

Silverspire squared his shoulders.

But it was Clockwork who spoke. “Not like it’s not a story everyone doesn’t already know,” he babbled, a collection of double-negatives and defiance that petered away into a mumble. “He was desperate and willing to try anything. Can’t blame that on us.”

Could and would.

Sunstreaker set his jaw. He leaned forward; they leaned back much further. Their fields grated against his own, thick with anxiety. Sunstreaker almost snorted aloud. And these were the ones Megatron wanted to accept into the warriors?

Clearly he was being too lenient in his assessments.

“You know that even after accepting the badge, you’re still required to undergo training?” Sunstreaker said, careful to keep his tone as cold and even as ice.

They exchanged glances.

“Yes?” Silverspire ventured.

Sunstreaker smiled.

It was not a kind smile. It had far too much denta, and nothing of humor in his optics. Well, maybe a tad bit of humor. But not the kind that encouraged laughter.

“I will be one of your instructors,” he said and he leaned forward, his field flowing out and over them, caging them in as effectively as energon-laced bars. “And I am neither kind nor forgiving. Remember that.”

He left them with that promise. He spun on a heel and abandoned them to their cowardice. He would point out to Megatron, later, just what he and Wirelight had agreed to bring into their fold. Maybe the three could be salvaged, maybe not.

Liking Rodimus wasn’t a precedence for accepting the warrior’s badge. But being an aft and a bully was not acceptable.

Sunstreaker stalked out of the common room, aware that a pervasive silence settled in his absence. It followed him out, and it wasn’t until he was around the corner that the low murmur of conversation began again, though he was soon too far to pick up anything in particular. No doubt the rumor mill would churn with a fury.

He headed straight for the supply depot, already mentally compiling a list of the things he would need. Travel rations, certainly. Extra, external power packs. A few daggers, easily magnetized to his plating so they wouldn’t get lost in the storm. A thick, sand-resistant tarp to guard against the worst of the grating wind.

There was no guard at the door, and Sunstreaker had a key so he let himself inside. He snatched a travel pack from the hooks and started stuffing things into it, weighing each option carefully. He didn’t want to drag himself down by bringing too much, but he didn’t want to be unprepared either.

It occurred, however briefly, that he was being irrational. Perhaps unreasonable even. But there was a chill in his spark, a clenching squeeze that screeched of guilt. And concern.

Rodimus was his friend. One of his dearest. He was much, much more than that as well, but difficult to put into words, to define. Once, they had been lovers, frag buddies to put it crudely. Sunstreaker cared for Rodimus. Deeply. It wasn’t love, such as was defined by how he felt for Megatron, but it was something of equal worth.

He refused to leave Rodimus to the storm.

“What is this I hear about you terrorizing the Firebrands?”

Sunstreaker didn’t allow himself to stiffen at the voice, one which crept up on him and he should have heard, were he not so intent on his packing. Still, no one was around. They had privacy. He didn’t have to show Megatron the deference he did in public.

“Rodimus is missing,” he said as he shoved another handful of rations into the small pack. He would need to travel light. “And those afts are partially to blame for it.”

“Did they tie him up and throw him into the Barrens?”

Sunstreaker’s armor clamped down, tension coiling in his hydraulics. “Verbal bullying is no better than physical torment. You know that as well as I do.”

“I’m not saying they’re innocent.” Gears creaked and pistons hissed. Megatron moved up beside him, all bulk and presence, his hand falling over Sunstreaker’s, mid-reach to another dagger he could strap to his thigh. “There’s a storm, Sunstreaker.”

“Which is why I have to find him quickly.”

Megatron’s fingers curled around his wrist, tight enough to warn, but not enough to threaten. “You don’t know where he is or how far he’s gotten, and Soundwave tells me there’s a greater electrical interference in this storm. You go out there, and you’ll just get yourself killed.”

Sunstreaker ground his denta. “I have to find him.”

“You’re not responsible for him.”

“I am!” His vents roared as he whipped around to look up at his mate. “If I’d just–” He bit off, unwilling to complete the admission, though Megatron knew it already. He dropped his gaze, staring hard at Megatron’s chestplate. “I should have paid more attention.”

Immediately, he was enfolded in his mate’s arms. Megatron was the only one he let hold him like this, Sideswipe notwithstanding. There was safety here, safety that he could find with no one else. Not even Rodimus, who he loved so dearly.

“It is not your fault,” Megatron murmured, his head tilted against Sunstreaker’s, his hands warm and firm on Sunstreaker’s back.

He clung to Megatron, his rock in the storm of emotion rampaging through his spark. He shuttered his optics. He cycled his vents, alarmed to find them shuddering.

“Say it enough, I might even believe you,” Sunstreaker replied with another shaky vent. He dug his fingers into Megatron’s seams, hooking in, keeping him close. “Did Sideswipe send you?”

Megatron’s engine rumbled. “He was concerned.”

“Tattler.”

The smallest of chuckles rolled out of his mate’s intake. He stroked Sunstreaker’s back again, long and warm sweeps of his palm. “Perhaps. But he was right to be worried.” Megatron’s head pushed harder against his. “As much as you care for Rodimus, I can’t allow you to go after him in this storm. I’ll not lose you.”

His fingers tightened; he heard them creak. His spark shriveled down with the painful truth. “What kind of friend would I be, to leave him out there to die?”

“You don’t know that he will.”

“You’re so certain that death will find me if I go after him.”

Megatron’s silence was confirmation. Another full shudder ripped through Sunstreaker’s frame. He buried his face against Megatron’s chassis, dragged in the scent of him, hot metal and weldfire and plasma energy.

“He’s such an idiot,” Sunstreaker choked out, heat burning like slag behind his optics, and his intake thick and tight.

Megatron’s hands became a lifeline, a point of connection, where they swept steadily up and down his back. “Soundwave estimates the storm will burn itself out in a week, perhaps less if we are lucky. The moment it is safe, I will send out a search party.”

To find something to bury, Sunstreaker assumed. A heavy shudder raked through his armor. He couldn’t get any closer to Megatron, but he tried. His spark ached, and that was when warmth pressed against him from behind, and he knew from the echo, that it was Sideswipe. Who, mercifully, said nothing. Only pressed his forehead to the back of Sunstreaker’s neck and held tight.

Apologies clawed out of his vocalizer and caught in his intake, sticking there. He prayed to a deity he never much gave any credit to, and he hoped.

He hoped that Rodimus remembered what he’d been taught. That the brat had found somewhere to hole up and wait out the storm. That he’d seen it coming and knew what to do.

He hoped and he prayed and wondered if he was fool for bothering with both.

Not long after, and not long enough later, responsibility pried Megatron away from them. He urged both Sunstreaker and Sideswipe to return to their quarters.

Well, urged as in ordered, and Sunstreaker didn’t have the state of mind to disobey. He let Sideswipe drag him back to their room. He let Sideswipe help him disarm all of his extra weaponry, tumbling the daggers and the grenades and the blasters into their weapons bin. He let himself be pulled to one of their chairs, pushed down into it. He accepted the energon Sideswipe handed him.

The need to act coiled like a hungry turbowolf inside of him. Sunstreaker was a warrior, born and bred. Patience was not one of his better virtues. He was not built to wait.

Sideswipe dropped down beside him, lounging on the floor as he was wont to do, his repose lackadaisical but Sunstreaker knew his brother far too well. Sideswipe could spring to action in a moment’s notice. There was wariness in the way he looked at Sunstreaker, like he’d become a type of skittish mechanimal.

Maybe he wasn’t wrong.

Time passed slow, achingly slow, trapped as he was in these rooms, as large as they were. Sideswipe remained his constant companion, offering empty conversation, trying to draw Sunstreaker into some kind of entertainment, a spar or two.

Sunstreaker could only focus on the shriek of the wind, the sound of the ferocious sand as it battered at the defense of their settlement, the gathered noise of their clan, everyone indoors and caged just as he. They were as much nomadic as they were settled, and many of the hunters were eager to get back to their duties.

Sunstreaker started to pace a circuit around their living quarters, a path he could walk in his recharge, so often had he done this. Restless energy did not make for a calm life, especially as he grew more and more agitated. The storm would not abate, and no word had been found from Rodimus.

They wouldn’t, either, not with this storm. Communications were down across the board. They couldn’t even contact the clan nearest to them.

Megatron had all but ordered Sunstreaker stay in their quarters. He didn’t want to risk Sunstreaker looking for Rodimus. In the privacy of their quarters, Sunstreaker could argue. But Megatron had made the proclamation in front of the clan. As Warchief.

Sunstreaker couldn’t disobey.

Or shouldn’t.

His engine growled. He stomped through another circuit, shooting a glance toward the doorway. He felt trapped in here, like a caged mechanimal, a toxicougar who hadn’t fed. He should be out there. Looking. Not pacing around in here like a kept pet.

He needed to be moving. He couldn’t stay in here for the rest of the week. He at least needed to be somewhere else or he’d worry himself into a spark-attack.

Sunstreaker whirled and stomped toward the door.

He was immediately intercepted by Sideswipe. “Where are you going?” his twin asked, with a smile that was far from casual.

Sunstreaker drew up short and narrowed his optics. “Out.”

“Ohhh. I want to go out, too. We should go together.” Sideswipe nodded firmly, as though this was a given and shouldn’t be ignored. He planted his hands on his hips and added a jaunty grin.

Sunstreaker didn’t fail to notice Sideswipe was between him and the door. He hated that, even for a moment, he considered taking Sideswipe down to make his escape. He could do it and had done it. He won two times out of three when he sparred against his brother.

Sunstreaker cocked his head. He folded his arms over his chest. “What? Are you my sitter now?”

Sideswipe’s grin never lost its steam. “Well, someone has to stop you from being an idiot.” He planted his hands on his hips, thrusting his chassis forward, as if it would intimidate.

Sunstreaker snorted. “Well, I’m sorry I’m the only one worried.”

A flinch and Sunstreaker knew he’d scored. The smile wiped itself from Sideswipe’s face, his optics going hard, like energon crystals.

“You think I don’t care?” Sideswipe asked, his voice low and cold and for a fraction of a second, Sunstreaker had an idea of what those strut-less Firebrands had felt. “You think I don’t wanna find him, too? You think I haven’t considered diving out into that storm to bring his sorry aft back here?”

Sunstreaker set his jaw. Even when Sideswipe flung a hand in a seemingly random direction, but one Sunstreaker knew aimed toward the main entrance and main outer gate.

“Do you think I haven’t already considered every route, every possibility, every cave between here and the rumors?” Sideswipe demanded and his farflung hand trembled. “Just because I’m an inch more of a tactician, an inch more realistic to know that there’s nothing I can do more than I’m doing now, that makes me sparkless? How is getting myself killed going to help anyone?”

Silence. Only because Sunstreaker didn’t have a retort that wasn’t petulant or would add fuel to the flame. Each word landed in his audials like a physical strike, as clear and obvious as the pain in Sideswipe’s vocals.

It hadn’t made him feel better, to hurt Sideswipe the same way he hurt. It never did. Yet, Sunstreaker kept doing it anyway. All his life, he’d done this. Sideswipe still forgave him for it. Every time.

Frag if Sunstreaker knew why.

Sunstreaker dropped his gaze. He stared at the floor around Sideswipe’s feet. There were several scrapes in the swept stone here, flecks of paint caught in the scratches: black, gray, bits of red and yellow. They’d tackled each other more than once, sometimes sparring, sometimes for a bit of playful fooling around.

Sideswipe’s feet moved. He came closer.

His voice gentled, as it always did, when Sunstreaker should apologize and didn’t, because here as always, Sideswipe was the better mech.

“Look, I get it okay,” Sideswipe murmured, his field reaching as much as his voice did, and he tapped on his end of the bond, the strings connecting them vibrating until they touched Sunstreaker’s spark, too. “But just… you gotta wait. We all do. And as soon as the storm clears up, we’ll go look. Soundwave’s gonna send out the bird twins. Wrench is gonna contact some old pals of him. We’ll find him. And he’s gonna be fine.”

It was hard to ventilate. It felt like someone had reached into his chassis, put their hands around his pumps, and squeezed.

“He’s in the desert. In the middle of a sandstorm,” Sunstreaker said to the floor. His own pessimism was a knife to the back.

Sideswipe moved even closer, and he didn’t have to offer his arms before Sunstreaker slipped into them, the tremble in his knees radiating up his spinal strut.

“So? He’s a smart kid,” Sideswipe said.

Sunstreaker snorted, his face buried in the crook of his twin’s intake. Their chestplates knocked together, and he could feel the answering pulse of Sideswipe’s spark, even through their layered armor.

“Okay, so he’s a resourceful one at any rate,” Sideswipe corrected, a touch of humor in his voice, his arms enclosing Sunstreaker much as Megatron’s had. “And we trained him. Have a little faith in him.”

Sunstreaker worked his intake. “There’s a line,” he began quietly, “between trusting in someone’s abilities, and fooling oneself to the practicalities.”

“You’ve been spending too much time with Dead End.”

Sunstreaker opted to say nothing. He shuttered his optics and focused on the rhythm of Sideswipe’s vents and the pulse of his twin’s spark. It was an age-old tactic he’d used to center himself, to ground himself when it felt like his emotions were going to swallow him whole. Sideswipe had always been the steady one.

Sideswipe vented and patted Sunstreaker on the back. “You’re such a drama queen,” he murmured, but there was an affectionate cant to his vocals.

“Shut up.”

“Love you, too.”

Sunstreaker could be incredibly dense sometimes. He missed the subtleties of social interaction. Mostly, he didn’t care whether people liked him or not, so long as he had a few close friends. He was painfully unaware of certain things.

But he was not stupid.

He swallowed down the rest of his plans to go after Rodimus. He knew they were all foolish and suicidal besides. He couldn’t help Rodimus by dying. He could do nothing but be patient. He had to wait.

Until the storm ended, Sunstreaker was agitated and unsettled. He made everyone around him miserable, stalking as he did through the halls, snapping at anyone who dared smirk in his direction. Firebrands quickly learned to give him a wide berth, especially those Sunstreaker blamed for Rodimus’ stupid but understandably desperate action.

The hours and minutes crawled by. Days felt as weeks. Sunstreaker spent a lot of time standing just within the front entrance, staring out into a world that was nothing more than swirling sand, roaring wind, and no visibility, even with his advanced sensors. This was one of the worst storms he’d ever seen, and his only consolation was that the more fierce the storm, the quicker it burned out.

It was a little under a week until the storm dulled enough that they could risk sending out search parties. Sunstreaker volunteered for every one. He didn’t know what he’d find. He was afraid of it.

But he also didn’t want to be back at the settlement when they found him. He wanted to be there, to hug Rodimus, and then slap the sense back into the idiot. He didn’t want to wait for answers anymore. He wanted to find them himself.

He was on his way back from another search party, from another sector, another long circle of sweeping sensors with Laserbeak flying overhead, when Megatron pinged him. When the message came crackling across his comm, and sent a surge of relief through his spark.

Rodimus is home.

Three words and the bottom fell out of Sunstreaker’s spark. His knees wobbled. He would have dropped out of sheer relief, if he’d been alone or around mechs he dared show weakness. Instead, he’d barked orders and turned toward home.

He hadn’t wanted to dare believe. He hadn’t wanted to hope. He wondered if it was a dream, that maybe he was in recharge and imagining Rodimus could have somehow survived that storm and come back to them.

It wasn’t until he came over the horizon, until he sped toward the entrance, following the pull of Megatron on his end of the bond, until he saw that red and orange and yellow armor, the familiar jut of a spoiler, that it felt real.

Sunstreaker owed so many apologies. But later, he told himself, as he swept Rodimus up into his arms, his optics hot and burning at the sound of an adorable, and familiar, startled squeak. As Rodimus squirmed in the embrace and chuckled.

To see Sunstreaker, anyone would think that Rodimus was his lover. Certainly his behavior made it seem so, and he knew it did. He’d looked at Megatron, expecting his mate to be angry, disappointed, jealous even. The cold clench of resignation. A sensation of abandonment.

Instead, he’d found understanding. A small smile on Megatron’s lips. Relief as bright in his optics as it was in Sunstreaker’s spark.

That look had been a comfort, a reassurance. Megatron understood. Sunstreaker loved Megatron, in words that he couldn’t express. He’d accepted Megatron’s courtship and mated Megatron, and there was no one he loved like this more.

He loved Rodimus, too. But not the way he loved Megatron. And there were no words for the gratitude that flooded him then, the way he felt when he realized Megatron understood and wasn’t angry.

It had been that moment, Sunstreaker contemplated back in the present, that he’d fallen for Megatron all over again. So while reading Rodimus’ letter made his spark clench, made the guilt settle in, he could turn into Megatron’s arms, pillow his head on Megatron’s chassis, and know that his mate understood.

It was balm to the burn.

“You’re right,” Sunstreaker murmured as he slid a hand around Megatron’s chassis, feeling the quiet thrum of his mate’s purring engine beneath his palm.

Megatron chuckled against his audial, low and deep. “I always am.”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself.”

Another soft laugh tickled Sunstreaker’s audial as Megatron ex-vented soft and warm. “And what if I want to kiss you? Am I allowed that?”

A shiver slipped down Sunstreaker’s spinal strut. “Always,” he murmured, before Megatron’s mouth slid toward his, capturing his lips in a sweet, sultry kiss.

A rush of liquid warmth pulsed through Sunstreaker’s lines. He held on to Megatron, clutching his mate close, and moaned quietly when Megatron shifted to blanket Sunstreaker’s frame with his own. Megatron was larger and heavier, but somehow, held beneath him felt less like being trapped and more like being kept safe.

The kiss deepened, Megatron’s glossa sliding against his, careful and exploratory. The berth dipped beneath Sunstreaker as Megatron braced his weight with an arm, and let the other drag teasing fingers down Sunstreaker’s side. His knees bracketed Sunstreaker’s hips, the warmth and weight of him enclosing Sunstreaker entirely.

He didn’t have to ask for forgiveness, because there was nothing to forgive. That was what he felt in Megatron’s field, which pulsed nothing but comfort and affection at him.

He was lucky, Sunstreaker thought. He was so very lucky.

Megatron’s mouth wandered away, a gentle kiss pressed to the corner of Sunstreaker’s mouth before it followed the curve of his jaw to his audial. He ex-vented a tickling rush into Sunstreaker’s helm vent.

“What else am I allowed?” Megatron murmured in that deep, silken voice of his which never failed to send tremors down Sunstreaker’s spinal strut. “What would you have of me, only one?”

Sunstreaker moaned softly, well aware that Sideswipe still recharged on the berth beside them. “Everything,” he replied in a voice equally hushed.

Megatron chuckled against his audial. “You already have that.” His lips grazed a sultry path into the curve of Sunstreaker’s intake. “You’ll have to be more specific.” Teasing fingers stroked into Sunstreaker’s lateral seams.

A universe of choices then, because there had been nothing Sunstreaker asked for so far, which Megatron had denied him. He had only to whisper, to plea, to demand, and Megatron yielded, with need and affection in his optics.

Sunstreaker’s grip shifted to Megatron’s hips, fingers hooking around seams and pulling him down, as he rolled up and ground against Megatron’s groin. Heat answered him back, searing and hungry.

“Want you inside me,” Sunstreaker panted as the berth creaked and shifted, as he felt the slide of hot armor against his own. His valve ached, cycling into readiness, lubricant already slicking the metalmesh walls and causing his calipers to click restlessly.

Lips burrowed into the hollow of his intake, warm and wet on the sensitive cables. “That I can most certainly do,” Megatron purred, the vibrations of his words sending a thrill up Sunstreaker’s backstrut.

His panels snapped open. Any other time he would have been embarrassed by the need in his frame, but with the appreciative flush in Megatron’s field, and the answering pulse of desire, embarrassment was the furthest from Sunstreaker’s mind.

He swallowed down a moan as Megatron shifted, his mouth sliding down ever so slowly, lips discovering the length of Sunsteaker’s chestplate, over the flat of his abdominal armor, and to the peeping head of Sunstreaker’s spike.

Warmth enclosed the tip, a glossa poking at his transfluid slit. Sunstreaker’s hips all but arched off the berth, were it not for Megatron’s hands cradling them, keeping him pinned. Desire lurched through his frame, pooling southward, sending arousal hot and heavy through his array.

“Not fair,” he hissed subvocally.

A soft chuckle vibrated around the head of his spike. Megatron looked up at him, optics dark with lust and humor, before he let Sunstreaker slip from his mouth.

“All’s fair when it comes to the berth,” he murmured and dipped his head further down, his lips brushing over Sunstreaker’s anterior node.

Fire licked up his backstrut, and Sunstreaker fisted the berth covers, his backstrut curving once more. “This… is not obedience,” he groaned softly, lights dancing in the back of his optics.

Soft ex-vents teased his valve, lips brushing over his swollen rim and a glossa sweeping in to lap up the lubricant trickling free. “Can’t I have a little taste first?” Megatron asked, half-deference, half-plea, fully contrary.

Sunstreaker’s thighs trembled. “You just did,” he said, and hoped it sounded firmer aloud than it did in his head, because he was tempted now. He didn’t know if he wanted Megatron’s spike or his glossa buried between his thighs.

“Ah, but I am ever so greedy,” Megatron said with another long, savoring lick up the length of Sunstreaker’s valve, ending with a suckle to his swollen anterior cluster.

Sunstreaker sucked air through his denta, his valve throbbing. “Megatron,” he moaned, and knew there was no way Sideswipe still recharged, not with all the noise they were making. “Spike me. Now.”

Megatron cradled his hips, pressing a kiss to Sunstreaker’s valve. “As you wish.” He lifted his head, his lips glistening with Sunstreaker’s lubricant.

Sunstreaker almost shoved his head back down, save that his valve was desperate for something to pierce it. Instead, he gripped the berthcovers tighter, thighs trembling with anticipation as Megatron sat back on his heels, spike standing proud and glistening with pre-fluid. His biolights pulsed a slow, steady throb of need, and Sunstreaker’s valve ached.

More lubricant trickled free even as Megatron shifted his position, pulling Sunstreaker’s hips toward him. He leaned forward, blanketing Sunstreaker’s frame with his own. The head of his spike nudged Sunstreaker’s swollen rim, sending a shock of need through his lines.

Sunstreaker canted his hips upward, urging with his frame as well as his field. His valve rippled.

“Spike me,” he demanded again, more forcefully this time. “Now.”

Megatron’s optics glittered at him. “Yes, love.” He rolled his hips forward, spike sliding into Sunstreaker achingly slow, filling him inch by inch, until the thick head brushed Sunstreaker’s ceiling node.

He moaned, head tipping back, a shiver rattling him from head to foot. His thighs trembled where they bracketed Megatron, pressing in, keeping his mate close.

Megatron held himself deep, circled his hips, grinding slow and sweet against Sunstreaker’s ceiling node. Sparks of pleasure danced up and down Sunstreaker’s backstrut. He moaned a little louder, grasping at Megatron, pulling him closer.

“More,” he demanded.

Megatron leaned in, nuzzling Sunstreaker’s face. “All you want,” he promised, and withdrew until only the tip of his spike lingered, before he pushed in again, just as slow and steady.

He started up a pace, long and deep strokes that made Sunstreaker’s nodes sing and charge build hot and heavy in his array. He writhed beneath Megatron, holding his mate tight, gasping out demands for more.

Suddenly, Megatron’s rhythm stuttered. He gasped out a hungry sound, optics flaring, back arching. He pressed deep and shivered.

“Don’t stop!” Sunstreaker demanded, urging Megatron on with a press of his knees, a tightening of his grip.

His brother’s head popped up from behind Megatron, hooking his chin over Megatron’s right shoulder. “Is this a private party or can anyone join?” Sideswipe asked, all mischief and lust, one hand sliding around Megatron’s abdomen and the other nowhere in sight.

Though judging by Megatron’s quickened vents and the flush of heat in Megatron’s face, Sunstreaker could guess where it’d gone.

“Stop it,” he hissed as Megatron throbbed in his valve and shook with evident struggle to restrain himself. “You know he can’t hold back when you do that.”

The slick noise of fingers in lubricant was barely audible over three sets of whirring fans. Megatron shivered again, hips rocking as Sideswipe’s fingers slid into him. Two, maybe three? Sunstreaker couldn’t see, and it didn’t matter.

“I can so,” Megatron grunted, but the way he sagged on top of Sunstreaker as blue fire sparked along his frame argued otherwise.

Sideswipe chuckled and nosed his way into the side of Megatron’s throat, lips and denta marking a hot path. “No, you can’t,” he purred and did something to make Megatron thrust harder into Sunstreaker, grinding against his array and tapping his exterior node.

Sunstreaker moaned. He rocked up against Megatron as his mate started to move again, faster now, sharper thrusts that lit up Sunstreaker’s nodes with ecstasy. Sideswipe looked outright devious as he nibbled on Megatron’s throat, and no doubt fingered him without restraint.

Megatron hunched forward, gasping, his optics dark and heavy. His thrusts became erratic, desperate, grinding hard and deep into Sunstreaker. The base of his array was a heavy pressure on Sunstreaker’s external node, licking fire up and down his backstrut. Sunstreaker groaned, trying to drag Megatron closer, trying to cling to the rising coil of need in his groin.

He was so close. Release was within his grasp. He just needed a little more–

Megatron’s rhythm stuttered. He gasped as he stilled, slamming deep into Sunstreaker, transfluid spurting a hot gush inside Sunstreaker’s valve, washing over his nodes and setting them ablaze. It wasn’t enough, however, and Sunstreaker snarled angrily as Megatron slumped over him, vents whirring and frame trembling.

“I told you!” Sunstreaker seethed as he bucked his hips, trying to get friction, any kind of friction really. Need pulsed in his lines and whirred through his spark. His engine hiccuped from the stalled pleasure.

Sideswipe chuckled and curled an arm around Megatron, pulling him back. “Relax, bro. I always get you taken care of, don’t I?” he asked even as he did something to make Megatron shudder, his optics brightening.

“I would apologize, but I suspect Sideswipe has some plan he intends to follow,” Megatron rasped as his hands slid up Sunstreaker’s legs and curled around his knees, tickling the undersides.

Sunstreaker thumped his fists on the berth. “I don’t care about Sideswipe’s plan. I care about getting off!”

Sideswipe’s hand slid down Megatron’s belly, his fingers curling around their mate’s semi-pressurized spike and giving it a squeeze. “The plans includes that, don’t worry.” He nuzzled into Megatron’s throat and nipped with his denta. “Sun’s got such a pretty spike, doesn’t he? Why don’t you taste it?”

Megatron shivered, his optics half-shuttering as the hot weight of his gaze slid to Sunstreaker’s spike. His glossa swept over his lips.

Sunstreaker slid a hand down his frame and fingered the tip of his spike, which extruded pearls of pre-fluid at a rapid pace. “You owe me,” he said. “Both of you.”

Sideswipe was still going to pay later, no matter how much Sunstreaker would enjoy this now. He hated having his pleasure delayed. Sideswipe was the one with an overload-denial kink, not Sunstreaker.

“Indeed I do,” Megatron murmured. Lust darkened his tone into a heavy syrup that drizzled into Sunstreaker’s audials.

Megatron bent forward, curling his arms around Sunstreaker’s thighs from beneath them, cradling Sunstreaker’s hips with his hands. He rubbed his cheek over Sunstreaker’s spike, his gaze holding Sunstreaker’s as he did so. Half in challenge, half in promise.

A shiver danced up Sunstreaker’s spinal strut. He felt every hot ex-vent over his spike. More pre-fluid trickled free, glistening at the tip. His valve clenched, raw with emptiness.

“You two make such a gorgeous picture,” Sideswipe said as he knelt behind Megatron, one hand on their mate’s back, the other gripping his hip.

Sunstreaker couldn’t see Sideswipe’s spike, but he could imagine where it was. Pressurized and needy, the head of it nudging Megatron’s valve, teasing the plush lips before slowly piercing his rim, gradually filling Megatron. He could tell how deep Sideswipe went by Megatron’s rumbles, increasing in strength and volume.

Megatron ex-vented hot and wet over Sunstreaker’s spike. His cheek rubbed the length of it again.

“Stop teasing,” Sunstreaker growled as he bucked his hips as much as he was capable. “Put me in your mouth!”

The vibrations of Megatron’s laugh rattled along Sunstreaker’s spike. He snarled at his mate, hips rolling up again, only to finally sink into Megatron’s mouth, his spike eclipsed in wet heat. Charge licked up Sunstreaker’s backstrut as the head of his spike teased the back of Megatron’s intake before his mate eased off and focused on the head, slurping at it, his glossa poking at Sunstreaker’s transfluid slit.

“Obedience looks good on you,” Sideswipe purred as he gripped Megatron’s hips and ground against his aft, no doubt sinking deep by the way Megatron groaned around Sunstreaker’s spike, his optics half-shuttering in pleasure.

Sideswipe thrust and rocked Megatron forward, driving the pace of Megatron’s mouth on Sunstreaker’s spike. Wonderful heat and suction, the swipe of a clever glossa and the wet sounds it made as oral lubricant mixed with the pre-fluid seeping from Sunstreaker’s spike.

He groaned louder and reached down, gripping Megatron’s head with both hands, holding him in place so he could thrust gently into his mate’s mouth. Judging by the sound Megatron made, the way his energy field rose up and entangled with Sunstreaker’s, so thick with lust, he enjoyed the directing. Only here, in the berth, did Megatron enjoy being told what to do.

Megatron’s hands tightened on Sunstreaker’s hips, his moans vibrating against Sunstreaker’s spike as his intake rippled around the head of it. Sunstreaker shivered and thrust up into Megatron’s mouth, pleasure rebuilding into a crescendo inside of him, lust like a hot knife and a sizzle through his lines.

“Yesssss,” Sideswipe hissed, his pelvis clanging against Megatron’s aft as he thrust harder and faster, yanking Megatron back onto his spike and shoving him forward again, onto Sunstreaker’s spike, forcing him deeper. Sideswipe’s lust spilled into the room, tangling with Sunstreaker’s and driving his even higher.

Sunstreaker growled and tossed his head back, the spiral of hunger building into a tense knot threatening to boil over. His heels kicked at the berth. Charge raced across his armor, breaking up the dim.

“You close, bro?” Sideswipe asked, his optics the blue fire of lust. “Gonna spill in our mate’s mouth? Fill him up?”

Megatron moaned around Sunstreaker’s spike as if begging for it. His hips pushed back into Sideswipe’s thrusts, his hands squeezed Sunstreaker’s hips to the rhythm.

Sideswipe chuckled darkly. “Think he likes that idea.” He slid his hands over and around Megatron’s aft. “Don’t swallow, Megatron. Not yet at least.”

Oh, Primus.

Sunstreaker choked on a gasp, the implication in Sideswipe’s words shoving him over the edge. He bucked up, ecstasy slamming through his frame, making sparks dance in his optics as he overloaded, transfluid pumping into Megatron’s mouth. He held Megatron’s head firmly, only the dimmest focus keeping him from squeezing too tight.

Megatron moaned around his spike, his optics flaring with desire. His hands gripped Sunstreaker’s hips hard enough to dent, drips of lubricant and transfluid dribbling out of the corners of his mouth.

“Yes,” Sideswipe hissed as he bent over Megatron from behind, slamming into him. “Don’t swallow. Hold it in your mouth. Savor it.”

A shiver wracked Megatron’s frame. He tongued at Sunstreaker’s spike, more mingled fluids dripping from the corner of his mouth.

“Adaptus,” Sideswipe breathed and abruptly leaned back, tugging on the back of Megatron’s collar fairing as he did so.

Sunstreaker groaned, releasing his hold on Megatron and shoving a hand between his thighs, plunging three fingers into his valve. Megatron reared upright, hands flailing before they found a hold on Sunstreaker’s knees. His spike bobbed at the apex of his thighs, streaked with the evidence of his earlier overload.

Sunstreaker ate up the sight of Sideswipe tugging Megatron into a sloppy, wet kiss, Sunstreaker’s transfluid staining their lips and passing between them. Sideswipe’s free hand slid around Megatron’s belly, reaching down to grip his spike firmly. Megatron groaned into the kiss, his hands squeezing Sunstreaker’s knees.

Sunstreaker’s fingers plunged deeper, raking the sensitive nodes on the inside of his valve. Megatron’s aborted spiking left him with a lingering ache. He hissed his pleasure, hips pumping up into his fingers, as he watched his mates move together, sharing a wet and heated kiss, Sideswipe’s hands squeezing and pumping as he shoved hard and deep into Megatron.

Primus, they were gorgeous. And they were his.

Megatron stiffened in Sideswipe’s hold, his sounds of pleasure muffled by the kiss, as he overloaded. His spike spurted, most of it dampening Sideswipe’s fist, but the rest landing on Sunstreaker, hitting the back of his hand where he ground the heel of his palm against his anterior node. The taste of the pleasure in his field, tangled so deeply with Sunstreaker’s own, dragged Sunstreaker over, his valve clamping around his fingers.

He shook, head tossing back, as his valve squeezed rhythmically, lubricant seeping out of his valve to soak the berth beneath his aft. Sunstreaker panted and forced his optics open, not wanting to miss a moment of Sideswipe’s pleasure as he broke away from the kiss, shoved his face into the crook of Megatron’s neck and bit down.

Denta-marks were always a clear sign Sideswipe had succumbed to pleasure. His optics streaked white, his field exploded outward and his hips screeched against Megatron’s aft in a deep grind. His hand smacked against Megatron’s belly, coated in transfluid as it was, and the harsh bite of his denta made Megatron shudder.

Ecstasy left Sideswipe in a rush, abandoning him to the lingering tremors of it. He captured Megatron’s mouth again, though the kiss this time was a softer and sweeter. He gentled his hold and they swayed together, the smallest of smiles curving their lips.

Sunstreaker straightened a leg and swatted them both in the sides. “Hey, where’s my kiss?” he demanded as he drew his fingers free of his valve, three digits glistening with lubricant. “Or do I have to do everything myself?”

Sideswipe ended the kiss with the smirk. “Someone’s feeling a little left out,” he teased as he leaned in and licked the bitemark he left behind. “Now you know how I felt lying there listening to the two of you canoodle.”

“Canoodle.” Megatron rolled his optics. “You are ridiculous, Sideswipe.”

“But you love me anyway, right?”

“Still not getting kissed here,” Sunstreaker reminded them with another kick that barely counted as a kick. The sound it made was little louder than a chime.

Megatron eased out of Sideswipe’s grip and curved forward, back between Sunstreaker’s thighs where he belonged. “My apologies,” he murmured as he crawled up Sunstreaker’s frame, all languid grace like a voltaic cat.

He dropped a kiss on Sunstreaker’s abdomen, his chestplate, his clavicle strut, the curve of his intake.

“Allow me to make it up to you,” Megatron murmured against the curve of Sunstreaker’s jaw before his lips found Sunstreaker’s.

Mmm. Much better.

Sideswipe, however, snorted. “Such a drama queen,” he said, as he shifted his weight and made the berth shift with him. “Can’t stand not to be the center of attention.”

Sunstreaker broke away from the kiss and nuzzled Megatron, making it easier to direct a glare over their mate’s shoulder. “Shut the frag up.”

“Hah. Make me.” Sideswipe patted Megatron’s aft and crawled up the berth beside their intertwined frames, flopping down next to Sunstreaker. “Just for that, you get to sleep in the wet spot.”

Megatron groaned and shifted as well, moving to lay atop Sunstreaker, pillowing his head on Sunstreaker’s chestplate. “Must you two always bicker?”

“It’s part of our charm,” Sideswipe said. “Besides, it stopped him from brooding, didn’t it?”

“I wasn’t brooding,” Sunstreaker retorted as he wrapped his arms around Megatron’s frame, stroking his hands down Megatron’s back.

He actually was lying in the wet spot, but he could tolerate it for a short time if it meant having this. Sure Megatron was heavy and overheating and the width of his frame forced Sunstreaker’s thighs wider than was comfortable. But he’d never say aloud how much he enjoyed cuddling like this.

Sideswipe stretched his arms over his head before folding them behind him. “You were brooding. About Hot Stuff. Because you have a guilt complex larger than this settlement.”

Sunstreaker sighed and shuttered his optics.

“He’s right, you know,” Megatron murmured, his words vibrating against Sunstreaker’s chestplate. “I seem to recall distracting you from reading that datapad over and over again.”

Sunstreaker pressed his lips together and ignored both of them.

Sideswipe rolled over, Sunstreaker felt the berth shift before the warmth of his twin settled against his side. “Kid’s gonna be okay. We taught him well. He’s finally found his happiness.”

“I know that,” Sunstreaker muttered.

“And yet, you’re acting like you just got dumped,” Sideswipe retorted.

“Or a caretaker whose sparkling has left the cradle,” Megatron added.

Sunstreaker growled. “I hate you both.”

They laughed at him. Both of them. His mates who he loved. Afts.

Megatron chuckled and nosed into Sunstreaker’s throat, his lips tracing a path that made shivers dance down Sunstreaker’s spinal strut. “And I love you, Sunbeam.”

Sideswipe cackled.

Sunstreaker groaned. “Great. He’s corrupted you.”

“Eventually, everyone falls for my charms,” Sideswipe said as the berth bounced when he shifted.

Suddenly, a weight bore Sunstreaker down. He grunted, and Megatron did as well. He had only to taste the devilishness in Sideswipe’s field to know what that weight was.

“Get off us!” Sunstreaker growled, trying to shove at the two heavily armored frames making him sink into the berth. “Primus, you’re such a sparkling sometimes!”

Sideswipe chortled. “Who’s king of the mountain now?”

Megatron sighed.

Sunstreaker wished he didn’t love them so much sometimes. Because then he wouldn’t find their behavior charming.

He’d chosen this, he reminded himself. He wanted this happiness, a life shared with his mates. He resolved to enjoy it, forgetting about the datapad on the nightstand.

Rodimus was gone, out living life on his own, seeking his own version of this very annoying, very wonderful romance. That was all Sunstreaker could have wished for him.

Which meant Sunstreaker was now free to do the same.

“I’ll show you who’s king,” Megatron growled as he bucked up, sending Sideswipe tumbling from his back and inevitably, off the berth with a noisy clatter of armor.

“Ow.” Sideswipe’s laughter belied any pain, however.

It was Sunstreaker’s turn to sigh.

They were his mates, and he loved them dearly. And he certainly couldn’t let them have all the fun now could he?

Sunstreaker smirked and tensed his hydraulics to pounce.

After all, there was only one king in this court. And both Sideswipe and Megatron knew frag well it wasn’t either of them.

[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 13

Rodimus took his time rinsing off, his thoughts darting between wild ponderings and an unexpected calm. He felt nervous and excited, expectant and wary. Not even Scuttle, beeping as he slid from solvent-slick to solvent-slick, could chase away the anxiety, amusing as the drone’s behavior was.

He was here. He’d left the settlement and everyone he knew behind. He came here. Back to Starscream.

Rodimus still wasn’t sure why.

But the rapid flare of his spark, the flush of heat that struck his frame, the way he just wanted to fall into Starscream’s arms and babble to him, or even fall into a berth and stay there for days… he thought maybe some of the answers were in there.

He couldn’t blame Starscream for being cautious. He hoped he could prove himself, though. He wanted to stay here. To be with Starscream. He just wanted a chance.

Rodimus sluiced away all of the rust and grit his long walk had acquired. He rinsed off his tarp and hung it to dry as well, and waited until the solvent ran clear before he turned off the spray. The oil bath called, and Rodimus was more than ready to sink into it.

Damn, but he’d missed this luxury.

He hoped Starscream let him stay.

He’d have to go back to the settlement eventually. Sunstreaker would hunt him down if Rodimus didn’t at least come back now and again, prove that he was all right and not rusting away in some ditch or that he hadn’t become food for a pack of turbowolves. Sunstreaker worried.

It was nice that someone worried. Even if their last conversation had been… well, it had hurt, but it had also been freeing. Like a huge weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Rodimus had no regrets now. He’d said what he’d needed to say, and despite leaving some things behind, felt as though he’d left richer than before.

Leaving had revealed a lot to Rodimus. He’d had more ties than he’d realized. From Springer’s unexpected support to Kup wishing him luck and telling him to come back now and again to freshen up his training.

Even Wrench had snagged Rodimus on his way out of the celebration to press a wrapped box into his hands. He’d said to give it to the mech who’d saved Rodimus’ life, and added a wink, leaving little guess that he’d known it was Starscream all along.

Rodimus supposed he’d have to dig out that box from his pack later. He’d peeked into it, because his curiosity couldn’t be denied, but all that was in it was a bunch of medical supplies. Boring. But nice of him.

Leaving like that, with so many people wishing him well, filled Rodimus with warmth. He thought, again, that Sideswipe was right.

He would always have a home in the settlement. Even if he couldn’t stay with Starscream, he could always go back. He didn’t know what he’d do then, but not being a warrior? It was hardly the worst thing that could happen to him.

Maybe he could find a way to the other clans. He could venture out to Skyfire’s if he wanted. Surely Elita’s clan would offer him passage if he asked politely and he was by himself. If he went about it properly, she might not rip off his head. There were others, too. Some good, some bad.

Adventure was out there. Opportunity, too. He didn’t have to stay in his own clan, his own settlement. He could find his future elsewhere.

Only, he hoped he didn’t have to. He hoped Starscream wanted him to stay.

The sound of footsteps echoed in the small hall that led down to the oilsprings, disturbing Rodimus from his musings.

Rodimus straightened from where he’d sunk down into the warmth, anticipation coiling inside of him into a hot mass. He remembered, all over again, when he had been plugged into Starscream and the boiling surge of data.

Primus.

Starscream stepped into view, his lips pulled into a soft smile, his gaze searching the room before landing on Rodimus shoulder-deep in the oil. “Well, you didn’t waste any time at all.”

Rodimus grinned, interpreting the tone to be playful rather than chastising. “I’m only obeying orders.”

Starscream snorted. “Right. And did you miss me or my private oil bath?” Scuttle spun over to meet Starscream, bumping briefly against his foot before huddling back behind Rodimus again.

“Why not both?” Rodimus asked as he trailed his fingers over Scuttle’s chassis, a trilling rise of noise rising in the wake of his touch. It wasn’t unlike a voltaic cat’s purr actually.

Wings flicked, but again, more amusement than annoyance. Or at least Rodimus hoped. Starscream moved to join him in the oil bath, easing himself down into the heated liquid. He had a lazy grace, Rodimus noticed, with a small frisson of heat winding through his circuits.

He was gorgeous, beautiful in a manner different than Sunstreaker but no less equal. Rodimus wanted so much to touch him this time. To trace his seams, discover how different he tasted, the sounds he made in pleasure. He wanted to flick those little fans on Starscream’s chest, and see if his wings were as sensitive as rumor claimed.

He wanted so much.

“I see where my true value lies then,” Starscream remarked as he briefly dipped down into the oil, only to rise again, cockpit shimmering where oil sluiced down it. His cockpit shimmered in the oil’s wake, calling for touch.

Private and small. Rodimus could reach out and brush his fingers over Starscream if he wanted. He held himself back. Things were, as yet, awkward.

“How… uh, how’s your coding, by the way?” Rodimus asked for desperate need of a distraction. He leaned back, resisting the urge to purr as the hot oil seeped into every seam and joint, caressing his aching cables.

Starscream tilted his head. “Between you and Deadlock, I’m at full capacity,” he said and gestured to Rodimus. “You mentioned your back?”

Oh. Right.

Rodimus leveraged himself upright and obediently turned, his field prickling as Starscream moved close to him, their fields coming into contact. Starscream was only a few inches taller than him, but it suddenly felt like more. Standing, the oil bath lapped at his hips, and the feel of it trickling down his armor was unexpectedly erotic.

“Deadlock, huh?” He tried to keep his tone light. He was suffocatingly jealous, and he had absolutely no right to be. But the twins had been stolen before he could be brave enough to confess, and he now worried he’d lost his chance with Starscream, too.

Deadlock was handsome. Charming in some way obviously. He was far more skilled than Rodimus could ever hope to be. And he and Starscream had a history. What did Rodimus have to offer compared to that?

“Is that jealousy I detect?” Starscream asked as he started to wipe along Rodimus’ back and spoiler. An oil soak was good and all, but to get the full benefits, it was better to gently massage it in.

Damn, it felt good. Starscream’s touch was deft and gentle, and it left Rodimus’ dermal net tingling in the aftermath. He shivered, and hoped it didn’t show.

“I guess I don’t have a right to be,” Rodimus said, carefully choosing his words. After all, he didn’t have any sort of claim on Starscream, did he?

“No. But that doesn’t mean I’m not flattered.” Starscream’s tone, at least, was warm. As was the sweep of the cloth over the back of Rodimus’ spoiler. “Yes, we’ve shared a berth. Yes, I’ve copied his coding. But that’s as far as it goes.”

Rodimus nodded, though Starscream couldn’t see it, and decided to go for broke. After all, why else was he here? “What am I then?”

“An experiment.”

A laugh burst out of Rodimus before he could stop it, Starscream’s tone so flat it had to be a joke. “No. Seriously.”

“I don’t know.” Starscream’s hands paused, resting on his shoulders. “Do you need a definition?”

“Sometimes they help.”

“And sometimes they are just a tiny box that you don’t fit into.” Starscream’s hands slid down to Rodimus’ waist before subtle urging had Rodimus turning to face him. “What do you plan to do here, Rodimus?”

He blinked. That seemed like such an odd question. One with an obvious answer.

“What?”

Starscream arched an orbital ridge at him, though nothing in his field felt accusing, just curious. “You wanted to be a warrior. Do you have other skills? What do you plan to do here? You can’t build an entire future around romancing someone, after all.”

Oh.

Rodimus shrugged, trying not to focus so hard on Starscream’s hands on his hips, and where else they might wander. “I’ll figure something out. I can still hunt. Make things. Help you, maybe. I mean, I don’t know any science stuff, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use a second pair of hands.”

He was babbling again. Sounding like an idiot. He always did this when he didn’t know what else to do. Frag, he hated it.

Starscream’s hands remained gentle where they rested on his hips, but his tone turned more probing. “And you’ll be satisfied with that?”

“I don’t know. Maybe,” Rodimus hedged, and fidgeted, resisting the urge to cross his arms over his chassis. He knew he looked defensive when he did that.

Starscream sighed, and Rodimus knew he’d fragged up. Especially when the Seeker let him go and backed away, putting a noticeable distance between them. Rodimus could still reach out and touch Starscream, but now he didn’t dare.

“I can’t be comfortable with a maybe,” Starscream said, and he was the one to cross his arms as he leaned back against the wall of the spring. “How do I know you won’t wake up tomorrow, realize how bored you are, and vanish?”

Rodimus chewed on the inside of his cheek for a second. “You don’t,” he admitted, and scrubbed the back of his head. “But then, I don’t know that you’re not gonna wake up in a week and realize how annoying I am and kick me out.” He shrugged and hoped it came across more confident than he felt. “That’s a risk we’re both taking, I guess.”

Risk indeed. Rodimus felt an awful lot like he was standing on the edge of something, and a single push would send him tottering over. There was freedom in the freefall, he knew, but then the ground would come awfully quick.

He didn’t want to go splat.

“What about your clan?”

Rodimus’ forehead drew down. “What about them?”

“You’re fine with just leaving them?”

He frowned and tried not to squirm. He, too, backed away, until there was as much distance between them as was possible in the springs. “Well, I mean, it doesn’t have to be permanent, does it? I can go back and visit whenever I want. And maybe someday, you’ll want to come back with me.”

Starscream visibly stiffened. His optics narrowed into little slits. “I’m not a trophy.”

Rodimus shook his head. “I didn’t say you were. Honestly! If you don’t want to go, you never have to. I just…” He ducked his head, aware that his face was filling with heat.

He felt stupid, now that he thought about it, that quiet fantasy he’d built while at the festival, watching the mated and unmated alike as they spun and twirled around the bonfire. The hazy dream where Rodimus walked hand in hand with a mate of his own choosing, dancing the courtship, the firelight reflecting over the polished surface of his mate’s armor.

He used to imagine himself between Sunstreaker and Sideswipe, flirting and grinning, overwhelmed by their fields and smiles and the seduction of their hands. Now he wondered what it would be like to see Starscream glittering in the moonlight, wings high and fluttering, a coy smile on his lips.

A romantic idiot, was what he was.

“You just what?” Starscream demanded.

Rodimus sighed and scrubbed the back of his neck. “I thought it would be fun,” he mumbled. “To dance with you. At the festival.”

“Festival?” Starscream echoed.

He couldn’t bring himself to lift his optics. “Mating season,” he clarified. “The courtship dance.” He sighed again. “A lot of clans out here do the snatch and grab, I know, but we don’t. For us it’s more of a game? Except you already know the players. You don’t take the unwilling, and it’s more of a courting dance than anything.”

He felt the weight of Starscream’s gaze on the top of his helm. Starscream’s field lingered in the periphery of his own, but Rodimus didn’t dare reach for it.

“You wish to claim me in front of your clan,” Starscream said.

Rodimus winced. “I know. It’s stupid.”

“I didn’t say that.” Starscream’s tone softened, and warmed even.

The oil swished as he moved closer, and only then did Rodimus risk lifting his head. He wasn’t sure what to call the expression on Starscream’s face, but it didn’t hold anger or irritation, so he considered that a plus.

“It’s kind of flattering really,” Starscream said, and something dark flashed in his optics. “There are few things on this planet worth less than the spark of a Seeker. And yet, you’d want to court me in front of your entire clan.”

Rodimus nodded. He mastered his ventilations, unsure if he dared to hope, and unwilling to shatter whatever this was.

“Why?” Starscream asked.

Rodimus worked his intake. “Because you’re…. you,” he said, and decided, what the frag, what did he have to lose? “You’re gorgeous. You’re so smart that it makes my head spin. You’re strong in ways I didn’t know mechs could be strong. You’re everything I didn’t know I wanted until I found it in you and…”

His spark throbbed harder. There were a lot of words inside of him, and they bubbled out, more incoherent than he wanted, but it was the best he could do.

He gnawed on his bottom lip and looked up at Starscream. “I don’t know what I can do now, but I know whatever it is, I want to do it with you.” He drew in another shuddering ventilation and held Starscream’s gaze. “I want this, you and me and whatever we can have, I want it to be my future now. I want you to be my adventure. And… and I really don’t know what else to say.”

Which seemed like such a stupid addition considering how much he’d babbled.

Starscream stared at him for a moment before he cycled a ventilation, one that sounded shaky. “I think it was perfect,” he murmured and cupped Rodimus’ face once more, drawing them together, leaning his forehead against Rodimus’. “I would like that as well. To see what we can have. To give ‘us’ a try.”

Us.

Rodimus liked the sound of that.

He reached for Starscream’s hips, tentative and careful, but when he wasn’t rebuffed, he rested his hands there. The heat of the oil seemed to swallow him whole, but it was a distant second to the sensation of Starscream’s field against his, and the cup of Starscream’s hands.

“I don’t have to leave?” Rodimus asked, a question he’d presented before, but lingering uncertainty made him doubtful.

“No,” Starscream murmured, and he kissed Rodimus, his mouth covering Rodimus’, his glossa slipping inside with a gentle caress.

Rodimus sighed into the kiss, melting against Starscream, pulling them together, their frames coming into sizzling, electric contact. He felt a shiver run through his frame, even as the kiss deepened, and Starscream’s field throbbed against his as if expecting.

A thrill ran through Rodimus’ spark. He made a sound into the kiss, maybe a whimper, maybe a moan. He felt weak in the knees and clutched harder at Starscream, the kiss almost desperate, his mouth moving against Starscream’s, until it vanished.

Rodimus made a noise of protest, but Starscream’s lips didn’t go far. They trailed a tingling path up, pressed lightly to the tip of his nasal structure before they wandered over his cheek ridge.

Another shudder rippled over Rodimus’ armor. The heat of the oil swished around his legs, and he panted for cooler air, only to find none. He moaned softly, tugging Starscream more firmly against him, their chassis in delicious contact. He swore he could feel the whirl of Starscream’s spark through the transsteel of his cockpit.

Starscream’s hands released him and slid down, palming his chestplate before sliding further down, cupping the two halves of his bumper grill, thin fingers slipping into the slats and teasing the delicate constructions beneath. Rodimus moaned, his chassis arching toward Starscream, lust hitting him like a bolt to the spinal strut.

His head tipped back and Starscream seemed to take that as an offer, because lips and denta immediately descended, nibbling on his intake cables. Every brush of Starscream’s denta sent another thrill through him, until Rodimus shook with need, heat coiling lower and lower, winding like a spring inside of him.

It was dizzying.

He hadn’t even realized that Starscream was backing him up toward the edge until his aft bumped the unpolished wall beneath the surface. He was pinned quite thoroughly by an amorous Seeker and dizzily, Rodimus couldn’t imagine anywhere else he’d rather be.

Except, maybe, a berth.

Because frag it, he’d made enough mistakes already. He didn’t want to do this with Starscream for the first time for real in an oil bath.

Starscream bit at his intake again, and soothed it with his glossa, and Rodimus’ vision wobbled. For a moment, he was distracted, arousal pooling hot and heavy in his array, his spike throbbing behind his panel and another crackle of need racing through his lines.

Rodimus moaned and grasped for coherency. “W-wait.”

Starscream pulled back almost immediately, the smallest of frowns at the corner of his lips. “Something wrong?”

Rodimus’ ventilations hitched and he had to remind himself not to lean in and steal Starscream’s lips. He was trying to say something.

“No,” he said, and felt the heat in his cheeks again. Would he ever stop feeling like an idiot? “I just… could we move this to a berth? I mean, if you want to do what I think you want to do and I want do to it, too. I do. Just not here?”

Primus, he sounded like a moron.

Starscream stared at him for a moment before he cycled his optics, and his hands stroked over Rodimus’ chestplate. “I’d forgotten how much of a romantic you are,” he murmured, before he leaned in and pressed a kiss to the corner of Rodimus’ mouth.

Rodimus flushed. “Sorry.”

“I didn’t say it was a bad thing.” Starscream sounded amused. He leaned back, stroking around the curve of Rodimus’ face. “Well then. Let’s towel off and head upstairs, shall we? So we can do what you think we want to do, but in the comfort of a berth.” His tone, mercifully, was teasing rather than mocking.

It took more effort than Rodimus expected to peel himself away from Starscream and climb out of the oil springs. Chill swept over him immediately, without the heat of the oil and the heat of Starscream’s frame. Though his engine purred hungrily and arousal throbbed heavily through his sensornet.

Starscream followed him out.

“Could we, um, do it again?” Rodimus asked as he quickly swiped a towel over his frame to get off the excess oil that had yet to drip from his frame, into the grate beneath him. He suspected Starscream collected it and reused it.

Starscream tilted his head. “You’ll have to be more specific,” he drawled, optics glittering with humor. “There are many things we’ve done.”

Rodimus worked his intake and dropped his gaze, focusing intently on the oil gathered in the seams of his feet. “You know. With the cables.”

“Codesharing?”

Rodimus nodded and diligently wiped at his calves, only to suddenly feel a towel on his back and across his spoiler. Not unlike Sunstreaker, as a matter of fact. Apparently, he wasn’t very good at drying himself off.

“Why?” Starscream asked as several efficient strokes finished Rodimus up and the towel was tossed aside.

“Because I want to,” Rodimus admitted and tossed his own towel into the pile, turning to face Starscream again. “I liked it, and I guess, I want you to know that it doesn’t bother me.”

Okay, yes. He’d been terrified at first. Who wouldn’t be, if they’d spent most of their functioning being told that Seekers were dangerous code-stealers who wanted to hack you and reprogram you and turn you into a slave.

But now? He couldn’t forget that ecstasy, and he wanted to show Starscream how much he trusted the Seeker.

Starscream arched an orbital ridge. “My coding is currently at one-hundred percent stability, Rodimus. It doesn’t need a refresh. Another codeshare would be pointless.”

“Because of Deadlock?” he asked, or blurted rather, before politeness told him it was a bad idea. Not his place, remember?

Starscream tugged him in close, his hands sliding around Rodimus’ waist, and Rodimus couldn’t resist touching the shiny gleam of his chestplate. Those turbines looked in need of exploration.

“Is that why you asked?”

Rodimus’ gaze slid away. “Maybe.” He’d already lost one love to the charms of another mech. It was something of a fear for him now.

Starscream rolled his optics and slid his hands up Rodimus’ back, tweaking his spoiler mounts. It sent a little thrill of need up Rodimus’ spinal strut.

“No amount of codesharing between us will delete Deadlock from my coding, Rodimus,” Starscream said, a touch of amusement in his tone. “I’ve been living off his code for too long. It’s embedded. Stick around long enough, and you’ll be a part of me, too.”

Rodimus blinked. “What?” Though it did sound kind of romantic in retrospect.

“It’s a long and probably boring explanation,” Starscream replied with a sigh. He pressed their foreheads together. “And I, for one, would rather find that berth you mentioned. Hm?”

Rodimus licked his lips and slid his hands up Starscream’s chassis, palms briefly skittering over the turbine housing. “Sounds good. But that still doesn’t answer my question.”

“If you want to plug in, that’s fine. There are other things than code sharing. Things that can be mutually beneficial.” Starscream smirked at him. “I’ll show you.”

Rodimus shivered. “Okay.” He tilted into Starscream’s touch, his processor spinning again, as heat swamped his frame.

It was too easy to lean into Starscream and kiss him again, to melt into the touch of lips against his, and the soft sweeping of Starscream’s hands.

The kiss ended, and Rodimus chased it, half in a daze, half dizzy with anticipation. Starscream tugged him backward, toward the door. Rodimus followed, his circuits singing and his spark skipping a dancing whirl.

They made it to the lift before Rodimus had to kiss him again, pressing Starscream against the side of it, his hands sliding up to caress the long edges of a wing. Starscream shivered and made a hungry noise, his hands cupping Rodimus’ aft, dragging their frames together. The lift donged noisily at them, obstinately, reporting their arrival and demanding they exit.

Apparently all of the non-sentient machinery in Starscream’s tower had attitude. Which suited, come to think of their owner.

Rodimus almost snorted a laugh.

“What’s so funny?” Starscream asked, his mouth devouring Rodimus’ intake.

“Tell you later,” Rodimus said with a shiver, his hands finding those fascinating turbines and giving them a flick with his thumb. “You said something about a berth?”

The lift donged at them again and gave a little shudder. Rodimus barely bit back his chuckle and instead nudged Starscream toward the door. They stumbled out, hands wandering, heat rising between them.

Rodimus expected to go to the room that had once been his. But his current surroundings dictated otherwise. It wasn’t until they approached a door that had always been closed to him, and Starscream blindly pawed the panel, that he realized Starscream had taken them to his own room.

It was much larger than the one Rodimus knew, with a huge uncovered window looking out on the side of the tower overhanging a tall cliff. The desert stretched out for miles in all directions. To a grounder, to Rodimus, it was dizzying. It figured Starscream would enjoy such a view.

The rest of the walls were lines with shelves, all of them cluttered with all manner of things. Rodimus only got a glimpse of them before Starscream lurched against him, claws scraping Rodimus’ point as he nearly bit Rodimus’ lower lip. He muttered a curse and performed an odd jig, even as he looked down, wings high and tight.

“Scuttle!” Starscream hissed, his tone a touch mortified. “He’s mine first!”

Rodimus slipped out of his lusty haze a tad. Sure enough, Scuttle was beneath them, beeping and whirling away, in and around their feet. A laugh slipped out of Rodimus’ intake as Starscream bent down and physically shooed Scuttle toward the door.

“Out the door, you menace!” Starscream grumbled, herding Scuttle back into the hallway. “We don’t need a voyeur!”

Scuttle honked obnoxiously and tried to whirl around, making a beeline to come back inside. But Starscream hastily backtracked and slammed a palm on the door. There was a light thunk from the other side.

The laugh escaped. Rodimus grinned from audial to audial as Starscream stomped back toward him, but not before directing a sharp glare toward the door.

“Brat doesn’t listen at all anymore, and it’s your fault,” he said.

Rodimus shook his head, grabbing for Starscream’s hands and pulling the Seeker toward him. “You’re adorable,” he murmured as static crackled where their plating touched. “And Scuttle will get over it.”

“He’ll learn to, if I have anything to say about it,” Starscream retorted, and leaned in, his lips ghosting over the curve of Rodimus’ jaw. “Now where were we…?”

Rodimus shivered, arching toward Starscream, the heavy throb in his belly making his legs wobble. “Right about here, I think.”

He captured Starscream’s lips with his, moaning as the kiss immediately deepened. Starscream’s mouth was hot against his, and the Seeker’s field crackled with need. Starscream leaned against him, urging him backward, and Rodimus’ world spun with dizzying lust, until the back of his knees struck something.

The berth, he suspected. They tumbled onto it, a berth more than big enough for two, and so comfortable it felt like it swallowed him.

Starscream pressed him down into it, and Rodimus moaned as a knee slipped between his, nudging against his array, the pressure against his concealed equipment forcing out another moan. He clutched at Starscream, capturing the Seeker’s mouth with his, heat throbbing through his array. He found those turbines again, and played with the narrow slats. Above him, Starscream moaned and visibly shivered.

His mouth tore away from Rodimus’, diving in at his intake again, denta grazing and leaving little nips that felt like claims. Rodimus’ thigh clamped down on Starscream’s leg and he rolled his hips, grinding his array against Starscream’s knee. He smelled lubricant and knew it had to be leaking from his seams.

Wait.

Rodimus tried to find coherence in the dizzying need throbbing through his circuits. As much as his valve clenched and his spike thickened, he seemed to remember there was something else…

Something.

“Wait,” he said as he squirmed beneath Starscream, vents whirring and the comfortable berth neatly distracting him again. “You promised me cables.”

Starscream chuckled against his intake, and the pleasurable onslaught eased, giving Rodimus a moment to catch his vents. “I did, didn’t I?” he purred as he pushed himself up on his forearms to look down on Rodimus.

Who felt an awful lot like prey at the moment. There was something hungry in Starscream’s gaze, and it made Rodimus shiver all over again.

“You did,” Rodimus confirmed.

“Then I suppose I’d better keep my promise.” Starscream leaned down and nuzzled Rodimus briefly before he sat back on his heels, his optics raking over Rodimus’ frame in a gesture that was nothing short of appreciative.

Rodimus felt his face flush with heat. He squirmed a little under the scrutiny.

“I seem to remember your port array being here,” Starscream said as he dragged his fingertips across Rodimus’ abdominal armor to the leftmost panel, barely visible in all the complicated seams of his frame.

Rodimus shivered, his hands fisting the plush surface of the berth. “You remember right,” he said.

“Open for me?”

It was embarrassing the speed at which Rodimus triggered his panel to open, baring his still fairly new connectors to the open air. He gnawed on his bottom lip as Starscream’s fingers traced the ports and teased the cable ends where they were still docked. Primus, even that felt good.

Rodimus’ back arched, a tremble starting at the base of his strut. Charge licked out from his substructure. “You– You said you were going to show me something different.”

“And I am.” Starscream pinched the tip of his cable gently and a jolt of need raced through Rodimus’ array. “Codesharing requires a one-way connection. Data-facing relies on one that is two-way.”

“D-Data-facing?” Rodimus echoed, a bit shakily, as Starscream fondled the tip of his cable a bit harder.

“Mm hm.” Starscream hummed and gave a little tug, urging Rodimus’ cable to unspool from his array.

Why did that feel good? Rodimus had no idea. But it felt like Starscream was stroking his spike, and all Starscream did was pull his cable free, until it was long enough to cross the distance between them.

Starscream smirked as he leaned over and ex-vented across the pronged tip, the wet heat of his vents making Rodimus moan. His head tossed back, hips squirming beneath Starscream.

“It’s fallen a bit out of practice.” Starscream extended his glossa, lapping at the end of Rodimus’ data cable and making his entire frame jerk with need. “Too intimate for most. Spike and valve are better for casual encounters.”

Rodimus groaned and shifted, slipping his legs around Starscream’s waist to tug the Seeker closer. “Less lecturing, more ‘facing,” he said as charge crackled around his port.

Starscream chuckled. “As you wish.” He kept Rodimus’ connector cable in hand and reached behind himself, for his own awkwardly placed panel.

Rodimus would have offered to help, but given the way his hands were shaking, he doubted he’d be much use. Besides, Starscream was far more practiced at this than he. Even so, he fumbled a bit, and Rodimus groaned as his connector made contact with Starscream’s port, static crackling between the two, only for it to skitter away.

What a torturous tease.

Until his connector finally clicked into place with a little jolt of charge, and Rodimus moaned, head tossing back, his engine revving. Heat surged into the link like a lightning strike, before it ebbed to a slow burn. It felt nothing like when Starscream had connected to him, but it carried a pleasure of its own. He felt Starscream’s port twitch and crackle around his connector, before it seemed to pulse and nestle him tightly, snug in all the right places.

And then Starscream was spooling his own cable into view, and Rodimus licked his lips.

“You sure know how to drag out the moment,” he said as he watched the tip of Starscream’s connector get closer and closer, his own port aching with need.

“That’s because you’re cute when you’re flustered,” Starscream purred as the tip of his connector nudged against Rodimus’ port, charge flashing between the two units.

Rodimus arched and moaned. Lights danced in his optical feed, his vents surging out in eager pants, his entire frame shaking with desire. His array throbbed, valve cycling hungrily, spike swelling and swelling, demanding to be set free.

“Star, please!” he pleaded, heat filling his face and his frame.

Starscream leaned over him, their face inches apart, his ex-vents ghosting over Rodimus’ lips. “You’re gorgeous,” he murmured before his connector sank home.

Rodimus keened, and his hands scrabbled at Starscream’s chestplate, fingers hooking in seams as he kept the Seeker close. Electric fire spread outward from the hot and heavy pulse of charge where they were connected. It licked through his sensornet, through his lines, and he whimpered when a scorching pulse of charge shot down the line from Starscream and into his array.

Above him, Starscream panted a moan, his forehead pressing to Rodimus’. “Oh, my,” he breathed, his field surging wildly, ripe with lust. “You are aptly named, ‘Hot Rod’. Your charge is like fire.”

He whimpered and lost control, his spike springing free between them, the head of it scraping against Starscream’s belly armor. It left a streak of transfluid behind and just the bare touch felt so good. Rodimus writhed, pleasure eclipsing all else.

He hadn’t known it could feel like this.

Starscream’s free hand rested on Rodimus’ belly, palm sliding upward and upward, tickling over his chestplate, over his seams.

“I’ll teach you,” Starscream murmured as another heavy, crackling pulse of charge surged into Rodimus’ port, and he felt the tug of Starscream’s cable on him. “How to feed your charge into me. How to draw my charge into you.”

Rodimus moaned, Starscream’s words like an arousing promise, pulsing into his audials. His fingers tightened on Starscream’s chassis, his frame rocking and rolling against Starscream’s in a mimicry of interfacing, his spike grinding against Starscream’s belly.

No, not just his belly. The hot length of Starscream’s spike suddenly brushed against his, their spikes rubbing and teasing one another.

More pleasure surged through Rodimus. He writhed, a moan escaping him.

“Primus, you’re hot,” Starscream breathed and his mouth closed over Rodimus’ again, his lips and denta and glossa demanding.

Rodimus felt completely and utterly claimed. Forget about the courtship dance. This was what it felt like to surrender.

His thighs clamped around Starscream’s hips. His processor spun dizzily, overcharged on the hot pulses coming across their link, the dragging pull of Starscream’s systems on his, the feel of Starscream’s spike sliding hot and wet against his, the mass and heat of Starscream over him. The taste of Starscream on his lips, the tingling press of Starscream’s field surrounding him.

He had no defense against it.

Rodimus moaned into the kiss, processor whirling, spark throbbing faster and faster, barely out of sync with the pulses of charge, both sent and received. He rocked and ground up against Starscream, their frames moving and sliding together, spikes rubbing and sending jolts through Rodimus’ array.

Heat spun inside of him, faster and faster, like the growing charge before firing an ion blaster.

Rodimus heard himself whimper and couldn’t be embarrassed, not with his vents roaring and his fans spinning so hard they whined. A hard pulse of charge roared into his port array, making it crackle and hiss with electric fire. It radiated outward, spreading through his entire frame, throbbing into his spike.

Rodimus moaned, backstrut arched, as overload boiled over him, his thighs clamping tight, his spike spurting transfluid between their frames, his mouth tearing away from Starscream’s as he threw his head back and keened. His frame thrashed, hips rolling, as wave after wave of pleasure seared his sensornet and whited his processor out to nothing but the ecstasy.

He dimly heard Starscream moan seconds before the felt the flashfire of a tide of charge racing across the link, flavored with ecstasy. Rodimus jerked and soared into a second overload as Starscream must have overlaoded as well, the splatter of his transfluid raining down on Rodimus’ belly.

He panted for ventilations, sagging into the berth, feeling wrung dry and twitching. Charge still lazily pulsed through his port array, like the soothing stroke of a magnetic cable massage. Rodimus’ processor spun and it took all he had to online his optics, wondering when he’d shuttered them.

He gasped, desperate for cooler air, his fans spinning mightily. He still clung to Starscream, and Starscream to him, the cables swinging between them. Starscream shook, the little clatters of his armor barely audible over their spinning fans.

Rodimus groaned. Little zaps of charge ran up and down his frame. His spark hummed happily. He felt he could recharge for days.

“Primus,” he murmured, gentling his claw-like grip on Starscream’s chestplate into a lazy slide around Starscream’s chassis.

“It can be intense,” Starscream replied, his vocals striped with static. He sagged, forehead resting on Rodimus’ shoulder. “I had forgotten how much so.”

The datastream slowed to a trickle. It was kind of comforting actually. Rodimus made a low sound in his intake, tilting his head to rub his chin over Starscream’s head.

“So this is normal?”

“Quite.” Starscream shifted a little, until he was only half lying on Rodimus. His spike had retracted at some point, so Rodimus followed suit.

There was a tacky mess on his frame. He should probably clean that up. But cleaning required moving, required effort, and Rodimus didn’t have any to spare. His engine purred as he pulled Starscream closer. It’d been a while since he got to snuggle with a warm frame, and he’d missed that quiet intimacy.

“Are you going to sleep, Firebrand?” Starscream’s vocals were amused, but distant. Or maybe that’s because Rodimus’ optics had shuttered and the tug of recharge was getting stronger.

“Yep.”

Starscream hummed a laugh. “Amateur.” His hand slid up Rodimus’ abdomen, and fingers teased at his port array, where they remained joined.

“You can leave ‘em,” Rodimus murmured as his vents started to even out. “Feels good.”

There was a beat of startled silence.

“You will never cease to surprise me,” Starscream said, almost too quietly for Rodimus to hear. But he did shift, enough to brush his lips over Rodimus’. “Recharge well.”

Rodimus mumbled something in reply, but the grasp of recharge pulled him under, and he sank into it wrapped in warmth and comfort and an undeniable sense that he’d found where he belonged.

Finally.

[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 11

The sound of muffled cursing and dull thumping announced to Starscream that he was no longer alone. He debated with himself how he wanted to handle the intrusion before he decided it would be welcome.

That was when Deadlock’s head popped into view, gold optics narrowed at first in confusion and then in relief. “There you are,” he said as he climbed up onto the roof through the skylight, just as Starscream had done. “Should’ve known you’d be up here.”

“Am I that predictable?” Starscream asked as Deadlock settled next to him, their hips and thigh touching as their legs dangled over the edge, into the open expanse of the tower below them.

“Only to someone who knows you as well as I do.” Deadlock grinned, his fangs glinting in the starlight. “Where’s Saunter?”

Starscream lifted his hands, revealing the drone resting in his lap, not recharging but hibernating. “His glitch isn’t active while the skylight’s open. Silly thing.” He stroked his fingers over the top of Saunter’s frame.

“He’s not the only silly thing.” Deadlock’s voice was rich with humor. He bumped shoulders with Starscream. “What’re you thinking about?”

Starscream’s gaze turned skyward, to the constellations he could pick out, and the far horizon, coincidentally the direction he assumed Rodimus’ clan to be. “You know me so well. You tell me.”

“I don’t think you want me to, Starling.”

He nibbled on the inside of his cheek. “I just needed a break,” Starscream murmured. “I wasn’t making any progress on my work.”

“Too distracted?”

“I’m used to you.” Starscream flicked his wings. “You don’t count as a distraction anymore.”

“So it’s internal thoughts then.” Deadlock nudged his left foot against Starscream’s right. “Wouldn’t happen to be a flame-painted Firebrand now would it?”

Starscream vented a sigh.

“That’s what I thought.” Deadlock rested a hand on Starscream’s thigh, less sly and arousing, and more comforting. “I know he got under your plating.”

“I’m choosing not to acknowledge that,” Starscream replied. He stroked his fingers over Saunter’s frame again, though the drone continued to snooze. Above him, stars flickered and faded, grew brighter and dimmed. In front, the horizon was shadows and dark patches, mountains and flatlands.

Maybe he should go for a flight.

But later.

Deadlock made a noncommittal noise.

“I’m tired,” Starscream murmured on the end of a sigh. He tilted over, letting his head rest on Deadlock’s shoulder. Sometimes, one had to move on. He knew this better than most.

His relationship with Blurr had been a sparkbreaking teacher. Sometimes, you could love someone with all you had, and have them return that love, but still have to separate. Sometimes, you had to make a choice, and love wasn’t enough.

Deadlock’s head leaned against his. “I was thinking I’ll stay longer this time,” he murmured, his tone careful and measured.

Starscream chose not to respond. From anyone else, he would have taken that as pity. Even now, he wasn’t sure it wasn’t.

“It’s getting pretty lonely out there,” Deadlock added as his field nudged against Starscream’s, warm and syrupy. “So you know, maybe it’s good to stick around in one place every once in awhile.”

Starscream offlined his optics. His hand stilled on Saunter’s top panel. “You’ll still leave.”

“Maybe. But not so quickly at least.”

It wasn’t pity. It had to be something else, that both of them didn’t dare name because that was precious and fragile and had to be guarded. Kalis had taught them as much.

Starscream cycled a vent. “Stay as long as you like.”

Deadlock pressed a kiss to the top of his head. It said enough, even without words.

~

“So you’re going to leave without a word.”

Rodimus’ shoulders hunched. He stared guiltily into the trunk under his berth as he dug through it, pulling out various items to stuff into an increasingly heavy travel pack. He didn’t look up at the voice, though he knew the large shadow blocking the doorway belonged to his batch-brother.

“I didn’t know what to say,” Rodimus murmured and pulled out the stack of datapads so carefully hidden, shoving them into his pack as well. He didn’t leave much behind.

Training weapons he didn’t need anymore. A few extra travel kits that would need to be restocked. Polishing kits. A couple of tarps too-small. Blankets for his berth. The next youngling to have this room and this berth could use all of it. This wouldn’t have been Rodimus’ room forever after all.

Even if Starscream turned him down, even if there was nothing left for him in that tower, Rodimus didn’t intend to return to his clan. Not immediately at least.

There was a whole world out there. Surely he could find his future somewhere. Surely.

“That’s not an excuse.” Springer’s tone was both sharp and hurt. “Did you think I wouldn’t care if you vanished?”

Rodimus sighed and braced his hands on the edge of the trunk. He looked at Springer, who blocked the door so completely, arms folded over his massive chassis. “You’re a warrior now. You don’t have to worry about me anymore. You have better things to do. I’d just get in the way.”

“That’s not an answer!” Springer hissed, his face darkening with emotion, his field a thundercloud Rodimus couldn’t interpret.

Rodimus worked his intake and slammed the trunk shut. He rose to his feet, nudging it back under the berth with his knee. “I was going to leave a note this time,” he said quietly.

“A note,” Springer repeated, and he couldn’t have sounded so disgusted if he tried. “Yes, that makes everything better. A fragging note.”

Rodimus picked up his travel pack, giving it a shake. It was heavy, but nothing he couldn’t handle. “What would you want me to say? I don’t want you to try talking me out of it.”

“Who said I would?”

Rodimus scoffed and slung the bag over his shoulder, which creaked in protest. “I know you would. You think I can’t do anything right. That I need you to protect me.” He looked at his brother, who he loved dearly, and wondered just when he’d started to resent Springer a little. “You’d want me to stay for my own safety. Because I’m no good on my own. And you’re probably right.”

He moved closer to Springer, his spark racing, and his engine whining as he made himself throttle it down. “But I’m still going. Because I have to do this. There’s nothing for me here right now, so I have to go find what I’m looking for.” He stared pointedly at the fresh brand on Springer’s chestplate. A brand he’d never earn.

Springer looked sad. But he sighed and uncrossed his arms. “I’m not gonna stop you,” he said as he rested his hands on Rodimus’ shoulder, a heavy and familiar weight. “And you know I’ve always thought you were worth more than others said.”

Rodimus squirmed under the praise.

“If you think you need to go, then go. Just be careful, eh? And take care of yourself. You’re my favorite brother.” Springer squeezed again and then pulled him into an embrace, a spinal strut crushing one that forced out Rodimus’ vents and wrapped him in suffocating heat.

It was wonderful.

Tension seeped out of his frame. “I’m your only brother,” Rodimus grumbled, a common joke between them. He patted Springer awkwardly on the back. “Will you do me a favor then?”

“What?” Springer’s tone took on that of suspicion as he let Rodimus go and stepped back, his optics narrowing.

Rodimus turned and rooted around in his pack, pulling out the topmost datapad. “Would you give this to Sunstreaker for me?”

“Oh, frag no.” Springer backed up a step, holding up his hands defensively. “You wanna skip out without telling the Warchief’s mates you’re not going, that’s your choice. But I’m not gonna be the one who hands them the goodbye note.”

Rodimus snorted. “What? Are you scared?”

“No, I’m just not an idiot.” Springer stepped aside, giving Rodimus room to leave, as though making him stay would have the letter forced on him. “I’m not ashamed to admit that either of them could kick my aft with ease.” He grinned with a confidence Rodimus knew all too well. “Though we’ll see what happens in a decade or two.”

Rodimus snorted again and adjusted the strap of the pack on his shoulder. “It doesn’t matter how long has passed. You’ll never be able to take down Sunstreaker.” Or Sideswipe for that matter.

Springer just grinned back at him, eerily similar to the toothy snarl the turbowolves had given him. “We’ll see.” Seriousness replaced his humor. “You’ll come back, won’t you?”

“This is still home,” Rodimus replied, with what he hoped was a dismissive shrug. He didn’t want to end up emotional and second-guessing himself. “And if I fail, well, it’s the only place I can come back to.”

“You won’t. Fail, I mean.” There was something dangerously close to pride in Springer’s tone. “You’re my brother. It’s impossible.”

Rodimus smiled, soft and sincere. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

Springer stared at him, and then he suddenly grabbed Rodimus, pulling him into another hug that made his armor creak and his spark throb with affection. “Good luck,” he said, soft and gruff all at once, before he let Rodimus go and spun on a heelstrut, vanishing down the hallway opposite of the direction Rodimus needed to go.

He caught himself smiling as he watched Springer’s back disappear around the corner. It was weird how he felt fully himself for the first time, now that he’d decided to abandon everything he’d been working hard to accomplish.

Rodimus adjusted the pack on his shoulders and started down the corridor. He didn’t have to sneak out. Not truly. There was no rule that said he couldn’t leave if he wanted to. He’d used the cover of night the first time because he suspected someone would stop for him for his own safety. He was, after all, a Firebrand.

He had the feeling now, however, that even if someone did see him leave, no one would say a word. There’d been encouragement in Optimus Prime’s words, and though Rodimus hadn’t spoken with Kup, he had the feeling the old mech would understand. Sunstreaker and Sideswipe already seemed to know what he was thinking. They’d pass it on to the Warchief, and no one would bar Rodimus’ way.

He was sure of it.

Of course, he wasn’t as sneaky as he thought. Because while he’d thought it was better for his spark to leave without seeing the twins, they must have read his processor. They waited for him at the side gate, the usual guards a fair enough distance away to offer an approximation of privacy, while still doing their jobs.

Rodimus sighed. They spotted him before he considered spinning around and heading out the other side of the settlement. He wasn’t a coward, he told himself. And he’d made his choice.

“Thought you could leave without saying goodbye, eh, hot shot?” Sideswipe said as he was the first to intercept Rodimus, literally sweeping him up into a hug that lifted his feet clear from the ground. “Not this time.”

Sideswipe set Rodimus down with a processor-spinning thump before digging in his subspace. “Not to mention I’m not letting you go without a gift.” A sack emerged, which he thrust in Rodimus’ direction. “Treasure it always. It’s not just anyone I’ll give one of my secret recipes.” He winked.

Heat stole into Rodimus’ face. “Thanks, Sides.” He took the sack, tying the extra strings onto a projection on his pack. “And well… it’s complicated.” His gaze slid briefly to Sunstreaker before dropping to the sand. “I chose to leave, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t things I’m going to miss.”

“Things,” Sideswipe echoed and sidled in next to Rodimus, slipping an arm around his waist to lean his head on Rodimus’ shoulder. “Or maybe a couple of hot-aft mechs who keep things interesting, hm?”

Rodimus chuckled. “Yeah. Maybe.” He leaned into Sideswipe, soaking up his friend’s heat, and indulging in the touch of their fields, the playful nudge of Sideswipe’s, and the affection swirled in it. He loved Sideswipe, too. Just not in the same way.

“You’re lucky we know you better than you think we do,” Sunstreaker said, his voice soft, but the words sharp enough to sound like a chastisement. “I’d hate to have to chase you into the desert just to kick your aft.”

Rodimus winced.

Sideswipe clicked his glossa. “Sunny, that’s not the way we show we care.”

“Yes, it is,” Rodimus said with a forced chuckle even as Sunstreaker glared at his brother, who slipped his arm out from Rodimus’ waist and held up his hands.

“Don’t hate the messenger,” Sideswipe said, nudging Rodimus with his elbow. “Besides, hot shot knows better now, doesn’t he?”

Rodimus nodded. “I wrote a note,” he said, fumbling with the datapad in this subspace. “Kind of glad it didn’t come to that now.”

“Some things need to be spoken,” Sunstreaker said, with a surprising acuity few knew him capable.

“And that’s my cue,” Sideswipe said. He grabbed Rodimus’ hand, tangling their fingers together and giving it a squeeze. “Take care of yourself out there, Roddy. You don’t want to break our sparks, okay?”

“I learned from the best, didn’t I?” Rodimus replied.

Sideswipe grinned and pressed a kiss to Rodimus’ cheek, one that lingered as if he put all of his affection into it. He squeezed Rodimus’ hand again. “Got your back, hot shot,” he said, and then he pulled away, taking the swirling warmth of his field with him. “We’ll keep a berth for you.”

Sideswipe winked, tossed his brother a knowing look, and then he strode away, a whistle on his lips, nonchalance in the set of his shoulders. Rodimus watched him go, spark simultaneously fluttering and squeezing.

What came next was one of the hardest things Rodimus ever had to do.

He looked at Sunstreaker and prepared himself to say goodbye, while his spark felt too big for its casing. He fidgeted, knowing he should speak, but too many words crowding on his glossa. He wished he had managed to escape and leave the datapad, with the carefully crafted note behind.

He swallowed over a lump in his intake. “Sunny…” Words failed him. He wished he could just shove the datapad into Sunstreaker’s hand and flee into the night.

“I’m glad,” Sunstreaker closed the distance between them, his hands gently cupping the curve of Rodimus’ intake and jaw. “I am glad that you found someone worth risking your spark.”

It’s too hard to look into his optics. So Rodimus didn’t, instead dropping his gaze as he cycled a ventilation. “I think I’ve lost count of the times I’d wondered what would have happened if things were different.”

He didn’t elaborate on ‘things’. Sunstreaker already knew. It was this unspoken secret, this unacknowledged thing between them, growing heavier and heavier with each passing season, until it became too large for words and too hard to declare.

“There is no different.” Sunstreaker’s voice was quiet. “Things happened the way they were meant to.”

Somehow, Rodimus always knew that.

“That doesn’t make it any less valid or valuable though,” Sunstreaker added, his thumbs sweeping a soft pattern over the curve of Rodimus’ cheek. “I do love you, Rodimus. Just…”

“Not the way that makes you mine,” Rodimus finished for him, and managed a smile, despite it cracking around the edges. “I know. And it’s okay. As it turns out, I seem to have a thing for mercurial Seekers anyway.”

Sunstreaker chuckled and pulled their heads together, pressing his forehead to Rodimus’. “I’ll want to meet him someday, you know. Just to be sure he’s good enough for you.”

“If I can convince him to keep me, I’ll make it happen.”

“You will.” Sunstreaker’s optics shuttered, and he cycled a ventilation. “If this Seeker has any sense, he’ll know better than to let you go.”

The lump in Rodimus’ intake grew larger. “Yeah, I hope so.”

Sunstreaker huffed a laugh and pulled back, unshuttering his optics. “You’ll come back to visit.” It wasn’t a question.

“Of course.” Rodimus smiled, easier this time, less broken around the edges, and smoother, like reforged transsteel.

Sunstreaker’s fingers slipped away, though the warmth of their touch lingered. “I have something for you,” he said, before he dug around in his subspace and produced a bag not unlike the one Sideswipe had offered. “So you don’t forget me.”

“As if I ever could.” Rodimus accepted the bag, and coughed his ventilations as heat colored his face. “And uh, this is for you.” He offered up the datapad. It did have a note especially for the twins on it, but it was also a collection of the romantic tales Rodimus knew Sunstreaker didn’t have in his collection.

“Keep it hidden from Sides,” Rodimus added with a little laugh as Sunstreaker tucked the datapad into his subspace. “You know how he likes to tease.” As if Sideswipe wasn’t any less guilty given those terrible detective novels he consumed like cheap engex.

“I do.” Sunstreaker’s lips pulled into a soft smile, one that few had been treated to seeing. “Good luck, Rodimus. Not that I think you’ll need it. You’re an easy mech to love.”

Rodimus’ spark throbbed so hard he felt the crystal structure tremble. Words, again, were unhelpful, traitorous things. So he threw himself at Sunstreaker, into the gold mech’s arms, and felt himself wrapped in a tight embrace. He thought Sunstreaker was shaking, but maybe he imagined it.

“You better go,” Sunstreaker said. “Or I might ask you to stay.”

Rodimus forced himself to pull back, and was glad he did, because he caught something in Sunstreaker’s expression. Something he couldn’t define, that shaded his best friend’s optics a darker hue and filled his field with determination. Then Sunstreaker leaned in and Rodimus didn’t evade, giving in to the brief brush of their lips together.

It barely counted as a kiss.

It was definitely a goodbye.

Sunstreaker retreated, sooner than Rodimus would have liked, but not soon enough for the ache in his spark. Sometimes, it was harder to let something go that hadn’t definitively ended. Or perhaps because it had.

“Be safe,” Sunstreaker murmured.

“Be happy,” Rodimus countered, and didn’t even have to look behind him or over his shoulder to know that Sideswipe and Megatron hovered just inside the entrance of the settlement, watching. Not with jealousy but concern.

They’d take care of things on this end.

Now it was up to Rodimus to take care of himself.

“Ask me something hard,” Sunstreaker said.

Rodimus grinned. He tucked Sunstreaker’s gift into his subspace, to go through it later, and made himself dash through the open gate, before his spark made him linger. Before his determination faltered and he second-guessed his choices.

The easier choice was to stay in the settlement, to grapple with his failures, his unrequited love, and settle for whatever was left. He could bury his hopes, his dreams, and be satisfied with whatever lot life would give him.

Or he could take this chance. He could plunge back into the Barrens, find Starscream’s tower, and see if the Seeker would let him stay. See if there was a future with Starscream, one full of adventure and curiosities and challenge.

Rodimus had never been one to take the easy way out. He certainly wasn’t going to start now.

So into the Barrens he descended.

He didn’t know what his future was going to hold, and for once, that uncertainty didn’t frighten the Pit out of him.

If anything, it set him free.

[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.