[FoF] Finding Home 04

The handmade windchimes took pride of place in Perceptor’s window. He could roll over first thing in the morning and watch the dawn sparkle through the bits of colored glass.

Or at least, that was what he told Drift, setting off a rampaging throb of emotion in Drift’s core. He’d flushed to the tips of his ears, and Percepter had chuckled and swept him up in a thick embrace and a sweet kiss.

Perceptor liked his gift. There was no greater compliment.

Summer cooled into fall. Their friendship remained, deepening into something stronger. Warmer.

The local vegetation shifted in color, from brilliant greens to an array of oranges, reds, and yellows. Perceptor took Drift flying over the forest for which Kaon was famous. What once had been a vast, swaying carpet of emerald was now flush with pearls of color. Drift had never seen anything like it.

Tesaurus was forested, but the trees were needled, pines and juniper and conifer. Evergreens and the like controlled the canopies while moss-covered shrubs and huge swathes of fern dominated the underbrush. It only browned in the severe winter months, skipping over the slow color shift.

Iacon had been a glittering city of glass and wood. The only natural growth to be found had been in cultivated parks and recreational areas, as if Iacon was determined to mimic the humans in every possible way.

Kaon was something else altogether. Beautiful, in a single word.

The trees here were also the largest Drift had ever seen.

Perceptor said that it was because the entire forest was protected by provincial law. It was old-growth, the trees untouched by human hands for centuries, and now protected from deforesting or destruction. The forest was allowed to freely grow and thrive without any kind of human intervention.

They landed at the very edge of the forest and proceeded the rest of the way on foot. There was a path through the trees and underbrush – a game trail according to Perceptor – and it was chillier in the dim. The forest formed a thick canopy above them. Drift felt small in the shadows of the massive trees, each easily large enough to house a single harpy family. Or even a harpy clan.

Mid-morning and a light mist rose from the leaf-carpeted ground. It cloaked the underbrush in a haze, like magic. There were underground streams, Perceptor explained. They ran through the bedrock like a lattice, and beneath those were rivers of magma, which made the streams just below boiling. There were several natural hot springs in the area. Kaon’s warmer climate, even in winter, was probably due to these numerous thermal vents.

“This is amazing,” Drift breathed as he trailed his fingers through the underbrush.

He couldn’t resist touching. There weren’t any cacti here to attack him, though he did spy the occasional blackberry bush, growing in the rare patch of sunlight.

“It is,” Perceptor agreed. “But it’s the heart of the forest which holds something truly special.”

The deeper they traveled, the larger the trees became, their trunks thicker around than Drift was tall. The sun tried to break through the dense canopy, but only managed in dappled spots across the ground. Drift inhaled deeply, dragging in the scent of earth and flora, his core comfortably at peace.

Perceptor’s fingers brushed against his, and Drift grinned as he brushed back. And then their fingers tangled, as Perceptor slowed to keep apace with Drift, so they could walk hand in hand.

A thrill ran through Drift’s core. They’d only allowed their relationship to turn romantic for a couple months, and they’d gone no farther than kissing and snuggling. It was actually nice, this slow pace. It felt meaningful.

Drift was in no rush to take Perceptor to nest, though it wasn’t because he didn’t want to. Perceptor was beautiful. He was strong and intelligent, and he treated Drift like a person who mattered, someone who deserved affection. Besides, when had a quick romp in the nest brought him anything but pain?

This… this was important. Drift wanted it to last. He didn’t want to ruin it at all.

Perceptor squeezed his hand. “What are you thinking about?”

Drift’s face flooded with heat. “You,” he admitted.

“Is that so?” Perceptor smiled, and his eyes sparkled with humor. Coming from him, it always felt genuine rather than mocking. Drift adored that. “What about me?”

“Well, it’s more about me.” Drift nibbled on his bottom lip, looking away. “How lucky I am, you know. That you want to be with me. I mean, I know you don’t have many other options but–”

“Drift.” Perceptor squeezed his hand and stopped. He curled a knuckle under Drift’s chin, tilting his head up. “It is not a lack of options that drives my interest in you, and it breaks my core you think so little of yourself to assume such.”

Drift swallowed over a massive lump in his throat. “I know what I am, Percy. I’m not the greatest catch. You’re amazing. You deserve someone equally amazing.”

He was plain, especially for a smol, and a touch too big to catch the eye of even the most affable of baras. He wasn’t smart enough for someone like Perceptor. He had no credit to his name, no special skill, nothing to show for his life. He was average in every way.

“Then lucky for me I have found someone who is even more incredible than I am.” Perceptor brushed his lips over Drift’s, even the brief contact enough to send a tide of warmth through Drift’s veins. “And he’s standing right in front of me, with the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen.”

Heat banked at the back of Drift’s eyes. “You don’t have to sweet-talk me.” He licked his lips, tasting Perceptor on them. It was okay, he told himself. Even if Perceptor did change his mind later. “I’m already yours.”

Perceptor sighed and cupped Drift’s cheek. “Have you ever known me to lie?”

“No, but–”

“Then why do you think when I call you beautiful I don’t actually mean it?” Perceptor sounded hurt, and guilt swamped Drift.

He stared hard into the woods, watching a curl of mist rise up to embrace a bramble bush. It was closer to noon now, and the mist was already beginning to dissipate.

How could he even begin to explain his own inadequacies? Why would he want to remind Perceptor of all the reasons the bara should pick someone else?

“I–”

“When I say I have never truly desired another until I met you, do you also believe that to be a lie?” Perceptor continued, his words coming quicker now, sharp like a pain. “Are my feelings nothing but misunderstandings? When I say I adore you, I want to keep you, forever if I can, am I only speaking pretty to seduce you into my nest?”

“Of course not!” Drift blurted out, his core throbbing harder and harder. He jerked his gaze back to Perceptor. His talons carded through the feather tufts around Perceptor’s shoulders. “You wouldn’t do that. You’re not that kind of person. You… you…”

Perceptor drew their foreheads together. “Shh. I know. It’s hard to believe. You won’t tell me why, and I’m not going to push for the answers, but someday you will.” His thumb swept over Drift’s cheek. “And someday I’ll have the name of whomever hurt you, so I might make them regret their hatching.”

Drift’s eyes drifted shut. He drew a shuddery breath. “No one hurt me, it’s just…” He trailed off, words failing him.

He didn’t want to admit what it had been like in Tesaurus, a smol too plain to be eye-catching, a smol too trained to be intriguing, a smol who should have been born a bara, but was instead born wrong in every way.

“Some things are just hard to believe,” Drift finally finished.

“I know, cupcake.” Perceptor tightened his grip on Drift’s hand. “We have time. We’ll figure it out.”

“Cupcake?” Drift echoed, and a grin split the tension.

“Oh, haven’t I shown you those yet?” Perceptor gifted him a quick peck on the lips before he drew back. “You’ll love them. We’ll go the bakery next.”

Drift rolled his eyes playfully. “I meant, why did you call me that?”

“Because it’s what you are. Cute and sweet and the perfect size for me to eat.” Perceptor chuckled. He pulled Drift further down the game trail, keeping Drift tucked against his side. “It’s a pet name, Buttercup. Get used to it. I’m fond of them.”

Drift’s feather tufts switched. He tried not to blush and failed.

“I think I like them, too,” Drift said, and hesitated before adding, “…Cherry pie?”

By Adaptus, that sounded ridiculous. They didn’t flow from his lips naturally the way they did from Perceptor’s.

“Mmm. We’ll work on those.”

Drift laughed. Perceptor, at least, sounded amused. It swept away the last of the tension attacking Drift, and he found it easier to focus on his surroundings.

The trees were getting thicker now and further apart because of their size. They would have made a wonderful home for a small aerie of interconnected nests, if harpies enjoyed living in trees. Which Drift knew some of them did. He’d seen at least two such aeries in his journeys across Cybertron.

The air took on a distinct chill, without the heat of the sun to warm it. It was dimmer as well, though Drift’s eyes adjusted quickly enough. Perceptor walked faster, as though eager to show Drift the reason they were here.

“Not much longer now,” Perceptor reassured him.

He was right.

Less than ten minutes later, with the trees so large that their crowns were no longer visible to the naked eye, Drift came to a stunned halt.

The tree in front of him was massive. So much so that he wasn’t sure it qualified as a tree. From where he stood, he couldn’t measure the breadth of the trunk. He tilted, leaning back to see the crown, and couldn’t. Not only because of the branches, but because he suspected it was so far above him, he’d have to actually retreat to stand a chance of seeing it.

The bark was thick and gnarled, like an aged harpy with crooked fingers and a hunched spine. Roots rose and fell from the soil floor, emerging in coils and humps, one large enough Drift could have walked under it.

“It’s a Giganticus Eternis.” Perceptor stood beside Drift, head tilted back to look up and up the length of the trunk. “Many of the trees we passed are actually descendents of this very tree. It’s lived for thousands of years. It will probably live to see the end of the world.” He waded through the brush and pressed a palm to the thick bark. “It’s the oldest of souls.”

“It’s still alive?” Drift breathed.

Perceptor grinned. “Yes.” He moved over and swept aside a thick stand of bamboo to reveal a section of the trunk that simply wasn’t there, like a tunnel. “And it’s hollow.”

Drift boggled. “How?”

“A quirk of evolution. The trunk is quite sturdy. The walls of it are several feet thick. Bark has even grown along the interior, where it’s been hollowed away. It tapers off to solid trunk again, hundreds of feet above our heads.” Perceptor tilted his head toward the dark opening. “Would you like to see?”

Drift did not even hesitate. “Of course!”

“I thought you might.” Perceptor smiled and dug into the small pack he’d brought slung around his waist. He produced a long cylinder and handed it to Drift before withdrawing one of his own. “Here. A flashlight. It’s quite dark inside.”

Flashlight?

Drift frowned.

Perceptor flicked his thumb against the ridge on the side of the cylinder. A strong beam of light sprung out from the end, forming a spherical halo a fair distance away.

The humans were so inventive!

Drift found his own toggle and switched it on.

“And here we go.” Perceptor held back the bamboo again.

Drift plunged into the dim, sweeping the light of the cylinder in front to illuminate his path.

The interior was dark and vast. His flashlight seemed so meager in comparison, though small shafts of sunlight poured in from overhead. The floor crunched beneath Drift’s feet. He pointed the flashlight at it and found a carpet of dead leaves, insects, and branches. Mushrooms probably lurked in here, too. It felt damp.

“It seems even bigger on the inside,” Drift commented as he swung the flashlight around and around, searching for a wall.

His voice echoed. Something skittered above. Something else fluttered in the dark, soaring through one of the beams of weak sunlight.

“It’s hard to believe it’s still alive,” Drift added.

“The sapwood which forms the exterior trunk, is still functional. It carries nutrients from the roots to the branches,” Perceptor explained as he moved forward, and Drift followed him. “It is the heartwood which has rotted away, and it was already dead to begin with.”

Drift aimed his light toward the ceiling. It was not powerful enough to breach the black. He couldn’t tell where the darkness ended.

“This is amazing,” he breathed.

“I agree. It would make a wonderful aerie someday. I have always thought that,” Perceptor said with a thoughtful hum.

Drift pointed his flashlight toward the other harpy. Perceptor turned to look at him, his expression odd in the beam of light. “You think so?”

Perceptor nodded. “I do.” He reached for Drift’s free hand and drew it up to his lips. He brushed a kiss over Drift’s knuckles. “There are natural snags all throughout the inside. It could easily house a few hundred harpies.”

“It could. With a lot of work.” Drift nibbled on his bottom lip, his fingers warm in Perceptor’s grasp. “Too much work for two.”

“Indeed. We’d need more.” Perceptor’s thumb rubbed over Drift’s palm, the light touch sending a bolt of heat down Drift’s spine. “But imagine it, Drift. Kaon has never been home to harpies before. But the humans welcome us here! Kaon could be a haven to others. Harpies like you and me, who can’t or won’t return to our home flocks, but need a place to call home.”

Drift wouldn’t have to return to Tesaurus or Iacon. He wouldn’t have to worry about relying on the continued kindness of the humans. He could have a home, a real one, with Perceptor.

Drift swallowed thickly. “It sounds perfect.”

“It does.” Perceptor swept Drift into an embrace, his core throbbing so fast and excited Drift could feel it through Perceptor’s chest. “I don’t know how we can invite others. I don’t even know where to begin. It seemed like a distant dream until you showed up.”

Drift thought of Gasket. His dear friend would love the freedom they could offer in Kaon.

He thought of the other harpies he’d met in Helex, those chained to the gladiating pits because they had no other way to survive in an aerie owned by the elite. He remembered Argus, in Iacon, a bara who’d often stared at carrying smols wistfully, his hand on his own belly. Or Runabout and Runamuck, two baras in Uraya, who’d only had eyes for each other, but it was against flock law.

“We’ll figure it out,” Drift said, because Perceptor was right.

A haven was needed. A place for harpies without another home to go and be welcome. Those who were different, and treated badly because of it. Those who had dreams they couldn’t fulfill, or were tired of toiling under a tyrant. They could welcome the curious and the hopeful, anyone willing to work hard for a better life.

The mere idea put a fire in Drift’s belly. He wanted to start immediately, a sense of urgency and need setting his core to throbbing faster. He wanted to do this. He wanted to help. It felt like a calling.

“Maybe Ms. Jessica has some ideas where we can start,” Drift added.

Perceptor swept him up into a kiss, his mouth hungry and sweet. Drift melted against Perceptor, clutching to his feathers with eager hands. Perceptor made a happy warble in his throat and dotted Drift’s face with kisses.

“Thank you,” he murmured against the curve of Drift’s jaw, the hollow of his neck and shoulder.

Drift shivered. “For what?”

Perceptor cupped Drift’s face, bringing their foreheads together. “For not calling me a fool. For believing in this nonsensical idea of mine.”

“It’s not ridiculous. It makes sense. It’s needed.” Drift smiled, placing his hands over Perceptor’s. He rubbed the tips of their noses together. “I want to help you.”

Perceptor kissed him again, relief and joy in the firm press of his lips, the claiming sweep of his tongue, and Drift surrendered to it. Here in the dim, the crackle of leaves beneath their feet, the barest streams of sunlight, the earthy, green scent of Kaon wrapped around them.

They would build a home here in Kaon.

For them, and for anyone else on Cybertron who needed it.

****

Advertisements

[FoF] Finding Home 03

Time spent with Drift quickly became the highlight of Perceptor’s days.

While Drift recovered, Perceptor taught him English, impressed by how quick of a study he was. Within a month’s time, he was able to carry on a conversation with Jessica on his own, though some of the more complicated concepts required explanation here and there.

He was able to interact with the other humans as well. He could go to the greenhouse on his own, and purchase every plant he wanted. Especially with Artemis’ assistance. The two of them became fast friends.

Drift was an absolute delight. While most harpies would have been hesitant to learn more about humans, once Drift realized Kaon was safe, he threw himself into their culture. He was eager to sample their foods, their entertainment.

He loved movies with a voracity Perceptor found endearing. He’d sit in front of the television with attached VCR player – easier for harpy fingers to finagle – and push in movie after movie, while he consumed popcorn like it was its own food group. He was particularly fond of the foreign action films with their choreographed fight scenes, their terribly dubbed voice acting, and absurd premises.

A month passed. Two.

Spring turned to Summer, hot and humid. The campus emptied as students went home for the semester, and only a small number remained behind. It was quieter, less busy, but no less engaging. It also granted them more freedom, as there were less students to stare, and less students to bother.

Not everyone was as comfortable with a harpy on the premises as Jessica and Artemis.

Perceptor had grown used to his solitude while he conducted his research. But Drift was a welcome interruption. He was fascinated by everything. He asked questions. Or he sat silently if Perceptor asked him to do so, often times curled up with a book – children’s readers at first, and then more advanced novels as his English vocabulary broadened. His hands were as nimble as Perceptor’s own, so when Perceptor needed an extra pair of them, Drift leapt into action.

Drift’s room became a mini-greenhouse with all of the plants he collected. They hung in the windows and draped over the shelves and grew across the walls – in the case of the devil’s ivy. He seemed to have a green thumb, encouraging his flora to grow with very little effort. It delighted him, this small ability, and his eyes were bright and his smile broad as he introduced Perceptor to each new acquisition.

Some of them even had names. Drift squirmed and rubbed the back of his head as he pointed to his very first purchase, the cactus Perceptor had given him as a gift, and said he’d named it ‘Percy’.

Summer grew hotter and heavier. Perceptor introduced Drift to the pool, and while the scent of chlorine and bleach was nauseating, the cool water was a blessing. Drift took to water like a duck. He splashed in the pool like a youngling, and Perceptor resolved to one day take him to Glass Lake, below Glass Falls.

Late evenings found Drift practicing with his sword. He ran through a series of exercises, body moving in elegant shapes and twirls, the sword an extension of his arm.

There was a courtyard in the local quad, and Drift found it the perfect space for his exercises. Perceptor watched as often as he could, enraptured by the motions, and the focus on Drift’s face. Often, they drew a crowd of human admirers, and Drift always flushed when they bombarded him with questions. Jessica filmed him more than a few times.

“For research,” she said with a wink.

Perceptor might have asked her for copies of the videos.

Jessica and Drift spent many hours, heads bent together, Jessica diligently scribbling down notes while Drift talked of Tesaurus. Perceptor sat nearby, listening without comment. He’d never been to Tesaurus, but he’d heard it had a very warrior-like culture, and to go by Drift’s tales, the rumors were correct. Hierarchies were constructed around one’s skill with a sword.

When asked why he left, Drift changed the subject.

Even in private, he would only say, “It wasn’t home,” a shadow passing through his eyes. Perceptor didn’t push.

Drift would share when he was ready. Or never. It was entirely up to him. His past was his own business. Sometimes, wounds weren’t ready to be lanced.

Perceptor let it be.

Time passed slowly, but not the drag of day by day drudgery. Rather, it was the savoring of moments, where loneliness evaporated in the heat of the summer sun and Drift by his side. Perceptor had gotten accustomed to being alone. He’d thought Drift’s constant presence in his life – shared meal times, walks, personal interests – would grate soon enough.

That it never did was a sign. For weeks, Perceptor wasn’t sure what that sign was.

It wasn’t until Drift smiled at him, before he tasted crème brulee for the first time, and Perceptor’s core throbbed that he realized he might be in trouble. Drift’s soft moan of utter delight had shot heat elsewhere, and Perceptor found himself interested in another for the first time in his life.

He’d had partners before, of course, but was more a matter of happenstance rather than desire or need. It was a thing one did. It was a biological urge. His partners had been diligent and adequate, and he’d walked away satisfied, at least physically. He’d never considered himself discontented in any other way because no other criteria had been important to him.

Therefore the desire to taste Drift, to see if he were as sweet as the dessert, baffled him. For the first time, Perceptor wanted, and it threw him for a loop. He didn’t know what to do with such a desire.

He begged off breakfast the next day, citing the need for utter silence for a complicated equation, because he needed the time and solitude to examine his feelings. To examine his wants, such odd and unusual sensations he’d never had stirring in his belly. He paced the circumference of the room, hands clasped behind his back, muttering to himself.

There was of course one rather large question: did he truly desire Drift, or was it merely because Drift was the first harpy Perceptor had interacted with for a decade? That one was easy enough to answer. If Drift had been an unkind, uncouth person who wrinkled Perceptor’s nose, and he still desired Drift, then it was only biology. But Drift was kind and funny, charming and gentle. Liking him was the easy part.

Desiring him was the mystery. Drift was visually appealing. He had a striking appearance, and his somewhat lopsided smile was absolutely charming. Perceptor had been around many smols in Tyger Pax, smols of average intelligence and genius intelligence, who were both gorgeous and plain, and none of them had made his core throb the way Drift did.

He could therefore only conclude that he did, in fact, like Drift. Not just because his body had a need and wanted Drift to satisfy it, but because his core had a desire, and felt Drift matched what Perceptor sought in a mate. How unexpected.

What were the chances, Perceptor pondered. How lucky that Drift should find his way to Kaon and be the only harpy Perceptor had ever met who he genuinely desired. How fortuitous.

How… terrifying.

Whatever was he to do next?

Perceptor spun at the end of his route and started pacing again.

He suspected the courtship rituals in Tesaurus vastly differed from what was called courtship in Tyger Pax. In many ways, Tyger Pax was a lot simpler. If you were interested in another harpy, you simply stated so, and they either declined or accepted the other, scheduling it for a moment convenient to both parties. Sometimes, more than one party if invited.

Drift, however, was shy. Skittish even. A frank request might ruin the friendship they’d built. Above all else, Perceptor didn’t want to lose Drift as a friend. He did not know how casual rutting could be among the Tesaurans.

Did he dare risk that friendship for a chance at something more? Or should he be content with what they had already?

A quandary indeed.

Perhaps a few days of observation would tell. A chance to truly examine whether or not this was what he desired. Perhaps it was only a moment of whimsy, nothing more. He didn’t want to risk friendship over a flight of fancy. Better then to be cautious. Patient.

Fortunately, Perceptor had both in spades.

He only wished he had someone in whom to confide. A confidant, so to speak. Jessica was trustworthy, but she could sometimes let her zest for her research override her common sense. He wanted advice, not for his attraction to be put under a microscope.

His door chimed.

Perceptor stopped mid-stride, cocking his head with curiosity. Whoever could that be? It wasn’t as though he received many direct visitors. Most students were fine with seeing him out and about on campus, but they weren’t keen on being isolated near him.

He answered the door.

Drift stood on the other side, his hands tucked behind his back, a look of hesitation on his face. “I hope I’m not interrupting your calculations,” he said with a worried smile.

Perceptor’s core throbbed again. “Not at all.” He stepped aside. “Come on in. I was actually about to see if you wanted to join me for lunch.”

“Definitely!” Drift perked up, his crest feathers twitching. “But um, first. I wanted to give you something.”

Perceptor shut the door. “Oh?” He turned to face Drift, who’d paused in the middle of the room, hands still behind his back.

“It’s not much.” Drift’s face took on a rosy hue. One foot talon scraped at the carpet. “I was going to give it to you this morning, but you were busy. I didn’t want to wait anymore though. So…” He trailed off. “Anyway. Here you go.”

He brought his hands forward and shoved a brightly, if not haphazardly, wrapped package toward Perceptor. It was tied off with a neat ribbon, and Perceptor had to wonder if Drift had engaged a human’s assistance. The curlicues in the ribbon were difficult to pull off with talons.

“How kind,” Perceptor took care, but his talons still poked through the delicate wrapping. “But you did not have to get me anything.”

Drift ducked his head and scratched the back of his neck. “I know, but I wanted to say thank you and well, I just wanted to.” His feather tufts ruffled.

Perceptor carefully plucked at the delicate, bright paper. “Then I will accept it for the kindness it is. Thank you, Drift.”

“It’s not much.” Drift’s fingers tangled together, shoulders hunched, like he was waiting to be chastised, and it broke Perceptor’s core.

Who had worked so hard to crush the gentleness within him?

“It is a gift from the core,” Perceptor murmured. “It will be much no matter what it is.”

No sooner had he spoken then the paper fell away, revealing an intriguing snarl of wire, gemstone, and colored glass. Perceptor grasped a visible, thick knot and pulled it up, his eyes widening in surprise. Wire draped down in a tangle, occasionally woven with well-placed gemstones. It sparkled in the light.

Not much?

Drift was sorely mistaken.

“Drift, this is beautiful.” He let it dangle from his fingers, and as it spun, rainbows danced on the walls. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Where did you get this?”

Drift’s feather tufts twitched. “I made it.”

“You…” Perceptor was at a loss for words. Drift acted as though it was a terrible thing for him to have offered something handmade. As if it was mere garbage. “It’s amazing.”

“It’s just some scrap I put together. It’s nothing special.” Drift fidgeted and gnawed on his bottom lip. “I wanted to get you a new scope instead but–”

“But nothing.” Perceptor carefully placed the windchime on his desk and took Drift’s hands with his own, pulling him closer. “There is no gift treasured greater than that which comes from the core. Thank you.”

Drift’s eyes widened. His hands shook where Perceptor held them. Had he truly feared Perceptor would hate the gift?

“You really like it?” There was a note in his voice, disbelief and uncertainty mingled together, and Perceptor’s core gave another twang.

He wanted to sweep Drift into his arms and never let go. He wanted to kiss the smol senseless, whisper the most encouraging, true words into Drift’s ear. He wanted Drift to understand just how special he was.

And then he wanted to hunt down the harpy responsible for making him think otherwise.

“I do. I wonder how I became so lucky as to receive such a gift,” Perceptor said gently. He was bothered by how little Drift seemed to value his own efforts. Why did he consider himself so unworthy?

Drift sucked his bottom lip into his mouth before he released it. “I just wanted to give you something nice. Because…” He trailed off and abruptly found the floor fascinating.

Perceptor waited for Drift to finish, but silence seemed to have grabbed hold of him. He wouldn’t meet Perceptor’s eyes, but he also didn’t let go of Perceptor’s hands. If anything, he seemed to shift closer. A visible tremor ran through his body.

Perhaps..

Perhaps Drift had been not unlike Perceptor, grappling with unexpected emotion and wondering how to approach it. Was the gift a gesture? A single drop of courage to gauge how Perceptor felt about Drift in return?

There was only one thing to do.

Return Drift’s courage with a single drop of his own.

Perceptor freed one hand, but only so he could cup Drift’s cheek, encouraging Drift to look up at him. He shifted closer, until their faces were inches apart, and Drift’s beautiful blue eyes were focused on him.

“Because–” Perceptor swallowed over a lump of fright in his throat, “–because you wanted to show me that you care, yes?”

Drift’s hand twitched. His face warmed under Perceptor’s fingers. “If I said yes, would that ruin things for us?”

“Not at all.” Perceptor stroked over Drift’s cheek. “I care greatly for you as well.”

Drift’s lips parted on a surprised exhale. “What?”

“You are my friend, and I cherish you for that alone. But lately I’ve found myself wanting more. Desiring you as a lover does,” Perceptor explained. Another tremble ran through Drift before his free hand clasped onto Perceptor’s hip, talons shaking. “And if you’d allow me, I’d love to kiss you. May I?”

“Adaptus,” Drift breathed, his lips parting. His tongue flicked over them, making his mouth shiny-wet with invitation. “Yes, Perceptor. Yes, please do.”

Perceptor pressed his mouth over Drift’s, cutting off the breathy string of agreement, swallowing Drift’s startled inhale. Drift tasted sweet, like he’d been munching on the berries he kept in his room, and he made a noise in his throat, like that of surrender.

He pressed against Perceptor, tongue nudging at the seam of Perceptor’s lips. His arm curled around Perceptor, tugging him nearer, and it was easy enough then to wrap his arms around Drift, and deepen the kiss. To pull the heat of the smol against him, and taste the berries on Drift’s lips.

Something in his core settled then. Something that had been building to an ache for the past few weeks until it was impossible to ignore.

He wanted this. Wanted Drift. There was no mistake about it.

Reluctantly, Perceptor broke his lips from Drift’s, pressing their foreheads together. He closed his eyes, Drift’s exhales puffing against his kiss-slick lips.

“Adaptus,” Drift murmured again, shakily. “I was so sure I was wrong. That I was making a terrible mistake. I thought I’d be lucky just to have your friendship, and it was egotistic of me to think you’d want more.”

Perceptor cradled Drift’s face, holding it as something precious. “Then you were quite wrong indeed. Because I want you very much. If you’ll have me.”

A hungry noise warbled in Drift’s throat. “Kiss me again.” His tongue swept over his lips. “Just to be sure.”

Warm humor bubbled up in Perceptor’s core.

He sealed his lips over Drift’s again as Drift melted against him. Their bodies molded together, feathers rustling. Drift clutched him close, talons shaking, as though he feared Perceptor would vanish in a puff of smoke.

All of the confusion vanished. It felt right, in a way no scientific measurement could quantify or qualify.

Drift was what Perceptor had been searching for in another.

He was sure of it.

***

[FoF] Finding Home 02

Jessica Morgan was the first human to befriend Perceptor. They’d exchanged professional letters for over a year, through a complicated arrangement of a harpy and human mail system, and it was she who had invited Perceptor to come to Kaon.

Back then, Perceptor’s request with Director Compute had been denied. They wouldn’t allow him to continue his research with the humans, or allow the humans to use him as a source. Perceptor had left Tyger Pax illegally, following what he knew in his core to be something he must do.

Science could not be contained by outdated rules and assumptions.

They’d warned him he could be flying into a trap. The journey was long and treacherous enough Perceptor almost believed the naysayers.

But Dr. Morgan greeted him with open arms. She’d arranged a place for him to stay, and had even gathered all the equipment he’d need to continue his own research. She gave him an expense account. She stood by his side, even when the other humans feared Perceptor’s sharp teeth and sharper talons.

Years ago, she’d been a graduate student lobbying hard for further study into harpy culture and biology. It had been her robust thesis which spawned the Avian Studies program now available at Kaon. She spearheaded it, with Chancellor Shen’s approval, and her excitement at meeting a harpy had been palpable even from their first meeting.

She would adore Drift, Perceptor was sure of it.

Drift was allowed to stay thanks to Dr. Morgan. Meeting her was as much a courtesy as it was a requirement. Perceptor had already informed her they would be stopping by, so he wasn’t surprised when Dr. Morgan’s receptionist ushered them in the moment they arrived. Her wide-eyed stare was most amusing.

Had she not paid attention to her boss’ area of expertise?

“Maria, I’ll need several copies of this, collated and stapled, before my next class,” Dr. Morgan – or Jessica as she’d insisted Perceptor call her — was saying as the door opened. She sat behind her desk, glasses perched on the tip of her nose, her curly hair falling over her shoulders.

“Yes, ma’am. But you have visitors,” Maria said with a loud clearing of her throat. “Feathery ones.”

“Feathery… what?” Jessica looked up, and her eyes widened with delight. She leapt up from her chair, it rolling with a thud from behind her. “Perceptor! You’re early.”

“Do you ever know me to be anything but?” he asked, terribly amused.

Maria gathered up a stack of papers from the desk – perhaps the ones that needed to be copied – and edged out of the room, closing the door behind her.

“True, true.” Jessica swept off her glasses and rested them on her desk. “I suppose I’m to blame for losing track of time.” She grabbed a handful of curls and tossed them behind her shoulder.

It was only then she noticed Drift.

“You brought him!” Jessica darted around the table, her heeled shoes going clonk-clonk-clonk on the hardwood. “Oh my gosh, Percy. He’s beautiful!”

She rushed forward before Perceptor could get a word out, her enthusiasm superseding everything. Drift made an absolutely adorable squeak of alarm, looking at once like a cornered rabbit.

He ducked behind Perceptor, huddling against his back. Jessica drew up short, her gaze darting to Perceptor in concern.

Perceptor had to hide his grin. “He’s a bit shy when it comes to humans.”

“Oh, I understand!” Jessica ducked her head, abashed. “I apologize. I was just so excited to meet another harpy.” She leaned to the side, trying to peer around Perceptor. “I’m sorry for startling you.”

“He doesn’t speak English unfortunately. I intend to teach him.”

Jessica straightened. “Then you two speak the same dialects?”

“We speak a universal dialect, but we have our own tongues as well.” Perceptor shifted to face Drift, placing a gentle arm around the smol’s shoulders and urging him forward. “Drift, this is Dr. Morgan. I assure you, she means us no harm. She’s merely enthusiastic and curious.”

Drift eased out from behind Perceptor. “Nice to meet you.” He dipped his head, crest feathers canting forward.

Jessica’s smile broadened. “Some things are universal, aren’t they? I might not have understood what he said, but I recognize the gesture.” She stuck out her hand and approached Drift much more slowly this time. “Hello, Drift. Welcome to Kaon. I’m so glad you’re here.”

Drift took her hand. He smiled.

Some things were universal indeed.

“And don’t listen to Mr. Stiffness over here,” Jessica added with a wink. “You can call me, Jessica. I don’t stand on ceremony around here.”

Drift kept shaking her hand and smiling.

Perceptor chuckled and rested a hand over theirs, gently extricating Drift’s from Jessica’s. “For now, I will translate, but I’m sure he’ll learn English quickly enough.”

“That’s great!” Jessica spun away from them, walking back behind her desk at a fast clip. “Have a seat and we can get started. Help yourself to any of the refreshments here. Let it not be said I’m not a generous host.”

“You are always quite gracious.” Perceptor urged Drift to a chair and gestured for him to sit.

Drift did so, but warily. He still eyed Jessica like she wanted to eat him, and he pressed into his chair as far back from her as he could. He also poked at the frame and cushion of it, as if fascinated by its construction.

Perceptor chuckled to himself. My, but Drift was adorable. He pulled out a chair of his own and made himself comfortable. Jessica had indeed provided a basket of fruit, no doubt locally grown, and Perceptor grabbed something for himself.

“Have whatever you want,” he told Drift as Jessica watched them with owl-like fascination. She loved the harpy language and wished heartily she could duplicate the musical sounds of it.

Unfortunately, human vocal chords had difficulty with many of the tones and cadences.

“So,” Perceptor said as he rested one hand in his lap and started nibbling on the offered peach, “where should we begin?”

“Everywhere.” The phrase ‘stars dancing in one’s eyes’ must have begun with a researcher having ample opportunity to interview the subject of their thesis.

Perceptor chuckled. “Then we’ll start at the beginning.” He gave Drift a look and patted him on the knee, shifting to their native tongue. “I hope you got a lot of sleep last night.”

The look of wide-eyed wonder Drift gave him in return was priceless.

~

Afterward, they went out for something Perceptor called ‘ice cream’. It was cold and sweet and if Drift ate it too fast, it made his head ache. But he enjoyed the icy bite of it, and he liked that he had to eat it slowly, licking around and around it. Perceptor told him his flavor was called ‘cherry garcia’ and while it didn’t taste like any cherry Drift had ever eaten, it was good.

Drift even liked the munchy thing it was served in – waffle cone, Perceptor called it.

They walked as they ate, heading toward the ‘greenhouse’. Drift had wanted to see where they grew the plants on campus, and Perceptor agreed to show him.

They gathered a lot of stares, Drift noticed. It made him a little uneasy. He wasn’t used to being noticed. In Tesaurus, he’d been nigh invisible. With so many pretty smols wandering around, no one took notice of a dull one. No one except Gasket, and Carrier said Gasket didn’t count because he wasn’t a suitable mate candidate anyway.

Sometimes, Drift wondered if Carrier’s decision to take the post in Iacon had less to do with wanting to be a Fencemaster in his own right, and more to do with wanting Drift away from Gasket. If only Sire had been a bit more insistent, but then, that wasn’t the way things worked in Tesaurus.

Sire had lost. Carrier was in charge.

It had been different in Iacon. Not better, but different. Drift still was an unappealing smol, but for entirely different reasons. In Iacon, no one wanted a smol who could defend himself, who was more skilled with the blade than half the baras in the army or the defensive forces. Especially not a smol as dull and uninteresting as Drift.

It was a new rejection, same as the old.

“Drift?”

He blinked out of the memories and looked over at Perceptor, whose beautiful ocean-blue eyes squinted with concern. “Are you all right?”

“Sorry. Was lost in thought.” He ducked his head and focused on his ice cream again. It had started to melt over his fingertips. Oh dear.

“Anything you care to share?”

By Adaptus, no. Drift gave himself a moment to think as he licked his fingers clean. The last thing he wanted to do was tell Perceptor how much no one wanted him. That would be pathetic, and he wanted to keep Perceptor as a friend. Not frighten the bara away with his sob story.

“Just thinking about home,” Drift finally said, keeping it vague. “Answering Ms. Jessica’s questions reminded me, is all.”

He couldn’t fathom simply calling her ‘Jessica’. It rankled against every form of polite address he’d been taught.

“Ah. Leave someone behind?” Perceptor asked as he nibbled on his own ice cream. He’d had some kind of caramel dipped vanilla cone, and Drift loved watching him lick around the hard, candy shell.

Drift’s face heated. “Not in the way you’re thinking.” He focused hard on his ice cream. “Gasket was a friend, and we were sort of like that, but not really. We never had a chance to be.”

“Because you left?”

“Yeah.” Drift rolled his shoulders, trying to be nonchalant. “But when opportunity knocks, you have to answer, right?”

“Whether or not you have to depends on whether or not you want to,” Perceptor replied, words spoken as though carefully chosen. “You left for Iacon because of your Carrier, yes?”

“I left for me, too,” Drift insisted, not sure why he suddenly felt defensive. “The Ultra wanted someone closer to his youngling’s age to train him. So I’d be the perfect candidate, once I’d finished my own lessons. It was a great opportunity.”

“Was,” Perceptor echoed with a pointed lick of his ice cream. “But you left before you could take advantage of that. Why?”

Drift bit down on the ice cream, more than was comfortable, but it kept him from saying something he’d probably regret.

“This is a sensitive subject for you I see,” Perceptor murmured. “I apologize. I won’t push. Perhaps you’d be interested in sharing your journey here instead? The distance from Iacon to Kaon is no small trip.”

Heat flared darker in Drift’s face. His journey was no sweeter tale. He’d left Iacon without a plan, a map, and with only the barest minimum of supplies. He’d left because he couldn’t stay anymore. He hadn’t intended to go to Kaon. He’d just wanted to get away.

It had been a long, hard year between Kaon and Iacon. Not all of it pleasant.

The six months he’d spent in Helex and their gladiating pits, for example, had almost been enough to have him tuck his tail between his legs and slink back to Iacon, begging forgiveness of his Carrier for his impetuous actions. Luckily, he’d had enough sense to use a pseudonym. No one would be able to trace him by name alone. His dull appearance had served him well there.

Helex was a lot closer to Kaon than Iacon. He’d been lucky, fleeing Helex and stumbling on a place that would give him shelter. Otherwise, who knows where he would have ended up. Perhaps with the wrong humans, those more interested in the slave trade.

Or worse, the ones who killed harpies and harvested their parts for disgusting rituals and false medicines.

Drift shuttered.

“Not much to tell, I’m afraid,” Drift said after he swallowed the mouthful, desperate to change his line of thought. “I wandered all over Cybertron, avoiding human settlements as much as possible, doing small jobs to earn a place to stay while foraging in the forests for food. I knew I wanted a fresh start somewhere, but wasn’t sure where I could find it.”

“Did you ever roam by Tyger Pax?”

Drift shook his head. “No. I must have missed that one. Isn’t it up in the mountains?”

“It is.”

“Never crossed the mountains.” He’d been to Helex at the base of them, he’d climbed halfway up their massive peaks during his flight, but he’d never gone over or through them. Perhaps he should have.

But then, if he had, his flight wouldn’t have taken him to Kaon, but to whatever city-state was on the other side. He wouldn’t have met Perceptor or gotten to taste ice cream.

Drift crunched into the cone, and made a pleased sound when he discovered that the ice cream had softened it some, but it remained crunchy. “This is good stuff. Thanks for showing me.”

“My pleasure,” Perceptor replied. He even sounded like he meant it. “Perhaps one day I can show you my home aerie. If by some miracle I am allowed back.”

Drift blinked. He couldn’t imagine someone as kind as Perceptor doing something so illegal as to be exiled. “Why wouldn’t you be?”

“Research alongside humans is expressly forbidden by my flock.” Perceptor delicately peeled a paper wrapper from around the bottom of his cone. “Allowing the humans to study us in return is equally abominable. It is a cardinal rule, isn’t it? That a harpy should never trust a human.”

“But you did.”

“Indeed I did.” Perceptor licked his cone, tongue curling to swipe up a stray drop of ice cream. Drift pointedly stared harder at his own treat. “I went against my Director and the assembly to do so. I am certain by now that I’ve probably been stripped of my degree, my rank, and my grant.”

Drift growled in his throat. “That’s awful. I thought Tyger Pax was supposed to be all about scientific advancement and the pursuit of the truth?”

Perceptor’s lips pursed together, his eyebrows drawing down. “Everything has two faces,” he finally said, after a moment’s quiet. “And the truth is rarely pretty or safe. Humans are dangerous, so we’ve been told. And to associate with them invites danger to the rest of my flock.”

“You sound like you agree with them.” Drift squinted at his new friend.

“In some ways, I do.” Perceptor plucked a piece of caramel from his cone and popped it into his mouth. “I took enormous risk coming here. But if I had been wrong, and the humans used me to get to my flock, I will have shared my risk with those who hadn’t consented to it.”

“Oh.” Drift supposed Perceptor had a point. “But it all turned out okay. They should let bygones be bygones then.”

Perceptor shook his head. “The point isn’t that I was right and these humans are nothing to fear. The point is that I disobeyed and broke the law. There are consequences for everything. It is a… scientific fact.” He smiled, though it was wan. “I do not regret it, however. I feel I am meant to be here in Kaon.”

“You weren’t happy in Tyger Pax?”

“I wasn’t unhappy. I simply was not fulfilled nor satisfied nor content.” Perceptor popped the last of the ice cream into his mouth, licking his lips to clean them. “Now I am getting closer to all three.”

Drift grinned. “I’m glad.”

“As am I.”

Drift ate every last bite of the ice cream, except for the small paper wrapper around the bottom. Perceptor showed him where to properly dispose of it. Then they rounded one of the building’s corners, and Drift’s eyes widened. A massive construction of glass and metal rose in front of him, glinting in the afternoon sun, so bright he had to shield his eyes from it.

“This is the greenhouse, or well, one of them at any rate. They have several around campus,” Perceptor said as he strode toward it without so much as a wince. “This particular one grows plants suited for an arid climate, so it may be a little dry and hot in there. Fair warning.”

“I can handle it,” Drift said.

Perceptor smiled at him. “I’m sure you can.”

They took a stone path that wound toward a pair of double-doors, equally glass and metal, but Perceptor pushed a button on a nearby column, and the doors swung open to grant them access. Even more incredible was that neither he nor Perceptor needed to stoop to go inside. The humans had made the doorway plenty large enough, even for a bara like Perceptor.

A hot gush of air smacked Drift in the face. His feathers stood on end, instantly lifting for better heat dispersal. It was ten times warmer inside the greenhouse than outside of it. His nose twitched as the scent of greenery flooded his senses. They had to walk through a small corridor, with a trellis made of wood and crawling with ivy overhead. When they emerged, Drift was amazed for the third time that morning.

There was so much green. It was like being in the forest, except he looked up and saw the glass surrounding them and knew they were inside a building. Water trickled somewhere, and there was the crashing noise of a waterfall, too. Narrow paths made of river rock coiled lazily across the floor, as plants grew and dripped into the walkway, both cultivated and natural.

“What do you think?” Perceptor asked.

“It’s amazing,” Drift said, absently following as Perceptor took him down the right-hand path. It was just wide enough for them to walk side by side. “I never knew such a variety of plants existed. Where do things such as these grow?”

“Some of them are native to my aerie, Tyger Pax. Others are from further west. You’d probably know them as the Salt Flats. Some have been flown in from as far as the Barrens.”

Drift couldn’t resist trailing his fingers through the vegetation. One of them, however, bit him. He jerked his fingers back, sticking the hurt one into his mouth.

“Be careful.” Perceptor sounded amused. “Some of them have spines or thorns, like a blackberry bush. There are a few who are even toxic, though the university is careful to put signs on those and make them harder to reach.”

His finger stung. Drift laved it with his tongue to soothe the ache. “An advance warning would have been nice.”

“It doesn’t hurt that much,” Perceptor teased. “But if it makes you feel better, I can kiss it.”

Drift’s face heated. His crest feathers reared back. “Why would you do that?”

Perceptor blinked. “Did your parents not kiss your aches when you were young? As a way of soothing you?”

“My Carrier didn’t believe in such methods.” Drift frowned. “Or at least, I don’t think he would have. Bandages are far more effective.” Carrier was more likely to tell him he had to prove he was strong. He couldn’t cry, couldn’t show weakness, couldn’t show that it hurt.

Real warriors bore pain.

“That they are, but there is much to be said about the healing qualities of a carrier’s touch,” Perceptor said. “But then, I’ve always had a soft spot for the fanciful things.”

Drift noisily cleared his throat. “What’s this one?” he asked, desperate to change the subject, and latching onto the nearest, brightest plant. It was very green.

And spiky.

Drift kept his hands to himself.

“That is a Schlumbergera truncata, better known as holiday cactus. They tend to be individually named by whatever holiday they bloom nearest to.” Perceptor moved closer, peering at the buds on the plant. “This is an Equinox variety.”

“Equinox?”

“It will bloom twice a year, around the spring and fall equinoxes.” Perceptor carefully placed a talon against the slightly barbed leaves. “Which is why it is in bloom now.”

“It’s pretty,” Drift murmured. Even if something similar had nipped his fingertip, this particular plant appealed to him. He liked the idea of a flower that bloomed twice a year. “Is it easy to care for?”

“Oh, yes. They are very hardy.” Perceptor peered at him. “Would you like one?”

Drift looked up at Perceptor, startled. “What?”

Perceptor reached around him, the pads of his fingers gentle as it curled around the purple flower. “Would you like one? They sell them potted for students to take back to their dorms, since they don’t need as much care as other plants.”

“Oh. I couldn’t ask you to–”

“See, the funny thing is, you didn’t.” Perceptor had the audacity to wink at him before he swished away in a whirl of feathers. “You like the purple flowers best, right? I’ll get one of those for you.”

“But…” Drift’s protest died on his lips. His core gave a quick, warm throb, and he pressed his palm to his chest. That was weird. His core had never done that before.

Drift hurried to catch up to Perceptor, who had become a bara on a mission. He made his way through the greenhouse in several large strides, and Drift broke into a light jog so he wouldn’t lose sight of him.

Perceptor ducked through a leaf strewn doorway ahead, and Drift plunged in after him, only to skid to a stop.

The new area was completely enclosed by more glass walls, but there were shelves here, and a wood lattice. Plants dangled above them in hanging pots, their colorful flowers swaying in a breeze of unknown origin. Other potted plants sat on shelves with stakes poking out of the soil, numbers carefully painted on them.

Perceptor headed straight for the succulents.

“You really don’t have to,” Drift blurted out as he finally caught up to the bara, though his breath caught in his throat. They were all so pretty. Part of him wanted to take every last cactus home. “I’m sure I can find a way to earn one for myself.”

“Nonsense.” Perceptor selected a purple one from the bunch and eyed it carefully. “Consider it a housewarming gift.”

“But–”

Perceptor pressed an index finger to Drift’s lips. “Hush.” He tucked the cactus under his arm. “I’m doing this for you. No arguments. Yes?”

Drift nodded against the pad of his finger, resisting the odd urge to taste it with his tongue. Perceptor smelled of fresh soil and green things, and Drift wanted to roll around on him like he would a field of flowers, painting his feathers in pollen and bits of leaf.

“Good.” Perceptor smiled. Genuine and honest. He took back his hand and looked over Drift’s shoulder. He spoke something to the young lady behind the register, though Drift couldn’t pick out any of the words.

She smiled and waved as if she recognized Perceptor and spoke in her human language. She had a pleasant voice. Drift bet she was a fantastic singer.

Perceptor replied to her before his attention shifted back to Drift, and back to a language Drift could understand. “Artemis is putting together a kit that will help get you started and give you instructions on how to best care for the cactus.”

Drift chewed on his bottom lip. “Thank you.” He ducked his head, a flush spreading through his face. He couldn’t remember the last time someone had given him a gift. At least, someone who wasn’t family.

“My pleasure.” Perceptor tipped the cactus into Drift’s hands, and he cradled it carefully. “I admit, my gift comes with ulterior motives.”

“It does?” Drift inhaled the scent of the cactus – greenery and earth, not really sweet like a flower. It was perfect.

Perceptor chuckled. “Yes. I’m hoping if I ply you with enough plants, you’ll decide to stay.”

Drift clutched the pot tighter. “I wasn’t planning on leaving,” he admitted. Though he swallowed down the latter half of it, which was, he didn’t have anywhere else to go. Kaon, at least, was nice. And he was learning so much.

“Then my evil plan is working,” Perceptor replied as the cheerful cashier bounced up to them, holding a brightly colored bag.

Artemis babbled briefly at Perceptor before her gaze slid sideways, and she spied Drift. Her eyes lit up, and she leaned forward, though with a lot less energy than Ms. Jessica had.

Drift had no idea what she was saying, but the curiosity in her brown eyes was clear. He, in turn, was fascinated by her appearance. Her skin was a lush, soft brown, and her hair formed a fluffy halo around her head. It looked so soft.

Perceptor tilted his head toward Drift, but the only words Drift recognized were his own name.

Artemis smiled and offered her hand to Drift, and while he didn’t know what she was saying, she seemed friendly enough. He did recognize her name as Perceptor had said it before, so he assumed she was introducing herself.

Drift dipped his head in greeting. He shook her fingers, careful of his talons.

Perceptor said something else to the woman and she giggled. She winked at Drift and flounced away, leaving them alone.

“Artemis is a graduate student. She’s been studying the medicinal properties of succulents for her thesis,” Perceptor explained as he gestured Drift toward the door, one hand at the small of Drift’s back to guide him.

“Thesis?” Drift echoed.

“Ah.” Perceptor juggled the box in his other hand. “It’s a very long paper on a specific topic that she has to submit in order to qualify for her doctorate. It means, hmm, it means she becomes legitimate in the eyes of the human collegiate.”

There were a lot of words in there unfamiliar to Drift. But rather than focus on them, he preferred to focus on the soft warmth of Perceptor’s hand on his lower back. And the weight of the cactus – the gift – in his arms.

“By the way, I’m pleased to hear you plan on staying.” Perceptor led Drift out another door, this one plunging them back into the warmth of the afternoon. “The humans are friendly enough, but it’s nice to be among my own kind again.”

“I’m glad I met you,” Drift admitted and buried his face in his cactus, breathing in the scent of the leaves. Though he was mindful of the pointy bits. “I think I’m getting like you, too. Finding a satisfaction I didn’t know I could have.”

He wouldn’t have been allowed these in Tesaurus. It wasn’t warrior’s work. But he could have them here. Could probably have more, if Perceptor was telling the truth. His core gave another thump of delight.

He was so glad he’d ended up in Kaon.

“Good.” Perceptor patted him on the shoulder. “Let’s get your cactus home, and then I can show you around some more. Sound good?”

Drift tucked the cactus against his belly. He didn’t even mind when one of the spines gave him a gentle poke.

“Sounds perfect.”

****

[FoF] Finding Home 01

Learning to hold the smooth, slick glass beakers had been a struggle. The test tubes were even harder. But he had learned.

Perceptor had nimble talons, long and narrow fingers, and shorter feathers around his carpals. He was lucky. All of this made it easier to use the humans’ equipment.

He still had to take great care. He was eternally grateful for Dr. Morgan’s kindness. He would not repay it with another broken item.

Perceptor hovered over the microscope and carefully nudged the slide with the tip of his talon. It made a pleasant tink as it slid into position. Perfect.

Perceptor eased behind the eyepiece. He was so much larger that doing so left a cramp in his neck, but it was worth it. His curiosity couldn’t be ignored or contained. It was the whole reason he’d come to Kaon University in the first place. Dr. Morgan’s invitation had been one he refused to ignore.

One talon rested on each dial. It took a bare nudge to adjust it to his preference. There. Perfect. Now he just needed to–

“Perceptor!”

He startled, scrambling back from the microscope, his knee bumping the edge of the desk. The equipment rattled ominously, and Perceptor hastened to grab it. He steadied the desk, his core thumping with alarm.

He turned his head slowly. One of the undergrads stood in the doorway, shifting from foot to foot, though he had the decency to look apologetic.

“Sorry,” the human said, and blushed. Perceptor did not recognize this one, which meant he was not used to being in Perceptor’s proximity. “I just… um… we need you.”

“Can it not wait?” Perceptor demanded, only to pause and exhale. The child hadn’t meant any harm.

“No. It’s an emergency…?” The boy coughed into his hand, the color in his cheeks deepening to crimson. “There’s another one of you outside the gates, except he’s dead. Or at least, we think he is. We dunno. We didn’t get close enough to look.”

The alarm, slowly ebbing, returned with a vengeance. Perceptor had not seen another harpy since he’d left his aerie over a decade ago. Perhaps this was an overdue coincidence. Or perhaps more sinister circumstances were afoot.

“I see.” Perceptor pretended calm. “Outside the main gate?”

“Yeah.”

“Then I’ll have a look. What color was he?”

The student shuffled his feet impatiently. “I dunno.” He shrugged. “Grey. Brown maybe. He’s dirty.”

Perceptor pressed his lips together. Alone and filthy? Perhaps this was someone in need of sanctuary rather than a prison cell. Only meeting him would tell.

“All right then. Let us go.”

~

Perceptor had spent so long in the laboratory that a sunny, spring morning had morphed into a fierce, storming afternoon. Upon seeing the deluge, the undergrad had balked, leaving Perceptor to continue on his own.

He could have flown. But the rain was thick and heavy, soaking his featherdown and leaving him feeling drowned. Besides, he was out of practice.

Beyond the main gate, a few humans had gathered. They huddled under an umbrella that was far too small, and essentially useless given the angle of the rainfall. Perceptor recognized none of them, though of course they knew his name. Their greetings were polite, if not cautious.

Some humans still spread the lie that harpies snatched human children, after all. Perceptor didn’t understand it. Apart from the rare Raptor, harpies didn’t consume meat or flesh at all.

A few feet from the students lay a sodden mess of muddy feathers, face down in the well-trod earth. Perceptor approached cautiously, for judging by size alone, this was a smol, though one trained for battle. The worn sheath and hint of a hilt suggested a warrior or soldier, perhaps from Iacon or Tesaurus.

The harpy was a touch on the lean side. Small patches of feathers were missing. A wound on his thigh had been hastily bandaged, or had become unraveled in the storm.

“Hello?”

Not a twitch.

Perceptor flushed, realizing he’d called out in the human language. Very few harpies spoke it. They had no reason to.

Percy switched to his native tongue and tried again. “Excuse me?”

Silence.

He dared crouch by the poor heap, noting that the harpy was not, in fact, dead. He still breathed, though it was shallow. He also raged with fever. Even with the cold wind and rain, Perceptor could feel the heat rising from the stranger.

Perceptor frowned.

The chance this poor smol meant him any harm was very slim. He was in no condition to injure anyone. Perceptor supposed he would take the risk, if only for the sake of his own conscience. He could not leave this harpy to die.

“Perceptor?”

He glanced back at the students huddled under their paltry umbrella. “This harpy lives. I’ll be bringing him back to my room.”

He rose and looked down, considering how best to approach this. They were almost of a size, but the harpy looked thin, perhaps underfed. This would be doable, if not slow, provided the smaller one did not wake and thrash about.

“Do you want help?” one of the females asked.

Perceptor shook his head. “No. In fact, you should keep your distance.” He knelt on the other side of the harpy and worked his hands beneath the limp body, scooping him up into his arms.

He staggered, the unknown harpy unexpectedly heavy. Lucky that he was not so far from home. The stranger did not stir, except to make the quietest of pained noises. Perceptor softened in sympathy. The poor thing. Was he younger than Perceptor thought? Maybe a youngling lost and far from home?

“Are you sure?”

Perceptor nodded, adjusted the harpy’s weight in his grip, and started toward the college. “Yes,” he replied. “If he wakes, he may act out of fear, and a harpy’s talons are not one to take lightly. It could easily rend your flesh from your bones.”

A human squeaked. As one, the three took several steps away.

Perceptor’s burden made another soft, sad noise. He shivered, claws twitching, head turning toward the fluff of Perceptor’s chest.

He was even more certain he’d made the right choice. This young one needed help, and Perceptor was not so far from his roots he could ignore another harpy in need.

Besides, it was getting quite lonely in Kaon. He also knew Dr. Morgan would be very interested to meet a new harpy for her research. Perhaps the stranger could be convinced to stay.

Only time would tell.

~

Drift woke slowly, surrounded by warmth, and surprised he woke at all. Hadn’t he collapsed outside a human city? He’d pushed himself to make it over the thickest of Kaon’s forest, and bright lights had drawn him forward. There was a moment where he’d realized it was human in origin, nothing to be trifled with, but by then it was too late.

Another frigid gust of drenched wind, and he’d dropped. Exhaustion made it impossible to catch himself. He tumbled head over feet. He didn’t remember hitting the ground.

Now he was warm?

He twitched his head. No heavy weight of chains. Not around his neck, nor around his wrists or ankles. There was bedding beneath him, soft and comforting. The air was filled with the scent of fresh fruit. Nearby, someone hummed quietly. The melody was almost familiar, or maybe that was Drift’s addled brain struggling to make sense.

Drift kept still and forced his eyes open, ever so slowly.

He was indoors, he realized, the roof above him solid and speckled with a variety of colors. He lay in a hammock lined with plush blankets, cradling his broken body. Someone had taken care to wrap his wounds.

Drift turned his head, his eyes widening in surprise.

There was another harpy here. He was a dark crimson, mostly around the torso, and his feathers darkened to black before lightening out to gray then white. Large, definitely bara-class. He sat with his back to Drift, feathers smoothed down.

The song came from him.

Drift fidgeted; the hammock creaked. His mysterious savior stopped singing. He turned to face Drift, his lips curved in a soft smile. He was stunning, Drift realized. His eyes were big and blue, like the ocean, something Drift had only ever seen from afar. But he remembered the glittering waters.

“Oh! You’re awake!” The bara rose to his feet and padded closer. He tilted his head, looking Drift over, his voice pleasant. “How’re you feeling?”

“Warm,” Drift croaked. His throat felt as dry as the badlands. At least that meant the other harpy wouldn’t have to hear the worst of his uncultured accent. “Thank you.”

“We outcasts must look after each other. Though of course, I may be presuming to call you an outcast.” He lowered himself to an empty stool by Drift’s bedside. “I am Perceptor, originally of Tyger Pax.”

“Drift. Iacon, by way of Tesaurus.” He gave his birth name. No need for Perceptor to know of ‘Deadlock’. That monster was left behind in Helex, where he belonged.

“Mmm. A seasoned traveler then.” Perceptor’s gentle smile was soothing. He tilted his head. “I have heard of your flock. Many great warriors are of Tesaurus.”

Yes. And Drift would never be among those stories. He’d left before he could make a name for himself. He would never rise in the ranks. He would never be what his carrier wanted him to be. Carrier had tried, but Drift simply didn’t have the skill.

So he’d left it all behind, keeping only Sire’s gift as the rare item he couldn’t bear to leave.

Drift’s eyes widened, and he bolted upright. “My blade! Where–”

“It is quite safe.” Perceptor gestured to his left.

Drift followed the motion with his eyes. His sheath hung on a rack which itself hung on the wall. It looked like someone had cleaned and polished the sheath even. How kind.

He sagged with relief. “Thank you,” he repeated. He swept a hand over his crest, surprised to find that he was clean. “For helping me, I mean. I should have died out there.”

“Were you exiled?”

“No.” Drift shook his head and offered a rueful grin. “But storming out in a fit of pique wasn’t the best idea either. What about you?”

“I chose to leave as well.” Perceptor’s gaze slid away, his feathers slicking down as his tone turned mournful. “There were things I wanted I could not have.”

Drift had never been to Tyger Pax. He knew nothing of its flock law. But if it was anything like Tesaurus or Iacon, he could understand why Perceptor left. Rules. Regulations. Expectations. They could be heavy weights to keep one grounded.

Drift looked around. This looked like no nest he’d ever seen, not even in Iacon, who had one of the more advanced flocks in all of Cybertron. In fact, if he had to guess…

“You live with the humans?” Drift asked. Alarm filled him all over again. Were they prisoners? Was this just a very nice jail cell?

“I do. This is Kaon University. I came here to study.”

Drift’s feathers twitched. He hunched his shoulders. “Is it safe?” He lowered his voice, glancing toward the door. “Do you need help escaping?”

Perceptor chuckled. “No. I’m quite welcome here.” His eyes lit up. “You are, too. If you wish to be.”

“Oh. I… actually don’t know where I want to be.” Drift ducked his head, his face heating.

He didn’t know where he wanted to go. He only knew he didn’t want to be home. He couldn’t bear to be surrounded by things he couldn’t have, and he certainly couldn’t bear the weight of his carrier’s expectations either. There was only so much sire could do, having lost the challenge. He was expected to bow to Carrier in all things.

Drift’s stomach chose that moment to grumble. Loudly. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten anything more than a handful of hunt rations – dry nuts and berries, without so much as a sip of water to keep it down.

“Sorry.” Embarrassment wove a thick web around his core. Could he throw himself out the window now? Not that it would do any good since he could fly.

Frag. He couldn’t even mope properly.

Perceptor’s eyes widened. “No, it’s my fault. I’m a terrible host.” He hopped to his tarsals, a few feathers floating down in his wake.

Drift snatched them from the air, admiring the red hue of them. So dark. Almost like spilled blood. He tucked the feather under his rump as Perceptor returned.

“Here. Would you like some fruit?” Perceptor urged a thick bowl toward Drift.

Several different types of fruit rolled around together in a colorful array. They smelled perfectly ripe, perfectly sweet, and Drift’s mouth watered. His belly protested emptiness once more.

“Yes, please.” Drift snatched a peach and two plums. Weren’t they out of season? Did they even grow naturally here?

“They are from the university’s gardens,” Perceptor explained as he returned to his chair, still cradling the bowl. “Thanks to them, I eat quite well.”

“You’re lucky.”

“Yes, I am.” Perceptor’s hands rubbed around the bowl as though he were nervous, which was ridiculous. Drift was much smaller than him, and his thigh was all bandaged up. “If you have your strength, perhaps after you eat I can give you a tour.”

Drift licked his lips clean of peach juice. “You’re allowed to walk around?”

“Yes, of course. I’m not a prisoner.”

“Oh.” Drift ducked his head. He kept coming across as an idiot, didn’t he? “Are there other harpies here?”

Perceptor’s smile faltered. “I’m afraid not.” His talons clicked on the edges of the bowl. “And therein lies the truth, Drift. I am selfish. I saved you for my own reasons.”

Drift nibbled on the plum, trying to resist the urge to gobble it down like a savage. “You were lonely.”

“Quite. I left Tyger Pax years ago,” Perceptor said. “And while the humans I’ve befriended are good company, there is nothing quite like the familiarity of one’s own kind. You are the first harpy I’ve seen, and you are surely a sight for sore eyes.”

Drift nibbled on his bottom lip. “It’s been awhile. Since I had a friend,” Drift admitted. He lifted his gaze to Perceptor. “Maybe that makes me selfish, too. Since you look friend-shaped to me.”

Perceptor laughed, and Drift’s core warmed. “I would like that very much.” He freed a hand and rested it on Drift’s arm, giving it a light squeeze. “For however long you choose to stay.”

Drift’s core leapt with delight. “I’d like that,” he said, biting into the plum and failing to not make a mess. “Sorry.”

Perceptor patted him on the arm before he returned to the bowl, plucking out a plum for himself. “You have nothing to apologize for,” he said, and messily bit into his own fruit, juices dribbling free.

He winked.

Drift grinned.

Maybe crashlanding in the middle of Kaon wasn’t such a bad thing after all.

~

Drift was, in a word, adorable. Perceptor saw in his eyes the same lost and lonely look that had haunted his own for so long, and still did.

But when he smiled, Perceptor felt something within him inexplicably lurch.

He did not dare take Drift far for the tour. Drift was still exhausted, and curious humans could often be over-eager. It didn’t help that Drift startled at every noise. He was especially skittish.

Under Dr. Morgan’s orders, a room was cleared out next to Perceptor’s. It was for Drift’s use. As soon as Perceptor noticed Drift getting tired, he showed Drift the room that could be his, complete with hammock and harpy-approved furniture.

“This is for you however long you wish to stay,” Perceptor said.

Drift stood there, turning in slow circles, his eyes wide as he took in every nook and cranny of the room. It wasn’t much, though Perceptor had asked them to install a hook for Drift’s sword and sheath. The room was also equipped with two very large windows, though neither of them opened.

“All of this? For me?” Drift murmured as he turned in a slow circle. “I’m sorry, but I don’t have any valuables to pay for this. Or–”

Perceptor cut him off with a shake of his head. “Here they value knowledge. Would you be willing to speak with them about your flock culture?”

Drift’s feathers shivered. “I don’t know the human language though.” He sounded genuinely morose. “So I don’t even have that much worth.”

There was something in Drift’s tone Perceptor did not like. It was painfully honest, and it made Perceptor angry, made him want to find whoever had convinced him of such a thing, and rake his claws down their face.

“I’ll teach you,” Perceptor offered. “Or translate. Whichever you prefer, I mean. I don’t want to presume. Some harpies are against learning it, I know.”

Drift’s gaze lifted, his eyes brightening. “I’d like to learn,” he said. His feathers fluttered, tail sweeping the floor, like an excited canine. “I mean, if you don’t mind teaching me.”

“I don’t mind at all.” Perceptor lingered in the doorway, his core throbbing a thoughtful beat. “But tomorrow perhaps. You are still in need of rest.”

“I do feel pretty tired.” Drift plopped his rump on the hammock, tarsals digging into the carpet to give it a playful swing. “This is nice.”

Perceptor leaned a hand on the doorframe, rapping his talons against it. “I’m next door if you need anything.”

“I like knowing that,” Drift said, almost offhand, before his face visibly colored, and he plucked at the blanket lining the hammock. “I mean, thank you.”

“You’re very welcome.” Perceptor gestured to the switch near the door. “That is for the overhead lights and the shutters require a simple pull of the cord to open and close them. Rest well.”

Drift nodded. “I will. Thank you.” He smiled, like a youngling who’d been given a gift for the first time.

Perceptor tipped his head in acceptance. “Welcome to Kaon, Drift.”

He stepped out, closing the door behind him, his last glimpse of Drift being a tiny smile on the smol’s face as he flopped down into the hammock with a happy sigh.

What a fortuitous day.

****

[CR] A Curious Folly

Molly hisses. “Ow, that hurts you oaf!” It takes concerted effort not to pull away from the source of pain. Or maybe that’s because Fjord’s grip is as strong as iron.

“Then stop squirming and sit still,” Fjord says and though Molly can’t see his face, he can imagine the half-orc rolling his eyes from exasperation. An action which matches the huff of exhaled breath.

Molly sniffs. “I’ve never sat still a day in my life,” he declares as more disinfectant is dotted over the wound, causing another flare of hot pain. Why does this hurt more than drawing blood for his scimitars?

“Maybe you should start,” Fjord drawls, less exasperation this time, more humored. Apparently, he finds Molly entertaining.

Well, at least someone does.

If anyone asks, it’s purely an unconscious reaction that whips Molly’s tail backward, slapping it against Fjord’s beefy thigh. He hears the half-orc hiss a breath, but not comment.

Smug, Molly smirks. “Do hurry,” he says. “I’m bleeding here.”

“As am I,” Fjord retorts.

He’s right, of course. The thick tang of blood is heavy in the air. So heavy Molly can taste it on his tongue, something heavy and brackish for Fjord, something dark and smoky for himself. They are both battered and bruised. They’d thought the devil toad to be the most dangerous of their foes, and it had been the imps who felled both of them.

Ludicrous.

“If you hurry, then I can tend to those for you,” Molly purrs as his skin warms under Fjord’s firm touch, hands gentle for all that they are large, as they wrap the bandages around his body. “It’s all in the name of getting to know one another.”

Fjord snorts. “I’m sure it is.” Warmth – the good kind – floods outward where Fjord’s calloused palms sweep over Molly’s skin.

Tease.

“There,” Fjord says with a pat to the bandages. “It’ll probably scar, but I don’t think you have a problem with those.”

Molly purrs a laugh, rubbing the pads of his fingers over his clavicle, where the thin weals criss-cross over his skin like fallen straw. “They’re badges of honor,” he says, before he hops up from the edge of the bed, his robe peeled open, himself bare from the waist up.

He spins to face Fjord and winks salaciously. “My turn.” He snaps his fingers, tail twitching madly behind him. “Off with it then.”

Fjord rolls his eyes again, sighs dramatically, but tugs at the ties to his shirt, easing it away from his torso with slow, pained movements. The blood’s had time to dry, tacky and maroon, and it starts seeping sluggishly without the fabric to clot the wound. Dark lines spiderweb outward from the wound, bruises from the poison.

Fjord moves gingerly. Molly doesn’t pretend he’s not watching. What? He can’t enjoy a good view when it’s in front of him? Fjord makes a pretty package.

“You look like you want to eat me,” Fjord grunts. “Think you can manage to bandage me up first?”

Molly crosses his arms. “Oh, I don’t know,” he drawls with a tilt of his head. “Pain is just a little spice if you ask me.” He grins, baring his teeth. He knows the stories.

He’s not a vampire, but it’s fun to pretend.

“Weren’t you just the one whining ‘ow’ to me over some antiseptic?” Fjord raises a dark brow, wrinkling the scar running through it. Molly’s curious about said scar. Wants to know how he got it. Interesting shape, that ‘x’. Interesting especially Fjord didn’t lose an eye.

Fjord tosses his torn, bloodied shirt aside. His muscled torso gleams in the lamplight.

It’s a totally inappropriate time to want to lick him. Molly barely knows Fjord. Not that a lack of knowing has stopped him before. It’s just that… this time is different. Because Fjord is Team now, and one doesn’t shit where one eats.

If there’s to be any licking, it’ll have to be after a bit of knowing.

Fjord has scars along his torso also, and Molly admires those. He doubts they are as deliberate as Molly’s own, which means they have a story behind them. He wonders if Fjord is interested in sharing.

Molly snatches up the healer’s kit and flicks a finger at Fjord, ignoring the question. “Lean back,” he says. “I can’t bind that for you if you’re hunched over brooding.”

“I don’t brood,” Fjord laughs.

He obeys, leaning back on his palms, the flat planes of his abdomen a pale green wash in the lamplight. Muscles gleam enticingly, and Molly’s utterly delighted he gets to touch them, even if it’s only in the context of binding injuries.

Molly could drag his fingers over those abdominal muscles for hours. Well, after they’ve healed at any rate. The sluggishly pulsing wounds do mar the view a bit.

He plops down next to Fjord, pulls out rag and antiseptic, and twists toward the half-orc. He dabs at the wound carefully, cleaning up dried blood first, all the better to bare the ragged edges of the imp’s strike. Fjord doesn’t have the decency to hiss or squirm at the antiseptic’s application.

How rude.

“Lucky you,” Molly comments. “The imp managed to miss everything important.”

“Isn’t it all important?” Fjord asks, and his belly rises and falls in tune with his breathing. There’s a sparse, dark trail of hair leading toward his trousers.

Molly makes a mental note of it. Purely for research purposes, of course.

“How should I know? I’m not a cleric.” Molly frowns at the bloodsoaked cloth and tosses it over his shoulder.

They’ll have to ask Jester to give it another look in the morning. For now, packing bandages around it will keep him from bleeding out during the night. It’d be quite a buzz kill to wake up next to a dead half-orc.

“You’re doing a fair impression of one right now,” Fjord says.

Molly laughs and turns to gather bandages from the kit. His tail flicks out behind him, the tip bumping Fjord’s shoulder. His skin is warm to the touch, but not over-warm. Not feverish. This is a good thing.

“I am a tiefling of many faces,” Molly declares and digs out another roll. There’s one more wound that needs attention, and then they’ll both be patched for the night. “And all of them are beautiful.”

Fjord snorts a laugh, but at least it doesn’t sound derogatory. “I’m sure they are, but you know, I actually do have a spell that gives me many faces.”

Molly pokes him in the belly, steering clear of the bandages. “Don’t brag.”

“Is it a boast if it’s true?”

“It’s a boast if it’s truth or a lie,” Molly says and flicks Fjord with his tail though it then chooses to curl around Fjord’s upper arm, giving him a squeeze.

That Fjord doesn’t immediately jerk away and glare at Molly as if he’s evil incarnate at the touch is multiple points in the half-orc’s favor.

He does, however, look at the tail slithering out from around his arm and lift his burly eyebrows. “Is your tail flirting with me?”

Molly laughs and pins the last of the bandaging in place. “The damn thing has a mind of its own. You’ll have to ask it.” Said appendage slithers back into the safety of his trousers, tucking against his leg as though trying to hide.

“And where do I direct my query? Your ass?”

Molly’s shoulders shake. “Well, you can try, but you might not like the answer you get.” He slides his fingers carefully along the bandages, checking them for tightness. “There. All better, if I do say so myself.” He pats Fjord’s shoulder and withdraws.

“Why thank you, nurse,” Fjord drawls. He reaches for his shirt and frowns at the disheveled nature of it.

“You could always go shirtless,” Molly says, flippant. “I doubt there’s anyone who’d mind the view.” He lifts his eyebrows, pointedly looks Fjord up and down.

He expects a blush. And he’s definitely rewarded with one. It’s cute, how Fjord’s skin flushes a darker evergreen.

“Probably,” Fjord says. “But it’s a bit too cold for that, I think.” His eyes flick over Molly. “Don’t think we’re the same size either.”

“Pity.” Molly’s tail twitches aside as he drops down onto his own bed, flopping over the narrow mattress and claiming every inch of space he can. “Nott would be delighted to go shopping with you in the morning, I should think.”

Fjord barks a laugh. “And I’ll spend half my time watching her sticky fingers.”

Molly buries his face in the pillow, and his reply comes out muffled. “Shirtless it is,” he says, and grimaces against the smell of cheap linens and decaying hay and unwashed bodies.

He hears Fjord dig around in his bag, hears the telltale sniff of someone testing previously worn clothes to see if they can manage another week of close contact. Fjord must have found something less rank than the rest, because Molly hears the rustle of him pulling it on.

“Pity,” Molly mutters.

Fjord chuckles and the opposite bed creaks as he lowers himself onto it. “I know you were enjoying the view and all, but it really is too cold to be wandering around half-clothed.”

“Maybe next time.” Molly’s shoulders twitch.

Now that he’s horizontal and immobile, the exhaustion sets in. His wounds ache, despite Fjord’s gentle tending, and all he wants is to sleep, sleep, sleep until the memory of his pseudo-family shattering becomes as distant as all the other things he can’t remember.

Something soft and warm drapes over him.

Molly turns his head, horn dragging against the pillow. A blanket? Fjord’s covered him in a blanket?

“Too cold to sleep shirtless,” Fjord grunts as he plops back down onto his own bed. “Don’t want you catching ill, you know.”

Molly stares at him, for a moment devoid of words except he knows that the laws of polite society dictate he should express his gratitude. The blanket would not have been unexpected from Toya or Oorna or Bosun. But from Fjord, who he barely knows, it is unexpected indeed.

Welcome, yes. But still unexpected.

“It smells,” Molly says, not because it’s unpleasant, but just a statement of fact, and Molly doesn’t know what else to do with this kindness.

“My mistake,” Fjord says and rises, reaching out. “I’ll take it back.”

“No.” Molly rolls and takes the blanket with him, cocooning himself inside the soft fabric. “It’s mine now.”

“Well, I loaned it to you not–”

“Mine. Now.” Molly promptly shuts his eyes and waits for Fjord to protest further, the warmth of the blanket as welcome as the intention behind it.

Fjord huffs but remarkably doesn’t protest. Instead, he douses the lamp and flops down on his own bed, covers rustling as he slides beneath the cheap blankets.

For all that they are strangers, it feels companionable.

Molly buries his face against the blanket once more, breathing in the scent of sweat and cheap soap and leather oil and the strange, indefinable something his senses have labeled Fjord.

“Good night, Molly,” Fjord says.

Molly hums into the pillow.

[Bay] Indomitable 07

The world spins madly on.

Time passes, Megatron reflects, faster than it ought, but slower than he needs it to. More Cybertronians return to the fold, but few, far too few. They return bedraggled and worn, broken and hurting, grief-stricken and thunderstruck by the idea of a lasting peace.

There are incidents. There are always incidents. Mechs who lost their mind sometime during the war and haven’t found their way back to it yet. Those with grudges, memorized names and faces of opponents who had killed someone they loved. Autobots are angry, and Decepticons feel beaten, and Neutrals are annoyed by it all.

They get by. It gets easier. Protocols are developed. Bonds are made. Friendships are forged. Cities are rebuilt, inch by inch. There’s talk of sending out ships, search parties, to find lost Cybertronians and bring them back home.

Predators and vultures lurk like an ever-present danger, well aware of how easy it would be to invade Cybertron and plunder the riches that remain. They’ll have a fight on their hands, those who survived the massive civil war survived for a reason, but it’ll still be catastrophic to the Cybertronians.

They are so few now. That is the issue which troubles Megatron the most. Optimus had made the decision to pitch the Allspark into the universe, to save it from Megatron’s use. Optimus had been the one to destroy the Allspark. And now, without it, Cybertron has no future.

Sometimes, he wonders the point.

Time passes, and Ratchet stays.

Sometimes, Megatron wonders if he really did survive the battle in Chicago, all those decades ago. He wonders if Optimus really offered him mercy, if he’d truly been given a chance, because this has to be a dream. Maybe he’s actually dead, and this is the afterlife, the Well of Allsparks, the Pit or Purgatory.

Maybe it’s a dream. If it is, he doesn’t want to wake.

Though he could do without the meetings. Necessary, they are, but boring and irritating besides.

Megatron doodles in his datapad, ostensibly taking notes but not actually listening. He trusts Dreadwing will fill him in on the important details later. Or perhaps Deathsaurus, who takes a keen interest in these administrative matters. It seems incongruous, for the playful beast-former to be so fascinated by the day to day minutiae of running the military side of an empire, but such is the way of things.

Megatron’s already given a summary of his part in matters. Their defense force is well-trained, well-staffed, and he has no complaints. At the moment, they have no immediate concerns to contend with. There is a distant threat of some civilization thinking the Cybertronians an easy target. Someone else proposes that the Quintessons might return, to reclaim their escaped slaves, but otherwise, they are in no danger.

All that remains is the lengthier and more boring portion of the monthly assembly: the civilian side of matters. Optimus’ purview. Megatron’s only contribution to this is his oversight of the police and enforcer department, hardly necessary at this point.

He zones out sometime around the discussion of how to mine for the materials needed, but something catches his attention when the word ‘repopulate’ is brought into the conversation.

“We are dying,” Prowl says in that tight, joyless tone of his. Jaw set, he clutches a datapad as if it were a lifeline. How Thundercracker finds such tedium attractive, Megatron will never understand.

“Without the capability to grow our population, even we will become extinct with time and there will be nothing left to show we were here, but the echoes of our war across the universe.”

It’s almost poetic. For Prowl.

“We know that,” Dreadwing growls, not entertained by Prowl’s conversational cadence. His chair creaks as he shifts. “Unless you’ve got a solution, you don’t need to keep reminding us.”

Prowl frowns. His sensory panels flick, like Starscream’s wings used to do when he was annoyed.

“I have a theory.”

Megatron cycles his optics. Even Prowl looks startled. Every mech at the large table turns to look at Cyclonus, whose dour voice had cut through the tension. Cyclonus had returned some years past, leader of a faction of Neutrals, devoutly religious and often one to cut his optics at Megatron, mouth down-turned in sharp disapproval.

Cyclonus had been one of the ones most outspoken to Megatron’s ascension. He’d been so fond of Galvatron. As if it were Megatron’s fault his predecessor had extinguished.

“Please, Cyclonus, do share,” Optimus encourages with patience bred of necessity. Only Megatron could see the irritation beneath his placid smile.

He’d always been able to see through his brother’s masks.

“There is a story,” Cyclonus begins, his grave tone nearly enough to send Megatron into a light doze, and he idly doodles as he listens, “regarding the origins of our sparks, that while many ascribe to Primus as our lifegiver, there is another who breathed life into Primus Himself.”

Something twitches at the back of Megatron’s processor.

“And not the Quintessons,” Dreadwing surmises.

“Precisely.” Cyclonus rests his hands on the tabletop, clawed fingers making a light staccato against the scratched surface. “Legend speaks of a primordial pool, a birthing place, from which the Allspark and the multiple matrixes were formed. There’s another being, an omniscient and omnipresent being, who resides over it, granting life to the entirety of the universe.”

Deathsaurus snorts. Megatron resists the urge to echo him, though something in his spark squeezes a bit together.

“That sounds ridiculous,” Dreadwing says.

“We never were able to determine precisely how the Allspark formed or the materials from which it was made,” Quark offers, a light behind his optics as he sits up straight. Their Chief Scientist, Quark’s intellect puts even Shockwave’s to shame. “The brightest minds in Cybertron consistently failed to understand even a tenth of the Allspark’s mysteries.”

“So you are saying there may be truth to the legend,” Optimus suggests.

Quark steeples his fingers together. “I’m saying that while the religious implications are likely ridiculous, there is scientific evidence to suggest the Allspark was created somewhere other than Cybertron.”

“Just what are you implying?” Prowl demands, sounding both bewildered and outraged, mindlessly shuffling his datapads as though they are the only thing that makes sense.

“That it wouldn’t hurt to look.” Quark shrugs as if dismissive, his amber optics cutting to Cyclonus behind his narrow secondary lenses. “I presume your legends speak of a path? A route? A set of coordinates?”

“There are glyphs,” Cyclonus allows with a dip of his head. “Riddles. But yes, a wise mech could follow the clues to the edge of the universe and beyond.”

“I think the word you’re looking for is foolish,” Dreadwing replies with a roll of his optics and an outraged huff. He shifts about in his creaky chair. “We haven’t anyone to spare on a fool’s errand like this. Give me something concrete. Something that makes sense. Not… not sparkling tales and puzzles.”

Quark’s steepled fingers tap together. “It is merely a theory,” he says, his tone too even and calm. “Feel free to dismiss it. Though I don’t suppose I need to remind you we are facing a population crisis.”

“There’s not a mech on this planet who would volunteer for such a stupid mission,” Dreadwing snarls.

That presence within Megatron stirs even further, until he feels as though he is going to suffocate on it. The nudge is consuming and he knows, without having to ask, what it means.

“Then allow me,” he says, his voice cutting through the rising tension, surprising even himself with the offer. He rises to his feet as everyone’s gaze turns toward him. “If this is indeed a fool’s errand, than let me be that fool.”

He could not have caused greater shock than if he’d stood and announced his decision to return them to war. Even Optimus looks surprised, but it’s the wild hurt in Ratchet’s optics which cuts Megatron to the struts.

Ratchet will understand. He has to.

Megatron works his intake, the pressure on his spark easing as he continues, “I have done untold damage to this planet and it’s people. Without me, we would not be in this position. I have much to make up for. Let me take this quest.”

It is dangerous, for all that it is the journey of a fool. Cybertronians are not liked. There are many perils, many planets which consider them wanted criminals. Not every galaxy is kind to metallic beings. The Quintessons lurk in the shadows, waiting to reclaim their lost prizes.

It is a suicide mission. But an important one.

Optimus is the first to speak. “Megatron, I do not think–”

“For once,” Megatron quietly cuts him off, because he doesn’t want to hear whatever protest Optimus has to give, “Will you trust me, brother? Will you let me fix what I have broken?”

Silence reigns as their optics meet, a wealth of conversations passing between them. If only they could have spoken like this back then, perhaps they could have averted war.

Optimus’ head dips. A nod. Assent.

“Cybertron would be better off without me at any rate,” Megatron says, tearing his gaze from his brother and pointedly skipping over Ratchet, whose glare he can feel burrowing at him. “Perhaps more of our people will return if I am not here to give them pause. Thundercracker, Dreadwing, and Deathsaurus are all far more loved and would lead well in my place.”

Deathsaurus shifts, his multiple optics blinking in odd succession. “Not that I’m doubting your intentions, sir,” he begins cautiously, “but do you think it’s a good idea?”

“I think it is necessary,” Megatron replies. The tight bands around his spark feel less like an impetus now, and more like approval. “I’ll take a small team with me. Volunteers especially. There is a chance we might not return. I don’t want anyone to take that risk who isn’t fully committed.”

Optimus frowns. “I do not like the idea of you journeying to your death.”

“Then think of it as a beginning.” Megatron smiles, crooked though it is. To think, there was once a time Optimus would have been relieved to hear of his demise. “I’ll return with hope for our species, brother. Or I’ll not return at all.”

There are more debates, more arguments, more reasons why it’s a terrible idea and why they really have little choice otherwise. Something must be done, and this is the most concrete, if not foolhardy, avenue available to them.

By the time the meeting adjourns, the protestors have fallen silent and Megatron is left with a mission. Arrangements will need to be made, but Megatron is certain that before the solar year’s end, he’ll be on his way, back out among the stars.

The real battle, he knows, has yet to begin.

The various members of Cybertron’s command staff filter in all directions, back to their duties. Megatron is one of the last to leave the meeting hall, after exchanging a few short words with his brother, and the broil of discontent waiting for him is more than enough to give Megatron pause.

There is a moment where he thinks to escape out the back entrance – he can shimmy down the emergency exit if he must. But no. There is no fleeing this confrontation.

Ratchet’s field is a storm of anger, one belied by the flat expression on his face. Megatron is no fool. He knows that a calm Ratchet is a furious Ratchet, and one to be feared.

“I am so happy to see that we’ve reached the point in our relationship where I assume you can read my mind,” Ratchet starts with a tart tone, just shy of a snarl. “Since you decided without me you were going to do this.”

Megatron’s hands curl into fists. He won’t patronize Ratchet by pulling his partner into his arms, despite how much he wants to. “I had no idea I was going to volunteer until I’d spoken,” he replies honestly. “But this is something I must do. I can’t explain how I know this, only that I do.”

Ratchet scoffs, and his optics flash, bright with hurt. “Right,” he sneers. “Because Primus told you to.” Plating creaks as his armor draws taut against his frame. “If you think I’m going to wait for you, then you’re an even bigger idiot than I thought. I’m done waiting for mechs to come back from the battlefield.”

Megatron’s spark starts to hammer in his chassis. A ripple of anxiety tears through his field, but it’s too late, the request tumbles out of his mouth before he can stop it.

“Come with me.”

Ratchet visibly staggers. “W-what?” he splutters.

His vents catch in his intake. Megatron drops to a knee and reaches for Ratchet’s hand, pleased when the medic allows him to take it. He presses his lips to Ratchet’s fingers, these miracle-working hands.

“Come with me,” he asks again, ex-venting warm over Ratchet’s fingers, the hope rising inside of him like a tide. “Into the unknown. Take this quest with me. Please.”

Ratchet’s fingers shake. “I… Megatron, I can’t,” he protests, but it sounds weak, like he’s considering the frantic request. “I have too much to do.”

Megatron shutters his optics, focuses on the wavering in Ratchet’s field, the press of his lips against Ratchet’s fingers. “You don’t. First Aid is more than capable of taking over. And you said you want to retire.”

“This doesn’t count as retiring!”

“It is. Only it’s not lazing around in the berth on a weekend morning. It’s adventure and hope.” He presses his cheek into Ratchet’s palm, projecting affection and promise into his field. “You have fire in your spark, Ratchet. You’d never settle for a future of peace and quiet.”

Ratchet’s fingers curl against his cheek. “If I say no, you’ll go without me, won’t you?” he asks quietly, on the end of an ex-vent.

“Yes.” Megatron’s voice crackles with the admission. “If I were to explain it, you wouldn’t understand. But I must do this because I know I’ll succeed.”

“Then who am I to argue with a god?”

Megatron’s surprise is etched on his face as he looks up at Ratchet, reading his shaky smile for assent. “I’m no deity.”

“That’s not what I meant.” Ratchet’s thumb strokes over the bridge of Megatron’s nasal structure, an unexpectedly endearing touch. “I’ll go.”

“You’re certain?” Megatron dares rise to his feet, and is relieved when Ratchet’s field reaches for him.

“Yes. Primus, save me, but I’ll go.” Ratchet slides into Megatron’s embrace, holding him tight. “I love you, foolish spark and all. I don’t intend to be some pining wife sitting at home waiting for her husband to come back from the war either.”

Megatron laughs, as shaky and uneven as it sounds. “You spent too much time on Earth.”

“So you keep telling me.” Ratchet’s head rests on Megatron’s chestplate, over the frenetic beat of his spark. “I’m proud of you, Megatron. For doing this. The kids aren’t going to like it, but they’ll get over it. I think it’s time we leave Cybertron for the new generation.”

Megatron strokes his fingers down Ratchet’s back, tracing seams and juts of kibble he’s come to learn all too well. “As do I. We’ll return victorious with a future for them. I believe it.”

It’s about time he believed in something.

~

Opinions are torn across the planet.

Some think Megatron is on a fool’s errand, fleeing from the consequences of his actions because he can’t face the ruin he’s wrought. Others are hopeful, proud he’s taken the initiative to solve one of his greatest mistakes.

Megatron ignores the commentary.

A ship is chosen from the fleet of dilapidated space-faring vessels parked in an abandoned lot outside the main city. It is repaired, outfitted with the most advanced technology their species has to offer, and stocked as much as it is capable of carrying with energon, ammunition, and other necessary supplies.

Megatron even has a crew, entirely made of volunteers. He’d been surprised by how many had offered to go on the quest, and had to narrow it down to a half-dozen mechs, not including himself and Ratchet.

A departure date is set, and as it grows closer, Megatron feels an excitement and an energy building inside of him like nothing else. He can’t explain why he believes he’ll succeed, he just knows it.

In the end, he leaves Deathsaurus in charge, with Dreadwing and Thundercracker to assist. At least Thundercracker won’t have to badger Deathsaurus to finish his reports on time, and Prowl seems to like Deathsaurus a fraction of an inch more than he ever approved of Megatron.

He feels as though he’s leaving his planet in good hands. He’s still the Lord High Protector, at least in name, but there’s been talk of making both Prime and Lord High Protector elected positions rather than inherited or appointed. Megatron’s behind that particular idea one-hundred percent and made it a point to say so.

Maybe he’ll still be Lord High Protector when he comes back. Maybe he won’t. Somehow, it’s not as important to him as it used to be. It no longer defines him, not in his entirety at any rate.

In the end, there’s nothing left but to actually go. Megatron feels an excitement like he hasn’t in a long, long time. He wishes he could explain the feeling in his spark, the one which makes him certain he’s going to succeed, but he can’t.

This is it, he tells himself. This will be my legacy.

Departure day dawns, and there’s one more task left. Megatron excuses himself from the flurry of last-minute preparations – always a flurry, like they haven’t known this is coming for months – and makes straight for the memorial.

It’s so large now they’ve built up and around and behind and under it. The building barely resembles the one he’d crafted by hand anymore, but the main entrance still leads straight into the original structure. The spark of the building, so to speak.

His feet take him on a familiar path. He doesn’t have to count rows. He doesn’t have to count steps. His frame knows where to go. His spark always pulls him back here, to his first real love, and maybe, his only.

He cares for Ratchet. He does. If pressed, he would say he loves Ratchet. There’s a comfort there. A familiarity. He might not burn for Ratchet the way he’s always burned for Sunstreaker, but then, you never forget your first love.

Megatron finds Sunstreaker’s plaque with ease, still as shiny as the day he first set it into the burnished metal. Someone else will have to keep up the maintenance on it, Sideswipe perhaps.

He rests his palm over the plaque, fingers splayed, feels the chill of the metal against his derma. He offlines his optics, cycles a ventilation in and out, feels his spark spin into a tight ball within his chassis. It shouldn’t be so hard. He hasn’t held Sunstreaker in centuries, millennia even.

He still feels as though he’s saying goodbye all over again, standing over Sunstreaker’s gray frame in the silence of the battle’s aftermath, the weight of his choices sitting like a burden across his shoulders. He still remembers the stench of it, the cut of each wound, the splashes of energon. His spark aches as though it were yesterday, though that ache has dulled a little, except the moments where it rises up to swallow him, there in the dead of night.

He worries he’s going to forget. He worries the dullness of that ache means he might someday forget how he felt about Sunstreaker.

Frantically, he clings to it, that agony. He doesn’t want to lose Sunstreaker, Not this piece of him. It’s all he has left, the pain.

He’s always with me, Ratchet had said, with a soft, sad smile, a grieving one, but a hopeful one as well. Even without him, I’m never alone.

Megatron’s vents turn shuddery. He cycles them in and out, his fingers curling against the cold metal of Sunstreaker’s plaque. The pain only leads to bitterness, he tells himself. It’ll fester.

He has to let it heal. He must.

Sunstreaker will always be with him. He won’t forget. It’s impossible. Sunstreaker is written on his spark, down to the very core of it.

Slowly, achingly slowly, Megatron loosens his grip. He tells himself it’s not Primus urging him toward the fringes of the universe, it’s Sunstreaker, giving him one last chance at hope.

And it’s enough to convince him to surrender the rest, to withdraw with a parting burst of love in his spark.

Megatron turns to go, his fingers lingering, only to startle when he realizes he’s not alone. Sideswipe stands at the end of the corridor, his expression unreadable, but his posture non-threatening. Not that he could be, considering how much he’d gone civilian since the war’s end.

He’s not fully silver anymore. He’s a shade of red that perfectly complements the red in Optimus’ paint with silver only there for accents. And, if Megatron looks close enough, some hints of gold. A shout out to his brother perhaps.

“You really did love him,” Sideswipe says quietly.

Megatron works his intake. “Yes.” He withdraws his hand, fingers curling into fists.

Sideswipe’s gaze flicks past him, to his brother’s plaque. Something in his expression softens. “I’m glad,” he says. “Sunny deserved love.” Emotion flickers into his optics: grief and sadness, the first Megatron’s seen of it.

If there’s regret, Megatron can’t tell. But maybe that’s just because he’s still so very bitter.

For some reason, he feels compelled to soothe Sideswipe. For his own sake, maybe. “He didn’t hate you,” Megatron replies, because he knows it to be true. Sunstreaker had never hated Sideswipe, not like Megatron had hated Optimus.

Sideswipe laughs, but it’s not amused. “Oh, I doubt that very much.”

“Love and hate, they are two sides of the same coin,” Megatron replies as he moves away from Sunstreaker’s plaque, toward the end of the corridor. He feels too vulnerable here, as though he’s laid bare his spark and let someone intrude on it. “Believe me, I know.”

“Yeah, I guess you do.” Sideswipe frowns, contemplative rather than angry. He tilts his head. “Is that why you’re leaving?”

Megatron shakes his head. “This decision has nothing to do with my brother. It is something that must be done.” He cycles a ventilation. “Look after Optimus for me. He needs it more than you think.”

Sideswipe snorts, armor creaking as he crosses his arms over his chassis. “You don’t even have to ask. He’s mine now. You can’t have him back.”

“Keep him. You’re the one he loves. And vice versa, I’m quite sure.” Megatron tilts his head, that sharp knot in his spark throbbing.

Love. He’d never held it for Optimus. He knows it was bright and fierce for Sunstreaker, but this feeling inside him now, warm and content, he thinks it’s love, too. Just another shade of it.

Sideswipe grins and tilts his chin. “You just make sure you take care of my favorite medic. I’ll be very put out if he doesn’t come back, preferably alive.”

It’s Megatron’s turn to snort. Sideswipe is nothing like his twin. There’s no chance in the universe he can actually follow through with that threat.

“Rest assured, if Ratchet does not return, then neither do I,” he says as he slides past Sideswipe, dismissing the mech from his presence. “I will fight to the last beat of my spark to protect him.”

He leaves Sideswipe on that note. He has nothing left to say to the mech. If Sideswipe knows what’s good for him, he’ll keep Optimus safe as well. He’ll do for his mate what he couldn’t do for his twin.

He’ll love Optimus and care for him and ensure he is happy.

Outside, Ratchet waits for him, his back to the mausoleum, his face turned toward the ship in the distance, ready to set sail into the universe. He turns as he hears Megatron approach, a smile on his face.

“Ready?” he asks.

“Yes.” Megatron slides an arm around Ratchet, soaking in the comforting press of Ratchet’s field. “Do you need a moment?”

Ratchet chuckles and tilts his head against Megatron’s chassis. “No. I’ve said all I need to say. Hide knows my spark.”

‘Knows’ he says. Ratchet tends to speak of Ironhide as though his departed mate is around the corner, watching him with a smile. It’s a cute quirk of his, and one that doesn’t bother Megatron at all.

Sometimes, in his more optimistic moments, he likes to think of Sunstreaker watching from a happier place, a soft smile on his face. Approving.

“So long as you are sure.”

“I am.” Ratchet slides free, but only so he can take Megatron’s hand and tangle their fingers together. He gives him a gentle tug, away from the mausoleum and toward the waiting ship. “Come on. We’ve got work to do.”

Megatron resists. “One moment,” he says, and with a tug, pulls Ratchet back into his arms.

He cups the medic’s face with his hand, presses their foreheads together. He ex-vents slowly, in and out, as Ratchet goes warm and soft against him, a flutter of joy in his field.

“I love you,” Megatron says without ceremony. “Thank you for taking this journey with me.”

Ratchet’s head turns into his palm, nuzzles it. “Home is where you are,” he says quietly, his lips a brush over the soft dermal metal.

Megatron’s spark unfurls within him, the last clench of madness losing its grip on him. He doesn’t know what the future is going to bring, but he knows there’s hope in it, something of which he once could have never dreamed.

Even knowing he’s about to leave Cybertron, undertaking a perilous journey into a great unknown, Megatron knows one thing for certain.

He’s home at last.

****

[Bay] Indomitable 06

Ratchet has never been one to bother much with tact or subtlety. He’s too old and lived through too much to care much for other’s sensibilities. If people have a problem with him, they are welcome to say so to his face. It’s not his issue, it’s theirs.

Even so, his choice to engage in a relationship with Megatron is something both fragile and precious. It’s not a secret. He doesn’t attempt to hide it. But he doesn’t flaunt it either. Not this delicate thing which much be protected.

Megatron, for all his bale and bluster, is easily startled. He’s too quick to back down when he should straighten his spinal strut. He lets the others shame him for things he shouldn’t feel guilty about.

Meanwhile, Ratchet decks the first mech who dares ask him what Ironhide would think about it.

It’s none of their damn business.

Cybertronians gossip. Ratchet thinks it’s a law of the universe, that any collection of peoples living close together, have to spend half their time talking about one another, both publicly and in private.

So he’s not surprised when word gets out. He’s even less surprised when it causes something of an uproar. When former Autobots start screeching about Decepticons corrupting their heroes. When Decepticons start snarling back that badges are gone and the only abettors around here are the soft-sparked Autobots. When the Neutrals shake their heads and mutter that some mechs have no taste.

It’s all Ratchet can do to swallow his fury, his sharp retorts. Some know better, and he informs them thusly.

He has only to knock out the one outright crude commenter before the rest get the picture. Ironhide is off limits and by the way, whomever Ratchet chooses to spend his time and attention with is his own fragging business and no one else’s.

Yes, that means you, Optimus fragging Prime.

Prowl might have had something to say about it. But once Ratchet remarks on the suspicious blue streak of paint on Prowl’s right thigh panel, the tactician snaps his jaw shut and concedes defeat.

Hypocrite. As if half the planet doesn’t already know he and Thundercracker have christened every closet and storage room between here and Lunabase. Clearly Prowl hadn’t learned anything from Jazz’s various lessons in being stealthy.

But thoughts of Jazz bring a pang to Ratchet’s spark. A pang of loss, of grief, and regrettably, guilt. Because Megatron had been the one to rip Jazz in half. He’d been the one to end the life of such a bright spark.

It had been war. Megatron had killed a lot of mechs. Ratchet had, too. And arguably, Jazz had probably gone after Megatron with suicidal intent in the first place. He’d never quite gotten over losing Bluestreak, and Ratchet couldn’t blame him for that.

But every time Megatron smiles at him and Ratchet’s spark flutters, he wonders if he’s making the right choice. If it’s alright for him to forgive, or if he should continue to be bitter and angry like everyone else. Is it selfish of him to reach for this? Is he betraying the memories of everyone who fell to Megatron’s madness?

Ratchet doesn’t know. He’s not a philosopher. He’s a medic, one who’s watched far too many mechs die, who’s felt their sparks flicker and fade under his hands, who saw friends go to the battlefield and never return. He’s bathed in grief and the gloom, he’s felt the weight of hopelessness drag him down.

Anger can only carry you so far.

There’s a point where you have to stop, say enough is enough, and learn the fight toward forgiveness. It’s the only way to ease the burden, to lighten the weight on your spark. Ratchet’s too old to let himself be buried in the dregs of bitterness and resentment.

Besides, Megatron makes him happy. And that’s really all that matters.

Half a year after he and Megatron take their tentative steps into a deeper relationship, when Ratchet’s learned to ignore or handle all but he most stubborn of detractors, his resolve is tested.

Of all the opinions Ratchet’s brushed aside, however easily, he doesn’t expect to have to deal with this one.

This one being the rattling clunker that touches down with a loud harrumph and a belch of smoke in the middle of the main landing pad. It looks like it’s held together with wishes and dreams and miles and miles of duct-tape. The cargo bay door opens, unveiling a ramp that promptly falls off.

And leaping out of the cargo bay, straight to the ground now that a casual disembark is no longer possible, is Hot Spot. Behind him, his four brothers, every last one of them.

They survived, just as Megatron had surmised they did.

They hadn’t known who was on the ship when it broadcast it’s arrival. They’d been unable to establish communication and had been prepared for anything. Ratchet and Optimus, Megatron and Thundercracker, a team of medics and a team of soldiers for security, all swarming the landing site.

Of all the mechs in the universe, Ratchet had no idea it would be his younglings, the combiner team he and Ironhide had helped design, program, and raise. They are the closest things to sparklings he and Ironhide ever cared for.

His spark simultaneously warms and squeezes tight. He’s so happy to see them that he’s struck dumb, wondering if he’s wandered into a dream.

Except that if it was a dream, Ironhide would be beside him instead of Megatron. He’d He’d be whooping with joy, lurching forward to sweep Groove into a big embrace – always the hugger that one – while Hot Spot clapped them both on the shoulders.

“Ratchet!”

First Aid notices him first, visor bright with relief, and he’s the one who throws himself at Ratchet, still too short, but taller now. Reframed obviously, and his paint’s seen better days, but he’s alive. Primus, they’re all alive, and Ratchet’s processor keeps short-circuiting.

More frames crowd around him, and he feels hands, arms, sweeping him up. There’s chatter and laughing and maybe a little vent-snuffling.

“We found you!” Streetwise says, a touch too loud, always trying too hard to be heard. “I told Hot Spot we would.”

“He did,” Hot Spot agrees, the tallest of them, taller even than Ratchet, embracing Ratchet from behind, nearly big enough to pick up the lot of them.

Groove hugs Ratchet’s left side, barely cresting Ratchet’s hip, but his field is the strongest, the warmest and it wraps around them all like a heavy blanket. “Told you we’d be fine,” he says with a little laugh, because Ironhide had been so worried, so angry, when the orders came down for them to escort a medical transport off-planet and to a distant galaxy.

But that is what Protectobots do. Ratchet and Ironhide couldn’t leave Optimus, it was their duty. And it was the duty of Hot Spot’s team to watch over those who needed it most.

Ratchet doesn’t ask what happened to the medical transport. Logic answers that question for him. He can tell, in the dark echoes of their fields, the sense of tragedy buried in the unasked question.

Blades is silent compared to his brothers. He stands apart, armor jittering, his expression serious and narrow. Ratchet doesn’t take offense. That’s how Blades has always been. He’s always preferred his shows of affection to be sincere and private.

But his inability to control his emotion hasn’t much changed for the centuries.

“Where’s Ironhide?” he demands, his visor tracking the gathered faces, his HUD no doubt already updating with Cybertron’s current census and finding his adoptive-genitor’s designation nowhere in the list.

Ratchet’s spark squeezes like a punch to the midsection. Ironhide’s loss hits him all over again, his optics sparking and his vents stuttering. His mate should be here, welcoming their younglings back to Cybertron. He should be congratulating Hot Spot, and talking to Blades in that way he always had to calm the erratic heli down.

But Ironhide isn’t here. Because Sentinel Prime killed him.

“He’s gone, Blades,” Ratchet replies, the words tasting like ash on his glossa. No, like rust. The rust in the air, lingering after Sentinel shot Ironhide in the back. “He… Sentinel… He’s gone.”

Hot Spot’s arms tighten around him. First Aid presses his face to Ratchet’s chestplate. Blades’ rotors jitter in familiar patterns even as Streetwise moves closer to him, reaching up to rest a hand on his brother’s shoulder.

Blades frowns, and then his gaze shifts, ever so slowly, to Megatron nearby, watching but not interfering. Wisely removed to Optimus’ side as he keeps his silence.

Ratchet only notices because he’s watching. He sees the shift, the dawning realization come over Blades’ face. The way his lip curls back, his denta clench, his hands form fists. There must be a flash of warning through their gestalt bond, because First Aid stiffens and Hot Spot growls a single “don’t” before Blades snarls and chaos reigns.

It takes the combined might of all four of his brothers to pull Blades off from Megatron, who had only defended himself and hadn’t returned a single blow. It takes Ratchet wading into the fray, sedating the angry rotary, who’s howling curses and screaming, “Your fault, your fault, your fault!” and Ratchet can’t blame him.

He’d spent far too long himself, shouting ‘your fault’ at Megatron, if only in his own head.

Blades slumps into Hot Spot’s arms, his field full of frenetic energy, and the silence afterward is ripe with whirring vents and startled looks.

“It’s a long story,” First Aid murmurs with a sideways glance at Megatron, who hadn’t reacted beyond backing further away. “It’s been a long journey home.”

“As it has for everyone,” Optimus says, stepping forward, reaching out with arms and a field that has always served as a source of comfort, helping to ease the thick tension of the moment. “Come. We’ll get you fuel, rest, treatment if needed. There are many changes now, but we can talk about it after you’ve rested.”

Optimus’ quiet, firm command takes charge of the situation, setting the tension to a low simmer. The Protectobots look to Hot Spot, who looks to Optimus with relief and agreement in his optics. He nods, murmurs a quiet thank you, and hefts Blades up into his arms.

“Lead the way, sir,” he says, the rest of his brothers falling in beside him.

All save for First Aid, who lingers, his gaze more sharply knowing than it had been before leaving Cybertron all those eons ago. Ratchet doesn’t know what they’ve been through out in the universe, but it’s matured his young protege. Perhaps even changed him.

“He’ll be okay,” First Aid says as he watches Optimus lead his team away, and Hot Spot shift Blades’ weight in his arms. “Eventually, I mean. We all will.” He leans in against Ratchet. “I’m sorry about Ironhide.”

Ratchet sighs. “Me, too.” He slips an arm over First Aid’s shoulders, tucking his protege against his side. He chances a glance at Megatron who had lingered, and their optics meet.

Megatron nods once before he turns to leave, opposite where Optimus had taken the Protectobots, Thundercracker leaving with him. No charges will be filed against Blades. Ratchet knows Megatron won’t bother.

The guilt still rages within Megatron. Honestly, without it, Ratchet doesn’t know if he can even look at Megatron. Not when those words echo in his audials.

“Your fault! Your fault!” Because Blades is wrong, and he isn’t, and the world is not simple. Not anymore.

He’ll catch up with Megatron later. He has a feeling he knows what’s going through Megatron’s processor at the moment and like frag is Ratchet going to let Megatron run away from this. It isn’t going to be easy, but nothing worth having ever is.

Ratchet pats First Aid on his opposite shoulder. “Come on. Optimus is right. You all could use some rest.”

First Aid lets Ratchet lead him away, relief thick in his field as he leans hard against Ratchet’s side. Behind them, the rickety spacecraft groans its final death throes and collapses with a clatter.

~

Later, far later than Ratchet is used to functioning these days, the Protectobots are snuggled away in a suite large enough to suit all five of them and their unique situation. They’re clean, as fueled as their starved tanks can manage, mended, and deep in recharge.

Ratchet’s spark had ached as he looked at them, as he assessed their hurts and their scars, recognizing far too many types of damage. What horrors they survived, he doesn’t even want to know. There’s a haunted shadow in the back of their gazes. Ironhide would’ve been furious.

Perhaps it’s better he’s not here to see.

Ratchet intends to trudge home, but he detours. He drags himself to Megatron’s suite instead, knowing the Lord High Protector has yet to recharge, and it’s come to this, that he doesn’t even have to knock for an invitation. He has the code, so he lets himself inside, to quarters that are dim and quiet, but occupied.

He finds Megatron on the balcony, hands clasped behind his back as he looks out over Cybertron in the middle of night-cycle, though leaning more toward early morning. There’s a heavy tension to Megatron’s shoulders, a resigned set to the way he holds himself, as if braced for bad news.

“How is Blades?” he asks before Ratchet can even get in field-sense range.

Ratchet blasts Megatron with a quick, sweeping scan. But there’s no lingering damage from Blades’ attack. Megatron’s nanites have already tended to the dents and bruises.

“He and Ironhide were close,” Ratchet replies, which isn’t precisely an answer. He moves next to Megatron, within touching range, but doesn’t reach out, except with his field. “Fortunately, he has his brothers still. He’ll be fine.” He pauses, and amends with, “Eventually.”

Megatron doesn’t look at him, his gaze fixed outward. “That is good to hear.” He sounds carefully neutral, carefully braced. “I am glad they found their way back to you.”

“Me, too. And here I was thinking the universe was all out of miracles for me.” Ratchet chuckles, but he knows it sounds forced and nervous.

Megatron shifts and audibly cycles a ventilation. “Ratchet,” he begins, only to pause, his armor creaking as it tightens over his frame. He adds, much more quietly, “You don’t have to pretend on my account. They are your younglings. They will always come first.”

“They are adults now. The war’s made them that much. Their opinions are noted, but don’t matter,” Ratchet retorts, anger flashing through him before he realizes the true fear behind Megatron’s actions. Leave before being left, it’s a matter of self-preservation.

Because yes, he’d told them. He hadn’t wanted rumors to color their opinions. He hadn’t wanted the gossip to set in, poisoning their memories or their relationship.

Yes, Ratchet and Megatron are romantically involved. It’s a long story. They don’t have to accept it. They don’t have to understand it. But they do have to respect Ratchet’s choice. He’d been quite firm.

Their reactions left much to be desired. Hot Spot had been respectful, but his gaze haunted, no doubt thinking more of Ironhide, who had been both mentor and creator to him. Streetwise had said nothing. Groove had, of all things, congratulated Ratchet with an embrace and a murmured ‘be happy, yeah?’.

Blades had been silent because Blades was still sedated. Hot Spot promised to tell him first thing after he woke. Ratchet doesn’t envy anyone that task. He’s made a mental note to keep an optic out for Blades. They don’t need any incidents.

First Aid had given Ratchet a long, incisive look. He’d known, he claimed as he walked Ratchet to the door and was out of immediate hearing range of his brothers. He’d seen the way Megatron looked at Ratchet. He’d seen how Megatron lingered. How he hadn’t even fought back, and it wasn’t just the treaty and personal guilt that kept his hands at his sides, not even formed into fists.

“I trust you,” First Aid had said, only to sigh heavily. “But I don’t trust him. Ironhide’s not here anymore. So if he hurts you, Defensor is more than happy to step up in his place.”

Ratchet had appreciated the sentiment, but not the insinuation behind it. The way his younglings-adopted look at him as though he’s lost his processor, his senses, with Ironhide and all that remains is a series of terrible choices.

There are other mechs on the planet, he imagines them trying to plead. Couldn’t you have found one even three-fourths as controversial as Megatron?

Pah.

Ratchet shakes his head, shakes out the memories and the assumptions. Left behind is frustration and irritation, and both he directs at Megatron, if only so he can make the foolish Lord High Protector understand.

“I don’t know when you think I became the sort of mech who lets others decide things for me, but that’s not who I am. That’s never who I’ve been,” Ratchet says with a fierceness that surprises him.

He steps in front of Megatron, blocking his view of the city, forcing Megatron to look at him. “I’m with you because I want to be. I’m here because this is where I chose to go. If you don’t want me, fine, I can take a hint. But don’t push me away because you think it’s what’s best for me. I can decide that for myself, thank you very much.”

Megatron looks at him, optics wide and startled, his expression betraying the conflict of emotion in his spark. Like he wants to believe Ratchet, but doesn’t trust that belief. His intake visibly works until the tension in his posture loosens enough for him to uncross his arms, to rest his hands carefully on Ratchet’s shoulders. His coalfire optics are warm, because yes, Megatron had not swapped his optical lenses for Autobot blue.

No one insisted.

“I don’t think there is anything I have done to deserve you,” he says quietly, his voice like tires over gravel. His hands slide inward until they gently cup the bottom of Ratchet’s face, thumbs sweeping over the spurs of his cheeks. “If there is justice meant for me, it would be a broken spark as you walk away.”

Megatron audibly ex-vents and leans forward, until his forehead presses to Ratchet’s, and the contact of plating against plating relents his energy field as well. Ratchet senses the broil of turmoil inside of him, the fight between what he wants, and what he thinks he can have.

Ratchet snorts, aiming for irreverent if only to cover up the way his spark throbs at the overtly gentle touch. “I’m not a prize or anything. Besides, I’m done letting the universe decide what I deserve. You should be, too. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, it takes a special kind of courage to look at the destruction you’ve caused and try to change. That’s the courage I fell in love with.”

The words leave his mouth before he realizes the confession they are. Ratchet’s jaw snaps shut in surprise at himself, and he shutters his optics with a quiet sigh. The words are out there, he’s not taking them back because they are true, if not a little premature in being offered.

He’s more worried they’ll spook Megatron.

Ratchet swallows over a lump in his intake and gently rests his hands over Megatron’s wrists. The hold on his face has gone still. Even Megatron’s field paused, as though his entirety has been frozen with shock.

Ratchet looks up at him, and his spark throbs at Megatron’s expression. It’s almost physically painful, to see the mix of wonder and hope and anxiety flashing over the elegant dermal plates.

“I’m sorry,” Ratchet says, quietly. “I babble. It’s what I do when I’m tired, and it’s been a long day. I still meant what I said, and it was freely offered. You don’t owe me anything in return.”

Megatron cycles a ventilation, one ragged and rough, before his thumbs sweep over Ratchet’s cheek once more. “I don’t… I can’t…” He pauses to compose himself and his field rises up, wrapping warm and tender around Ratchet’s frame. “I’m not worthy of such a gift,” he finally says. “But I cherish it. And someday, I might even be brave enough to offer one of my own.”

“I can wait,” Ratchet says.

Because something like this, it shouldn’t be rushed or demanded. He’ll wait forever if that’s what it takes. Words are just words.

The look in Megatron’s optics, the gentle way he pulls Ratchet into his arms, an embrace near-crushing for the desperation in it, they speak all Ratchet needs to know.

****