[IDW] Break the Chain 10

There are a number of messages crowding his inbox.

None of them are from Shockwave. No one has seen Shockwave since Prowl last spoke with him. He’s officially a missing persons.

There’s a warrant out for Prowl’s arrest. This does not come as a shock. That he’s made it into the top ten most wanted does. He’s knocked the former number ten – a serial murderer with a penchant for consuming his victim’s brain modules – out of the running. They’ve slapped him into sixth place, between some mech named Turmoil and below another mech who had a nasty habit of reprogramming rich citizens in order to steal their credits.

The level of crime priority is seriously out of order.

Prowl has nowhere to go, save here in the Decepticons. There is always the possibility he could arrange for a less than legal flight off planet. He could run to the stars, live in the outer rim, work on a salvage ship or for some alien civilization. If he runs far enough, he might even find a Cybertronian colony that’s been out of contact with Cybertron for so long it doesn’t remember how to get back.

He’d rather stay here. At least on Cybertron, as a Decepticon, he might be able to make a difference.

One of the messages is from Orion Pax. It’s short, blunt, to the point. It’s less an offer and more of a reminder. If he’s willing to come back, to do things right, Orion is willing to work his case, to help him fight.

Prowl’s tempted. For one long, vent-stalled moment, he’s tempted. He thinks about fighting, regaining his position, his honor, his respect. He thinks of getting his brands back, being an Enforcer again. Solving crimes, protecting the innocent…

The temptation passes between one vent and the next. He could fight, yes. But he has no faith in succeeding, no matter Orion’s support. Their superiors have already decided what will become of Prowl, and with Senator Shockwave missing as well, Prowl has no hope of finding anyone with influence to stand by his side.

No, there’s not a future for him out there. Not anymore.

Prowl sighs and deletes the message from Orion Pax. He doubts there will be another.

His door chimes.

Prowl rises to answer it, still impressed by the living quarters they’ve given him. The hab is small, but functional, and has everything he needs. They bring him his energon as needed and a fully stocked cabinet lets him flavor it to his liking. He’s allowed to roam their current base of operations – it apparently moves around quite frequently – but Prowl has yet to do so.

The badge of an Enforcer still graces his sensory panels. He doesn’t know how others might react to that.

The door opens to Megatron standing on the other side of it. His smile is light, easy. He’s carrying a cube of energon in each hand, and one he offers to Prowl.

“I thought you might be interested in something a bit stronger than the standard fare,” he says.

Prowl gives the energon a tentative sniff. Oh, it’s engex, not standard grade. It gives off a sweet and tangy scent, something tart in the aftermath. It’s quite potent. One cube is not enough to inebriate him, but it will offer a pleasant buzz.

“Thank you,” Prowl says. “And not just for the engex.”

“For retrieving you from Enforcer custody? There’s no need to thank me for that.” Megatron’s weight shifts, his gaze flickering over Prowl’s shoulders before focusing on him again. “We haven’t had a chance to speak since your arrival. If you’re not otherwise occupied, care to join me?”

Prowl’s lips quirk into a half-smile. “I have no duties and nothing to do. I can’t see what would make me busy.” He steps into the hall, the door sliding shut behind him. “Lead the way.”

Megatron turns to the right, and Prowl falls in step beside him. The Decepticon current base of operations can best be described as an abandoned hotel. Prowl’s not precisely sure where it is, save that his planetary positioning system puts him somewhere in Tesarus.

“I recognize that while we liberated you, so to speak, it may present an obligation to join our cause,” Megatron begins while they walk, his tone conversational. “I want to reassure you that is not the case. Our previous communication may have indicated that’s the path you wanted to take, but I want you to know, it’s not a requirement.”

Prowl tilts his head. “Oh, really? You’ll let me stay with the Decepticons and not be a part of them?”

Megatron chuffs an amused vent. “Well, no. If you don’t want to be a Decepticon, we’ll happily provide you safe transport to wherever else you might want to go. I just want you to understand that our rescue of you does not place you under an obligation to join us.”

“I see.” Prowl is amused despite himself. It’s fair enough. He tucks the engex into a compartment and clasps his hands behind his back. “I don’t require transportation elsewhere. I’m still intent on joining your… crusade.”

“That’s good news.” Megatron hums in his intake, and if Prowl had to identify the tone of it, he’d call it pleased.

Well, in for a credit, in for a stick.

“I do have some caveats,” Prowl says.

“I suspected as much.” They step into a lift, with Megatron selecting the top floor.

The doors close, and the lift creaks upward, the kind of creak of equipment still functional, but hasn’t seen an upgrade in decades.

“What are they?” Megatron prompts as he turns to face Prowl.

He watches the numbers climb upward instead. “I am not here to be a trophy or a rallying cry or any other useless position,” Prowl says, because he’s had quite enough of that, thank you very much. “I want something real. I want influence. I want a position that accords me a chance to help guide the Decepticons.”

In his peripherals, Megatron tilts his head. “What makes you think I ever intended otherwise?”

Prowl slants him a look. “I’m acutely aware I don’t come from the same circumstances as the rest of your leadership cadre. I don’t see them trusting me. I don’t see them willingly letting someone like me have any kind of say.”

“Mmm. Fair point.” Megatron hums.

The lift bobs as it stops on the top floor. Megatron leads them out, but only to the nearest door with a locked panel. He keys it open, and a burst of humid, smoky air rushes in to meet Prowl. It’s not entirely unpleasant, but it’s shockingly different from the odors of Iacon.

They step onto the roof of a building high enough to look out onto the city, but not so high as to be above it all. A thick belt of smog hangs overhead from the factories in the distance, and a thin layer of ash and grit coats everything in sight.

Despite it, Prowl’s sensory panels flex, extending and retracting, twitching up and down, as if the freedom of the roof is so much more than that of his small room.

“The truth is that from the moment I decided to contact you, it was with the intention of recruiting you into my command cadre,” Megatron says as he moves to the edge of the roof, lined by a railing that crests at Megatron’s hips and is the perfect height for Prowl to lean against it to peer into the streets below. “Everyone was aware of this.”

Prowl leans his elbows on the rail and looks over at Megatron. “And they approved?”

“Eventually.” Megatron’s lips curl before he sips his engex. “Starscream took the most persuading, but it’s more because he’s inherently suspicious and distrustful. In the end, your capabilities swayed him.”

“My capabilities. Right.” Prowl doesn’t bother to conceal his snort. “My inability to acquire a promotion would suggest otherwise.”

Megatron slants him a look. “That is on the idiocies of your superiors and does not reflect your capabilities in the slightest.” He faces Prowl, hip canted against the railing. “The Decepticons, this revolution, it needs you, Prowl. Your expertise. Your clear thinking. Your tactical acumen. Your understanding of the common Cybertronian and political cogs.”

Prowl squares his jaw. He pulls out the engex and gives it a sip. The engex bubbles over his glossa, sweet and tart. It’s expensive, he wagers. He’s never tasted it before, but he could enjoy it again for sure.

It’s probably stolen.

It doesn’t even bother him.

“I want to make a difference,” Prowl finally says, looking over the railing into Tesarus, the buildings all the same dull grey as the smoky ash in the sky. It’s probably decades and decades worth of contamination that’s accumulated. “I want things to change. If that means becoming a Decepticon, so be it. But not if you don’t heed my advice. Not if you don’t realize your current path is unsustainable.”

Megatron turns and leans on the railing as well, his large hands curling against it, the engex gone, perhaps fully consumed. “It would have been pointless to recruit you without heeding your advice. I wanted you as a part of us specifically because we needed your point of view.”

Something in Prowl’s spark squeezes tight. He isn’t sure what to name it.

“Then I’m in,” he says. “Give me a seat at your table. Give me a voice. Give me a badge. And I’m yours.” He pauses, winces. “And by that, I mean I will be a Decepticon.”

Megatron chuckles and tilts his head to look at Prowl. “Does that agreement come with friendship?”

Prowl tries not to cringe. “If you know anything about my history, friendship is the last of what you’ll want from me.”

Just ask Barricade.

Then again, perhaps Barricade is not the best source of information. Their parting had been brought about by failures on both sides of the equation.

“I try not to judge based on past accusations, only present and future actions,” Megatron replies. “I’d be honored to be called your friend.” He half-turns, offering Prowl a hand. “Unless, of course, you can’t bear befriending a Decepticon.”

Prowl snorts. “It’s a little late for that.” He clasps hands with Megatron, the Decepticon leader’s handshake firm and uncompromising. “Friends and allies then.”

“Friends and allies,” Megatron confirms.

He draws back, rests his forearms on the rail, and looks out over Tesarus. It’s a dreary, dirty city. It’s not going to be home, because Prowl’s sure they’ll be moving on from here at some point. It’s never wise to be easily found.

Even if it is to be home, well, Prowl won’t be too upset about it. Home is what you make of it, and Iacon has only been a place to exist, not a place to live. He already feels freer, with this minor act of rebellion, even with a price on his head, and lies spreading through the communication network faster than a communicable disease.

Friends and allies, Prowl ruminates.

It’s about time he acquired both.

***

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[TF] Lost and Lonely Space 01/12

‘Take a vacation,’ Optimus orders, concern thick in his vocals, his optics dim and reflecting his fatigue. ‘You need to get away from the war, Ratchet. It’s consuming you.’

‘It’s consuming all of us!’ Ratchet snarls in return. He picks up a scanner, ready to throw it, but Optimus is braced and ready, and in the end, he’s only proving Optimus’ point. ‘I’m scavenging mechs for parts. I’m burying more soldiers than I’m saving. A vacation’s not going to fix that.’

‘Ratchet. Old friend.’ Optimus rests a hand on his shoulders, looking into his optics with the firmness only a former police officer can bear. Prowl has the same stare, though Optimus’ is more effective. ‘I need you. But not in pieces. Walk away.’

Ratchet swallows over a jagged lump in his intake. ‘I don’t know if I can.’

‘It’s not a suggestion,’ Optimus says.

And that, as they say, is that.

Ratchet leaves the battlefield in a ragged shuttle scavenged from other equally ravaged shuttles. It is large enough to uncomfortably seat one. He doesn’t ask for company. No one volunteers. He doesn’t chart a course because he doesn’t have a plan. He only knows he’s supposed to get away.

Wheeljack shoves a holomap into his hands. He’s marked planets friendly or at least neutral to Cybertronians on it. He clasps his hands over Ratchet’s and he says, ‘No one will blame you if you don’t come back.’ And his indicators light up with flashes of bright purple and pink. ‘But if you do, I want a souvenir. Something shiny.’

‘Or explosive,’ Ratchet promises.

The holomap sits on his dash. It has more than a dozen prospective coordinates in it. After enough time passes, Ratchet will pick one at random.

Optimus hasn’t given him a timetable for his return. Ratchet suspects Optimus believes he won’t come back. Maybe he’s right. Ratchet doesn’t know anymore, what he believes in, what he’s accomplishing, what he’s doing. He doesn’t know if a solo trip out into the universe will answer those questions.

He’s not sure of anything anymore.

He smells like death because he’s soaked in it. He’s brought the stench with him from the battlefield. There’s still gummed up fluids in his finger joints. If he’d taken the time to shower and wash, he’d never have left.

He has to fight the urge to turn back, to defy Optimus’ orders. He squirms in his seat, guilt laying over him like a heavy, suffocating blanket. He thinks of all the sparks he could be saving right now. And then he berates himself for his arrogance in thinking he’s the only one who can do it.

The war has reached a crescendo from which there is no escape. He saves sparks to watch them burn out all over again. He’s fighting a losing battle against Mortilus, and the god laughs at him from afar. Primus sets him challenge after challenge, and he fails every time.

His hands still reek of energon.

He recharges, and he dreams of death. Ghosts haunt him, accuse him, there’s no escape. He starts to think maybe Optimus has sent him away because he doesn’t want or need Ratchet anymore. He’d let Clarion’s spark slip through his fingers after all. They can’t win the war with a useless medic.

He starts to think all sorts of things he desperately hopes aren’t true, but there’s a tiny corner of his spark which doubts.

Ratchet drifts. He ignores the holomap. Choosing a direction feels like another failure, as though he’s choosing to walk away from the war and abandon everyone.

For several cycles of the ship’s onboard chronometer, keyed to track Cybertronian standard like all the rest of the Autobots’ computers, he wanders. He has no real course. He recharges. He washes up. He picks at the grit and grime in his articulators. He starts and stops datapads he’s been meaning to read for decades. He recharges some more.

He hopes someone remembers to drag Wheeljack out of his lab, by his indicators if necessary, otherwise he’ll forget to recharge, forget to refuel, forget everything. They’ll find him facedown on the floor, surrounded by bubbling fluids of unknown origin, if no one checks on him. In his fatigue, he’ll make a mistake, and who will put him back together? Who knows his modded frame as well as Ratchet does?

Ratchet lurches online in the middle of a recharge cycle, remembering that he left Bluestreak in a CR chamber, and if he onlines without someone around, he’ll panic. Someone has to be there for him, keep an optic on him, talk him down from the inevitable nightmares. Will anyone remember?

Ratchet rolls over, reaching for his comm, before he remembers he’s not on the space station anymore. He’s not within communication range of anyone, not with the pitiful equipment he has on board. He’s not out here to help anyone, to save anyone. He’s out here because he’s selfish, and he needs to save himself.

Ratchet buries his face behind his hands, and static claws out of his vocalizer, and he murmurs apologies to mechs who can’t hear him.

~

He drifts for several more cycles until the navigation software pings to let him know one of the uploaded coordinates are within reach, if he should feel so inclined.

Thank you, Wheeljack.

There’s a waystation nearby. It’s not much, mostly for information trade and refueling, if your ship runs on one of the twelve standard fuels in the universe, or just needs to plug in and recharge, provided your plug is one of the twenty galactic standards.

It’s a complicated system.

But it’s flagged friendly to all, even Cybertronians, and there’s a strict no-weapons, no-fighting policy. So it’s safe, for whatever definitions of safe there are, so Ratchet docks in hope to find a more specific course, rather than this aimless drift. Maybe there’s something in the information boards that’ll point him a direction he should go.

He disembarks and wanders through a waystation surprisingly sparsely populated, given that it’s out in the middle of nowhere and sits on a common interstellar highway. He passes a few fellow travelers, but no one pays him any special attention. The information board is as sparse as the amount of visitors, and Ratchet twists his jaw out of annoyance. It would have been nice to find something.

He pokes around at a few of the shops, but none of them sell energon or coolant or anything that would be of use to him. Their technology is lightyears out of date. The atmosphere has the reek of recycled air and too much organic exhalation. The pipes rattle and hiss and clunk alarmingly, like the waystation is in its death throes and the galactic police haven’t been out this way in a long, long time.

The whole stop is a complete waste of time.

Annoyed, Ratchet drags his feet back through the waystation to the dock. The halls are even emptier than they were before, and Ratchet’s spinal strut tingles with warning. He’s survived this long, through a planet-wide civil war, partially by listening to his instincts. But it’s not like there’s anywhere to run. His shuttle is all he has.

There’s an ambush waiting for him in the docking bay. Of course, there’s an ambush. Why wouldn’t there be an ambush?

Contrary to popular belief and elitism, Cybertronians are not the largest species in the universe. They don’t even crack the top ten. Oh, they throw their weight around like they are all planet-sized, but the truth is, Cybertronians are somewhere in the middle. There are bigger, badder, and angrier species out there. Most of them are largely peaceful. There’s something to the idiom about being bigger and gentler.

Not true for the Pentaflexiamoriantrichoglycerites. And well, Ratchet supposes if that mouthful were his species name, he’d be an angry alien, too.

Pentas, as they’ve become colloquially known, have little to no moral compass. The smallest of them is the size of Fortress Maximus. They like credits and don’t care what they have to do to earn them. It’s not surprising many of them have become piratical. So many of them, that pretty much everyone in the universe assumes all Pentas are pirates. They are, perhaps, the only species more universally loathed than Cybertronians, so that’s saying something.

The moment the Pentas step into view, Ratchet knows his chances of escaping are slim to none. His only consolation is that he’s reasonably certain they don’t want him dead. They’d have killed him already if that were true.

He’s surrounded, one in front, two to the left, three on the right, undoubtedly more behind him, not that he turns to look. The smallest of them could have benchpressed Optimus without breaking a sweat. If Pentas even sweat. They’re armed to the teeth, of which there are many, many rows of serrated edges, and it’s hard not to look at the row of eyes in their sunken faces without getting a little queasy.

So he fights. If he’s going down, he’s going to take as many as he can with him, or at least, not make it easy.

He never saw the Penta behind him. Only felt the sharp crack against the back of his head, right over a sensor cluster nexus for reset, and then he’s out like a light, clattering to the floor like so much spare parts.

~

He onlines sometime later feeling as though he’s been bowled over by a shuttle. He’s lying on a cold floor, one that thrums beneath his plating, with the distinct sensation he’s onboard a spaceship of some flavor. His chronometer informs him he’s been unconscious for the better part of half a Cybertronian day.

Lovely.

Ratchet groans and leverages himself upright, running a quick systems check to ensure he’s not been compromised in any way. Which he hasn’t, as far as he can tell. He peels his optics open, and grimaces as the bright orange lights sear into his visual feed. His head pounds, like a night of binging on cheap engex, and his mouth is dry.

He’s in a cell. Dimly glowing bars indicate it’s a cell more than capable of keeping a Cybertronian imprisoned. The cell is small. He has enough room to fully recline if he so wishes, but that’s the extent of it. There’s no bed, no sink, no furniture, no window. Just him, the floor, the cell bars, with so little space between them, he couldn’t slide a stylus through.

There’s a collar around his neck. Ratchet runs his fingers across the seamless metal. It’s free of any catches, ridges, or otherwise. It’s not bolted into him, it doesn’t penetrate his frame or system at all. It’s just there. He has no idea what it does and no way to remove it. He can’t tell what it’s made of.

He doesn’t think this is what Optimus meant by taking a vacation.

Ratchet drags himself to a semblance of upright, puts his back against the wall where he can see the bars, and draws up his knees, bracing his arms across them. He could get up and examine the structures of his cell, but the Pentas have a reputation. He doubts there’s a means to escape. He doesn’t know what they want from him, but he imagines he’ll find out soon enough.

Damn.

Couldn’t they have taken him with a few datapads in his subspace?

~

Ratchet dozes.

There’s not much else he can do. He has his sensors trained on the bars, in case someone stops by to visit or peer in at their captive. He sends out a few questing pings to examine his environment, but everything bounces back. Shielded.

Sometimes, he catches sounds, noises, like there are others captive down here. He doesn’t recognize the languages. He wonders if they have any more Cybertronians. A bright yellow light in the corner stares at him without blinking. He suspects it’s a camera.

He gets no visitors. He’s not organic, so it’s like he needs to be fed or offered amenities. If there’s a patrolling guard outside his cell, Ratchet never sees the Penta or its ally, if it has any. There’s just darkness and dim lights and silence. If he wasn’t so anxious about the situation, it might even be peaceful.

A week after his capture, by Cybertronian count, the steady hum of a ship in flight changes to the rumbling clunk of a spaceship docking somewhere. The entire ship shudders as it thuds into place, connecting by soft dock rather than landing within a docking bay.

Ratchet stands and stretches, preparing for anything. They hadn’t been able to empty his subspace, and they hadn’t searched his storage compartments, so he’s technically armed. Whether or not he’ll have chance to use his weapons, he doesn’t know.

Voices float down the hall, the Pentas talking to each other in that mellifluous language of theirs. Ratchet’s interpreter system is either buggy or jammed, because it doesn’t translate their conversation. Other cells are opened and closed, more voices raised in anger and fright.

Ratchet approaches the bars and tries to peer through them, but he can’t see anything beyond dark shapes and more bars, some of them electric and glowing like his, others mere thick metal. Pirates and slavers, he thinks. Because of course. Why wouldn’t they be? It’s a profitable business for spacefaring adventurers, haunting waystations and picking up shuttles, capturing their owners to resale to other species. Some are more useful than others.

There’s a pretty brisk trade in Kremzeek, Ratchet knows. The Spackians use them as energy batteries.

A dark mass moves in front of Ratchet’s cell, the glow of the bars reflecting off the metal of some kind of armor. The bars fizzle out, and if there was ever a chance to make a break for it, now’s the time. Ratchet’s sensors go haywire as whatever had been blocking them before drops, and Ratchet reels from the sudden influx of information.

He staggers and three long, sticky fingers wrap around his upper arm, jerking him out of the cell.

“Don’t struggle,” a voice recites to him, lacking all semblance of emotion, like it’s been spat out of a universal translator. It comes from the Penta beside him, almost twice Ratchet’s height, and having to stoop to fit within the low ceilings of the prison.

Ratchet says nothing, and stumbles forward as he’s tugged along behind a row of other Pentas gripping other prisoners, none of which are Cybertronian. One is an Exelon, but he doesn’t recognize the species of the other two. The noises of metal clanking and energy bars fizzling out echo from behind him, and he can only assume other captives are being retrieved as well.

There’s a lot of white noise in his sensors. It makes static screech and roil across them. He picks up the evidence of radio transmissions before they dissolve into white noise.

They pass a porthole, and all Ratchet can see are stars with a few distant specks that are planetary bodies of indeterminate size. There’s another ship pulled up beside the one he’s on, but he can only make out the tail end of it. GPS spins and spins, until it narrows him down on the far edge of Penta space, probably one of their many unnamed and rarely charted trading posts.

They arrive at a split in the hallway. Ratchet and his captor go one way, the other organic captives go another. He’s bracketed on both sides by massive Pentas, both taller and broader than him.

Stretching out before him is another long corridor, but they pass wide doorways that open into docking spaces, with no ships currently moored, the shimmer of an atmospheric shield keeping everything contained. Some are actual loading bays, others are mere openings for soft docks. As near as he can guess, this is a trading station. There doesn’t appear to be any guards or places for storage.

Good to know.

They hang an abrupt right into the next doorway, where a ship is docked, the cargo bay open and ramp extended. There’s something in the lean lines, spiky protrusions, and sleek shape that’s vaguely familiar, but it isn’t until Ratchet spies the Decepticon brand etched in the under carriage that his spark sinks into his tank.

Well, this is unfortunate. Not surprising, but unfortunate.

A cluster of Decepticons lounge at the base of the ramp, perched on crates of various sizes. A single mech stands further ahead of them, arms folded, legs braced apart, lips curled with derision. Ratchet looks him over, head to foot, as recognition dawns. His spark reverses course, claws out of his tanks, and takes up residence in his throat, forming a lump he can’t speak over.

Prowl has made it a point to ensure all relatively high-ranking Autobots know the identities and positions of all known high-ranking Decepticons. From Megatron to Soundwave to Starscream to Shockwave, to their lieutenants and commanders and captains. Their largest threats, their greatest minds, their most ruthless killers…

Knowing the enemy is the key to winning the war. Prowl reminds them this over and over and over again. He tumbles research into their hands: backgrounds and skill sets, everything their intelligence has gathered on these key players.

The war has done a fantastic job of creating divisions. Sibling against sibling. Batchmate against batchmate. Friends against friends, and lovers fighting lovers. It’s impossible not to look across the battlefield without seeing the faces of mechs you once knew.

It’s another thing entirely to look across the open space of a trading dock and see the face of a mech you once saved, who could have been capable of great things if Cybertron hadn’t failed him, so instead he ends up as the postermech to summon the masses to Megatron’s army. He ends up a killer. A good one.

There aren’t words to describe the rock lodging in Ratchet’s throat when he recognizes the Decepticon captain waiting for them.

Deadlock.

*

[IDW] Break the Chain 02

Prowl onlines the next morning to a headline that screams “Chancellor Bracket Murdered by Decepticon Criminals” and his jaw tightens into a clench. His investigation is still in the preliminary stages; he doesn’t even have a working theory. The press should not be allowed to announce such unproven truths.

Someone should be fired for that leak. Save Prowl is certain it wasn’t so much as a leak as a sanctioned release of information. The authorities want the citizenry to be wary of the Decepticons. They want the people to fear criminals. Fear leads to obedience.

Megatron’s words haunt him.

He sips a morning cube, indecision tossing and churning inside of him. He logs into his console, and there’s a chime, indicating he has a message.

Orion Pax has replied, much quicker than Prowl could have hoped, and has sent a time and location for them to meet. Other than continuing his investigation, Prowl has nothing on his schedule. There’s something curt and business-like about Orion’s response. Prowl appreciates it. No bothering with pointless pleasantries, this one.

It’s refreshing.

Prowl replies with an affirmative and logs off his computer, if only so he doesn’t have to keep seeing the outrageous banner at the top of the screen. His investigation isn’t even a cycle old and the media have already pointed fingers. They are smart to attack an ideal, a vague group, rather than an individual in particular. A person’s motives can be suspect. A group’s motives? Significantly less so.

Prowl scrapes a hand down his face and rises from his console. There’s too much to do for him to sit around and brood. Orion’s meeting time gives him just enough to rinse off and gulp down a cube before he has to fight the morning rush to make it to the other side of the city in time.

He pauses, however, and reconsiders.

He should take a copy of the message for Orion to peruse, he decides. Perhaps Orion can divine some deeper meaning behind it, or recognize a message between the lines. It’s worth a try.

Right now, Prowl can use any information at his disposal.

~

“He didn’t delete the message,” Megatron muses aloud, an odd sense of glee coiling around the spirals of his spark. “Neither did he report it.”

“Affirmative,” Soundwave says, from his right, barely breaking the shadows. A dark frame perches on his shoulder – Laserbeak or Buzzsaw, Megatron is still not sure which is which. He suspects they prefer it that way.

Nearby, Starscream snorts. “Don’t get ahead of yourself, Megatron. He’s not yours yet.” His tone is light, but the warning in the words speak of something else.

“No, but it’s promising.”

Megatron peers into the mirror. He can see Starscream over his left shoulder. The Seeker reclines in the rickety chair, one leg folded over the other, lip curled with derision. Perhaps a touch of jealousy there as well.

He and Prowl are either going to be the worst of enemies or the best of friends. They share a similar keen intellect, and a penchant for tactics.

“He’s receptive,” Megatron says as he catches Starscream’s optic before returning his attention to applying the paint streaks on his face. “He’s not unaware of the political rumblings around him. He’s not blindly loyal.”

“He’s contacted Orion Pax,” Starscream drawls and shifts, uncrossing and recrossing his legs. Megatron’s gaze is briefly drawn to the movement. “And we all know it’s impossible to say who’s side that one is on.”

“Situation complicated.” Soundwave moves to Megatron’s right, directly into view. He offers two weapons, carefully selected by Soundwave himself for Megatron’s use.

Megatron debates them. A glaive or an axe? This bout’s sponsor wants a show of strength, not particularly skill. He doesn’t care about logistics. He wants to be entertained. The glaive will certainly accomplish that, whereas the axe is more a tool of quick, efficient victory.

Starscream snorts. “There’s nothing complicated about it. What we have here is a clash of egos.” He pushes himself to his feet, wings rattling around him. “Orion might agree with you, but he’s not interested in doing things your way.”

Megatron taps the handle of the glaive and half-turns to peer at Starscream. “You think Orion will recruit Prowl instead?”

Starscream folds his arms over his cockpit and shrugs. “It’s possible. They’re both Enforcers. They both have a respect for the law.” At this, he sneers. “I don’t know Prowl well enough to hypothesize.” He tilts his head. “Guess you’ll just have to wait and see if your newest project is worth the effort.”

Megatron cycles a ventilation and slots the glaive into the sheath across his back. There’s no transforming allowed for this bout. It’s not as much a disadvantage as the organizers think it is. Megatron doesn’t need his alt-mode to fight.

His opponent might be a little put out.

“Extend Prowl an invitation.” Megatron dips his fingers in the paint one more time and sweeps them over his unadorned cheek.

“To meet in person?” Starscream demands, his voice edging toward a shriek, as though horrified. “So he can bring an army and arrest you?” His wings snap taut, the sharp noise echoing in the small suite.

Megatron wipes his fingers clean and faces his two closest confidantes: friends, allies, most trusted advisors. “He won’t do that.”

“You sound awfully certain for someone you haven’t even met yet,” Starscream hisses. His wings arch upright. “It’s not just your spark on the line here, you know.”

Megatron’s gaze slants toward Soundwave. The carrier mech dips his head in assent.

“To next match?” Soundwave asks.

Starscream’s optics widen. “You agree with this idiotic plan?”

Soundwave tilts his head toward Starscream. Whatever passes between them isn’t said aloud, but it makes Starscream’s optics narrow, for all that Soundwave doesn’t move and the light behind his visor doesn’t shift. Perhaps the avian cassette’s stare is equally convincing.

Starscream’s lips press in a thin line. He stares at the far wall, venting noisily. “For the record, I’m against this.”

“Noted,” Soundwave says.

Megatron grabs his shield as the ready light blinks atop his door, and a loud buzz demands his presence. The ground rumbles beneath his feet to the tune of thousands of voices, roaring and cheering.

“You’d better win,” Starscream says with a telltale smirk as he moves aside, clearing a path to the door. “Wouldn’t want your recruit to think he’s throwing in with a losing side.”

Megatron rolls his optics. He ignores Starscream, but hears Soundwave hiss at the Seeker behind him, chastisement perhaps.

They’ll sort themselves out.

For now, there’s a big brute of a mech who thinks he can crush Megatron in less than ten seconds.

It’s time to disabuse him of the error of that assumption.

~

Orion Pax is a very busy mech.

Prowl supposes that comes with the territory, given all of the awards he’s acquired, the mechs he knows, the way others look up to him. Rumor has it, even, that Orion has Senator Shockwave’s favor. A mech Prowl knows as well, but not to the extent Orion Pax seems to have befriended him.

It’s ridiculous. It’s immature. It’s pointless.

Prowl is jealous nonetheless. He sees awards he’ll never earn. Commendations none of his superiors will ever offer to him. He sees promotions he doesn’t qualify for by simple manner of his sparking.

He sees a mech who has all the things Prowl has worked so hard to acquire. It’s hard not to boil in his resentment. Orion deserves them, Prowl is sure. His record certainly reflects it. He’s a good officer. He’s a good mech.

It’s still fragging unfair.

The door opens. “I hope I didn’t keep you waiting,” Orion says as he comes inside, striding forward, larger than life and hand extended with greeting. He’s smiling. “There was a recalcitrant arrestee out there.”

And of course, only Orion Pax can deescalate the situation, right?

“No, it’s quite all right,” Prowl replies, swallowing down the snide reply because it’s not Orion’s fault. None of it is.

He accepts the extended hand. Orion’s shake is firm, friendly. There’s kindness in his optics, but a harshness around the edges, too. He could easily be one of Prowl’s friends. But he could be someone’s worst enemy, also, if you made the mistake of committing a crime.

“I understand you wanted to speak about Megatron?” Orion says as he lets go of Prowl’s hand and moves to his desk. He gestures to the chair across from it so Prowl can sit.

He declines. He can’t explain why. Just that if he sits, he’ll feel lesser somehow. He needs to stand to feel on an even keel with Orion Pax, decorated and accomplished, everyone’s favorite.

“Yes,” Prowl says. “I’m told you’ve had some contact with him, prior to his forming the Decepticons and fomenting a rebellion.”

Orion sweeps some of the mess from his desk to the side and leans forward, lacing his fingers together, bracing his elbows on the edge of the desk. “I was present for the incident that many claim is the launching point, yes.”

Prowl tilts his head. “You disagree?”

Orion’s lips purse before he answers. “I think that there was something rotten in Cybertron long before Megatron got involved in that bar fight, and long before one of our officers committed a crime upon his person while he was in our custody.” He looks up at Prowl, his optics incisive. “Rather than a launching point, I’d call it the final bolt.”

“You’ve had contact with him since?” Prowl asks.

Orion leans back and rests a hand on the desk, rapping his fingers in a steady rhythm. “Am I under investigation?”

Prowl cycles his optics. He slides into parade rest on instinct. “Not to my knowledge. My interest is… personal.” Though he won’t be at all surprised if there is an operative subtly watching Orion, hoping to discover a means to get to Megatron through him.

“Personal,” Orion echoes. He stares at Prowl, and there’s something incisive in the look, as though he’s trying to read Prowl’s spark through his optics alone. “How so?”

He doesn’t know if he can trust Orion. But he has to start somewhere. Because he doesn’t know if he can trust Megatron either. And there’s no one else in his life Prowl can trust right now.

If he vanishes. If he goes missing. No one will care. No one will notice.

If he doesn’t start now, who will mourn him? Who will carry on this task?

“He contacted me.” Prowl watches Orion closely for any kind of tell, a sign of his reaction. Orion’s face is perfectly composed. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think he was trying to recruit me.”

Orion nods slowly, his optics briefly flickering as he purses his lips to a thin line. “That sounds like something he’d do,” he replies with a thoughtful hum. “Though how you fell on his radar, I don’t know. They usually contact those who’ve displayed Decepticon sympathies.”

“Which I haven’t,” Prowl says, maybe a bit too quickly.

“Did you reply?”

“Of course not!” Prowl’s panels arch upward before he can master control of his emotions, and he cycles several ventilations. There hadn’t been accusation in Orion’s tone, merely curiosity.

He pauses to regain his bearings.

“I have yet to reply,” Prowl says. “The obvious answer would be to turn over the communication to my superior, but I doubt they’ll be able to trace it anywhere. Megatron is careful.”

“Well, Soundwave is anyway,” Orion says with another drum of his fingertips on the desktop. His gaze tikts downward, pensive. Calculating almost.

Soundwave? The designation sounds familiar. It rings at something in the back of Prowl’s processor, but he can’t put a finger on what exactly. He does note it, however. For later investigation.

“This could also be an opportunity,” Prowl says, again watching Orion carefully. Is he Megatron’s ally? Enemy?

Orion’s hand goes flat on the desk. “Did you come here because you want my advice on how to proceed?”

Prowl allows his panels to drift downward, at rest, projecting submission and innocence as much as he’s capable. It won’t hold long, especially if Orion’s even glanced at Prowl’s service record, but it’s worth a try. “I wanted another perspective,” he says.

The datastick with Megatron’s message sits heavy in his arm compartment. The debate about whether or not he should show it to Orion lasts for a second. The datastick stays right where it is.

“I wanted to speak to someone who’s had contact with Megatron before,” Prowl continues. “Preferably of a nature that doesn’t immediately label him as terrorist or criminal.”

The hint of a smile ghosts at the corner of Orion’s lips. “And did it help?”

“I haven’t decided.” Prowl’s glances around the room, counting the trophies, feeling the weight of their expectations as they stare at the mech sitting behind the desk.

Does Orion feel their judgment when he works on his reports? Does he bask in the gleam of their shining metals? Or does he pay them little notice, considering them little more than cheap baubles of little worth?

Prowl shouldn’t dare to contemplate.

He dips his head, takes a step back. “Thank you for your time. You’ve got my contact information if you wish for me to return the favor.”

Orion pats his hand on the desk before he pulls himself to his feet. “You’ve caught the Chancellor Bracket case, yes?”

Prowl cycles his optics, resists the urge to retreat. Ah. So Orion’s peeked at his service record after all. How enterprising of him. “Do you have some information that could help me solve it?”

“Solve it,” Orion echoes, like he’s tasting the words. “I could have sworn the current theory blames the Decepticons.” He tilts his head, optics searching Prowl’s face. “Or perhaps I heard incorrectly.”

Prowl works his jaw, and the twitch of his panel betrays his unease. “They are ill-informed. My investigation is still in the preliminary stages. Whatever rumors are floating about, I assure you, they are not my determination.”

“I thought as much.” Orion’s optics twinkle. He sticks out his hand again, and Prowl eyes it like he might a live electrorod. “Feel free to contact me again. If I can be of help in any way.”

Politeness forces Prowl’s hand forward. He shakes Orion’s, tries not to hate the helpful, polite, handsome, and perfect Enforcer standing in front of him. Tries not to be attracted, as he can’t help but be, to those who are terrible choices for him in every way.

“I am at your disposal as well,” Prowl says, through his denta. He’s smiling, and Orion’s too good not to see that it’s strained.

If it bothers Orion, he doesn’t let it show. It feels like a game, one with words and gestures, sussing one another out, but they aren’t even sure why yet.

“Nice to meet you,” Orion says, squeezing his hand, not enough to hurt, more like he’s reminding Prowl of how strong he is.

“Likewise,” Prowl replies, smiling.

It doesn’t reach his optics.

~

It’s not that he hates Orion. Far from it. He admires the other officer, admires what Orion Pax has accomplished, what he’s earned, the progress he’s made.

But the resentment. It burns in his spark. It tastes sour at the back of his glossa, like purge after a night of overindulgence, not that Prowl has many of those.

Everything Orion Pax has, Prowl will never receive. Not because he’s unworthy. Not because he hasn’t earned it. But because it’s not meant for mechs like him. He’s lucky he clawed his way out of the rank and file. It’s selfish to yearn for more.

Prowl makes his way back to his own district, Orion’s words lingering in his processor, the other half of which is occupied with Chancellor Bracket’s murder. He can’t be distracted from his first priority, his job. He needs to log into his workstation, see if the forensics reports have been released yet. He needs to question witnesses, investigate Bracket’s office, his co-workers.

He needs to not think about Megatron.

Which of course is why his comm pings him half a cycle later, whilst he’s en route to Bracket’s spacious office, located within a business complex that could house at least ten percent of the city’s homeless population without straining resources at all.

Prowl pulls out of the walkway and steps off to the side, all the better to focus on the conversation without interrupting the flow of traffic, because he recognizes the ident code. His spark thrums a faster beat, like it’s trying to crawl up into his intake.

He leans against the wall of an alley and looks out into the passing crowds. He presses a finger to his comm to accept the call.

“Prowl here,” he says, gruff, as if it’s just another ping and not a voice that keeps trying to shift his worldview, and succeeds so effortlessly.

The chuckle rolling into his audial has no business rolling right along his sensor net, too. “I wasn’t sure if you’d answer or not,” Megatron says because who else could it be? Pinging Prowl from an unknown ident code with a home IP out near Slaughter City?

Prowl works his intake. “Megatron,” he greets. He’s careful to keep his tone even. “What do you want?”

“I would like to extend an invitation,” Megatron says as though Prowl’s tone had been polite and not borderline belligerent. “I assume you received my previous communication. I think it would be in both our benefit to meet.”

“Do you now.” It’s a statement, not a question. Prowl’s gaze flicks out at the passing crowd, all hurrying by, heedless to the fact he’s an Enforcer carrying on what is quite possibly an illegal conversation with a terrorist. “That sounds dangerous.”

Megatron laughs softly, and Prowl’s panels twitch. “I assure you, I mean you no harm. I simply want to have a conversation. And I will ensure your safety, if that’s what has you so concerned.”

Prowl makes a non-committal noise. In Megatron’s defense, there is no ransom his superiors would pay. Prowl has no connections that could work in the Decepticons favor. They would gain nothing by killing him. They would gain nothing by taking him captive. He still debates whether they’d gain anything by recruiting him.

“Where?” Prowl asks.

“As it so happens, I have an engagement close to you within a few cycles,” Megatron says, and Prowl doubts this is a coincidence. “Soundwave will provide you with tickets to attend. We can meet afterward. I will personally guarantee your safety.”

Prowl works his jaw. “I can take care of myself.”

“Of course you can,” Megatron replies, his voice as smooth as high grade and as syrupy as coolant. “Think of it as more of a necessary precaution. I mean you no harm but the crowds around these events can be rough.”

“I’m aware,” Prowl bites out. His spark performs a strange flip-flop in his chassis. “Very well.”

“One chance,” Megatron all but purrs. “That’s all I’m asking. Afterward, if you wish I never contact you again, I won’t.”

Prowl swallows over a lump in his intake. He already knows this won’t be the last time. He’s curious what Megatron wants from him, what the Decepticons are trying to accomplish, the truth behind the media lies. One meeting will not be enough to sate the curiosity. It won’t even scratch the surface of the questions he has.

“That’s fair,” Prowl says and then internally curses himself. He wishes he’d had the foresight to record this conversation. Or at least make sure no one else is recording it either.

He’s losing it.

Megatron chuckles again, and Prowl surprises himself with how charming it sounds. No wonder mechs flock to his cause. It’s probably because they’re hoping to catch a private moment with their leader, hoping to hear his voice much closer than their vidscreens or the broadcasts.

“I am glad to hear it,” he says. “You’ll get a message with the date and time shortly. I look forward to seeing you there.”

He doesn’t wait for Prowl to reply. The lines goes silent. Prowl lowers his hand from his comm, disconnecting on his end as well.

He works his jaw and stares blankly into the passing crowd. Hundreds of mechs look exhausted, worn down, optics dim, frame language harried. Those in alt-mode zoom by in the street or the airways. There’s a shuffling sound back in the dark of the alley. Prowl knows if he looks close enough, he’ll find the homeless, the near-empty, the vagrants.

How many of them would be classified unneeded? How many of them were sparked for an occupation that no one needs, and they aren’t allowed to do anything else?

How many of them only need to hear Megatron’s speeches to become another frame for his fighting force?

Too many.

Prowl pushes off the wall and rejoins the hustle and bustle.

He still has a job to do. Chancellor Bracket has been murdered. It’s Prowl’s duty to find out who and why.

~

Prowl is many things.

One might consider his current decisions to be foolish. He recognizes that he is putting himself in harm’s way. He realizes there is something happening beyond his worldview. There are undercurrents, and he’s only a single wave in the midst of a storm.

He refuses to be caught unprepared.

He spends a day deep in Chancellor Bracket’s case. He builds a conspiracy web. He composes a suspect list of none, save that he knows the Decepticons don’t belong upon it. He hits several dead ends with wiped surveillance feeds and generic clues and a forensic team that tells him nothing but what he already knows.

The invitation, the date, and the time all arrive by midday. Prowl’s researching at his modest cubicle in the main office when his mailbox chimes, and there’s a surge of excitement and anxiety both as the familiar sender pops up. He skims the notice quickly, committing it to memory. It reads like a standard event announcement. If anyone were to hack his account and read his mails, they’d find nothing unusual about it. Mechs commonly receive event invitations.

The location is smack dab in the middle of a section of the city Enforcers dare not tread. At least, not by themselves and definitely not while proudly displaying their badges.

Megatron might have assured his safety while in the arena. But there are a dozen ways Prowl could find himself killed on the way to it.

He’s going to need help.

Fortunately, he’s not without his contacts.

***

[IDW] Break the Chain 01

Silverspire shuffles the datapads on his desk. And then shuffles them again. Other than the low clatter of that moment, the sound of their ventilations, the room is silent. Unlike others, Silverspire doesn’t believe in ambient music for either focus or calm. It’s more than a little unsettling.

Prowl cycles his ventilations. He concentrates on the meditative exercises Yoketron had taught him. They keep his spark calm and his sensory panels still.

“Prowl,” Silverspire finally says, without looking up at him. His argent paint gleams impeccably, and Prowl supposes that if one has a small army of servants, that makes it easier to always come across near-perfect. “Your application is, as always, exemplary. But you must understand, all of the applicants for this position are exemplary. The competition is quite fierce.”

“I understand, sir.” Prowl’s jaw tightens. His spark spools into a tight knot in his chamber. “And I’ve seen the public record of the other applicants. None of them match my skillset, test scores, or active duty record.”

Silverspire sighs and threads his fingers together, folding his hands on the desk. “Their humility, however, far outpaces yours.” He frowns, and his ice-blue optics finally focus on Prowl. “They can be molded, while you are stubborn. You have a penchant for causing trouble. And difficulty keeping a partner. These are your weaknesses.”

The stack of datapads to Silverspire’s right is damning evidence. Prowl can read the name on the top – Tumbler. He knows the others below it are his previous partners, many of whom are deceased. Some transferred. Fewer still outright resigned.

He’s cursed, they say. It’s why Prowl works alone now. No one will consent to partner him.

Prowl works his intake, sweeps his glossa over dry lips. “If insubordination were a disqualification, half of the applicants would have already been disregarded.”

Silverspire shifts, the quietest of sighs gusting from his vents. “I’m going to be honest with you, Prowl,” he says, and Prowl braces for the lie. “You can continue to apply for this position. Everyone is welcome to make the attempt. But I can not conceivably see a point in the future where you will ever be granted it.”

Only half-lie then. Silverspire knows good and well that at this point, the position will never be Prowl’s. They do not want him in it, and only saving face is what allows him to keep trying.

“And why is that, sir?” Prowl asks, through gritted denta, the taste of ground metal on his glossa, and anger burning fierce and hot at the back of his intake.

Silverspire looks at him, and there’s dismissal in the way he reviews Prowl’s sturdier frame, the jut of his sensory panels, the heavier armor he’s been sparked with. Without the exemption, Prowl wouldn’t be here. He’d be a nameless grunt in the army, one among many just like him, trained to follow orders and kill for the greater good of Cybertron, without once wondering if those orders are worth following.

There is nothing in those details Prowl has chosen for himself.

They can pull him from the ranks of those sparked alongside him. They can test his abilities, measure his potential, decide him wasted among the infantry. They can pull him into another division, train him, give him a fancy title…

It doesn’t change what he is. It doesn’t change the thickness of his armor, the warrior’s build. They can change so many things, but not the frame he was sparked with.

“It is not a place for you,” Silverspire says, at length and ah, there is the lie, so smoothly given. “You are good at what you do, Prowl. Your work for us is exemplary. You keep the mechs of Crystal City safe. Be content with that.” He smiles, and there’s so much condescension in it, Prowl wants to strike him. “It’s a good life. We’re not all meant for something more.”

Prowl’s hands ache. His fingers beg for mercy, but if he unclenches his fists, he might do violence. “Is that all, sir?” he asks, tone tight and measured, while his spark swirls and whirls into points of fury.

He wants to leave before he can’t control himself any longer.

“No.” Silverspire lifts one of the datapads off the stack and offers it to Prowl. “I have your next assignment here.”

Prowl takes it with nerveless fingers, his face schooled into indifferent politeness. He listens to Silverspire’s summary of the case but the details go in one audial and out the other.

He’s too aware of the datapad by Silverspire’s left elbow. The one with his application and the Rejection stamped over every digital page.

He wonders if the committee even looked at his service record and test scores before rejecting him. Had they only read of his sparking place? The particulars of his birth?

He would drive himself mad thinking about it.

Prowl already knows the truth.

His promotion is never going to happen. He’s simply going to have to learn to be satisfied with what he has now.

He tunes back into Silverspire’s summary. This, right here, is all he has.

 

~

Chancellor Bracket, the first proposer of the Decepticon Registration Act, had been murdered in his habsuite last night. Now, he’s Prowl’s problem. Prowl alone because apparently they aren’t assigning him another partner.

Prowl tells himself it’s fine. He works better without one anyway. There’s no one to slow him down, no one to get in the way, no one to question his plans of action. He can investigate without having to wait for someone else’s approval.

It’s… it’s better this way. For himself. For any potential partner. If history has shown him anything, it’s that he’s better off alone.

He feels the weight of the rejection nonetheless. The invisible brand on his forehead that marks him as cursed. A troublemaker. Unemployable.

Prowl continues to do his job regardless. He visits the Chancellor’s habsuite, marked off for investigation, and takes a look for himself. The file had contained all relevant information and evidence gathered by the crime scene technicians, but Prowl prefers what he can see with his own optics.

At first glance, the conclusion is obvious: Chancellor Bracket was murdered by a supporter or participant of the Decepticon movement. Pit, it could have been one of the branded mechs even. They’ve got all the proof they need in the massive Decepticon brand on the wall, paint running in lurid, wet streaks to pool on the floor. Like a calling card.

A really obvious, really stupid calling card.

According to the file, Chancellor Bracket had been shot. Three taps. Spark. Cog. Processor. The weapon is likely to be a handblaster of some kind, judging by the lack of gore and other mess staining the interior.

Prowl crouches over the marked off zone where Bracket’s corpse had been found. Nothing’s been cleaned. Fluids still stained the meshcarpet. Bits of metal and internal components glimmer tackily in the energon spill.

Precision shots, he guesses. Though he has to see the corpse to be sure. Professional work. Or at least, someone who’s been trained to handle a weapon. Not your average Decepticon. If it was indeed a Decepticon.

He stands. There’s no sign of a struggle. No sign of forced entry. It’s as if Bracket had stood there, waiting to be shot. He’d known and/or trusted his killer. Possibly both.

This doesn’t meant it wasn’t a Decepticon. Though to leave a mark behind is a sign of sloppiness. Or arrogance. It could have been a Decepticon, Prowl supposes. One who is flying under the radar, who hasn’t outwardly joined the rebellion, but supports it from the inside. That seems more sophisticated than the ragtag nature of the group, however.

Hmm.

Prowl’s optics lift to the message scrawled on the wall again. ‘You are being deceived.’ The Decepticon rallying cry. Everyone knows it. Anyone can duplicate it.

It’s too convenient. Too easy. Prowl doesn’t trust easy.

His frown deepens.

There’s more to this. He’s sure of it.

 

~

The daily news reels in the background. Megatron only half-listens to it as he skims his datapad, free hand rapping the arm of his chair. He’s reading without comprehending, thoughts elsewhere. Starscream would call it brooding. Perhaps he’s not far off the mark.

The Decepticon numbers grow in leaps and bounds. More and more join with every passing cycle. The people are angry. Downtrodden. Tired of being used. They are eager to finally have an opportunity to do something. They take their new armament, their new training with a vivacity unmatched by anything Megatron has ever seen.

He’s quickly building a formidably large army.

Unfortunately, numbers aren’t everything. It’s still not a very effective army. He lacks skilled, trustworthy leadership. Smarter, cleverer minds to help lead the way. Recruiting soldiers is easy.

Recruiting leaders is another matter entirely.

“Megatron.”

He lowers the datapad and tilts his head. “What is it, Soundwave?” He hadn’t heard Soundwave’s approach, but then, that is Soundwave’s way. He thrives in the silence and the shadows.

Soundwave slinks to his side, quiet for all of his bulk. He slides a datapad into view, and Megatron accepts it.

“Designation: Prowl,” Soundwave explains as Megatron powers on the datapad and the image of an Enforcer comes into view. Stern features, probably attractive if he’d smile. The basic black and white paint of his station.

His record scrolls alongside his image. It’s impressive. Top marks. Top skills. But ah, here’s the point of interest. He hadn’t been sparked an Enforcer. Curiouser and curiouser.

“You took me seriously when I asked you for recommendations, didn’t you?” Megatron asks as he peruses the record.

“Affirmative.”

“And you think this Prowl is a good candidate?”

Soundwave sweeps his finger across the screen, and highlights a section of Prowl’s file. Three times denied for a position he’s qualified for three times over? Looks like some frame bias here, a great deal of functionalism as well. The leadership is more than content to use Prowl as they see fit, given his aptitude, but only on their terms. They have no interest in Prowl as an individual.

Megatron’s lips curve into a slow smile. “Good job, Soundwave. You are, as always, on the right track.” He leans back in his chair, idly thumbing through the rest of Prowl’s file. “Perhaps we should send Starscream to make the initial contact. They have a lot in common.”

“Negative.”

Megatron looks up at Soundwave, head tilted. It isn’t often Soundwave dissents, so when he does, Megatron is inclined to listen. “You disagree?”

Soundwave hesitates, as he always does, when presenting a conflicting opinion. “Starscream too… mercurial for Enforcer Prowl. Recommend you approach.” He lowers his head, gaze eerily focused on Megatron, as if trying to impart some knowledge by will alone.

“Me?” Megatron presses his lips in a thin line, assessing Prowl all over again.

Multiple partners in the past. All of whom either requested transfers or are now deceased. A few marks on his record for insubordination, but a near-perfect record for solving cases. He has an incredibly analytical mind, according to his test scores, which are of course perfect. He’s a soldier sparked, but tested into a better field.

“Hm. I see your point.”

Megatron raps his fingers over the arm of the chair again. He stares at the vidscreen, seeing without seeing, the news reeling across the bottom. Something about a chancellor being murdered. Only the rich and powerful would care about such a thing.

Mechs like Megatron and Soundwave, like the citizens gathering under their banner, have no cares for dead chancellors. They’ll be replaced soon enough, with someone equally worthy of being loathed. There’s no point in paying attention.

“We’ll be careful with this one,” Megatron says as he reads through Prowl’s file once more, his attention drawn back to the image, those ice-blue optics staring back at him. “Convincing him won’t be easy. But I believe it can be done. Good work, Soundwave.”

Soundwave’s field goes flush with delight at the praise. He dips his head and leaves, vanishing in much the way he arrived – silently.

Megatron cycles through Prowl’s file again. Just to be sure.

Yes. He’ll do quite nicely.

 

~

It’s far past the end of his shift by the time Prowl returns to his habsuite, laden with evidence and clues, all of it pointing to a clear-cut suspect. It would be so easy if he could be be content with the obvious answer.

He’s absolutely not.

The entry wounds on Chancellor Bracket’s corpse had been precise. The residue suggested a basic handblaster with silencing chip. Surveillance in Bracket’s high-priced high-rise had already been wiped. Someone knew to cover their tracks. This feels like a professional hit, not the act of a mech driven by anger and desperation and revenge.

The Decepticons do not hire professional assassins. They might employ a few among their ranks, that would not surprise Prowl in the least. He still doesn’t think the Decepticons responsible. Any professional working for the Decepticons would know better than to paint the scene with an obvious clue.

Bracket had angered someone. Prowl is sure of this much. He doesn’t know if the anger is personal or professional or if there is some deeper connection he hasn’t made. He is, however, certain that the easy answer is not the correct one.

He refuses to sign off on the report until he has incontrovertible proof.

Prowl tosses the datapad onto his desk and slides onto the stool. He flicks on his personal console, and while he waits for it to boot, rubs exhaustion from his optics. It’s going to be another late night. And for what? To prove himself to superiors who are never going to grant him a promotion? To work endlessly for zero recognition?

Would it have been better if he’d never tested out of the infantry?

A new message notification blinks at him from the corner of his screen.

Prowl frowns and clicks on the icon. He doesn’t recognize the sender, but other than that, it doesn’t have the indicators of a fake mail. The subject line reads ‘From One Exemption to Another’.

He opens the message and skims the contents, surprise seeping into his spark with each absorbed glyph. He reaches the end, sees the name its tagged with, and immediately starts back at the top, reading slowly and carefully, looking for hidden nuances, traps, anything to explain the purpose behind the message. Anything but the obvious: that it’s genuine.

Megatron. Leader of the Decepticons. Why on Cybertron would he contact Prowl?

More than that, why does he want to meet? What makes him think Prowl would be interested?

The subject line doesn’t make any sense, either. Megatron’s not frame-exempt. He’s pulled himself out of the mines. It’s where he should have spent the rest of his functioning. The very fact he’s not mining right now, that he’s started a revolution and fights in the gladiator pits and writes political manifestos, goes against every grain of the Cybertron’s leadership. His rage against the machine is unapproved. That doesn’t count as an exemption!

And yet.

Prowl finds himself drawn to the communication. He re-reads carefully enough to commit the letter to memory.

Enforcer Prowl, 

I am not going to insult your intelligence by lying to you, the message begins. Neither will I try to persuade you with pretty words or twists of the truth. Though our message has always been ‘you are being deceived’ and we’ve taken upon the name ‘Decepticons’, it has never been our intention to be considered liars. And so, I will not lie to you now. 

Yes, the authorities have branded us criminals. This is only because that which we stand accused of, should never have been outlawed in the first place. The institution should serve the people, not the other way around. We have chosen not to accept a life of dictation, one where we are forbidden to speak or live the lives we choose. 

Criminals is not what we are, simply what they’ve made us. We are those who wish to rise up against the chains keeping us bound in our roles. Surely you can understand this. You who despised your frame-given task and sought to become something more. 

Cybertron sees us as criminals not because of our actions, but because of the title the authorities have given us. Our narrative has been twisted to hide the truth of our intentions because the Senate and the Council both know that there is anger, there is upset, there is dissatisfaction. They know our words will reach the masses. They know they are outnumbered. And so they seek to muddle our message by branding us something we are not. 

I don’t expect you to take my words for granted. I invite you to come to your own conclusions. I invite you to look into the institution and see the cracks in the foundation for yourself. And when you find reason to question, I invite you to find me. Simply respond to this message, and I will make the arrangements. 

You are being deceived. You and the rest of the people deserve to know this. I feel you are an important ally, Prowl. You can be a voice for the people, a voice for change. 

You are needed, Prowl. 

I await your reply.

It is simply signed, ‘Megatron’. No glorious titles attached.

Prowl frowns and reads the message again. Then twice more. He looks for hidden meanings, not that he knows Megatron well enough to read between the lines. He doesn’t know what Megatron wants from him. It reads like a recruitment pamphlet.

Prowl scoffs. As if he’d be interested in anything the Decepticons have to offer.

His finger hovers over the delete button. His gaze slides over to the datapad on his desk, the one detailing Chancellor Bracket’s murder. It’s a painful reminder.

Thrice denied for a promotion he’s rightly earned.

Unpartnered despite policy and procedure stating such a thing is not allowed.

No matter how hard he works, how much he proves himself, it will never be enough. He’ll always be the soldier-turned-detective, frame exempt only because it suits their use, and not his desires.

The Decepticons aren’t wrong, Prowl knows.

He just doesn’t know if they are right.

He leaves the message be. He raps his fingers over the desktop, contemplating. He doesn’t trust Megatron. He wouldn’t trust any Decepticon who reached out to him. He needs more information, more data, in order to make an informed decision.

Prowl logs into the Enforcer database and starts a search. He knows, vaguely, about the start of the Decepticon uprising and what led to Megatron gaining a following. But he hasn’t poked too much into that nest of scraplets because it’s not his task. It doesn’t fall under his purview.

He pokes it now.

There’s an officer linked to Megatron’s record – Orion Pax. Prowl recognizes the name, has to fight back a sneer. Orion Pax is very well known across law enforcement. Supposedly fearless, with an impeccable record, and a penchant for disobeying orders if he has a better idea. Despite that, he’s highly decorated. He’ll probably get promoted with ease. Mechs like him. That he’s Forged and born into service doesn’t hurt either.

Prowl only skims Orion’s record. He’s more interested in the connection to Megatron. They’ve had multiple points of contact over the years. How interesting. Perhaps Orion Pax can shed some light on why Megatron would contact Prowl in the first place. Aside from the obvious, of course.

Prowl sighs and composes a message to Orion through the Enforcer system, implying it’s in connection to a case. It’s not a difficult link – Bracket had been supposedly killed by a Decepticon after all, and a lot of Decepticon activity occurs on the edge of Orion’s jurisdiction.

Prowl clicks send before he can think twice about it and logs out of both system and console.

He rubs his temples and sighs. Exhaustion tugs at every line and every cable. He’ll have another early shift tomorrow. Silverspire, and his superiors above him, will be on Prowl’s aft to solve the case as soon as impossible.

Chancellor Bracket is important. He’s considered a VIP case. Never mind the other investigations Prowl is still processing, the other victims who deserves justice as much as Bracket. They aren’t a priority. It’s implicit. Prowl doesn’t need the order to know Bracket takes precedence over anything on his dock.

This is the Cybertron he lives in.

 

***

[G1] Fortune Favors 03

Whirl doesn’t go back to the cabinet.

In fact, he sticks to them like he’s magnetically attracted to their armor. He prefers to be carried, tucked up against their chestplates or their intakes, or sitting on a shoulder. He goes from silent little growler, to a never-ending chatterbox, though the chatter keeps to the gutter language no one else can understand.

Sideswipe only offers once to plug into Whirl and update his code. The look of terror in the sparkling’s optics, the way he wails and returns to the cabinet for several hours, sets Sideswipe’s spark to aching.

Sunstreaker manages to coax. Sideswipe teases his brother, calls him the sparkling-whisperer. Sunstreaker just rolls his optics and spends the rest of the evening with a bright blue sparkling attached to his chestplate, right over his spark.

It’s pretty adorable.

Sideswipe never asks again.

The base gets used to seeing them with Whirl, either separately or together. They get lots of offers for caretaking, but Whirl doesn’t seem to like anyone. He hisses if others get too close – even Bluestreak, who’s about as dangerous to a sparkling as a rust stick. He tolerates Ratchet and Wheeljack at least, which is a relief because Sideswipe starts to miss that alone time with Sunstreaker.

Honestly, who in their right mind could keep their hands off Sunstreaker for longer than a week? Certainly not Sideswipe. He has the will of gelled energon when it comes to his brother.

Still.

Sparkling fever is a thing, even if no one can get too close to Whirl. Sideswipe’s lost count of the times he’s walked out of their quarters and tripped on a gift. Toys and games and treats. The entire base spoils Whirl like they aren’t a crop of battle-hardened soldiers.

Sunstreaker and Sideswipe get more time off, especially together. It’s an unexpected perk, and Sideswipe milks it for all it’s worth. If that means spending more time with Whirl where everyone can see, it’s hardly a trial. Whirl’s adorable, and Sideswipe has to admit, he likes this a lot better.

Whirl’s the sparkling he and Sunstreaker never thought they’d have.

Sunstreaker and Whirl tucked up together on the couch is one of the most adorable sights Sideswipe has ever witnessed. He takes numerous pictures because it’s something he wants to remember forever. Sunstreaker’s got the bit in his lap, and he reads to Whirl, and Whirl follows along with the glyphs with wide optics and full interest.

Sideswipe catches Sunstreaker taking pictures one day, too. When he onlines from his nap on the couch and finds Whirl curled up on his abdomen, sound asleep, and Sunstreaker looming over both of them, his mouth curved in a soft and sweet smile.

That night, after Whirl recharges – in his cabinet because that’s where he likes to sleep when he’s not on top of them, and neither Sideswipe nor Sunstreaker find this an issue – Sunstreaker curls up against Sideswipe and peppers him with kisses.

“Love you,” he murmurs, over and over again, his hands making Sideswipe gasp, a slow throb toward arousal rather than the sharp and fervent joining they usually settle for. “Thank you.”

Sideswipe doesn’t have to poke the bond to know what Sunstreaker means.

He takes Whirl flying, too. The bitlet loves it. He giggles madly and spreads his arms as Sideswipe’s jetpack roars them through the air, not so far above base they are targets, but far enough it’s almost like flying. Whirl keeps saying “again, again!” afterward, and Sideswipe’s weak to his pleas.

They attract a crowd every time they do it. Powerglide shouts up unhelpful opinions. Sideswipe doesn’t need any help with his technique, thank you very much.

Optimus keeps loitering around, casting hopeful optics at Whirl, even if Whirl doesn’t seem to like Optimus too much. Probably can smell the Prime on him, the authority. Guttermechs learn to avoid that kind of thing, if they know what’s good for them.

Sideswipe still chuckles to himself over the memory of Whirl slapping Optimus’ hand away and telling him “bad touch!” in such an offended tone Optimus had reared back and nearly ran over Ironhide in the process.

Ironhide had given Sideswipe a look, like he expected Sideswipe to chastise Whirl for it or something. Instead, Sideswipe had pressed a kiss to Whirl’s forehead.

“Good bit,” he’d cooed. “You tell that mech when you don’t want to be touched.”

Whirl had beamed.

Ironhide had glared.

Optimus had apologized. Profusely.

Less amused had been Tracks the day Whirl clambers out of Sunstreaker’s arms and over the back of the communal couch. He scampers over the cushion and skitters across Tracks’ lap, snatching Tracks’ treat bag all in one swift motion. He then leaps over the arm of the couch and goes pelting across the floor before anyone can really register what happened.

“Hey!” Tracks barks, half-rising as though he isn’t sure he should give chase or not. “That’s mine!”

“Whirl!” Sunstreaker snaps and leaps off the couch, giving Tracks a shove back into it in almost the same motion. “Get back here right now!”

Sideswipe had been on his way back to the couch with an armful of treats for them to share before the movie started. Whirl, per usual, forgets there’s two of them. He isn’t paying attention, and when Sideswipe sticks out a foot, Whirl trips over it and tumbles head over feet.

Tracks’ treat bag flies from his arms and skitters across the floor.

Whirl wails.

Sideswipe, arms laden, lifts both orbital ridges before Sunstreaker scoops Whirl up, scowl firmly in place. He goes from doting caretaker to disapproving guardian in the blink of an optic.

“None of that now.” Sunstreaker pops Whirl on the tip of his nasal ridge. “That was not yours, and you know it wasn’t.”

Whirl hiccups into silence, staring back at Sunstreaker with a look of abject betrayal and consternation. On a full-grown mech, his glare might have been frightening. On Whirl, it it’s adorable.

“Want it!” His hands screw into waving fists, squirming in Sunstreaker’s grip like a wild thing.

Sunstreaker growls and leans into Whirl’s personal space. “Not yours.” He taps Whirl on the nose again. “Behave.”

Whirl sniffles.

Silence descends.

Mechs stare, and Sideswipe feels their judgment like a prickle across his plating. Pah. That little tap doesn’t count as anything. It doesn’t hurt, and it helps Whirl focus on them.

These other mechs, they can’t see the truth. Whirl’s young, but that doesn’t mean he’s not aware of the score. He knows how to twist their sympathies, their perceptions of him. He knows how to play innocent when it suits.

Sideswipe and Sunstreaker aren’t fooled by it.

The other Autobots have no clue.

“He can have it,” Tracks offers, his indignation melting in the wake of the wibbly lip and watery optics Whirl tosses at him. Whirl even throws in a theatrical sniffle as he wilts in Sunstreaker’s hand.

Sunstreaker rolls his optics and tucks Whirl under his arm. “Don’t reward his bad behavior, Tracks.”

“And don’t let him play you like that either,” Sideswipe adds. “He’s spoiled as it is. He doesn’t need to steal, and he knows it.” He flops down onto the couch next to Tracks and Sunstreaker sits beside him, Whirl tucked into his intake.

Whirl sniffles, laying limp against Sunstreaker’s chest, a wan little lump of punished sparkling. Absolutely pitiful.

Grimlock’s the one who scoops Tracks’ treat bag from the floor, offering it back to him. “Little ones have sticky fingers,” he grunts.

“I noticed,” Tracks says, wry. He slants Whirl a look, and tucks his treat bag firmly in an arm compartment, out of reach.

No one holds it against Whirl. He’s a sparkling. He’s adorable. He gets a pass. But Sideswipe and Sunstreaker get a note from Red Alert in their inbox later, cautioning them to teach Whirl better manners and consider other disciplinary techniques.

Sunstreaker rolls his optics. Sideswipe trashes the note.

No one understands. No one will ever understand. But Whirl’s their sparkling now, and no one can take that away from them.

He’s theirs.

And anyway, at least they aren’t the only ones who are getting cautionary notes about their disciplinary methods. The day Grimlock has to wrestle Slag to the ground and growl at him to submit gets the rumor mill tittering, and Red Alert storming to the training room with outrage crackling over his sensory horns.

Slag, dented and puffing curls of grey smoke, stomps out of the training room, Autobots scattering out of his way like a herd of turbomice. Grimlock brushes off his armor and takes Red Alert’s chastisement with a bored tilt of his head, and says nothing, not even when Ironhide finally shows up and drags Red Alert off.

“Optimus’ll handle it,” he says, hand firm on Red Alert’s shoulder, even as he casts a disapproving look over his shoulder.

“Optimus never handles it properly,” Red Alert sniffs.

The training room clears out quickly after that. It can’t be because Grimlock’s aura is murderous and full of rage, because it isn’t. He’s pretty calm considering he and Slag had just gotten into a tussle and tore strips out of the training mats.

Sideswipe’s not worried. He stays on his side of the mat and keeps going through his routine. It’s a rare moment when he’s sparkling and twin free, and he doesn’t want to lose his edge. He needs to train.

He feels the weight of Grimlock’s gaze on him, however, and he glances at the Dinobot leader curiously. Grimlock’s watching him. Then again, Grimlock always seems to be watching lately. It’s often enough even Sunstreaker’s noticed, and he’s usually oblivious when it comes to social interactions.

“You’re not scared,” Grimlock says.

“You’re observant,” Sideswipe says with a laugh and a wink. “And no, I’m not. Why would I be? I’m not a Dinobot.” He rolls his shoulders and launches into another series of movements before a spin brings him closer to Grimlock.

“You don’t disapprove.” Grimlock tilts his head, arms folding over his chassis, a solid and formidable foe, if Sideswipe were inclined to make him one.

Sideswipe rolls his optics. “Do I look like someone who cares one cube about what everyone else’s ideas are?” He shoves a thumb toward his own chestplate. “Guttermech, yeah? Different strokes for different folks and all that. Besides, pretty sure Slag deserved it. He’s a bit of a troublemaker.”

Grimlock snorts. “A bit,” he echoes, and amusement rumbles in his chassis. Or at least Sideswipe assumes it’s amusement. “He challenges. He loses. It happens.”

“I’ll bet.” Sideswipe slips into another series of motions, and the weight of Grimlock’s gaze lingers.

It’s… appreciative. And not in an offensive way. Sideswipe’s used to being ogled. This feels different. He doesn’t hate it.

“You’re good with him,” Grimlock says, and Sideswipe almost stumbles because the comment is unexpected. “Whirl, I mean. And you don’t let them tell you otherwise.”

Sideswipe looks over his shoulder with a trademark smirk. “I don’t let anyone tell me anything.” He pauses. “Well, except Sunstreaker and only in certain situations.”

Grimlock chuckles. “Obedience can be fun sometimes.” He drops his arms and the tension in his frame vanishes. He tilts his head. “You ever need a sparring partner, drop me a comm.”

Sideswipe’s orbital ridges climb into his forehead. “I think if I’m going to spar with you, I’ll need backup. Sunstreaker will kill me if I don’t get him in on it.”

“Bring him. I never said it had to be only one of you.” Grimlock heads toward the door, a huge, loping stride to match his greater mass. “It could be fun.”

“Fun,” Sideswipe echoes. “I’ll let him know.”

Grimlock tosses a wave over his shoulder, and then Sideswipe’s left alone in the training room, his thoughts swirling and confusion holding court. It’s not the first time Grimlock’s surprised him.

Right now, he’s pretty sure it won’t be the last.

Since he and Sunstreaker adopted Whirl, Grimlock’s been around, always hovering in the periphery. Sideswipe would call it stalking except that there’s never anything threatening about it.

He’s helpful. Seems to always show up when one of them needs an extra pair of hands, and he’s always delivering crates of those energon chews Whirl loves so much.

It’s just weird is all.

Grimlock, or any other Dinobot, has never paid attention to Sideswipe or Sunstreaker before. Suddenly, he’s there everytime they turn around. Not menacing or anything. Just.

There.

Sideswipe’s not sure what to think about it. Sunny tells him not to worry. Maybe Grimlock is just fascinated by Whirl like everyone else. Sunstreaker’s never been that fantastic at social interaction though. He’s not completely off the mark, but he’s not on target either.

There’s something there.

Sideswipe just can’t put a finger on it.

~

Grimlock can pinpoint the very moment he realizes his fascination with the twins is not just because of the so-called ‘sparkling fever’. It’s because he’s attracted to them. Both of them. And, he has to admit, attracted to the family they’ve become, and he aches to become a part of it.

That moment is when he catches Sideswipe and Whirl playing chase in the halls.

Whirl runs past Grimlock, giggling like mad, his small feet going pitter-patter across the floor. In his wake, Sideswipe jogs at a pace that lets the sparkling think he’s getting away, a smile on his face, his field light with affection and amusement. Ahead of them, Sunstreaker pops out of a storage room and snatches Whirl off the ground, tossing him into the air and catching him, to Whirl’s shriek of glee.

“No fair!” Whirl cries as he squirms and dissolves into helpless laughter when Sunstreaker starts tickling him. “No fair, no fair.”

Sideswipe catches up to them and laughs. “There’s two of us, bit. Remember that. Always two.”

Sunstreaker rolls his optics. “I’m just glad he decides to play chase before his bath and not after.”

“Hey, you gotta admit, it’s fun to chase him,” Sideswipe says as he nudges his brother with a shoulder. Whirl reaches for him, and Sideswipe slips Whirl out of his hands, tossing the sparkling into the air as Sunstreaker had done.

The delight in Whirl’s optics is beyond compare.

“Bit wants to fly, I think,” Sideswipe says.

“Of course he does,” Sunstreaker sighs, and they turn down the hallway, back the way they’d come, with Sideswipe having a firm grip on Whirl the entire time. “He’s spending too much time with Blades.”

“At least he doesn’t bite Blades.”

“Small favor.” Sunstreaker’s lips twitch with amusement.

His gaze skitters to Grimlock as they pass, but he says nothing. If Sideswipe notices Grimlock watching, he doesn’t comment either. Instead, the small family pass Grimlock by without a word, chattering to each other as Whirl happily leaps from one pair of arms to the other, perfectly comfortable in their presence, though he still fights like a wildcat when most of the rest of the base tries to hold him.

Grimlock’s spark throbs so hard in his chest, he staggers for a second. That’s when he realizes that he’s in trouble. He’s yearning for something so far out of reach, it might as well be on another planet. He doesn’t even know where to start.

His brothers continue to be no help in the matter. Grimlock doesn’t bother to ask Snarl, Sludge, or Slag. Swoop crows delight at him, glad Grimlock’s finally admitting he has interest in the twins. He points Grimlock toward Ratchet and Wheeljack. If he wants advice, that’s the best place to start.

“You want to what?” Wheeljack asks from behind a few bubbling decanters of a liquid that’s probably volatile.

“Get closer to the twins,” Grimlock says, because he hasn’t figured out a better way to phrase it. Date them? Sounds trite. Court them? Sounds too formal. Befriend them? It’s a little bit more than that, he’s sure.

Friends don’t want to nibble down one another’s intake. Friends don’t want to map the planes of armor with their fingertips. Friends don’t want to taste each other’s lips.

Friendship is definitely not what Grimlock’s after. At least, not by itself. Though, granted, if that’s all they’ll offer him, he’ll take it and be grateful.

Wheeljack hums thoughtfully. “Have you tried talking to them?”

“Of course,” Grimlock says with a sigh. “It’s just they’re so busy with Whirl.”

“They don’t notice you,” Wheeljack finishes. “Sounds like what you need is a caretaker.”

“I have two.” Grimlock tilts his head.

Wheeljack laughs and turns down the burner so his liquids bubble at a gentler rate. “Not for you, my silly bit. For Sideswipe and Sunstreaker. For Whirl.”

Grimlock folds his arms. “Not a bit,” he grumbles, embarrassment pulling heat to his cheeks.

“You’ll always be a bit no matter how big you get,” Wheeljack reaches up and pats him on the shoulder. “You’ll be my little bit. But that’s beside the point.” He waves and goes back to the table, picking up a datapad with his free hand. “Get the twins a caretaker so they can have a night without Whirl, and you’ll have your opportunity to talk to them.”

It makes sense.

Grimlock hums thoughtfully. “Whirl doesn’t like most mechs.”

Wheeljack’s indicators flash an amused yellow. “Oh, he likes some just fine. But he prefers Sideswipe and Sunstreaker, so he pretends otherwise.” He taps his blast mask with one finger. “Tell you what, me and Ratch will offer to take Whirl for a few hours. I’m sure they’ll be grateful for it, and you can make your move.”

“My move?” Grimlock echoes. He laughs, shaking his head.

“I know you have some.” Wheeljack winks playfully. “You learned them from me.”

Grimlock is swept up in such a surge of affection for his pseudo-creator that he pulls Wheeljack into a hug, causing the engineer to squawk and awkwardly pat him on the back. “You are ridiculous, but I appreciate you anyway,” Grimlock rumbles as he sets Wheeljack back down on wobbly feet.

Wheeljack coughs and thumps his chestplate. “I appreciate you, too, Grim.” His indicators flush a warm pink. “Now shoo. I have to convince Ratch to caretake for a night, and you have to go plan a very seductive ambush.”

“It’s not a battle!” Grimlock retorts.

Wheeljack shakes his head and raps his fingers over the desk. “Oh, bitlet. You have so much to learn.” He tilts his head, optics bright with amusement. “Love is a battlefield.”

~

“Nice of Ratchet and Wheeljack to take Whirl for the night,” Sideswipe says as Sunstreaker finishes polishing up the last of the armor on his back. Sideswipe can’t remember the last time he was so shiny.

Sunstreaker grunts. “Yeah. Nice.”

“What? You don’t think it is?”

Sunstreaker’s silence speaks volumes. Maybe not to other mechs, but Sideswipe can read every hitched ventilation, every careful sweep of his fingers, every creak of his armor.

“Or you’re just worried about Whirl,” Sideswipe states. It’s not a question. “Which, I gotta admit, is super adorable.”

“Shut up.”

Sunstreaker whirls away from him and tosses the cloth into the bin for cleaning. His field retracts, pulling inward, but embarrassment still radiates from the bond.

“Aww.” Sideswipe embraces his brother from behind, pressing a kiss to the side of his neck. “It’s okay. I’m going to worry about him, too. But we gotta have a break every now and again, or we’ll go crazy. Well, crazier anyway.”

Sunstreaker snorts a laugh. He leans back into Sideswipe’s arms. “You’re right.”

“Oh, what did I do to deserve that little treat?” Sideswipe nibbles into Sunstreaker’s intake, rocking against Sunstreaker’s aft. “Are you angling to get spoiled tonight?”

“I was actually thinking about pinning you facedown on the berth, but we can arrange terms if you want,” Sunstreaker replies with a purr of his engine.

A thrill runs through Sideswipe’s circuits, heat pulsing in the wake of it. “Is that so? Well–”

He breaks off as someone chimes their door. They both pause.

“Are you expecting someone?” Sideswipe asks.

Sunstreaker eases out of his arms, a frown marring the tease that had been in his field earlier. “No.”

They exchange a glance.

Sideswipe answers the door while Sunstreaker stands tensely behind him. They don’t get visitors, especially ones that come unannounced. What friends they do have know better than to drop by unannounced.

The door opens. Grimlock stands on the other side of it, clutching a neatly wrapped package, his shoulders hunched a little as though in a vain attempt to make himself appear smaller.

Sideswipe blinks. “Can we… help you?” he asks, head tilted.

“This is for you,” Grimlock says, as clear as a bell, without a trace of processor damage in his vocals. Something he’s been doing around them as of late, but not around anyone else, Sideswipe’s noticed.

He thrusts the crate their direction.

Sideswipe stares at it and makes no move to grab it. He doesn’t think Grimlock would give them a bomb, but stranger things have happened. It wouldn’t be the first time the Decepticons – or one of their many enemies – used a friendly face to get close to them.

There’s a reason they aren’t friends with Crosscut anymore.

“Why?” Sunstreaker asks.

Grimlock, of all things, fidgets. “I’m told it’s customary to bring a gift before you ask someone to join you.”

“Join you?” Sideswipe’s orbital ridges draw down. “For what? A revolution? Are you planning a mutiny, Grim? Because I gotta tell you, I don’t think it’s going to go as well as you think it is.”

Grimlock stares at him for a long moment before he chuckles, low and rumbling. “No, Sideswipe. I’m not planning a revolution, but it’s good to know where you stand on that front.” He shifts his grip on the package. “I meant on a date.”

“A date,” Sunstreaker echoes flatly. “With Sideswipe.” Tension radiates through the bond, and Sideswipe feels the hot jealousy rise up in his brother before Sunstreaker adds, “You do realize he’s mine, right? That we’re bonded?”

Sunstreaker moves closer, and Sideswipe feels him bump against his side, one hand flattening against Sideswipe’s lower back. It’s a blatant claim if Sideswipe ever saw one.

Grimlock’s vents sputter. “The invitation is for both of you,” he says hastily. “I would never presume to take one bonded from another. But I had heard you occasionally sought out a third…?” His voice cants upward at the end, a question, not a statement.

“Sometimes, yeah. If we’re interested enough,” Sideswipe says. He pointedly looks Grimlock up and down while slipping one hand back, patting Sunstreaker to calm him down. “But we don’t do one night lays anymore. And we’re not for sale.”

Now it’s Sunstreaker who’s patting him, his field reaching out, wrapping around Sideswipe, offering comfort. It’s Sunstreaker murmuring in his audial, urging calm, and only then does Sideswipe realize how aggressive he sounds, how his engine is revving.

“I would like more than a single night,” Grimlock says. He doesn’t flinch in the face of Sideswipe’s aggression. Doesn’t back down. Doesn’t get angry. “If you’re interested, I mean. It’s up to you. I’ll leave now, if you want that. Or I can stay and we can go on a date and see where the future takes us.”

Sunstreaker curls a hand around Sideswipe’s nearest elbow, squeezing gently. “Why?”

And that’s the most important question of all, isn’t it?

The package dips a little as Grimlock shifts out of his almost military-grade stance. He cycles an audible ventilation, and the glow of his visor turns warm, softening.

“I could tell you the obvious,” Grimlock says. “That I find you both beautiful. Intelligent. Charming. Fascinating. It would even be true.” He pauses, his voice taking on a silkier, rhythmic cadence. “I am intrigued by you. I find your strength and your skill something to admire. But what captured my attention most is the way you care for Whirl.”

Sideswipe sways a little, and Sunstreaker’s grip keeps him upright. There’s something in the way Grimlock looks at them, the way he says those things so frankly, that reeks of honesty. He’s not being complimentary because it’s the quickest way to get under their plating. He’s saying such things because he honestly believes them to be true.

“Other mechs would probably say different,” Sideswipe says, his will crumpling in the wake of Grimlock’s earnestness.

“All I see is a happy sparkling, one who adores his adoptive caretakers, and is learning to trust again. I see results.” Grimlock rolls his shoulders, though there’s nothing dismissive in the motion. “Others may be blind, but I’m not. I see you for who you are.”

Sunstreaker’s hands tightens on Sideswipe’s arm. “And who do you think we are?”

“Two mechs who love each other to the ends of the universe,” Grimlock says. “Who try to do the right thing, and who took in a sparkling no one else understood so he wouldn’t feel the same loneliness you did.” He pauses, shifts a little, and his field reaches for theirs, tentative but warm. “I see two mechs I’d really like to get to know better, if they’ll let me.”

He offers the gift again.

This time Sideswipe takes it.

The box fits easily in his hands. The wrapping crinkles under his fingers. It’s light to the touch – too light to be a bomb. He imagines Grimlock carefully wrapping it with over-large fingers. Or perhaps he had help.

“A date,” Sunstreaker says, his tone somewhere between confused and concession.

Sideswipe peels away the wrapping and peers into the box. He huffs a laugh as the wrapping flutters to the floor, and he takes stock of the contents.

A new game for Whirl. A set of very nice paintbrushes Sunstreaker had been eying on the intranet but hadn’t allowed himself to buy. A stack of datapads bound with a ribbon. And a smaller wrapped box, the label on the outside enough to make Sideswipe’s mouth lubricate.

A lot of thought had gone into this gift.

Sideswipe looks up at his brother. He pokes the bond as Sunstreaker’s optics meet his, and an entire conversation passes between them in the space of a few sparkbeats.

‘Let’s do it.’

Sideswipe hands the box to Sunstreaker, who takes it into their quarters to find somewhere to stash it. Whirl will want the box later, to play with, but for now, best to keep it away from tiny, thieving fingers.

“All right,” Sideswipe says, and reboots his vocalizer to clear away the unexpected rattle of static in it.

“We’ll do it,” Sunstreaker says as he returns to Sideswipe’s side, presenting a united front. Not that Sideswipe thinks Grimlock is going to attack.

It’s the principle of the thing.

“Tonight?” Grimlock asks, and the delight in his field makes Sideswipe’s armor tingle with anticipation.

It rattles along the bond, too. Sunstreaker presses harder against his side. Always did have a taste for the big ones, Sunny does. Likes those who can hold their own, who can pick him up and hold him down.

Sideswipe tilts his head. “Hmm. You asked Ratchet and Wheeljack to caretake for us tonight, didn’t you?”

A low rumble of laughter rises in Grimlock’s intake. “Guilty as charged.” He leans a bit closer, the rough baritone rolling through their audials. “Does that put me out of the running?”

Sideswipe’s glossa flicks over his lips.

Sunny might like the big ones. But Sideswipe has always favored the sneaky and the crafty.

Sunstreaker huffs a laugh. “If anything, it put you at the top of the list.” He moves forward, out of the doorway, and tugs Sideswipe with him, so their door can close. “I hope you have something good in mind. We’re not that easy to entertain.”

“Especially since we planned to catch a quick drink before we spent the rest of the night fragging ourselves silly,” Sideswipe says with a lazy grin. He pointedly looks Grimlock up and down. “So, you know, top that.”

Grimlock’s visor brightens with heat. There’s no mistaking the look he gives them. “Oh, I intend to,” he purrs, and oh Primus, the deep rumble of it goes straight to Sideswipe’s array. “As many times as you’ll let me.”

Sideswipe absolutely does not swoon. But there’s a surge of charge racing through his lines, and Sunstreaker’s grip on his arm spells heat.

“Then the plan stays the same,” Sideswipe declares with tons of bravado pulled from the depths of his tank. “We grab some drinks, we briefly mingle, and then we come back to the suite.” His glossa sweeps over his lips. “Fair?”

Grimlock’s field slides against his, dizzying and full of charge. “Fair.”

Oh, Primus.

Sideswipe exchanges a glance with Sunstreaker, and the heat in his brother’s optics is all the answer Sideswipe needs to know Sunstreaker is on board with this.

Sideswipe’s lips slide into a smirk and he sidles up to Grimlock’s side, threading his arm through the Dinobot’s. “Well then,” he purrs as he slides his field along Grimlock’s with a purposeful surge of heat. “Shall we?”

“Yeah.” Sunstreaker doesn’t so much as sidle as he snatches Grimlock’s other arm and gives it a tug. “We going?”

No seduction in that one sometimes. Tsk, tsk. Honestly, if they didn’t share a spark, Sideswipe would swear they aren’t related.

The press of Grimlock’s field turns sly and accommodating. “Every which way we can,” he boasts.

Sideswipe laughs.

This is going to be great.

[G1] Fortune Favors 01

It starts with a laser scalpel.

No one sees the little bit grab it but Sunstreaker. It’s over in an instant, a flash, and the bitlet is safe before anyone realizes what happened. Sunstreaker growling to the bit in a strange garbled language is the rust on the oilcake, before he sets the scalpel high out of reach and stomps back to Sideswipe’s side.

He glares at the room as though daring anyone to comment.

No one does.

Grimlock notices. He can’t help but notice. It’s what Dinobots do. They watch. They observe. They notice. They take down details no one else bothers to find important, but a Dinobot knows. They’re used to being in the background, being ignored. They’re used to knowing the secrets no one else knows.

“Aw, he’s just curious,” Wheeljack says once it’s all said and done and Ratchet goes back to examining the mysterious sparkling.

Curious Grimlock’s aft. That sparkling intended to stick the scalpel in Ratchet and make a break for it. He may be little, but he’s more than half-feral, and there’s a look in the bit’s optics Grimlock knows all too well.

He doesn’t trust them. He’s terrified of them. And he’s been alone too long to know what it means to rely on anyone but himself.

Someone abandoned him. Someone had looked at this tiny, helpless sparkling, and cast him out in the wilderness alone. It’s unconscionable. Said aft better hope Grimlock never finds his identity because there’s no punishment strong enough for such a crime.

It had broken his spark, to see the little shape darting in and out of the debris of the city, far too young to be a survivor of the bombardment from millennia past. At first, Grimlock had thought it a spying cassetticon. Swoop had flown in, snatching the little bit up, and immediately, Grimlock had known the truth.

This was a sparkling. And he needed help. So Grimlock did the only thing he could. He brought the little one to his creator, and in doing so, managed to attract the attention of half the Autobot army.

No one’s seen a sparkling in millennia. Most had died during the war, and those who survived, grew up to be warriors, soldiers.

So many start hovering as Ratchet works on the malnourished sparkling that Optimus has to come down shoo them out. Or at least that’s his excuse. Optimus wants to see the bitlet as much as everyone else. He makes everyone leave, and then Optimus lingers as well, blue optics haunted as he focuses on the tiny frame.

Grimlock doesn’t budge. He sends his brothers away to make for more room in the cramped medbay, but he doesn’t budge. They’d found the sparkling. He feels responsible for it. He wants to make sure the bitlet gets the best care, and that the Autobots and their occasionally flexible morals, don’t decide to treat it poorly if it turns out to be the spawn of a Decepticon.

So Grimlock stands back and he watches, and as a result, he’s the only one to catch the intent in the sparkling’s optics. Well, he thinks he’s the only one. Turns out, Sunstreaker notices, too. And he reacts much faster than Grimlock.

He leaps up from his brother’s side, crosses the room in a flash, and snatches both scalpel and sparkling out of thin air. The sparkling hisses and thrashes like a wild animal, until Sunstreaker gives him a little shake and growls at him. It’s some guttural, incomprehensible language but the sparkling immediately goes still and quiet, his optics wide.

Sunstreaker glares for a second more, optics as warm as a chip of ice, and the sparkling stays quiet. Meek. Obedient. Whatever Sunstreaker says is effective. Only then does Sunstreaker hand him back to Ratchet, without a word and seemingly ignorant to the multiple incredulous stares he’s earned.

Sunstreaker retreats.

Ratchet shakes himself, and Wheeljack is the one who tries to downplay the danger of the situation.

“His curiosity needs to stay away from dangerous instruments,” Ratchet grouses, his voice gruff but his hands gentle. He sets the sparkling back on the exam table and continues, perhaps a touch more wary than before.

The sparkling folds his arms and glares at the ground, pouting if Grimlock has to guess.

“How is he, Ratchet?” Optimus asks. If he’s bothered by the attempted maiming, it doesn’t show in his voice or his posture. Though his optics do dim with sympathy for the sparkling.

Well, that’s Optimus. Soft-sparked for the little ones.

Unless the little ones are big, dumb newly-sparked Dinobots.

Ratchet pulls a packet of solid energon from nowhere and hands it to the bit, who snatches it from him and starts gnawing on it immediately. Quickly, too. He gobbles it down as if he’s afraid someone will take it from him.

Little thing like that, Grimlock wouldn’t be surprised if that is the case. The war has driven a lot of mechs from Cybertron, but scavengers still linger. They would have no qualms about stealing from a little one either.

It’s every mech for himself.

“He’ll live,” Ratchet says. “He’s severely malnourished. He’s significantly smaller than he should be given his spark size. His fuel pump barely functions. He’s going to need a complete flush of all his lines, and he definitely needs a bath.”

Optimus leans against the wall, arms folded over his chassis. “Is there any clue as to his identity?”

“He’s a sparkling, Optimus.” Ratchet hands the bitlet another strip of hardened energon. “He’s not wearing a badge. And without sparks for comparison, I don’t know who he belongs to. So unless someone comes looking, I’d say he’s ours now.”

Optimus frowns, his forehead wrinkling. “We’re in the middle of a war, Ratchet. This is no place for a sparkling.”

“It’s not like there’s anywhere else that’s safe,” comes a mutter from the other side of the room.

Grimlock follows the bitter tone to Sideswipe, alert on the berth despite being drugged to the gills, a heavy layer of static bandaging over the hole in his midsection. Sunstreaker sits next to him, pointedly not looking at the little one gnawing on his treat. He’s got a deathgrip on one of Sideswipe’s hands, as though trying to keep his brother alive by sheer willpower alone, not that Sideswipe is currently in danger of offlining.

Wheeljack nods. “Sideswipe has a point.” He tries to wriggle a finger at the bitlet’s belly and nearly gets bit for his troubles. “There’s nowhere we can send him. If you ask me, he’s better off with us. I think the army can handle one sparkling to look after, don’t you?”

Wheeljack’s optics are bright with affection, and Grimlock knows, if Optimus doesn’t agree, he might have a fight on his hands. Wheeljack loves little ones. He’s always wanted sparklings of his own. There’s no way he’d be content with sending the bitlet away to a place that may or may not be safe.

“That would probably be for the best,” Optimus says with an audible sigh. His gaze softens as he looks at the bitlet. “Does he have a name?”

Ratchet shakes his head and sets his datapad aside. “Not an official one.”

“Whirlwind,” Sunstreaker pipes up, though his efforts to ignore them are now proven false. “Whirl for short.”

Ratchet’s orbital ridges lift. Wheeljack chuckles, his indicators flickering through shades of pink.

“I like it,” Wheeljack declares. He wriggles a small wrench at the sparkling, who gives him a thousand-yard stare of boredom. “It suits him.”

“That’s because it’s his name,” Sunstreaker retorts. He rolls his optics and whips a mesh cloth out of subspace, scrubbing at a mark on his arm, one Grimlock had noticed earlier.

The sparkling, in his thrashing haste to escape, had nicked Sunstreaker’s arm. It is barely a scratch for warrior’s armor, and couldn’t have drawn energon, but of course, Sunstreaker takes any mark to his paint personally.

“How do you know?” Ratchet asks.

Sunstreaker ignores him. It’s Sideswipe who sighs and gives them a shaky grin. “Once a street rat, always a street rat,” he chirps. “It’s gutter speak. Pretty much the only thing you can talk if no one ever uploads proper language protocols, you know.”

Optimus straightens, pushing away from the wall. “You understand this language?”

“I don’t know if I’d call it a language, but yeah. Mostly.” Sideswipe shrugs, and then winces as it tugs at the wound on his midsection. He reaches out, nudging his brother with his knuckles. “Help me out here, bro.”

Sunstreaker sighs, much put upon. “It has dialects like any other language,” he says without looking up from the scratch. “It’s not universal.”

“So you can’t understand him?” Ratchet asks as Whirlwind makes a few urgent noises, chomping on the last bit of energon and eying Ratchet as though considering taking a bite out of the medic.

Wheeljack tries to hand him the wrench again. Whirl snatches it up and promptly takes a swipe at Wheeljack, who’s smart enough to lean back at the last moment.

Ratchet turns at the noise, and a wrestling match ensues between two grown mechs and a teeny sparkling. Sunstreaker snorts a laugh, and Sideswipe grins as they manage to mechhandle the wrench away. Or bribe actually as Ratchet hands Whirl another energon chew and like the little survivor he is, Whirl takes lunch over a weapon.

“We can, but you know, it’s not a literal translation or anything.” Sideswipe winces and he must have said something to Sunstreaker over their bond, because Sunstreaker rolls his optics and heaves out of the chair. “We can figure it out though.”

“I am glad to hear it. We could use your help,” Optimus says.

Sideswipe grins, and there’s something practiced in it, something Grimlock recognizes all too well. Put on a front, show you’re not dangerous, prove you’re on their side, again and again, because you’ve too much pride to run away, and you aren’t running into the arms of the other guy either.

Grimlock and his brothers, they’re all in the same boat.

“Whatever you need,” Sideswipe chirps.

Optimus nods slowly. “For now, however, I think it’s best if Whirl stays with Wheeljack and Ratchet. Unless you disagree?” He looks at the aforementioned two, who only need to exchange a glance without words.

They’ve been together so long, they don’t really need them anymore. Grimlock envies his creators for that connection. He wants to have a relationship like that of his own some day. Maybe, if he’s lucky, even a family.

“It’s fine with me,” Wheeljack says with a shrug. He reaches for Whirl, but the sparkling bares his denta and hisses, and Wheeljack decides against it. “Don’t think he likes me very much though.”

Sunstreaker snorts and returns to his stool with a datapad, which he tumbles into Sideswipe’s hands. “He doesn’t like anyone. He’s not going to either.”

“Why is that?” Ratchet asks, head tilted. Of course he won’t understand. He’d been sparked a medic. A talented, gifted medic. He’s never had to want for anything in his functioning.

Grimlock doesn’t hold that against Ratchet. It can’t be helped. But times like these, that lack of experience shows his ignorance.

Sideswipe makes a noise of glee. “You’re so good to me, bro,” he playfully purrs before he shifts his attention to the room at large. “Not trusting people comes with the territory.”

“It is an unfortunate thing,” Optimus says with a tone Grimlock has come to loathe. He calls it Optimus’ Patronizing Pontification tone. “It will be no easy task to care for a sparkling on a military base. We shall do our best to look after him nonetheless.”

“Eh, we’ll manage.” Wheeljack tries to poke Whirlwind in the belly again, and the sparkling squeaks, twisting out of range, grip firm on the energon chew. “We always do.”

Sideswipe and Sunstreaker exchange glances, but Grimlock is the only one to see them do so. They don’t comment. Sideswipe’s attention returns to his datapad. Sunstreaker swipes again at his armor, his optics occasionally straying to Whirl.

Grimlock can’t decide what expression Sunstreaker has. The yellow twin has always been harder to read, not that Sideswipe is an open book either. They both have masks and most of the other Autobots don’t bother to notice.

Then again, most of the other Autobots aren’t Dinobots.

“He’s just one sparkling,” Ratchet says as Whirl makes urgent noises of hunger around the last bite of energon chew in his mouth. “How hard can it be?”

Grimlock snorts.

Sideswipe’s gaze shoots toward him then, the curve of his mouth suggesting amusement. “Yeah,” he says. “He’s just one sparkling.”

“You hush.” Ratchet shakes a scanner at him warningly. “I’ll get to you in a minute.”

Sideswipe chuckles. Needling Ratchet’s always been one of his favorite pasttimes. He looks at Grimlock again, however, his energon blue optics sharp and assessing. Curious, perhaps, as though he’s seeing something for the first time.

Grimlock’s not interacted directly with the twins much. They tend to keep to themselves, same as the Dinobots. Grimlock’s heard enough stories to give him a frame of context, but how true they are, well, that’s up for debate.

Mechs tend to let bias form their opinions after all.

Still…

Grimlock’s thinking about finding out for himself now. He hadn’t expected to find echoes of camaraderie in Sideswipe and Sunstreaker, but he sees it now.

He wants to know more.

~

The ‘Call to Arms’ jerks Sideswipe out of a sound recharge, and away from the comforting warmth of a rare Sunstreaker cuddle. He grumbles as he rolls out of his brother’s arms and promptly tumbles off the bed, landing with a clatter on his bad hip.

“Ow.”

“Graceful as always, Sides,” Sunstreaker murmurs sleepily.

“Shut up and get up, Sunshine.” Sideswipe clambers to his feet, clinging to the side of the berth, blinking recharge out of his optics. “There’s a battle. Hop to it.”

Sunstreaker growls and rolls over, burying his face in the berth. “Check your heads-up again, dumbaft. It’s a security alert.”

Sideswipe stumbles over to their energon stock and pulls out a cube. Oh, Sunny’s right, he realizes. It’s not a ‘Call to Arms’. It’s just an alert. Wait. Not just.

“Rise and shine!” Sideswipe pauses to chug his energon. “Little bit’s missing, Ratch and Jack are on a rampage, and I’ll bet bolts and brackets no one’s looking in the right place.”

“Because no one around here was raised in the gutters,” Sunstreaker mutters, his voice muffled by the pillow.

Sideswipe finishes off the cube, feeling marginally more alert, and returns to the berth. He climbs on and crawls over Sunstreaker, laying across his brother’s back. He ex-vents into Sunstreaker’s neck, mouth teasing against the back of Sunstreaker’s audial.

“Wake up, wake up, wake up,” he chants as he rolls his hips against Sunstreaker’s aft, mimicking their late night activities with an arrhythmic push that’s a shade annoying.

Sunstreaker growls. “Why are you so damn perky in the morning?”

“Because it’s so easy to love you,” Sideswipe says with a laugh. He tickles Sunstreaker’s sides and plants a sloppy kiss on the back of Sunstreaker’s neck.

He dodges the backward swipe Sunstreaker aims at him and scuttles off the berth. “All right, sheesh. I’ll leave some energon out for you, cranky. I’ll go look for Whirl by myself.”

Sunstreaker lifts his head a little, one optic visible. “Why do you care so much about the brat anyway?”

Sideswipe shrugs. “Because no one around here really gets him like we do,” he says. “And you know, no one was there for us. I kind of feel sorry for him.”

Sunstreaker pushes up on his elbows, both optics squinting at Sideswipe. “You want to keep him,” he accuses, surprise running flush through their bond. “Don’t you?”

Heat flushes Sideswipe’s cheeks. “Is that a bad thing?” he demands, indignant. “It’s not like we can have any for ourselves.”

“Yeah but…” Sunstreaker leverages himself into a seated position, looking so sleep rumpled and delectable it’s almost enough to distract Sideswipe. “They’re not gonna let us, Sides. You know that.”

Sideswipe’s spark shrinks into a tiny ball of hurt. “I know. But maybe we can babysit or something.” He shrugs, tries to play nonchalant. “I mean, Ratchet and Wheeljack are pretty busy, and Wheeljack works around some dangerous stuff. They might need help.”

Sunstreaker looks pointedly around the room, gesturing to the weapons on their walls, the detritus on the floor, the video game cords strewn about. “We’re not any safer.”

“We can fix that,” Sideswipe protests. He knows it’s a losing battle.

Sunstreaker sighs. “Yeah, but we can’t fix what we are.” He slides off the berth and toddles toward Sideswipe, pulling him into a hug, and Sideswipe clings to his brother, his twin. Times like this, when he can lean on Sunstreaker’s strength, are rare enough, and Sideswipe can’t help but indulge.

“Seems like we always get the rust end of the deal, don’t we?” Sideswipe mutters.

“On the bright side, we still have each other,” Sunstreaker says.

Sideswipe snorts and pulls back, slanting his lips over Sunstreaker’s in a quick kiss. Well, he intends to make it quick. But as usual, the touch of his brother’s mouth to his becomes something he can’t easily dismiss. Sunstreaker’s like an intoxicant, and Sideswipe always feels like he can’t get enough. Especially since Ratchet had specified no interfacing of any kind last night, and for once, Sideswipe had obeyed.

Sunstreaker presses a kiss to the corner of his mouth and separates them. “Go on. Look for the bit. When you come back, I’m fixing that mess on your chassis.”

Sideswipe rolls his optics. “It’s not my fault Motormaster shot me.”

“Should’ve dodged.” Sunstreaker pats him on the aft and grabs the energon Sideswipe left out for him. The reply had been nonchalant, but his clamped armor and narrowing of the bond speaks otherwise.

They have close calls all the time. This one wasn’t any different. Sunstreaker will get over it. After all, it’s not like he has to worry about outliving Sideswipe, right?

“I’ll remember that next time,” Sideswipe says, and backs toward the door. “See you later, bro.”

Sunstreaker waves over his shoulder, but their bond pulses love, and that’s good enough for Sideswipe. He ducks into the hallway and nearly collides with Bluestreak, who giggles and catches his shoulders so they don’t fall down in a graceless tumble.

“Where’s the fire?” Bluestreak asks as Sideswipe regains his balance.

“Sorry, Blue.” Sideswipe slings an arm over Bluestreak’s shoulder and leans on him. He wouldn’t dare do this with most mechs, but Bluestreak is one of the closest things he and Sunny have to a best friend. “Wasn’t paying attention. I heard there was something of an emergency and thought I’d offer my services.”

Bluestreak hooks an arm around Sideswipe’s waist and pinches a cable on the other side, making Sideswipe squeak. “You want to help look for Whirl?”

“Red’s got the whole base on alert. Figured I might as well, since it’s my day off and all.”

“You’re so sweet.”

“As a fresh-baked rust stick,” Sideswipe agrees.

Bluestreak rolls his optics and rises up, pressing a kiss to Sideswipe’s cheek. “Well, if anyone can find him, I’ll bet you can.” He squeezes Sideswipe’s opposite hip. “You and Sunny busy tonight?”

Sideswipe pats the static mesh on his midsection with his free hand. “You see this? I’m going to be in Sunstreaker’s tender care from dusk until dawn. And I’m not walking out until I’m sparkling-new.”

“Ah, good point.” Bluestreak’s sensory panels flutter. “Maybe I can feign an accident myself, get some of that tender care, too. My paint’s looking a little rough.”

Sideswipe laughs and nuzzles into Bluestreak’s neck. “Aw, baby Blue, you know all you gotta do is ask.”

“I hate that nickname,” Bluestreak grumbles, his nose wrinkling in a most adorable way.

“Not when Jazz says it, I notice.”

Bluestreak squirms out from under his arm, his face blushing pink, and his field tinted with embarrassment. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Jazz has a nickname for everyone, you know. It’s pointless to get him to stop saying anything.” His sensory panels arch high. “Anyway, I’ve got to go look for the sparkling, and you should, too. It’s an emergency.”

Bluestreak skedaddles before Sideswipe can tease him further, and Sideswipe opts not to give chase. He can’t help it. Bluestreak is ever so fun to tease. Even better when Sideswipe can catch Jazz and make him squirm, too. One of these days, Sideswipe’s going to play matchmaker, and it’s going to be adorable.

Now. To find Whirl.

If Sideswipe was a sparkling, brought to an army’s home base, where would he go? Where would he hide? It’s not too difficult to put himself in Whirl’s place. Sideswipe had been there before, though always with Sunstreaker at his side. They’d bounced from foster home to safe zone to hidey-hole, always searching for the best place to catch some rest.

Sideswipe moves through the crowds of searching mechs, all of whom are calling Whirl’s name as they open vent covers and peer under tables and rifle through lockers and search all the obvious hiding spots. No, Whirl won’t be in any of those. In fact, Sideswipe would bet all the creds in his subspace Whirl hasn’t gone far. He’d have taken one look at the broad hallway with its lack of cover and gone diving back into the safety of Ratchet and Wheeljack’s quarters. That is, if he could even get the door open, which Sideswipe doubts.

The door is closed. Locked. Both Wheeljack and Ratchet out searching. It’s nothing a little lock-picking can’t handle, so Sideswipe overrides the door and lets himself inside.

It’s quiet and still. He stands in the center and turns in a slow circle. The air vents are too high for a sparkling to reach. The berthlocker is sealed shut and locked, as is the weapons locker. Smart mechs. There are a couple cabinets at ground level, but there’s one that catches Sideswipe’s optics the most. It’s in the corner, tucked away, looks as if it’s barely used.

Bingo.

“What you doing?”

Sideswipe, to his credit, does not screech as he whirls around, spark pounding in his chassis. It’s just Grimlock, standing in the open doorway, head tilted as he peers curiously at Sideswipe.

“Primus, Grim!” Sideswipe clutches at his chestplate. “You almost gave me a sparkattack!” He staggers playfully. “Don’t sneak up on a mech like that.”

Grimlock’s visor flashes. “Why you in Mama Ratchet and Papa Wheeljack’s room?”

Oh, right.

Sideswipe coughs a ventilation. “Whirl’s gone missing, you know. I’m helping look.”

“They look here.” Grimlock’s weight shifts. “And they been calling for him.” His expression is impossible to read behind mask and visor, but there’s accusation in his tone.

Honestly, Sideswipe’s always found the Dinobots hard to communicate with, and Grimlock especially. Not because they’re big, dumb brutes as most people assume. But they are rather insular. Then again, Sideswipe doesn’t have any room to talk. He and Sunstreaker have a world all their own, too.

Sideswipe winks and falls into a playful role, sure to put Grimlock at ease. “Yeah, but I’ll bet not in the right place.” He gestures to the cabinet in the corner. “What if I told you, I’d bet he’s in there. He’s probably made himself a nest, stole some supplies, and he ain’t coming out until the coast is clear.”

Grimlock’s massive arms fold. “Prove it.”

Sideswipe flexes his fingers together, popping his joints. “I’m about to do just that.” He winks and spins toward the cabinet.

He approaches slowly, stepping louder than necessary, just to give the bit warning. He crouches down and eases the nearest door open. Inside, it is dim and shadowy and something hisses at him.

“Oh, he’s in there all right,” Sideswipe murmurs.

He lowers himself further and peers inside. Purple optics glare back at him from the far back corner of the cabinet. There’s a dim glow of energon – someone’s been making himself a nice stash – and pale lines of biolights.

“Hey, Whirl. Whatcha doin’ in there?” Sideswipe asks.

Whirl growls at him and spits a garbled mess of a language. “Go away!”

“Aw, I can’t do that,” Sideswipe replies in kind, or at least an approximation of it. “Need you to come out. Don’t worry. We won’t hurt you. Come out and you can have all the fuel you want. Promise.”

Whirl pushes back further against the far end. “Don’t believe promise.”

Sideswipe spark squeezes with sympathy. “I know.” He sets his hands down, palms open, to show he’s not carrying anything. “You remember my brother, right? Sunstreaker? He talked to you yesterday.”

“Yellow?”

“Yeah, yellow.” Sideswipe grins. He can already hear Sunny bitching that he’s not yellow, he’s metallic citrine thank you very much. “He’s safe, right?”

Whirl inches forward. “Maybe.”

He’s not quite in reach yet, but Sideswipe only needs him to come a bit further, and he grab the bitlet. Though honestly, it’s not like he’s unsafe where he’s at. There’s nothing but meshcloths and spare static bandages stored down here. As far as Sideswipe’s concerned, Whirl can live here until he feels safer.

Everyone else will probably protest.

“Want me to get him?” Sideswipe asks.

He hears the door open, but doesn’t dare look away to see who it is. It’s not Sunstreaker, he knows that much.

“You found him?” That’s Ratchet, sounding suspicious and surprised. He’s also getting closer.

Whirl squeaks and vanishes further back into the cabinet, behind his rampart of mesh cloths. Sideswipe has to swallow down a sigh.

“Yeah, I did, but he might not come out if you crowd him,” Sideswipe hisses over his shoulder. He can’t see Ratchet yet, but Grimlock is still very much there, looming in Sideswipe’s peripheral sensors. Watching. It’s kind of disconcerting.

Well, until he crouches anyway. Far enough from the cabinet not to be a threat to Whirlwind, but close enough that he can tap Sideswipe’s shoulder with something.

“Here,” he grunts.

Sideswipe looks. It’s one of those hard energon bars. The ones Whirl liked yesterday.

“Thanks.” Sideswipe grins and ducks his head to peer into the cabinet again. “Hey, Whirly-bird. I got another one of these for you. Want it?” He wriggles the energon bar and the wrapping crinkles. “Gotta stock up whenever you can, right?”

The bitlet’s engine gives the tiniest rev. “No hurt?”

“Never,” Sideswipe promises.

Whirl inches within reach. “Like me?”

“Yeah.” Sideswipe doesn’t move, doesn’t dare twitch. “Me and Sunny both.”

Whirl pauses as though thinking about it, and then he scuttles out, snatching up the energon bar lightning quick. Fortunately, Sideswipe is fast, too. He scoops Whirl off the ground and tucks the bitlet against his chestplate, while Whirl yowls and hisses and wails.

“You promise!”

“And I’m not hurting you,” Sideswipe retorts with a roll of his optics. He turns toward the room at large, startling a bit at the audience he’s drawn.

Little fingers dig into his seams, Whirl even tries to bite him, but Sideswipe taps him on the nose, and Whirl startles. He blinks up at Sideswipe with a scowl before biting viciously into the energon bar.

“Mean,” he grunts.

“Why isn’t he speaking clearly?” Optimus asks from the doorway. He’s blocking others from coming inside.

Ratchet sighs and scrubs at his forehead. “He won’t let me plug into him. I can’t update his software.”

“He doesn’t trust you,” Sideswipe says.

In his arms, Whirl gnaws on the energon bar and settles, pushing hard against Sideswipe’s armor as though he wants to crawl under it. One foot keeps swinging out, kicking Sideswipe, but it feels petulant more than anything else. At least he’s not fighting anymore.

“Can’t blame him either,” Sideswipe adds as old memories wisp to life in the back of his mind. “Me and Sunny, we didn’t like big mechs either. Especially ones who looked important.”

Ratchet frowns, and his field unfurls, sadness gathering at the edges of it. “Medics should be viewed as universally safe.”

“Yeah, well, they aren’t,” Sideswipe bites out. He gestures to Whirl with his free hand. “I promise you, he’s gonna keep hiding and running away.”

“Until…?” Optimus asks.

Sideswipe shrugs. What else can he do? “Until he feels safe? Until he gets away?” He sighs and looks down at Whirl, his spark aching for the mechlet. “When you’re alone, you learn that’s all you’re ever gonna be.”

Whirl shoves the last of the energon bar into his mouth and looks up at Sideswipe, his cheeks stuffed. “We go now?”

Sideswipe nibbles on his bottom lip. “Well, I do. But you gotta stay, bit.”

Whirl starts squirming. His hands claw at Sideswipe’s armor like he’s trying to climb up his chassis. “No! I go!”

“What is it? What’s wrong?” Ratchet moves closer, and Whirl immediately hisses at him, his fingers digging into Sideswipe’s seam.

Sideswipe’s hold on him tightens. “He wants to stay with me.” He cycles a ventilation and rubs the back of his neck with his free hand. “But that’s impossible.”

“Why?” Grimlock asks, and Sideswipe startles. He’s forgotten the Dinobot leader is here. “Him Whirl like you. Why impossible? You no like him?”

“That’s… I mean… It’s not a good idea, right?” Sideswipe says. He searches for Ratchet and Optimus with his gaze, and find them both thoughtful.

Ratchet thumbs his chin. “He does seem to trust you the most. And you are capable of communicating with him.” His gaze slants to Optimus. “Honestly, Optimus, Wheeljack and I are so swamped, it’s hard to care for a bitlet this small. At least, full-time anyway.”

“But me and Sunny, we’re warriors,” Sideswipe says, not really a protest but a reminder. “If there’s a battle, we gotta be there. We can’t bring him into battle.”

Optimus tilts his head in that way he does when he’s giving deep thought to something. “Is that a protest because you are uninterested, or because you believe that we find you unsuitable candidates?”

Sideswipe works his intake. “Well, we are what we are,” he says evasively. “Not good role models at all.”

“What does Sunstreaker think?” Ratchet asks.

“Sunstreaker thinks that the only ones who are gonna understand Whirlwind is either us, or someone like Jazz,” comes a voice from the hallway as Sideswipe’s spark gives a pulse along their bond.

Optimus half-turns as Sunstreaker ducks under his arm and eases into the room, his mouth set in a scowl but his optics finding Sideswipe’s and softening. He inclines his head – agreement. Whatever Sideswipe decides, Sunstreaker will back him up.

Good old Sunny.

“We’ll look after him, Prime,” Sunstreaker says, his arms folding over his chassis as though daring Optimus or Ratchet to protest. He takes up position beside Sideswipe, forming a united front.

“You’re certain?” Optimus asks. He shifts his weight, his gaze solemn. “It is a heavy task you set before you. I would not want you to undertake a burden if it is more than you can manage.”

Sideswipe curls his other hand around Whirl, and his spark throbs with warmth as Whirl grips his finger tightly. The bitlet trembles in his hold, and he’s too young for Sideswipe to tell if it’s fear or excitement, but it’s probably the latter. There’s a lot going on over his head he can’t possibly understand.

“We can do it,” Sideswipe says.

Love floods across their bond.

“Very well,” Optimus says. “Sideswipe. Sunstreaker. I will leave Whirl in your care. You will be excused from the majority of your duties so only one of you may be on duty at any one time. We will take battles on a case by case basis, and in the event we are forced to evacuate this base, your first priority is to get Whirl to safety. Understand?”

“Yes, sir,” they agree in perfect unison.

“You don’t have to do it alone either, kid,” Ratchet says gruffly. “Wheeljack and I can step in and lend a hand whenever. Maybe one day he’ll even trust us.”

Sideswipe smiles softly. “We’ll work on that.” He looks down at Whirl, poking the bit in the belly and laughing when Whirl takes a swipe at him. “Is he good to go, Ratchet? He’s fixed up, right?”

Ratchet rubs a hand down his face. “Yeah. He’s as healthy as he can be. Just keep feeding him energon. I’ll send you the files, too. See if you can’t get him to agree to an upload.”

“We’ll ask,” Sunstreaker says. “But that’s as far as it goes. You want anything from him, he says yes first.”

“Of course, Sunstreaker,” Ratchet replies. “Whatever makes him comfortable.”

It’s cute, how protective Sunstreaker is over the bit already. Sideswipe had thought Sunny only interested because Sideswipe is, but clearly that’s not the case. He’ll tease Sunstreaker about it later.

Lovingly, of course.

“Can we take him now?” Sideswipe asks as Whirl squirms in his hands and Sideswipe tucks him closer. Mostly to keep him from jumping out of Sideswipe’s hands, hitting the ground, and taking off.

Which is what Sideswipe would have done, if he were Whirl and surrounded by strangers, only a couple of whom were even remotely comprehensible.

Optimus nods.

Ratchet flops a hand. “Yeah. Bring him back in a week and I’ll check him again. I’ll have Wheeljack bring you a box of those energon bars later, too.”

“Thanks!” Sideswipe offers Ratchet a blinding smile and slides through the small crowd for the exit, Sunstreaker so close he’s all but pressed to Sideswipe’s backplate.

They pass Grimlock, who watches them with an unusual scrutiny. Sideswipe can’t put a finger on it, save he doesn’t register threat in the look. He tucks away that little observation to discuss with his twin later, and skedaddles from Ratchet and Wheeljack’s quarters, their new sparkling tucked against his chestplate.

Theirs.

Wow.

***

[IDW] Circle the Drain

“It’s important that we celebrate your achievements,” Termina had said as she watched Dominug get buffed to perfection, his armor gleaming with an opalescent sheen. “It’s even more important we continue to honor the Ambus name with events such as these.”

As recruitment, it does little to sway Dominus. But he’s heard the warning in her tone, in her words. Behave. Enjoy, even if he has to pretend, and be grateful for the accolades. He is the rising star of the Ambus family. It is part and parcel to his duty.

Dominus loathes parties.

He loathes the noise and the crowds, the pretend smile he plasters on his face, the fake congratulations from other noble families, all eager to brag about their own creations and their own descendants. These parties are just another opportunity to play a game of one-up-manship and Dominus hates that, too.

He succeeded because he has no other choice. Is he proud of the award? Certainly. But he wishes earning such things didn’t mean a meaningless party every time.

Mechs crowd the massive ballroom and the veranda. Overburdened tables creak under the weight of platters piled high with treats, and fancy goblets filled to the rim with expensive engexes of fine vintage. Dominus swears he doesn’t recognize half of the faces in the crowd. Those that are familiar, he wishes he didn’t.

Except Minimus, of course. Dominus is always pleased to see his sibling, something which has been less and less as of late. Minimus has been quite distant, and Dominus has been unable to discern a reason why.

Dominus has been nursing the same glass of engex all night. He needs to keep his wits about him if he has any chance of keeping up with the political undercurrents simmering beneath the surface. There are far too many noble families here for him to be anything but cautious.

He floats from group to group as the hired entertainment for the evening shifts from solemn music, to something more energetic and upbeat, encouraging the already inebriated patrons to move to the dance floor. How many political bondings will be decided tonight? How many accidental sparkings?

He runs into Minimus near the balcony door, his younger brother frowning at the congregation of mechs having too much fun. Minimus has never approved of fun. It’s too much chaos for him.

Granted, Dominus doesn’t enjoy parties either, but at least he knows how to have fun. He thinks, sometimes, that Minimus’ logic chip is too tightly implanted, and there’s no give in his little brother’s spinal strut.

“Minimus, you’re not drinking,” Dominus observes as he moves alongside his brother, who stands at parade rest of all things.

Minimus shakes his head. “No, someone needs to keep a cool processor. You know how these things go.”

“I can’t imagine Termina gave you an assignment like that. Not for a celebration.” Dominus frowns, already composing the query for the house-head.

“I took it upon myself.” Minimus’ optics cut toward him. His facial decoration, a trademark of the Ambus house and only a shade smaller than Dominus’ own, quivers. “You’ll have to forgive me for not celebrating. It seems we have one of these parties every week.”

Dominus sighs and peers out over the crowd. “The House of Ambus is proud of their heir,” he says. “Even if it is superfluous.”

“Ambus has always celebrated perfection. It’s a good thing you’re a prime example of it,” Minimus replies, and there’s a tightness to his tone.

It’s worrisome.

“Mims.” Dominus uses their childhood nickname and leans closer, resting a hand on his brother’s shoulder. He feels the tension in the taut, green armor. “Is everything all right?”

Minimus shakes him off. “I’m fine.”

“You know you can talk to me, right?” Dominus presses. He tucks his hand at his side, reaching out with his field instead.

Minimus rebuffs him. “Of course I do.” His brother slants him a sideways look. “It’s nothing. Don’t you have a party to get back to? There’s an adoring throng out there eager to compliment you.”

“I am not certain I’d call them adoring,” Dominus starts to say, but Minimus sighs and eases another step away.

“I am sorry, Dominus. I think I see Ferris heading for the punch bowl again, and you know how he likes to overindulge.” Minimus smiles but it’s thin at best. “Enjoy your party.”

He’s gone before Dominus can form a rebuttal, or even catch him long enough to pry an answer out of his brother. Perhaps tomorrow Minimus will be more amenable to a talk. Something is clearly bothering him.

And to think, there was a time they used to be so close. They shared everything with one another. Their dreams, their secrets, their hurts. They were inseparable. Strangers used to think them twins.

Now.

Now it’s a story of a broken spark.

Dominus sighs and clutches his engex a little tighter. He glances at his chronometer and despairs. It is too early for him to beg off. Minimus is already gone, vanished into the crowd, and there’s not a friendly face to be found.

He surveys the ballroom before he decides to make another circle of the vast space. He takes a calculated sip of his engex. He’s only finished about half the glass, but if this keeps up, he’ll need another just to keep up appearances. He needs something to do, but getting caught in a group of chatting nobility is the last thing he wants.

Which is of course what happens.

“Dominus, come here child,” Silverspire croons.

Head of the House Argent. Dominus can’t refuse him, even if Silverspire’s voice makes his plating crawl. He knows Silverspire’s been wheedling Termina to join their houses. He’s attempted on several occasions to get Termina to agree to an arranged mating between Dominus and Argent’s heir, Silverwing. Neither Dominus nor Silverwing are interested in this.

In the end, it won’t be either of their choices.

“Lord Silverspire.” Dominus tips his head in a polite, respectful greeting. “I am so glad you could make it tonight.”

“But of course, Dominus Ambus.” Silverspire puffs up like an overpolished turbocat, not an ounce of transport kibble to be found on his frame. “I could not miss seeing you receive such an honor. You’re truly a testament to your house name.”

Funny how his accomplishments are only of worth to the Ambus House, but never of worth to Dominus himself. Everything he does is tied to Ambus. He’s not recognized as Dominus, as himself.

He’s only an Ambus.

“Thank you.” Dominus tips his head and takes a huge drink of his engex. He’s going to need it to get through this conversation. “Are any others from the House Silver here tonight?”

Silverspire barks a laugh and slaps him on the shoulder, gripping tight. “Missing your prospective conjunx, eh?” He gives Dominus a little shake. “No. Silverwing isn’t here. He had other obligations unfortunately. But I’ll let him know you asked.”

Dominus swallows a grimace. “I appreciate it.”

“Anyway, have you met Equalizer?” Silverspire continues, gesturing to the brightly colored mech beside him. He’s been mostly silent thus far.

“I don’t believe I have.” Dominus plasters on his fake smile. “It’s a pleasure, Equalizer.” He offers a hand.

The mech, who is a garish contrast of chartreuse and magenta, grins and grasps Dominus’ hand in a firm shake. “Oh, no. The pleasure is all mine, Dominus Ambus,” he purrs, and pulls Dominus’ hand up to his mouth, brushing his lips over Dominus’ knuckles. “Have you ever been told how handsome you are?”

Dominus retrieves his hand with a bit of effort, resisting the urge to wipe it on his thigh. “My frame was carefully sculpted by the Ambus House. I adhere to their standards of beauty.”

Equalizer chuckles. “Fair enough.” He leans in and winks. “But you know, it’s not about what you’re wearing, so much as it is about how you wear it.”

“How true!” Silverspire laughs loud enough to gather far too much attention. “And I must say, the Ambus House has always had a keen optic for design.”

Dominus drains his engex and hopes it’ll give him an excuse to get out of this conversation. It burns on the way down, settles hot in his tanks, but it’s not enough to burn away this party.

“Oh dear, Dominus,” Equalizer purrs, slipping the empty cube out of Dominus’ hand before he can so much as get the word out. “You’ve run out. Allow me to get another for you.”

He vanishes into the crowd.

“My, I think Equalizer might be sweet on you,” Silverspire remarks as he nudges Dominus with an elbow. “You’re going to break his spark.”

Dominus fights back a sigh. Now he’s stuck here until Equalizer returns, lest he come across as rude to the House Silver. “I do wish to concentrate on my studies and my career right now,” he says. “My work is very important to me.”

“Well, hobbies can often seem like they are as necessary to functioning as actual work,” Silverspire says with a shrug. He gulps his own drink, no doubt the finest vintage Termina had made available.

“It’s not a hobby, it’s my career,” Dominus corrects.

Silverspire shakes his head and gives Dominus a patronizing look. “You are heir to the House Ambus, Dominus. Careers are hobbies until the time comes for you to take Termina’s place.”

Dominus twitches. This has been an argument he’s had with Termina on multiple occasions.

“I have returned!” Equalizer says loudly, bursting into the conversation and thrusting a cube in front of Dominus. “And I’ve found an old friend in the crowd.”

He has another mech by the elbow, and this one is an equally offending shade of paint – orange and white, more of the former than the latter. “Hi, I’m Cork!” he says cheerfully. “I work with Equalizer. Wow, you’re pretty.”

Primus spare him.

Dominus manages a thin smile. “Nice to meet you, Cork. And thank you.” The engex Equalizer brought him looks much stronger than whatever Dominus had previously.

He doesn’t care. He takes a large gulp, welcoming the heat of it, even as it settles heavy in his tanks. He tries to find a way to gracefully exit the conversation.

“Dominus has a younger brother,” Equalizer says as Cork continues to stare at Dominus in a way that makes him uneasy.

“Is he pretty, too?” Cork asks.

Silverspire barks a laugh. “Mech, the whole Ambus line is pretty. Of course Minimus is as well. Both of them are quite the spark-breakers.”

“Is he single?” Cork asks and rises on the tips of his feet, peering over the crowd as though he will find Minimus so he can immediately go proposition him.

Equalizer chuckles. “Cork, he’s an Ambus. He’s way out of your league. And probably already promised to someone.”

“Not as of yet, if I recall,” Silverspire says with a gleam in his optic. “Perhaps if my proposal is rejected, Minimus will be more amenable. What do you think, Dominus?”

He briefly presses his lips together. “I think Minimus can certainly choose for himself. He has that luxury.” Unlike Dominus, who already knows the time he has for freedom is drawing closer and closer to an end. The Ambus House is a noose around his neck, and it’s tightening.

Just like this conversation, as a matter of fact.

He’s trapped. And the more he tries to bow and make his escape, the more they spin the topic into something new. Silverspire has no intention of letting Dominus out of his sight – perhaps afraid one of the other Houses might snatch him and present a better merge proposal.

The engex is his only salvation. It bubbles in his tank, leaves him a little dizzy, and altogether makes it easier to digest the nightmare that is this party.

Equalizer fetches him another cube. Cork hovers closer, and Dominus finds himself inching toward Silverspire if only because he doesn’t like the way Cork looks at him. He wonders if Cork is a few chips short in his processor.

Cork, again, mentions Minimus. “Well, you never know,” he says with a shrug. “Sometimes mechs like to slum it before they get tied down.” He waggles his orbital ridges. “I’m good for a one night stand.”

Equalizer laughs.

Silverspire shakes his head. “You are quite confident, Cork. But I assure you, Minimus will not be interested. He’s very… law oriented, is that not right, Dominus?”

“It is.” Dominus fiddles with his third cup of engex. “Minimus idolizes jurisprudence. You can’t hardly find him without his nose buried in some datapad or judicial proceedings vid.”

“Ah, the boring type,” Equalizer says. “Sorry, my friend. I don’t think he’s going to have much interest in you.” He slaps Cork on the back.

Honestly, Dominus isn’t sure Minimus has interest in anything beyond his textbooks and his studies and his aspirations. He’s not sure of anything when it comes to his brother, especially lately. Minimus has been so distant. They don’t spend half as much time together as they used to, and they share nothing of their dreams or their troubles.

Dominus knows that as siblings grow older, they sometimes grow apart, but it still weighs heavy on his spark. Minimus used to be his very best friend. Whatever happened?

“Aww.” Cork slumps. “That’s a shame.”

Dominus snorts behind his engex.

The party drags on.

Dominus remains trapped, finding solace only in his engex. He doesn’t know how long he would have stood there, conversation washing over and through him, Cork inching closer and closer until Dominus is crowded near Silverspire.

At once, there is a ruckus on the other side of the room.

Minimus must have failed in getting Ferris away from the punch bowl, because the heir to the House Largus has just tackled one of House Rouge’s soldiers. Other partygoers shriek and scuttle away from the scuffle. Ambus guards wade into the fray, and Termina appears out of nowhere to bring sanity to the madness.

It’s all so… pointless.

A wave of fatigue strikes Dominus. He sways on his feet, his thoughts running through a cotton filter. A hand on his elbow steadies him, keeps him from careening to the floor.

“Dominus, are you all right?” Equalizer asks, his voice laced with concern.

Dominus eases out of his grip, an odd chill racing through his armor where Equalizer had touched him. “I am. Thank you.” He manages a thin smile. “But I think you’ll all have to excuse me. I had quite the early morning, and the engex is stronger than I thought.”

“Aw,” Cork whines and slumps his shoulders. “I was hoping to entice you into a dance.”

Dominus shakes his head, and hates how it makes him dizzy. “Perhaps next time.” He tips his head politely. “Thank you all for the conversation and for attending this celebration. Please continue to enjoy the party.”

“Of course.” Silverspire smiles patiently. “Do get some rest, Dominus. We’d hate for you to catch ill.”

“Thank you.”

They let him go this time. Finally.

Dominus drops his empty engex cube off with a server and heads straight for his private suite. He finds Minimus along the way, frowning over a datapad. He’s tucked in a corner away from the dancing and the drinking and anything resembling fun. Brooding, perhaps, over the fact he’d been unable to prevent Ferris from causing trouble.

“Mims, I’m heading to recharge.” Dominus’ foot catches on nothing, and he stumbles.

Minimus blinks at him. “Are you drunk?”

“Of course not. I’ve barely had anything.” Dominus waves him off and catches himself on the wall. “But clearly it was a bad idea to consume any kind of intoxicant while I’m operating on so little recharge.”

“But the party is for you.” Minimus straightens, his frown echoing the disapproval that would likely be on Termina’s face as well. “You can’t leave.”

Dominus shakes his head. “I must. I am far too tired to be of use to anyone right now. Make my apologies to Termina for me?”

Minimus works his jaw before he sighs and looks down at his datapad. “Very well. You’ll do as you want anyway. She knows that.”

There it is again. His tone hints of something being wrong, but his words say nothing. Even his field is closed to Dominus’ without allowing a hint of interpretation.

Dominus steps back to leave, but he pauses. “Mims, are you busy tomorrow evening?”

“I’m always busy.”

“But tomorrow specifically?”

Minimus cycles a ventilation and lifts his gaze. “There’s nothing that can’t wait. Why?”

“Can we talk?” Dominus asks. He wonders if the hope bleeding through his spark is clear on his face. “I thought we might have dinner. Perhaps play a round of Quatra?”

Minimus’ optics flicker. His mustache twitches. “Fine,” he says at length. He focuses on his datapad again. “Now go recharge. You look like you’re about to fall over.”

Dominus smiles and decides not to push his luck. He leaves Minimus be.

He keeps to the wall and the periphery of the party, hoping not to be noticed and pulled into another conversation. That he needs the wall to stay upright might also be true.

He makes it to the exit without incident and pushes through the double doors into the main hallway. The doors thunk shut behind him, reducing the noise of the party to almost nothing. It feels like his suite is miles away, and Dominus drags his feet, his vents slowing, fatigue clawing at his limbs.

It’s strange. He’s never felt this tired before. And his thoughts seem to be slower. Had he truly imbibed more than he thought? He tries to think back to his consumption. He remembers two drinks distinctly, not nearly enough to inebriate. The night, however, is starting to blur.

Dominus stumbles. On any other day, he would have been able to catch himself. But not today. His hand misses the wall, and he’s going to make a fool of himself by landing on his face on the floor.

Someone catches his arm and steadies him.

“Whoa there,” a pleasant voice says, emerging from a mech much taller than Dominus, with polished gray armor. “Had a bit too much to drink, I gather?”

“I do believe so. Thank you.” Dominus straightens, leaning heavily into the mech’s support. He rubs his forehead, an ache building behind his optics.

Dominus peers up at his savior. “You are familiar,” he says. He’s seen this mech drifting through the party, but always at a distance. “I’m sorry, but I can’t place your designation.”

“It’s Lore. I’m one of Equalizer’s associates.” Lore smiles, and smiles should always be pleasant, but there’s something about Lore’s that isn’t. “You seem to be struggling a bit. Might I be of service?”

Dominus, for the life of him, can’t figure out why this might be a bad idea. “That would be wonderful, thank you. I don’t know why I’m so off balance.”

“Pleasure to be of service.” Lore hooks an arm around Dominus’ frame and takes most of the burden of his weight. “Working together, I think we can get there in no time.”

“I apologize in advance if I pass out on you,” Dominus says as they start down the hall, moving much faster than Dominus had on his own.

The walls blur, lights turning into a harsh stream of brightness. Down one corridor and then another, and he realizes he’s not giving Lore any instructions. Lore seems to know precisely where to go. Perhaps he’d asked a servant?

Dominus’ processor spins. He can’t remember if they passed a servant.

“Don’t worry, dear,” Lore says, and his voice sounds as though it’s coming from a long tunnel. “There’s no fear of that.”

Whatever does he mean? Dominus hasn’t the foggiest. Because now he’s standing – or listing against Lore – in front of his bedroom. The door slides open without him touching the panel. That, too, is odd.

Before Dominus can question it, Lore whisks him inside. A spark of logic breaks through the fog. Something uneasy crawls up Dominus’ spinal strut because his room is dim, and he distinctly remembers leaving the shutters open and his desk lamp on at the very least. It should be bright enough to see by, but instead it’s shadowy and dark.

“Wha–”

Lore shoves him forward, toward the berth, and Dominus stumbles. He tries to get his feet beneath him, but he’s still dizzy.

“What are you doing?” he demands.

Hands snatch him out of the dark. Dominus tries to fight back, but a wave of vertigo sweeps over him.

He moans as he lists and two pairs of hands lift him up, toss him onto his berth. He lands on his back, head spinning, limbs feeling numb. He tries to roll over, off the berth, and kicks out at the dark figures with uncoordinated feet. His vision washes with static, except for the gleam of biolights – Lore’s and someone else’s. They’re a smear of color, too many to identify.

They grab his hands, wrapping something tight around his wrists, pulling his hands above his head. It pulls at his shoulders, holds him firmly. They must have lashed the binding down, because he can’t lower his arms, no matter how much he tugs.

“Stop it!” Dominus struggles.

Hands grab his ankles, treating them to the same as his wrists, only they are bound to opposite corners of the berth, spreading his legs wide. Terror throbs through Dominus’ spark. He thrashes on the berth and immediately tries his comm.

Nothing. Static. They’ve got a signal dampener.

“Let me go!” Dominus yanks on his limbs as hard as he can, hears metal creak and groan, but not budge. His vents labor for the next cycle, energy draining out of him as though it’s being siphoned. “Release me at once!”

A large hand grips his jaw, fingers digging into his cheeks, prying his mouth open. Dominus whips his head left and right, or tries to, but the hold is too strong. Something bumps against his lips and denta, and then slides into his mouth, nudging against the back of his intake. It’s long and cylindrical with a ridged, rounded head.

It’s a spike. No, no, it can’t be. It’s cold and doesn’t hum with an energy field. A false spike? It fills his mouth, makes his intake ripple and gag, stretches his jaw wide. His glossa is pinned to the bottom of his mouth.

The hands leave his face, but the spike is still in his mouth. There’s something tight around his cheeks and the back of his head. Have they tied the spike in place?

Dominus’ head spins. He can’t ventilate, not with the fear squeezing his spark, the spike at the back of his intake. What is this? What’s going on?

The main light clicks on, nearly blinding him. He cycles his optics, reboots them, and the spots clarify from his vision. He counts three, no four mechs scattered around the room. He only recognizes three of them: Lore, Equalizer, and Cork. There’s a purplish mech standing by a large device – is that a camera?

“Nice touch, Cork.” Equalizer leans over Dominus, and flicks the end of the spike-gag. “Using your own spike to gag him? Aren’t you worried he’s going to bite it?”

Cork rolls his optics. “It doesn’t work like that, idiot.”

Dominus makes a muffled noise of protest. They ignore him.

The door opens again, and for a minute, Dominus thinks it’s a rescue. That someone saw him leaving with a strange mech and called for help.

Instead, one more mech walks inside, a dull gray-blue with an opalescent visor. Dominus doesn’t recognize this one, but he’s frowning as he casts a quick glance through the room.

“Is everything ready, Playback?” he asks in a sharp clip.

The mech by the camera gives him a thumbs up. “Yes, sir.” He taps himself on the temple. “I even have the portable unit prepped just in case.”

“Everyone else?” the new mech asks. He hasn’t even looked at Dominus yet.

“Yes, sir,” Equalizer and Cork say in unison.

“Yes, Fallout,” Lore replies.

Ready for what? Dominus fears he already knows.

Fallout crosses the room and stands beside Dominus’ berth, opposite of Equalizer. His gaze rakes across Dominus, from his bindings, to his gag, and there’s something assessing in it. Something evil.

“Good.” Fallout rests a palm on Dominus’ abdomen and drags it down, toward his groin. “Our commissioner is paying a lot of shanix for this, so we owe them a good show.”

Dominus squirms, tries to twist his hips away from Fallout, but there’s nowhere for him go. He jerks again on his bindings, but his protests fall on deaf audials. Whatever they’re here for, whatever they’re getting paid for, these mechs have no common decency. They don’t care about his protests, his comfort, anything.

He should save his strength. Keep his optics open for an avenue of escape. Keep pinging his comms and sending out demands for help. Surely something will get through. Someone should come check on him. He left so early! Termina must be coming to fuss at him about it.

He need only endure.

Playback moves back behind his camera. Lore sits at the head of the berth near Dominus, out of sight. Cork stalks around the berth like a restless turbowolf stalking a petrorabbit. Equalizer loiters in the background, watching. And Fallout… he settles at the base of the berth, between Dominus’ thighs.

His hands slide up the inside of Dominus’ thighs, his visor gleaming. “Open up for me, Dominus,” he says, in a sickly sweet tone. “You really want to make this easy for us, I promise.”

Dominus shakes his head. If he could snap his legs closed, he would.

“Come now.” Fallback strokes his fingers over Dominus’ closed array, his intentions clear. “If we have to do it for you, it won’t be pleasant.”

“It will be for me,” Lore croons above Dominus. One of his hands curl around the top of Dominus’ head, stroking it. “You know I love this part.”

“He truly does,” Fallout says. He leans forward, venting hot and wet over Dominus’ groin. “So are you going to make it easy?”

Dominus glares as much as he is capable.

Fallout sighs. “I didn’t think so.” He looks up at Lore and nods.

Lore chuckles, dark and excited. “I love it when they’re stubborn.”

Dominus hears a weird noise, like a thin vibroblade emerging from a hilt. Lore’s hand cups Dominus’ head, lifting it away from the berth, and his other hand feels along the back of Dominus’ neck. His fingers are gentle, for all that they poke and prod, seeking something.

Dominus tenses. Fear curdles in his belly. He jerks as something abruptly sinks through the thin armor on his head and into his processor. It doesn’t hurt, not like pain, but the sudden sensation of an alien presence makes him queasy.

He moans into the gag, his tanks rippling. He can track the presence’s progress as it effortlessly slides into his processor, into his central command, and leaves a sticky sensation behind. It pours like oil through the very sense of him and seeps all the way to his motor controls.

“Oh, you’re barely protected at all,” Lore moans, and his field pushes at Dominus with lust. “You’d think an Ambus heir would have better firewalls, but you’re so open to me.”

“Hurry up,” Equalizer says.

“Hush, you. This is an art,” Lore purrs.

Dominus jerks as something clicks in his processor, and a sick feeling washes through his internals. It echoes a click elsewhere, and the panel concealing his interface array slides open. His frame betrays him.

“Much obliged, Lore,” says Fallout and he sweeps his fingers over Dominus’ valve and spike panel, only for his face to light with glee. “Well, well, well, what do we have here?”

Cork leans in over his shoulder, and he lets out a squeal. “We’re so lucky!” he exclaims. “The Ambus brat is still sealed.”

“Everywhere?” Equalizer asks, and the hunger in his optics turns darker, deeper, like some sparkeater pulled from a storybook.

Dominus shutters his optics so he doesn’t have to see their lust.

Lore’s fingers scrub hard over Dominus’ panels, and though Dominus tries to twitch away, it’s futile. “Yes.” He laughs. “For someone I thought would have had his share of partners, this is a surprise indeed. No wonder Arrhythmia couldn’t entice him.”

Arrhythmia? The sweet two-wheeler he met a couple weeks ago? Is he connected to these five as well?

“Good news for us,” Cork says.

There’s a loud creak, and then the harsh slap of metal on metal.
“Back off,” Fallout snaps. “You know how this works, Cork.”

“Awww, you’re so stingy,” Cork whines.

Dominus unshutters his optics against his better judgment. Fallout has scooted down the end of the berth, kneeling between Dominus’ calves, his face inches from Dominus’ sealed valve. He grabs Dominus’ hips, cradling them, before he leans forward and licks a wet swipe up Dominus’ valve seal.

“You can wait your turn,” Equalizer says. His arms are crossed where he leans, and he watches Dominus like a predator might his prey.

Dominus squirms, fear and discomfort doing little to stop the rising tide of pleasure where Fallout is licking him. He seems to know all the nodes to focus on, all the right sensors. He’s focusing on Dominus’ panel seam as his hands stroke and fondle, and lubricant builds behind the seal. His hips are twitching, trying to rock into Fallout’s licks, and his spike thickens and grows behind his other seal.

It asks him if he wants it to extend. Dominus responds in the negative. For now, the presence in his processor is still, loitering, as if waiting to strike.

Fallout’s oral attention moves to his spike panel. He licks around it, forms a suction with his mouth, until Cork leans in to take his place, and Fallout goes back to Dominus’ valve.

“Come on pretty noble,” Cork says as he sloppily licks over Dominus’ spike seal. “Show us that untouched spike.”

Dominus moans around the gag in his mouth. His interface program asks him, again, if he’d like to extend his spike. He refuses.

“My, you’re stubborn,” Lore says. One hand continues to cup Dominus’ head, but the other cups over his lips, his palm on the end of the spike gagging him.

He gives it a push and the head of the spike grinds against the back of Dominus’ intake. Stars dance in his optical feed as a dull pain radiates through his intake. And then, mercy, as the spike withdraws, sliding across his glossa enough to free his intake. He relaxes for a fraction of a second, before Lore plunges the gag back into his mouth, choking him again.

Dominus whimpers with a crackle of static.

Cork licks his spike seal again, lips sealing around it, forming a suction that excites the sensors, makes another wave of liquid pleasure slide through Dominus’ sensornet. His spike pings him for release; Dominus denies it.

“None of that now,” Lore croons. “We can’t play if you persist on being stubborn.”

He shoves the spike deep, and something in Dominus’ processor gives way under a relentless tide of pressure. He groans as his spike surges through the seal with a sharp slash of pain cascading across his sensor net. He smells the bitter tang of hot energon, his spike stinging as it feels air rushing over the sensitive plating for the first time.

“Thank you Primus for this feast,” Cork exclaims giddily. Or at least Dominus thinks it’s Cork. “I’m so damned lucky.”

Something hot and wet encloses Dominus’ spike. He can’t tell if it feels good or not because the pain is still so sharp, both in his groin and at the back of his intake. His focus wavers, vision crackling. His jaw aches.

There’s so much sensation everywhere. The hot laps against his valve rim and seal. The wet suction around his spike. The sting of a burst seal. The grinding pressure against the back of his intake. The slithering presence in his processor.

“We’re all lucky. We get to teach him everything we know,” another voice comments, and Dominus forces his optics to unshutter. When had he closed them?

He follows the speaker to Equalizer, who’s moved closer, the heel of his palm scrubbing over his own panel, his optics dark and hungry. “Let me have him first, Fallout.”

“The client wants him humiliated, not fragging broken,” Fallout hisses, lifting his mouth from Dominus’ valve, his lips and chin wet with lubricant. “Wait your turn.” His hand slips between Dominus’ thighs, and he can feel the pressure of Fallout’s fingers against his seal.

“Fine. Gimme his spike then,” Equalizer insists, and his field pushes into the room, like a hot wave of burning charge, searing against Dominus’ own.

Fear throbs through his spark, fear of what this angry, violent mech is capable of.

Behind the camera, Playback laughs. “You and your fascination with spikes.”

“Shut up, slagger,” Equalizer snarls. He grabs the back of Cork’s head and pulls Cork away from Dominus’ spike, leaving it glistening where it bobs freely. “He’s ready enough. Move.”

Dominus whimpers behind the gag of the spike. Mercifully, Lore has stopped pumping it into his mouth, but it’s still pushed deep, still grinding hard. His intake keeps rippling, trying to expel it, his purge protocols trying and failing to activate.

Cork huffs but moves aside. “You’re so selfish,” he mutters as he slinks back.

“No one asked you,” Equalizer snaps, and he climbs onto the berth, straddling Dominus’ much smaller frame with little effort.

Hot drips of something patter on Dominus’ abdomen and groin. He realizes, to his disgust, that Equalizer’s already bared his valve, and it’s glistening with lubricant. Equalizer even rubs his palm over his valve, spreading the slick around, while his free hand grabs Dominus’ spike.

“Love the bare ones,” Equalizer breathes with nothing short of lust in his tone. His fingers dance up and down Dominus’ unadorned unit. “Swear they’ve got the best slide.”

“Get on with it!” Cork whines.

“Yes,” Fallout says, his vents puffing against Dominus’ valve. “Do hurry.”

“Got no sense of anticipation, either of you,” Equalizer huffs, but he positions himself over Dominus’ spike and sinks down until swollen pleats of his valve rub the head of Dominus’ spike.

He looks up then, catches Dominus’ gaze. “You ready little Ambus?” He licks his lips, sucking the bottom one between his denta. “By the time we’re done with you, there won’t be a bit of you that’s pure.” He laughs, dark and dirty, and then he drops down, valve swallowing Dominus’ spike in one fell swoop.

Dominus groans, his back strut arching, conflicting sensations making him dizzy. Equalizer’s valve is hot and wet, rippling around him, a delicious pleasure against his untouched sensors. But disgust ripples through his tanks, calls for a purge, because he doesn’t want this, he doesn’t want any of this, why won’t they leave him alone?

“Because we got paid, Dominus,” Lore murmurs in his audial, glossa snaking out against it. “We got paid to ruin you.”

“Oh, he hates it,” Equalizer moans as he starts to lift and lower himself with creaks of his knees, riding Dominus’ spike with abandon. “Look at his face, Falls. He hates it so much.”

The wet vanishes from his valve. Dominus can’t relax from relief, however, because fingers take their place, rubbing and nudging at his rim and the swollen pleats. His valve throbs against the seal, and he can feel lubricant pooling against it.

Is it a mercy or a greater humiliation that they are making some attempt at preparing him?

“You’re right.” Fallout peers over Equalizer’s shoulder. One arm wraps around Equalizer’s waist, his fingers slipping down to circle around Equalizer’s plump anterior node.

Equalizer arches into the touch, releasing a guttural moan of pleasure, his hands clawing the air. “Ah, keep doing that,” he moans. He slams down harder on Dominus, the squelch of lubricant an obscene noise.

Pleasure ripples through Dominus’ groin. He whimpers behind his gag, hips twitching, moving up into Equalizer’s valve without his permission. His spike is throbbing, and his sensors are hot from the sensation.

Above him, Lore chuckles and starts toying with the end of the gag again, pumping it in and out of Dominus’ mouth to the same rhythm as Equalizer’s hips.

“Oh yeah,” Equalizer pants as the slick noises of Fallout fondling him matches the obscene squelch of his valve around Dominus’ spike. He leans back against Fallout, glossa sweeping over his lips. “I’m going to ride this thing all the way to overload.”

Dominus groans behind his gag, his visual feed filling with static. He twitches beneath them, intake rippling with the threat of purge, pleasure shooting like lightning through his sensornet, while his tank churns with nausea.

Lore hums a laugh. “Let’s just dial that up a bit, shall we?”

Dominus screams as the bursts of pleasure turns to white-hot surges of it. He thrashes, his spike jerking, his valve throbbing with denied sensation.

They’re going to kill him, he despairs.

“Oh no, little Ambus. Not yet,” Lore whispers and pushes the gag deep, until Dominus’ lips almost close around the end of it. “There are some things worse than death.”

~

By the time Minimus arranges for the last severely inebriated partygoer to go home in a transport, it’s so late as to be early. The previous cycle has officially crossed over into the next one, and Minimus is both exhausted and annoyed. This should have been Dominus’ task. He should have been here to make sure his guests left the premises, to thank them for coming, to soak in the last echoes of praise.

“Tell your brother he’s a fine example of a mech.”

“Dominus will make a fantastic heir.”

“He’s so talented.”

It’s enough to rankle.

It’s not that Minimus isn’t proud of Dominus, because he is. He knows how hard his elder brother works, and he knows the burden that awaits Dominus in the future. It just bothers him that everyone tends to forget Minimus exists. That he’s always just a shade lesser than Dominus. Near-perfect scores rather than perfect. And always, always, not good enough. A pale imitation.

Minimus sighs and surveys the ballroom. It and the surrounding corridors are a mess. Nobility, he’s noticed, is never one for being polite and clean. Why bother when servants take care of the mess, yes? Granted, the Ambus House has servants as well, but both Minimus and Dominus were taught to respect the property of others.

Spills of engex sit tackily on the floor. Two of the tablecloths are ripped. It looks like a hoard of empties went through the treat trays, leaving crumbs and half-consumed bits in their wake. Half of the decorative streamers hang in rips from the ceiling, torn from their housings.

There ought to be a law.

Minimus sweeps his hand over his head and trudges back to his own quarters, across the hall from his brother’s. Dominus doesn’t respond to a querying ping, so he truly must be recharging. Termina is going to lecture him for sure tomorrow. It’s a form of disrespect to leave a party in your honor. Though Termina will probably find some way to excuse Dominus’ behavior. He is, after all, the golden heir.

If he’s truly ill…

Minimus hesitates outside his sibling’s door, hand raised to knock or ping. After a moment, he turns away and vanishes into his own room. If Dominus doesn’t emerge for morning meeting, Minimus will send one of the on-call medics in to check on him. He can’t think of anything severe Dominus might have contracted. Surely his brother is in no danger.

Minimus doesn’t bother with lights. He flops onto his berth facefirst and stretches out across the massive surface. In his reducible form, he doesn’t take up much space, which leaves him more surface to occupy. His one indulgence, this berth.

It’s been a long night. Tomorrow will be even longer, with Termina eager to congratulate Dominus on the success of his celebration. And probably the stack of merging proposals no doubt decorating the Head’s desk. All of which Dominus will refuse of course. Still holding out for that special someone, as though he has any choice in the matter.

He hasn’t realized it yet.

No Ambus ever has much of a choice.

~

Equalizer is vocal and unashamed of it. He braces one hand on Dominus’ abdomen and slams down on Dominus’ spike, panting and moaning and gasping with pleasure. His other hand strips his spike, chasing his pleasure with single minded determination.

“Frag but he’s good,” Equalizer moans.

“Your love of spike will never cease to amuse me,” Lore says.

Fallout laughs from behind Equalizer. “Puts on a good show though,” he says, and his fingers rub more firmly on Equalizer’s nub, rolling and squeezing it between his fingertips.

“He sounds like a pleasurebot,” Lore says.

“S-shut up,” Equalizer stutters and grinds down on Dominus’ spike, the head of it pressing hard against Equalizer’s valve ceiling.

Cork laughs and bounces up beside Dominus. He leans over, peering at Dominus’ face, like one might a mechanimal at the zoo. He cocks his head to the side.

“Think I’ll take this back now,” he says, and grabs the end of the spike gagging Dominus. He pulls it in a yank with no regard for Dominus’ comfort.

His intake ripples. His purge protocols rise up, his tank clenching, and it’s only Lore’s firm grip on his processor that keeps him from actually purging. Dominus sputters, intake aching as he coughs, swearing he can taste energon on his glossa. His jaw aches. Closing it isn’t any better.

His vents heave. His thoughts spin.

Something hot and wet splatters on his chest and belly.

“Yessss,” Equalizer hisses as he slams down on Dominus’ spike, grinding hard, his valve clenching tight around Dominus’ spike. Overload. He’s actually finding completion on Dominus’ spike.

Two more spurts stripe the air. One lands on Dominus’ face, over his lips. The stench of transfluid fills his nose. He tastes it on the tip of his glossa. Nausea roils through him.

“I’ll never understand you,” Fallout says as he slides his hand from around Equalizer, fingers wet with Equalizer’s lubricant. “Getting off on spike that much.”

Equalizer rises up on his knees, bobbing his aft at Fallout. “You just need a good spiking to see where I’m coming from.”

“No, thanks.”

“Hey, pay attention to me.” Cork slaps Dominus on the cheek, forcing him to look at the orange and white mech. “It’s my turn to play.”

Dominus licks his dry lips, but his vocalizer won’t activate, save to spill a staticky groan.

“Eh, close enough.” Cork clambers onto the berth and straddles Dominus’ chassis. His panels are open, valve leaving a wet streak on Dominus’ chest, his spike panel oddly concave, with a screw-like interior.

The reason why becomes clear when Cork takes the spike they’d been using as a gag and slides it into the slot. With several twists and a click, it notches into place, pressurizing fully, pre-fluid beading at the tip.

“Nice, huh?” Cork says. He grips the end of his spike, and paints Dominus’ lips with the head of it. “Came up with the mod myself. Lets me be all kindsa creative.”

Stop.

The word screams at the back of Dominus’ processor, but his vocalizer only produces static. There’s a manic gleam in Cork’s optics, his lips stretched wide in a grin. He rubs the head of his spike all over Dominus’ face, smearing it with pre-fluid, spreading around Equalizer’s spill.

Dominus jerks his head left and right, trying to avoid the dripping length, but Cork is too persistent, and Lore’s grip on his head too firm.

“You just gonna watch, Lore?” Cork asks as he nudges the head of his spike firmly against Dominus’ mouth, making his lips shiny with pre-fluid.

“I was actually thinking I might participate,” Lore says with a hum.

Dominus’ spike slips free of Equalizer’s valve. He feels cold air seep over his soaked length, and his spike twitches, still throbbing with denied pleasure.

“Participate?” Fallout’s voice emerges from somewhere below Dominus, and it must be his fingers applying a steady, circling pressure over Dominus’ valve seal.

“I could go for some valve right now,” Lore says.

Dominus jerks as the connection retracts from his processor, like someone yanking free a handful of thin needles.

Core giggles madly and rolls his hips, pushing his spike into Dominus’ mouth in the same motion. He grips Dominus’ head with both hands, his spike plunging forward earnestly, worse than when it had been the spike alone. Each thrust is forceful, bruising his intake.

Dominus thrashes, yanking on his bonds, making choked noises around the spike. Purge threatens to rise all over again, moistening his mouth. Oral lubricant bubbles up around his lips, drips down into his intake.

“Is that right?” Fallout asks, on the edge of Dominus’ awareness.

“Mm. You’ll see.”

The berth dips again. Cork leans forward, hips thrusting hard, hands yanking Dominus onto his spike, deeper and deeper. There’s a mad cant to his optics, his denta gritted and bared, pre-fluid seeping down Dominus’ intake.

Suddenly, Cork yanks on his head, pushing so deep Dominus’ nose presses against his spike housing. His spike slides all the way into Dominus’ intake, forcing his secondary ventilation system to kick into action. His vision goes gray, his intake convulsing.

“What the frag?” Cork gasps as he curls over Dominus’ mouth, hips making little humping motions.

“I said I wanted valve. I didn’t say it would be the Ambus brat’s,” Lore replies.

Cork jerks forward again, like someone is thrusting into him and forcing him into Dominus in turn.

“A little warning next time, fragger!” Cork snarls, but pleasure ripples through his field. He humps Dominus’ face, not even bothering to withdraw.

Darkness surrounds Dominus. It takes him too long to realize he’s shuttered his optics. He doesn’t have the wherewithal to open them again. Besides, all he can see is Cork’s groin, and the thick plating of it bumping his lips, bruising them against his denta.

Cork snarls a curse, but then it devolves into a whoop of glee. “You feel that?” he asks, fingers squeezing against Dominus’ head. “Feel that pressure on your glossa? That’s me, little Ambus. That’s my knot.”

Dominus can’t do anything more than gurgle. But he can feel it, the growing mass against his glossa, pushing it down into his oral cavity, stretching his jaw wider and wider. Cork isn’t thrusting now so much as he’s grinding into Dominus, over and over, that thickness at the base of his spike growing larger and larger.

Cork gasps a laugh. “Love me a valve,” he says. “But for knotting, nothing beats a mouth, you know?”

“You talk too much,” Lore says, and Cork jerks forward as if Lore has just thrust hard into him.

Pain radiates through Dominus’ intake and mouth. His optics grow hot. Stress warnings light up his HUD with bright orange and red caution lights. His system tells him to remove the obstacle, and he can’t.

He can’t.

Dominus makes a choked noise. His arms jerk. They’re fragging harder on top of him now, Lore shoving into Cork and forcing Cork to grind into Dominus’ mouth. He tastes energon as much as he tastes transfluid. His focus crackles until only snippets of awareness poke through the agony. He can’t ventilation, can barely move, all he knows is the pain and the shame.

A new touch at his valve stirs Dominus from the gray. His focus draws southward, where something much larger and blunter presses against his valve seal. It applies a firm pressure, not enough to break the seal, but definitely tangible.

“Get a close up of this, Playback,” says Fallout. Dominus knows their voices at least. He’s sure they’ll haunt his night purges for decades to follow. If he even survives this.

“Sir, yes, sir.” Playback sounds gleeful. His voice also sounds closer.

There’s a grip on Dominus’ thighs. The pressure against his valve gets stronger. Then it retreats, and for a moment, Dominus dares to hope.

That’s when Fallout thrusts into him in a sharp, quick jab, breaking his seal in an instant. Jagged pain lances through Dominus’ groin. He screams static around the spike sealing his mouth, the knot stretching his jaw. He goes stiff from head to foot, spark strobing a violent pattern of panic.

Someone’s laughing, he thinks. His frame keeps juttering, jerking, as they frag him like he’s a toy, a doll for their amusement.

“I’ll warm him up for you,” Fallout grunts. He falls into a steady rhythm, plunging forward without pause, despite the pained clutch of Dominus’ valve.

There’s no moment to get used to it, no moment to catch a vent. It’s just pain. Agonizing, searing pain. There’s not even pleasure in it. Or if there is, he can’t tell.

Fallout assaults him, harder and faster.

Cork squeezes his head, his spike thickened in Dominus’ mouth, pinning him around the knotted length.

Lore frags Cork with abandon, pulling and pushing Cork against Dominus’ face, his heated vents blasting down against Dominus.

It’s a blur. A mad blur of agony.

Cork overloads first. If Dominus can even call it an overload. He can feel the pump of Cork’s spike over his glossa. He can feel the thick spurts of transfluid filling up his intake faster than he can swallow. More and more of it. So much that it backflows, filling every nook and cranny of his mouth, squeezing past the seam of his lips and Cork’s spike.

More liquid splatters on Dominus’ chestplate. It slides hot and sticky into his seams, congealing into globs. He doesn’t know where it’s coming from, he doesn’t care.

The spike plunges into his valve again and again, slamming against his swollen rim, driving away any hint of pleasure. Something hot and wet brushes over his spike before someone swallows him. They must have. They’re licking and sucking, denta dragging over desperate sensors.

Dominus shudders as he overloads, more agony than pleasure, thin streams of transfluid spilling into someone’s mouth. He hears a laugh as they let his spike slip free, the last spurt of his release spattering on one of his thighs. And then the mouth comes back, a different one, cooler like they’ve swallowed liquid nitrogen. Lips suckle at him with hard pulls, and Dominus screams into the transfluid drowning him.

It hurts, hurts, hurts, stop, stop, someone please make them stop.

Cork jerks his spike free, and Dominus coughs up globs and globs of transfluid, vents whining and intake convulsing. He can’t seem to catch an oral ventilation. His vision whites out with static.

Cork climbs off his chassis with a satisfied sound. He plays with the transfluid decorating Dominus’ face, smearing it all around. He laughs.

“What are you two trying to do? Suck him dry?” he asks.

Someone chuckles. “Well, he likes it so much, figure we’re doing him a favor,” Equalizer says in a nasty tone.

Searing heat splatters inside Dominus’ valve, burning as it splashes over his bruised nodes. Fallout plunges deep into him, grinding so hard it squeezes his anterior node in an unpleasant way. The pinch of it stings, but it’s just another pain to a litany of them.

Fallout removes his spike, leaving his spill seeping from Dominus’ valve. He smirks, and Dominus stares hazily at him, unsure what the sudden spark of sadism in his optic means. He strikes, faster than lightning, his palm smacking against Dominus’ valve, palm hitting his swollen anterior node.

Dominus’ backstrut arches. He manages a thin, shrill cry from his staticky vocalizer. His valve burns, his node feels as though it’s been set aflame.

“There,” Fallout says as he steps back. “I warmed him up for you.”

Dominus groans.

Playback takes Fallout’s place. “Good,” he says as he slides into Dominus’ valve, the wet push of his thick spike nauseatingly obscene. “You know I like them messy.” His optics brighten, optical lenses cycling in and out.

Dominus realizes, to his horror, that Playback has an internal recording system as well. Rewind has a very similar system, though he has an external one as well, for better quality films. Playback must be recording close ups of Dominus’ torture for whoever their commissioners are.

Dominus doesn’t know what’s worse. That someone paid them to do this to him, or that they’re filming it, and Primus only knows where copies of those recordings are going to go.

That worry is too fleeing, however. It’s a distant concern. Because Playback is fragging him, slow and deep, like he plans on taking his time about it. He’s rolling and pinching Dominus’ node between his fingers, vents rattling and gasping, lust so heavy in his field it’s choking.

Lore’s needles slide back into Dominus’ processor – when had he gotten near Dominus’ head? – and the pain suddenly melts into liquid pleasure. Heat, heat, ecstasy. Dominus gurgles a cry as he overloads.

His valve clenches down, tight around Playback’s spike, and the purplish mech hisses a cry of delight, his fingers digging into Dominus’ hip seams.

“He’s even messier now,” Playback pants. “Do it again.”

Lore laughs, dark and malicious. “With pleasure,” he purrs.

His needles dig deeper. Dominus’ vision whites out. His frame convulses. He doesn’t know if it’s pleasure or pain, but his spike jerks out a thin stream of transfluid and his valve ripples again. Charge crackles like lightning through his lines. His vocalizer stutters until a thin wail breaks free.

He frantically activates his comm, even though he knows all he’s going to get is static. He pings Minimus, Rewind, Termina, the house soldiers… He shouts and screams for help. He begs for someone to save him.

It isn’t until they start laughing that Dominus realizes some of his pleading has been aloud, in broken, staticky sounds. He garbles. He whines. He chokes on transfluid. The stench suffocates him.

His valve screams into another overload, but his spike remains rigid, swollen and seeping with pre-fluid. Equalizer climbs back on top of him, licking his lips, his valve dripping lubricant as he pumps his spike with abandon.

Playback grunts through an overload, filling Dominus with even more transfluid, painting his insides all the way up to his ceiling node. His spike withdraws, grating over every last one of Dominus’ nodes, and he whimpers.

Another body takes Playback’s place. Dominus can’t see who. It doesn’t matter. It’s another spike slamming into him, almost violently. It’s Equalizer still on top of him, enthusiastically grinding Dominus’ spike into his valve. Lore’s giggling as he wriggles his needles in Dominus’ processor, effortlessly manipulating his frame to enjoy or loathe their attentions.

He can’t see Playback’s camera, but he can feel its dispassionate gaze. The shame of it courses hot and heavy through his lines.

No one’s answering his calls for help. No one’s going to save him. He’s all alone.

There’s no one to stop the spike in his valve, the calipers around his spike, the fingers in his brain, the fingers on his mouth, pushing past his lips, gagging him. His assailants are talking, their voices a blur of agony. They’re laughing, and another overload tears through Dominus’ valve as his spike stays stubbornly pressurized, so swollen it aches and feels as though it’s going to explode.

“Get comfortable, little Ambus,” Lore murmurs into his audial, a parody of a lover’s caress in the way he tilts their cheeks together. “We get to have you all to ourselves all night.”

Dominus moans brokenly. His optics are unshuttered but he can’t see anything. He can’t feel anything but a rolling pulse of pain. Darkness creeps in at the edges of his awareness, and there’s nowhere to go, nowhere to escape.

It’s a small favor, he thinks, that they probably aren’t going to kill him.

But this.

He doesn’t know if he wants to survive it.

~

All is quiet and still in the House of Ambus. That, in itself, is not unusual.

Rewind can’t find Dominus. That’s the part which strikes him as odd. He’s the one who showed up late for their scheduled work shift. If anything, he expects Dominus to be standing outside his office, arms crossed, one foot tapping impatiently. He’ll have that firm glare, his mustache quivering, and Rewind should be in the middle of apologizing for his tardiness.

Dominus is not in his office. Odd. Because Dominus doesn’t know how to be anything but punctual. Late is not a word that has ever existed in his vocabulary.

Rewind knows there was a party last night. It’s no excuse. Dominus doesn’t overindulge and even if he had, he still won’t allow it to interfere with his work. Nothing is allowed to interfere. Not even… romance.

None of the servants have seen him. At least, none of the ones who would answer Rewind’s queries. Some still didn’t take too kindly to a disposable running around, much less a datastick. Without Dominus to ensure their polite behavior, they feel free to be rude.

The only place Dominus would be if not in his office would be his room. Perhaps he truly did sleep in. He could be sick, Rewind guesses. That might account for his lateness.

A weird something claws at Rewind’s backstrut. Especially when Dominus’ door comes into view. The panel glows a baleful red, like it’s been locked from the inside, which is unusual enough. But the lock itself looks to have been tampered with. There are scratch marks around the casing, and what even looks like a burn. What the frag is going on?

He immediately tries pinging Dominus, but he gets sent straight to the mail system. He’s told to leave a message. A direct ping gives him only static.

Rewind’s vents stall.

Dominus is the heir to the House Ambus. He’s a very valuable target, if one were so inclined. Rewind knows there are plenty who are inclined and have the funds to pull off such a thing.

He whirls and throws himself at Minimus’ door, pounding on it and pinging Dominus’ younger brother insistently. Minimus is like Dominus, an early riser. He should already be online. And he is, because he flings the door open, optics wide.

“Why are you making so much noise?” Minimus demands.

“Something’s wrong with Dominus. He’s not responding to my pings,” Rewind babbles. He makes a grab for Minimus’ arm, tries to drag him out of the room. “Look!” He points at Dominus’ tampered door panel.

Minimus’ face drains of color. “It did not look like that last night,” he says in a dark tone. He reaches for his comm, and his field goes sickly. “He’s not answering. All I’m getting is static.”

Rewind’s spark leaps into his intake. He can’t breathe.

He claws at Dominus’ door panel, trying to rip it off. “Call for help,” he demands as the panel starts to crack. “I’m going to see if I can’t get this door open.”

“Right. Right, of course.” Minimus stumbles, his back hitting the wall, and within seconds, alarms ring through Ambus Manor, loud enough to make Rewind’s audials crackle and his sensors go haywire.

He pries off the main panel and starts ripping out circuits, wiring, anything that might force the door to open. His fingers shake, his vents whirr. Minimus is pale and trembling behind him, his gaze locked on the door, his lips pressed together. He’s not being much help.

Rewind has a fistful of wires in his hand by the time security comes pounding around the corner. It’s Minimus who grabs him by the shoulder, pulls him out of the way of the three large mechs, built like tanks. They break down the door as if it’s made of tissue paper, and that’s when Rewind’s processor starts screaming. He gasps, drops to his knees, hears Minimus echo him, sway and hit the wall.

No, Rewind’s not the one screaming. Dominus is. He’s shouting for help, he’s begging for it, on all channels, on all frequencies. Rewind gasps as sparks fill his visor and his audials throb from the imagined decibels of it. His comms crackle and die, mercifully cutting off the agony, but he swears it’s still echoing in his processor.

“Dom…” he groans, and claws his way to his feet.

He staggers into the room, through the massive hole security left behind. The stench hits him then, that of overloads and lubricant and transfluid. Stale energon and despair. He sees the berth, and he sees Dominus on it, limp and unconscious. No, not just unconscious. He’s in stasis. His frame is covered in fluids, his face even more so. His optics are unshuttered but dim. He’s been tied down.

Minimus pushes past him, a strangled cry tearing from his throat. “Dominus!” He throws himself toward the berth before one of the security guards grab him by the midsection, pull him aside. He’s still reaching for his brother, face a mask of anguish, his field so ripe with it Rewind’s head spins.

Rewind staggers back against the wall, his spark squeezing into a tiny knot.

More members of the Ambus household stream into the room. One of them bears the distinct symbol of a medic. Termina Ambus arrives in their wake. A screech of horror still isn’t enough to shake Rewind from his stupor. Why? Who? How? Dominus is so limp, he’s so hurt, they’ve made a ruin of him.

“Oh, Dommy,” Rewind murmurs, sparksick to his very core. What have they done to him? And why?

The questions will haunt him forever, Rewind knows. Even as he prays to Primus Dominus comes out of this alive.

~

The steady beep of the sparkrate monitor is the only reassuring sound Minimus has to cling to right now.

Dominus vents only because of a machine, ensuring his system is cycling properly. His tanks are on an energon drip. He is a roadmap of dents and scrapes, and they’ve been too worried about saving his spark to pay much attention to the state of his paint. A forensics team had been here earlier, taking pictures and samples, but no one’s cleaned him yet. Minimus can’t stop counting the different paint transfers, the dents where fingers have gripped too tightly, the clumps of fluids still caught in his brother’s seams.

Minimus can’t take it any longer. He grabs a box of pre-moistened cloths and dabs carefully at his brother’s armor, wiping away the evidence of his assault. It’s too quiet in here, even with the ventilator and the sparkrate monitor, so he clicks on the vidscreen as well, something to run in the background. Anything to distract him from his thoughts.

“—begun an investigation of our own.”

The familiar voice cuts through Minimus’ musings, makes his spinal strut stiffen. He looks up at the vidscreen, where Termina Ambus is issuing a statement to the press.

“While we have utmost faith in the investigative forces of the Enforcers, there are few who will argue the Ambus family is not without its own talents. We will look into this matter vigorously, and rest assured, we will find the perpetrators responsible for this atrocity,” Termina says, face streaked with fury and voice menacingly calm. “An attack against the heir of the house of Ambus will not be tolerated. The assailants will face judgment. This is a matter of honor, of protecting my heir. The Ambus House will stand strong against this foe. Mark my words.”

The scene cuts away, back to the newsroom and the two reporters, who start discussing Termina’s announcement.

Minimus frowns and returns to wiping down Dominus. He wonders if Termina would have been so upset if it had been Minimus who was attacked. And then he berates himself for being so petty. Dominus is hurt. Minimus can’t resent him for it.

The door to the hospital room opens. Minimus startles and looks up, but it’s only Rewind. He’s clutching a datapad and despite his facemask, his expression is solemn. There’s something in the clamp of his armor, the firm grip on the datapad, that spills ill news.

“How is he?” Rewind asks as he moves to stand on the other side of the berth. His field is thick with concern, and his fingers tremble when he rests one hand on Dominus’ arm.

“Alive.” Minimus leans back, tucking the damp rag against Dominus’ hip, carefully around a few monitoring wires. “It’s just a matter of him waking up now.”

“How long will that take?”

Minimus cycles a ventilation. “That’s up to him.”

“Dom’s strong,” Rewind says. He strokes Dominus’ inner wrist. “He’ll wake up.”

“Of course.” Minimus pauses and looks at Rewind, who hasn’t looked up at him since, and who still clutches the datapad. “What’s wrong?”

Rewind sighs audibly and draws back from Dominus. “I got a ping from the darknet,” he says. “I’m going to send this to Termina but…”

A cold shock slashes through Dominus’ system. “What is it?”

“See for yourself. I warn you, though, it’s graphic.” Rewind offers him the datapad.

Minimus hesitates. How can he not? He may not be as deep in the interweb as Rewind and Dominus, but he knows what kinds of things circulate around the darknet.

“It’s already queued to play,” Rewind says softly.

Minimus braces himself. He grabs the datapad and turns the screen toward him. He sweeps away the screensaver, and sees a video on pause. It’s labeled “Ambus Heir is a Whore For It”.

Minimus’ tank churns. He presses play.

He recognizes Dominus’ room immediately. He recognizes his brother, tied down to the bed. Four mechs crowd around him, their paint obviously photoshopped and their faces fuzzed out, making identification difficult. Dominus is bound, gagged, but the terror in his optics is obvious. The video quality is almost professional.

There’s audio, too. Thankfully, Rewind has it muted. Minimus is glad for it. He doesn’t think he can bear to hear Dominus’ pain.

He flicks off the screen and offlines his optics, hiding the screen against his chest. “It–”

“It’s on every darksite, available for free download, and it’s only a matter of hours before people start making physical copies of it as well,” Rewind says. His vents shudder and he curls his fingers around Dominus’ hand. “And with his attack being public knowledge, everyone’s going to know the video is legitimate.”

Minimus steps back from the berth, clutching the datapad to his chassis. “I’ll—I’ll take this to Termina. You stay here with him.” He edges around the berth, his spark clenching with despair for his berth. “He’s going to need you.”

“I’m not going anywhere.” Rewind hops into a chair and threads his fingers through Dominus’. “No matter what happens, I’m here for him.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” Minimus’ smile is thin at best. “I’ll be back.”

He doesn’t flee from the room, but it’s a near thing. If only he’d checked on Dominus last night. If only he’d been more curious. If only he hadn’t let his own resentment get in the way. Maybe he could have done something, changed something.

It’s too late to change the past. But he can see if Termina needs any help tracking down these monsters.

There’s no better detective than an Ambus.