[IDW] Spoons

Tonight, it was Megatron’s turn to be the ‘little spoon’ as Rodimus so elegantly informed him it was to be called. Whatever the term, Megatron found himself sharing a berth with Ultra Magnus.

The large, blue mech lay beneath him, easily cradling Megatron’s frame, which was a novelty to Megatron. He wasn’t used to such a thing. He currently rested his head on Ultra Magnus’ chestplate and could hear the click and thrum of his systems beneath. Magnus’ engine idled, vibrating and warm.

It was both comfortable and soothing. It was peaceful, quiet companionship, something which had always been in short supply.

Well, quiet beyond the fact Magnus was reading aloud. As the ‘big spoon,’ he had the choice of literature and tonight was a selection of epic poems – stories, if you asked Megatron to describe them.

He wasn’t paying much attention to the words. It was more Ultra Magnus’ voice that drew him. That and the calm, affectionate hum of Magnus’ field.

They had so few opportunities to indulge in the moment. Megatron intended to soak it in as much as possible.

Tomorrow evening, he would be the ‘big spoon’ to Minimus Ambus. Tit for tat, after all.

Fortunately, he didn’t mind one bit.

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[IDW] Wrecker to Wrecker

A frustrated huff. A muttered hiss. A pinch to the ridge of a nasal sensor.

And that’s Whirl’s cue.

He swaggers into the lab and sidles up to Perceptor’s side, hooking his field into Perceptor’s and giving it a tug.

“So,” he says with an indolent drape of his frame, “Ya look like ya could use a distracting break.”

Perceptor gives him a sidelong look. “Are you volunteering?”

“Wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t.” He inches closer, until he can smell the heat of Perceptor’s armor. “What d’ya say? For old times sake? Wrecker to Wrecker?”

“I have work to do.”

Whirl laughs. “No problem. I know how to make things quick.” He vibrates his field against Perceptor’s, adding a touch of heat and spark to it.

Perceptor’s field at once opens to his, bright and hungry. “You have ten minutes,” he says, setting down some kind of doodad.

“More than I need.”

Whirl pins Perceptor against the work bench, pleasure unfurling eagerly inside of him. Perceptor is a delicious mix of brains and beauty and deadly accuracy and Whirl can’t wait to have another taste.

“Might even get two out of it,” he says.

Perceptor smirks, his targeting reticule glinting. “Prove it.”

“With pleasure.”

Oh, this is going to be fun.

[G1] Impasse

“There will come a time when private meetings will no longer be enough for me,” Prowl murmurs as he strokes a finger over the glass of Starscream’s cockpit.

“Mm.” Starscream arches into his touch. “If you would only–”

“No.”

“Then we’re still at an impasse.” Seeker talons slide into a hip joint, teasing the delicate cables beneath.

Prowl shivers. “Because you are stubborn.”

Starscream chuckles, dark and seductive. “No more so than you, Autobot.” His inner thigh scrubs against Prowl’s outer thigh, a delightful rasp of metal on metal. “You smell of welds. Who tagged you?”

“Soundwave.”

“He hates you.”

“I’ve noticed.” Prowl leans closer, their lips brushing, static dancing between them. “And you, I see, came uninjured.”

“For once.”

Prowl’s spark squeezes at the qualifier. He nuzzles Starscream’s face, fingers stroking over the flat plane of one wing, below the purple badge. “You could always–”

“No.”

An impasse indeed.

Prowl sighs against his lips. “Very well,” he murmurs and allows himself to indulge in a slow and savoring kiss.

He only has Starscream but for so long. He doesn’t intend to waste it.

[IDW] Walking the Wire 08

The world spun madly on.

Megatron recharged. He went on shift. He did his paperwork. He walked his routes. He hid in the library, researching things that would now see no use. He visited the medbay for his daily dose of poison, only to be served either by drone or First Aid.

Ratchet avoided him as though he carried rustmites.

Couldn’t even be civil. But of course not. Because Megatron was evil incarnate, and Ratchet had to bow and scrape before Primus in order to earn forgiveness for so much as touching Primus’ Bane.

Soundwave would have told him he was being melodramatic. Worse, that he was starting to imitate Starscream.

Neither of them were here right now. Neither of them had the right to an opinion.

The Lost Light continued speeding toward their destination without a care in the world, heedless to the turmoil twisting and churning inside Megatron. Turmoil that only grew in strength as he strode toward the meeting room where he and a group of the brightest minds on board the ship – plus Rodimus – intended to discuss the corpses in the morgue and the risk they might present.

That group would include Ratchet. As chief medical officer on board – though was up for debate as to whether or not the title was his – it was a given he’d make an appearance. They needed a medic’s opinion on the deaths.

Megatron didn’t know if he could sit across the table from Ratchet and act like everything was fine.

(It wasn’t.)

The door slid open as he approached, greeting him with the low murmur of conversation. It did not immediately cease upon sight of him, an improvement from previous meetings. Megatron headed to the first empty chair, between another empty and a surprisingly small Minimus Ambus.

He swept a gaze around the room, and the surge of relief he felt at not immediately spying Ratchet was ridiculous.

Megatron lowered himself into the seat, which gave an ominous creak beneath him. “I’m not late, am I?”

Perceptor, Brainstorm and Minimus were present. Ratchet and Rodimus were not.

“You are, as usual, quite on time,” Minimus said as he bent over a datapad, the screen covered for privacy, but his stylus moving smoothly across it. “In fact, we are only waiting for one more participant–”

The door opened again. “The fun has arrived!” Rodimus declared as he threw out his arms and strutted inside, face beaming with a bright smile. “You may now rejoice.”

Minimus sighed.

“Take a seat, Fun,” Perceptor drolled. “I have other things to do so we need to make this quick.”

Rodimus’ lower lip jutted out in a pout, his spoiler halves sinking, as though it was a true disappointment no one had applauded his entrance. “Is everyone here?”

“Yes,” Minimus answered. He flicked his fingers across his datapad and powered it down. “Perceptor, I believe you have a report for us?”

Rodimus flopped down into an empty seat at the head of the table, leaving only the seat beside Megatron as empty. Perhaps it was the chair where Ratchet was meant to sit, if he was going to attend. Though Minimus’ statement seemed to suggest otherwise.

“We have a report that is going to blow your processors,” Brainstorm said as he eagerly leaned forward against the edge of the table. He gestured broadly. “You’re not going to believe this.”

Perceptor visibly twitched. He set down a holographic projector, bringing to life a three-dimensional image of the corpses. A tap of the finger and the projector started cycling through pictures, one of which was of a mark Megatron had not seen before: five holes arranged within a circle.

“We believe these marks to be the overall cause of death,” Perceptor began, with very bo preamble whatsoever. “After extensive measuring, theorizing, and investigation, I have determined they are indicative of a predatory species–”

“Vampires,” Brainstorm inserted with a sage nod and a gleam of glee in his optics.

Perceptor sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “We are not calling them that.”

“At least he’s admitting there’s a ‘we’ now.” Brainstorm nudged Perceptor with his elbow, a rather brave act in Megatron’s opinion. Said scientist had gone from meek physicist to pinpoint accurate sniper over the course of the war.

Mech who could make a change like that was not a mech one wanted to bother.

“Vampires,” Rodimus repeated, and he was perhaps the only one in the room who could echo Brainstorm’s glee with the same enthusiasm. “Like pale, organic, dressed in black, with fangs and wanting to suck your blood?” At fangs, he literally formed fangs with his fingers and held them up to his lips.

Megatron sighed. “I doubt that is what Perceptor meant.”

“Unfortunately, excluding the organic details, yes, that is what I meant.” Perceptor peered at his datapad as though it would provide some sort of lifeline. “This species indeed has fangs – the five prong marks we detected, and their saliva is detectable by blacklight. They suck blood – in our case, energon. It is why the ship’s tanks were also dry.”

“So it consumes energon in all forms,” Megatron said.

“We’ve yet to decide if they are energon-specific, or if they are energy vampires in general,” Brainstorm pointed out as he plucked a datapad out of subspace and tried to shove it into Perceptor’s view. “They could be responsible for the spark burnout. Or that’s a consequent of the rapid energon-loss.”

“I have asked Ratchet to give us his professional opinion. I’m waiting on his report,” Perceptor said with another sweep of his stylus over his datapad. He ignored Brainstorm’s datapad with practiced disinterest.

Oh, to be a cassetticon on the wall of their laboratory. It had to be entertaining.

Rodimus squinted and looked around the table as though he’d suddenly realized they didn’t have a medic present. “Wait. Where is Ratchet? I thought he was coming to this.”

“Would you like his words or something more polite?” Perceptor’s ocular patch flashed at them. “Or I can paraphrase: he’s busy.”

Busy. Right. Megatron didn’t believe that for a moment. Ratchet was avoiding him, the coward. Like it was Megatron’s idea to end this thing between them.

“Busy,” Rodimus echoed. He plopped an elbow on the edge of the table and rubbed at his forehead. “Let me get this straight. We’re potentially lightspeeding toward danger, and he’s too busy to let us know how much danger we’re in?”

Perceptor stared. Coming from him, it was a lot more eerie than it used to be. “I am assuming that question is rhetorical, since I have no control over Ratchet and apparently, neither do our captains.”

Ouch.

Megatron flinched. Rodimus gaped.

Ultra Magnus – or Minimus for the meeting today, perhaps the armor was getting sanitized – coughed a ventilation. “How have we never encountered them before?”

“We have,” Perceptor said. “There are recorded instances of spacefaring Cybertronians encountering creatures such as these, but no deaths. In most instances, they were able to escape with minimal ill-effects.”

“What was so different this time?” Megatron asked.

Brainstorm spread his hands. “You see, the knights are old, right? So old they are even built differently from us. So old they probably met up with these creatures when they were still primitive, didn’t even know what we were really, except we smelled and tasted good. Plus, you know, the crash.”

“Smelled?” Rodimus shivered theatrically, his spoiler flattening against his back.

“In a manner of speaking. They are probably able to detect particles of energy left behind by creatures capable of mechanically creating it, much like we can track a ship’s vapor trail,” Perceptor said blandly. He was the only one in the room who didn’t look horrified. Excluding Brainstorm, who appeared excited, and probably wanted them to catch a specimen as soon as possible.

Megatron shifted his weight and his chair creaked noisily beneath him, effectively gathering everyone’s attention without his intent. “How much of a threat do they pose to us?”

“Minimal, in my professional opinion, especially if we approach them already aware of the danger.” Perceptor set his datapad on the table and laced his fingers together over it. “We are larger, better armored, and better armed. And though it pains me to admit, we are also more than accustomed to war and defending ourselves.”

“We owe it to science to investigate these things and learn more about them. Who knows! Their ability to sniff out energy could theoretically mean we could use them to find energon deposits or other important things!” Brainstorm threw his hands into the air and fell back dramatically into his chair. “Imagine it!”

“Right now, I’d settle for surviving an encounter with them,” Rodimus said, some of the pep gone from his voice. He might, also, have edged a bit further from the over-excitable scientist. “How big would you say they are?”

Perceptor shook his head. “I can’t be certain. These could be bites, or they could be teethed cables. Therefore the creature could range from the size of a scraplet to a size equivalent to Thunderclash.”

Silence swept through the meeting room. Megatron cringed, and even Brainstorm visibly deflated in the wake of that revelation.

“On the bright side,” Brainstorm managed weakly. “Scientific advancement.” He wriggled his fingers in front of his face and spread his hands. “It’s worth it.”

Rodimus leaned back in his chair, propping one foot on the edge of the table. “We’re going regardless. This is the first clearer than mumbo-jumbo lead we’ve gotten on the knights. It just means we’re going in locked and loaded.”

A sentiment Megatron could appreciate, and he had to admit, it was refreshing to see this amount of forward thinking from Rodimus. Though it was only a reminder that he would not be armed. He doubted anyone trusted him with a weapon.

It wouldn’t be the first time he’d defended himself with only his fists and his charm.

“If it is at all possible, I would like to examine at least one of the creatures,” Perceptor said.

“Dissect!” Brainstorm chimed in.

“Examine,” Perceptor corrected, giving Brainstorm the iciest look he had in his arsenal no doubt. “But don’t put yourself in danger on my account.”

“Hey, you want a specimen, I’ll get you a specimen.” Rodimus’ shoulders danced in an elaborate shrug, accompanied by a wink.

Minimus audibly sighed. “We shall do our best to safely acquire a creature for further study. Of course, you could always accompany us when we investigate the coordinates.”

“I don’t know about this one here,” Brainstorm said, gesturing to Perceptor with a thumb. “But definitely count me in.”

They hashed out a few more details, nothing concrete, just suggestions for what type of weaponry might be effective against a being which consumed energy or energy-specific fluids. Megatron stared at the holographic image of the bites or whatever they were, a sense of foreboding churning in his tanks.

Then again, that churning had been present since he stepped foot on this ship. Somehow, Rodimus tended to attract the most unusual and dangerous of circumstances. This entire ship was madness, and Megatron felt swept along in it.

Perhaps that explained his desire to form a relationship with the only person aboard who could have been a worst idea than Rodimus himself.

“Okay!” Rodimus clapped his hands together. “Sounds like we got a good plan. Unless someone has any objections?” He looked around the room, waited for all of a split-second, and grinned. “That’s what I thought. Onward to adventure then!”

He pointed toward the door with a wriggle of his spoiler.

Megatron supposed that was meant to be a dismissal of some kind. As did everyone else, as they stood and gathered their things, Brainstorm sticking to Perceptor like an electro-burr, chattering madly at the back of his head. Whether or not Perceptor listened was a matter of debate. Megatron took his time, more than aware he was as much apart from the rest as he was a part of them.

The meeting room emptied, but Minimus lingered, intercepting Megatron before he could escape like the others. Minimus’ mustache quivered. His hands were tucked behind his back. He looked, of all things, nervous.

“Sir, might have a moment of your time?”

Megatron had the strangest feeling he would not like this conversation. But as captain of the ship, he had to engage.

“Yes, Minimus. How can I help you?”

Minimus glanced at the door, where the tail end of Brainstorm could be seen skipping after Perceptor until the door shut behind him. “It’s about Ratchet.”

Yes, definitely a conversation he should have avoided.

“Is it now?” Megatron kept his tone as mild as he could.

“Yes.” Minimus paused, his face creasing with indecision before he boldly continued forward, “Sir, I must admit I am not very skilled at social interaction, but I have noticed the two of you have been… strained as of late. And while there is little I can do to help, might I suggest you speak with Rung for answers as to how to proceed?”

Megatron stared at him. “Proceed?”

“Yes, sir.” Minimus shifted his weight. “While I appreciate your recent dedication to your work, which supersedes even your usual dedication, including going so far as to fix that crooked rivet which was vexing me for so long, I’ve been told that such diligent behavior is usually indicative of personal turmoil.”

Megatron nodded and opened his mouth to speak, but Minimus barged along as though he had to get the words out lest he forget or lose his nerve. Megatron’s mouth snapped back shut.

“The fact that Ratchet is completing his work early is also of concern, especially considering he doesn’t file his reports until prompted. So while I am afraid I cannot be much assistance when it comes to offering advice or comfort, there is a resource available on the ship, should you be willing to take advantage of it.” Minimus paused to vent and Megatron was quite sure that was the most he’d ever heard out of Minimus or Magnus that did not pertain to a seemingly minor issue. “Sir.” He peered up at Megatron, his mustache bobbing above his lip.

Megatron wheezed. He searched for words and couldn’t find them. He cycled a vent, strangled though it was, and found composure buried beneath the echoes of Minimus’ words.

“I thank you for your concern, Minimus,” he said, leaning heavily on manners because the rest of his processor had short-circuited. “But I assure you, there is nothing between Ratchet and I that could explain either of our behavior. I cannot speak for Ratchet, but I find that I rest easier knowing my work is complete.”

Relief flooded Minimus’ field. He visibly sagged from his pose, which was best described as ‘at attention’. “I am glad to hear it, sir.” Minimus smiled.

At least he wasn’t pushing for more.

“Was that all?”

“Yes, sir.”

Thank Primus. Or maybe thank Unicron, because there’s no way this conversation hadn’t been driven by that Pitpawned beast.

Minimus departed, and Megatron vented. That was one conversation he hadn’t expected to have. He still wasn’t sure if Minimus had divined the relationship between Megatron and Ratchet, or if he correlated their behavior and assumed there was some kind of connection, even if he didn’t know what it might be.

He paused and leaned against the inside wall, rubbing his forehead. There was an ache in his processor he couldn’t quite define. He felt unexpectedly agitated, and he couldn’t pin a finger on why. Given their current course straight toward danger both known and unknown might have had something to do with it, but only if Megatron wanted to lie to himself.

He knew good and well the restless stirring in his spark was about Ratchet. He hadn’t expected to get attached. For it to mean anything more than several good overloads. He certainly hadn’t expected to start trusting Ratchet. Part of him always knew it was ephemeral. That it wouldn’t last. Yet, he’d still been surprised when the end came.

He was not so naïve to call it unfair, but the spark was not a rational thing. It railed at the unfairness of the universe.

Megatron gathered up his datapad and the holoprojector Percepter left behind. He might as well research on his own. Avenues of exploration with Ratchet were now closed to him, but he still had the stirrings of something in the back of his processor.

He opened the door and stepped out, focused on his datapad and paying attention to little else. Which was why he’d missed the fact someone was lying in wait for him outside the door. Said someone slid into his path, and Megatron’s peripheral sensors pinged, prompting him to halt. He looked up and blinked. He didn’t immediately recognize the Autobot.

Grey and red, chevroned like Prime’s infernal tactician, but not the one named Smokescreen. He was blue, Megatron was sure of this. He searched his databanks, cycling through face after face, before a name popped up: Bluestreak. A sniper, not a tactician, from Praxus like so many with that frame type. Largely undecorated throughout the war, though he had led a unit once.

“Bluestreak,” Megatron greeted smoothly. He tipped his head. “Can I help you?”

“That depends,” Bluestreak replied, with more attitude than Megatron would have expected given Megatron’s reputation. He folded his arms.

“On?”

“Whether or not you’re going to tell me about Ratchet.”

Megatron frowned. “I’m not sure to what you are referring. If you have any questions about your chief medic, you should direct them to him.”

Bluestreak snorted. “I’ve got his side. More or less. I want yours.” He tilted his head, optics narrowing. “And you’re lucky I’m even bothering to get your side. If I didn’t trust Ratchet so much, this conversation would have started a lot differently.”

“And how would that be?”

“I’d have arrived with security.”

Megatron pinched the bridge of his nose. He stepped back and gestured toward the door. “Do you want to sit inside and talk or–”

“Here’s fine.” Bluestreak pointedly looked to the left and right. “In public. In view of the cameras. There’s no audio, otherwise Ratchet might never forgive me, but I’m pretty sure I can hold my own until security can pry you off me, if you decide to attack.”

Megatron worked his jaw. “I’ve been aboard the ship for months and have yet to hurt anyone. What makes you think I intend to start now?”

“Because mechs don’t change. At least, not that quickly.” Bluestreak looked up at Megatron, not an ounce of fear in his optics despite the fact Megatron towered over him. He gave the sniper much credit for his bravery. “Look, I don’t want lurid details. I don’t want to know what your relationship entails or what it means–”

“Nothing,” Megatron corrected. “As there is no relationship, past and present, save that between a commander and his subordinate.”

Bluestreak snorted. “You and I both know that’s a lie. My point is, I don’t care about any of that. I just want to know your answer.”

Amused despite himself, Megatron arched an orbital ridge. “To what?”

“Whether or not you’re sincere.”

“This again?” Megatron’s head ached. He resisted the urge to rub it, both because he couldn’t, and because it would be a sign of weakness.

“I don’t mean about Ratchet. I already know the answer to that. I meant about your defection.”

Megatron started at him. “I thought that one was obvious.”

Bluestreak leaned forward and rolled his optics. “Oh, it’s obviousyou’re just waiting for the first chance to screw us over. What I’m waiting for is whether or not you’re going to prove me wrong.”

“What makes you think you’re even owed this?” Megatron demanded. “It’s no one’s business but ours.”

“Because I don’t like you.” Bluestreak’s shoulders twitched, like he was trying to move kibble no longer present. Megatron had seen Starscream make a similar motion before. “If it were up to me, you wouldn’t be on this ship. You’d be dead, like you deserve, and the rest of the Decepticons with you. Sometimes, people deserve second chances. Well, you’ve had more than you deserve, and I’m just waiting for the moment you reveal your true colors, so I can take your head off with one shot.”

Megatron stared at him. Bluestreak admitted it all in a flat tone, his optics dead, his posture remaining without threat in it. Like he’d become a completely different mech.

Bluestreak grinned, showing denta. “Lucky for you, it’s not up to me. You’re getting the opportunity you don’t deserve, but that doesn’t mean I have to watch you take Ratchet down with you. I won’t.” He straightened, shoulders going back. “So are you going to answer my question, Captain Megatron, or am I going to have to take my concerns to Ultra Magnus and Rodimus and the head of the security force?”

Chills crept down Megatron’s spinal strut. Looking into Bluestreak’s optics was like looking into the abyss, a great big void of nothing. Megatron didn’t want to know what had caused such a fracture inside Bluestreak. But it terrified him in ways few things did.

“I am as sincere as I can be.” Megatron kept his tone and guarded. “And I have no intentions of hurting Ratchet. Besides, I don’t know if you’re aware or not, but the one who ended that particular not-relationship was him.”

“I wasn’t. But I am now.” Bluestreak’s grin lengthened, and he bobbed on the balls of his feet. “Doesn’t change my question. Or, I suspect, the answer you just gave me.”

Megatron rubbed at his forehead. Bluestreak exhausted him in a different way than Rodimus. He felt as though he’d been walking on the edge of a precipice, and spent the entire time wondering if Bluestreak would push him over, or pull him to safety.

“Was that all?”

Blue optics looked him up and down, like searching for a weak spot. “For now,” Bluestreak said. “Have a good evening, sir. And might I suggest some rest? You look pretty tired.” Bluestreak smiled.

There wasn’t an ounce of sincerity in it.

“Your concern is noted,” Megatron replied, his tone a touch frosty perhaps, but he didn’t believe for a moment that Bluestreak’s concern was sincere.

Bluestreak tipped his head in a parody of respect and backed away from Megatron. “Thank you for the talk, sir,” he said. He spun on a heelstrut and strode down the corridor without a backward glance.

Megatron ground his jaw so hard he tasted sparks. He hadn’t registered Bluestreak as anything more than an annoyance, but now he bumped the sniper to menace. For that had clearly been a threat.

He turned the opposite direction. While returning to his hab was a given, Megatron had no interest in hiding in that small, empty room.

He headed for the library instead. There was always research to be done. Not that he believed it had a point, but at least it kept him from going mad. Trapped on this ship as he was, with no contact to anyone who was remotely on his side. Ravage didn’t necessarily count. Ravage was on no side but Ravage’s.

He’d always been like that.

Megatron’s favorite console, tucked away in the corner with only one way to approach, was not being used at the moment. It served as a perfect hiding spot. Very few ventured in here anyway.

Megatron sat and powered up the computer, fingers rapping over the desktop. There were numerous avenues of exploration laid before him, but his hands took him familiar routes, to familiar pages, to a world he’d only just begun to investigate.

Trust, said every message board and guide and manual. Trust was the single most important requirement for this indulgence. Trust between the dom and the sub was paramount. It had to be absolute.

Megatron slumped in his chair.

Trust was such a difficult concept. It was not something he’d ever held in spades. Not even with Soundwave, who was perhaps the only one he even remotely trusted on any level.

He briefly entertained thoughts of the way things could have been. Megatron, speaking to Soundwave in private, without barriers, without the walls of leadership and subordinate to bind them. Asking for something he dared not ask another, putting his safety into Soundwave’s hands, and believing he’d be taken care of.

It wasn’t completely implausible. Once upon a time, it might have even been possible.

Too quickly, the thoughts morphed into what Megatron already knew to be achievable. They morphed into himself, on his knees, chained, and Ratchet behind him, hands firm and knowledged. His voice, a low, commanding tone. The strike of the flog, again and again, pain and pleasure spiking in response.

And trust.

He will stop if I say so.

And believing it would happen.

Megatron’s hand curled into a fist under his cheek.

Trust, he reasoned, was a many-layered thing.

He flicked his finger across the screen, changing the guide to the next page. Something dark flickered into view. Megatron narrowed his optics, focusing on it.

In the reflection of his monitor, Megatron caught sight of Ravage perched on another console behind him. Which meant Ravage had wanted to be noticed.

Megatron returned to his research. “You’re relieved, aren’t you?”

“I am comfortable, yes.”

Megatron pressed his lips in a brief, thin line. Ravage was always like this, forcing him to clarify when he knew damn well what Megatron meant. “That Ratchet and I are no longer an item,” he said, pushing irritation into his voice.

“Oh, yes. That.” Ravage shifted with a susurrus of sound. “Well, he’s an Autobot.”

“As am I.”

“I don’t think there’s a single crewmember on this ship who honestly believes that. And I include you in that statement.”

Megatron set his jaw. He stared harder at the computer screen, though he didn’t absorb a single word. If he looked hard enough, he could see his own reflection, almost superimposed over Ravage beyond his shoulder.

“You may wear the badge, but that is where the identity ends,” Ravage continued as he rose from his recline, arching his back. “They saw how quickly you abandoned the Decepticons. They don’t believe for a moment you won’t turn around and do the same to them.”

Megatron’s spark curled into a tighter knot. Was this also what Ratchet meant about being unable to trust Megatron? Not just that he’d been Decepticon commander, but also that he’d turned his back on his faction? It would take more than a speech or two to explain himself. Megatron wasn’t entirely sure he could put it into words, unless he simplified it.

He was tired.

“So to answer your question, I’m neither relieved nor sympathetic.” Ravage hopped down from the console, padding silently around Megatron’s seat. “He’s an Autobot medic, and anyway, it wasn’t supposed to mean anything. It was entertainment at best, am I right? It – and by extension, he – doesn’t matter.”

Megatron sat back from the computer, his focus distant. “You’re wrong.”

“Curious. Which of those statements are inaccurate?”

Sadly, not all of them. Not enough to soothe Megatron’s spark.

He rapped his fingers on the desktop, the sharp staccato making Ravage flinch, a petty revenge. “It was not mere fun. Not even at first.”

“It was indulgence.”

“It was necessary.”

Ravage stared at him, his optics as cutting as Soundwave’s visored stare had always been. “Because he was part of the plan?”

“What plan?” Megatron shoved back from the computer, the stool rattling away behind him. “I had no plan. I have contingencies. I have wisps. I have stratagems, but I have no plan, I have nothing. There is no course of action where I emerge victorious in any shape or form.”

He paced around the desk, feeling trapped, though there were any number of directions he could go. Except off the ship, off the Lost Light, away from judgmental Autobots, and medics who couldn’t bring themselves to trust him.

“I lost the war.” Megatron’s hands fisted at his sides, and he stared at nothing. Saw nothing. “In the end, it gained me nothing. What good would it do to start another? What could it accomplish but failure and death and further destruction to the planet and its people?”

“What good?” Ravage hopped on the desk, standing over the keyboard where Megatron had been typing. “You could have tried, Megatron. Rather than abandon us to Autobot mercy, rather than disdain and disown us like our rebellion was nothing to you. You say Soundwave is the traitor, but I look at you, and I can’t see anything but a shadow of the mech who used to be great.”

Megatron’s engine roared. “Death is not greatness. War is not power. We accomplished nothing!” His hand swept through the air, inches from Ravage, not meant to be an attack.

Ravage did not flinch. His hackles rose, armor fluffing out in defensive response.

“You should have led us!” Ravage hissed, claws extending, screeching against the desktop. “If you wanted to try another way, you should have led us to it! Instead you whimper and cower behind an Autobot badge because you think it will protect you, while you wallow in your own guilt.” Ravage’s tail lashed through the air, his armor vibrating with outrage. “We needed you! We have always needed you! You could have led us toward peace and instead we are stuck clinging to the first mech strong enough to assume control.”

Megatron’s ventilations churned. Nausea curdled his tanks. His spark pounded; his processor spun. The empty spaces inside of him ached.

“I can’t do it,” Megatron snarled with far less strength than it should have had. “I can’t be what you or Soundwave or anyone else needs me to be. I am tired, Ravage. I am tired of it all. I can’t save the Decepticons. I can’t save myself. You demand something I can’t give any longer. I am neither leader nor savior. I am failure with blood on my hands and death on my spark!”

Ravage’s audials flattened. His mouth clamped shut, optics burning like embers of accusation.

Guilt surged inside. Megatron forced his tone to calm. He wasn’t angry with Ravage. It would be as if he were angry at the truth.

“I am not worth your loyalty,” Megatron admitted, his vocalizer crackling around the concession, because Ravage was right. He knew this. He’d always known this. “I was a nothing, raging against my fate, and I took you all with me. I promised you all a better life, and all I’ve brought you is madness.”

Ravage leapt from the desk, skulking toward the door. Only he paused, tail hanging low. “Did we die for nothing? Did we sacrifice everything… for nothing?”

“No,” Megatron said. “It was still worth it. To fight.” He worked his intake, over a lump. “But I should have found a better way.”

Ravage’s biolights flickered before going fully dark. “The medic is right,” he said, his voice echoing in the dark. “It’s too much of a risk to trust you.”

He vanished into the shadows, leaving Megatron alone. Ravage’s words bounced back and forth inside Megatron’s head.

He wondered if this was it, if this was the moment he lost Ravage forever. Would the cassette ever return to his side? Did he still consider Megatron someone worth trying for? Or was Megatron alone? For the first time, in a long time, was he finally alone?

Megatron slumped back into his chair and buried his face behind his hands. The computer monitor reflected back at him, aglow with information he’d never use. It didn’t matter if it involved his personal relationship with Ratchet, or escape from a certain doom, none of it was any use.

He was trapped.

* * *

[TF] Exponentiation Epilogue

Prowl
Formulaic Expression

The program works far better than expected, Prowl muses as he flips through his datapad, reviewing all of the successful sparkings thus far and their respective parentage.

Over two dozen! He’s optimistically hoped for a half-dozen at best. The war has been long and bitter. Grievances have been born on both sides. Resentment had practically sealed itself into their sparks.

The amount of cross-factional sparklings is even more impressive. Of the two-dozen sparked mechs, half have been born of cross-factional connections. The amount of discreet relationships coming to light in the wake of the truce might have something to do with it. So many have gone unnoticed over the centuries, though Prowl is not at all surprised.

The war had divided them, friends and family and co-workers.

Their first cross-factional conjunx ceremony had been a week ago. Prowl hadn’t even realized Thundercracker and Bumblebee knew each other or had crossed paths during the war. It is surprising how much he hadn’t known.

Prowl leans back, his hand naturally wandering to his abdomen, still flat for now, but as the life within his gestational tank grew, so would his abdomen. Internals would have to shift aside. His plating would extend, however slightly. It would be obvious enough to the average Cybertronian, not so much to others.

Let it never be said Prowl would not undergo that which he asks of his subordinates.

If there’s anything that’s going to cement this peace, it’s the way at least half of both armies have eagerly given into the Repopulation Project, preparing the way for new life, growing both protective and determined. No one wants to see the little ones come to harm.

Which isn’t to say there has been no grumbling. Quite a few mechs on both sides of the line have expressed their displeasure over the surge of newsparks. They want nothing to do with raising the next generation. That’s fine. Prowl has plenty of other tasks for those who don’t want to be parents. There is so much work, no one will lack for duties.

It’s a good thing. A very good thing.

Prowl can’t help but be pleased with himself. And yes, perhaps Shockwave is also one to thank for this.

This being the truce, the Repopulation Plan, and the sparkling in Prowl’s tank. Praxians might not be as fertile as Seekers – Prowl had only been the fifth mech to wind up sparked – but he’d been one of the first. He’d intended to pave the way.

Oh well.

At least the truce is all but set in duryllium. A carrying Megatron is even more effective than a warlike one. Surprising had been the sire, and possessive, too. Sunstreaker tends to growl if anyone gets too close to Megatron, and Prowl has never seen him look so fierce.

It’s a bit unnerving.

Sideswipe finds it hilarious.

Prowl is simply glad that Sideswipe has yet to sire or carry. He seems to be in no hurry, and Prowl hopes for everyone’s sake that Sideswipe waits for the second or third wave of sparkings. The spawn of Sideswipe will no doubt be twice as aggravating as the mech himself.

Still, it’s a good plan. A good end. Prowl couldn’t be more proud.

He smiles and reaches for his datapad, getting back to work, his spark soaring with delight. He’s where he’s always wanted to be. He can’t possibly be happier.

The war is over.

Long live peace.

[TFP] That’s the Way It Is

“I talked to Ultra Magnus.”

Knock Out groaned and fell back against the pillow. “Bumblebee, I told you not to be my hero.” This was not a conversation he wanted to be having at the moment.

“I wasn’t.”

He lifted his head and glared. Being a hero was in Bumblebee’s nature. It was a spark-deep trait. He couldn’t seem to set down the shining armor no matter what else was going on.

“Okay, a little.” Bumblebee held up his hands. “But in my defense, it was just a question.”

Knock Out sighed, resigning himself to it. Even if he didn’t find Bumblebee’s hero complex so adorable, this would be annoying. “About what?”

Bumblebee stroked Knock Out’s abdomen, fingers tracing the seams of his armor. “If you take the Autobot exam and pass, you’ll be a full fledged Autobot.”

“I know that.”

“You’ll get access to your Earth funds,” Bumblebee continued and placed a kiss on Knock Out’s grill, ex-venting damp-hot into it. “You can start going on patrols with me. You don’t have to take the oath or anything. You just have to pass the exam.”

Knock Out narrowed his optics. “No ceremony?”

“Not unless you want one.” Bumblebee kissed further down, as though trying to use seduction to convince Knock Out.

Sadly, it was working.

“No vows? No stupid Autobot pledges?”

“Nope.” Bumblebee popped the word and licked over Knock Out’s interface panel, sending a surge of heat southward.

Knock Out parted his thighs a bit further, and Bumblebee flopped between them, grinning like an idiot. “And how did I get this super-special consideration?”

Bumblebee leaned his head against the inside of Knock Out’s thigh. “It’s not special. For you, I mean. Anyone who wants to defect and goes through the probation period can do this.” He flicked his door wings, making the windows rattle. “Ultra Magnus agreed it’s pointless to make mechs take vows they might not mean. At least this way, the Autobot code is more of a code of conduct.”

“You were listening,” Knock Out commented, lifting his orbital ridges.

Bumblebee smirked. “Of course I was.” He stroked the inside of Knock Out’s thighs, where hip met leg, his fingers leaving a tingling path behind. “So? You gonna do it?”

Yes. Of course he was. But no need to let Bumblebee think he’d won just yet.

“Hmm.” Knock Out’s attention wandered back to his datapad. This was supposed to be their quiet time after all. “It’s an awful lot of studying. And a great deal of rules.”

Bumblebee nuzzled his panel. “What if I sucked you off? Would that convince you?” He ex-vented hot and wet with promise, fingers slipping into a seam to caress cables beneath.

The notion of quiet time escaped him quite frequently.

Knock Out laughed. “You were going to do that anyway.”

“Was I? That’s news to me.”

Knock Out grabbed each of Bumblebee’s tires and hauled his lover up for a kiss, sealing their mouths together in a sloppy press of lips. Bumblebee laughed and nudged a knee against Knock Out’s groin, his hands braced to either side of Knock Out’s tires.

“Is that a yes?” he asked against Knock Out’s lips.

Knock Out hooked an ankle around the back of Bumblebee’s thigh and tugged him closer, right where Knock Out wanted him. “I’ll let you know after you give me an overload or three.”

Bumblebee chuckled. “Deal.”

~

Three Earth months.

It was a relatively short time in the lifespan of a Cybertronian, but Knock Out felt every moment of those three months as though they were the length of the average Cybertronian cycle. He blamed that on the Autobots’ insistence on adopting Earth’s solar and lunar cycles since Cybertron still plummeted endlessly through space. Whether they were in range of a sun or not, their chronometers all followed Earth’s standard time: CST, for the record. Just like Jasper, Nevada.

Knock Out wasn’t sure what to expect when it came to Bumblebee. He tentatively hoped their one night wasn’t a one-time thing, and couldn’t help being surprised when Bumblebee showed up at the medcenter the next day, inviting Knock Out for a midday energon break. He even charmed Ratchet into letting Knock Out off a little early, all the while scurrying away from Ratchet’s demands that he show up for a maintenance check.

“It’s not like I’m afraid or anything,” Bumblebee had said with a rakish grin and a wink. “But if Doc’s yelling at me and getting flustered, then he’s not moping and sulking, and since he won’t talk to anyone or let anyone help, it’s the only thing I can do.”

Knock Out had shook his head. “You’re unbearably sweet sometimes. You know that?”

“It’s part of my charm,” Bumblebee said and stole a kiss when no one was looking, his lips lingering, and his mouth tasting like stolen sweet treats.

It wasn’t like they announced their new relationship – because clearly that’s what Bumblebee was going for with all the wooing, not that Knock Out was opposed. But they didn’t hide it either.

Bumblebee did proudly proclaim they were ‘together’ in front of every Vehicon he could though. Most of whom he knew by name. Knock Out pretended he wasn’t flattered, but he had to admit, if Bumblebee wanted to show him off, well, he couldn’t have picked a better looking partner.

They didn’t spend all their time together. Bumblebee still had patrols, some that took him back to Earth even. Knock Out had work at the medcenter, his chores and the like. They didn’t spend all of their free time together. But if their schedules aligned, Knock Out could count on Bumblebee to show up and drag Knock Out into some fun or mischief or making out in a storage closet.

It was nice.

It certainly made his post-defection existence a Pit of a lot better.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever seen someone look happy to be taking a damn test.”

Knock Out continued cleaning his equipment and returning each item to its respective slot. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.

Behind him, Ratchet snorted and gave him a narrow-opticked look, though it lacked heat considering the fatigue that made it crackle around the optical lens. Ratchet needed recharge for days, but try to get him to lay down for more than an hour, and he complained.

“You sneer,” Ratchet said. “You whine. You glare. You smirk. I think that’s the first time I’ve ever seen a real smile out of you.”

“Then you just haven’t been paying attention,” Knock Out said, but his face heated and his tires twitched. Like he’d admit he was smiling over thoughts of Bumblebee.

Ratchet rose from his chair with an audible creak and hiss of hydraulics in desperate need of maintenance. He needed a wash and wax on top of that, but Knock Out had learned his lesson about offering. Let the old medic rust into obscurity if that was what he wanted. It was no business of Knock Out’s. Ratchet had made that quite clear.

“I’d ask if you’re plotting something, but I don’t think you’re that stupid,” Ratchet said.

“That and there’s nothing I could possibly be scheming.” Knock Out typed in an administrative code and set his favorite scanner for an update and reboot. It should be purring perfectly by the time he came back for the rest of his shift. “I’ve no love or loyalty to the Decepticons, and especially not to Megatron.”

“Notice you didn’t mention Starscream.”

“Because he’s irrelevant,” Knock Out retorted. He set down the scanner and reached for the last of his tools. He hoped his clamped armor didn’t give him away. “None of it matters anyway. I’m an Autobot now. And in a few hours, I’ll even be an approved one.”

Ratchet leaned a hip against the nearest medberth. “As soon as you pass that exam.” He tilted his head and something sly crossed over his face. “And look at that, your escort is here to pick you up.”

Escort? What?

Knock Out turned and grinned when he saw Bumblebee through the opalescent transsteel. He waved as he stepped through the automatic doors, adding in a nostalgic tri-tone of beeps as he did so.

“Here for that maintenance appointment you keep missing?” Ratchet grunted by way of greeting. His expression was one of menace, but Knock Out wasn’t fooled.

Ratchet had a soft spot for Bumblebee a mile wide. Knock Out had been thinking of all the ways he could capitalize on that.

Bumblebee held up his hands. “I was on a very important mission, Ratchet. I couldn’t just drop that for you to poke around my undercarriage.”

“And yet I still haven’t seen you in here. Until today.” Ratchet sniffed as if offended. “Get over here.”

Bumblebee grinned, and his gaze slid to Knock Out. “No can do, Ratch.” He sidled to Knock Out’s side, giving him a shoulder-nudge. “Knock Out’s taking his exam today, and it just so happens that I’m here to make sure he gets there on time.”

Knock Out folded his arms. “I’m not the one who has a problem with punctuality.” He arched an orbital ridge, refusing to budge under Bumblebee’s pleading gaze. Nope. He’s not throwing himself on that grenade.

Ratchet snorted. “I know you can lie better than that, bit.” He yanked a cloth from subspace and started wiping at his fingers. “Go on. Get out of here.” He tipped his head toward the door. “Both of you.”

“Your wish is my command,” Bumblebee said with an exaggerated sweep of his hand and a bow. His door wings tilted forward, canting jauntily. It was unfairly adorable.

Bumblebee grabbed Knock Out’s elbow and towed him toward the door. He moved a bit too quickly for it to be called anything but an escape.

“And I want you back to finish your shift!” Ratchet shouted at Knock Out’s back, his words nearly lost in the door whooshing shut behind them.

Knock Out rolled his optics. That wasn’t at all a surprise.

In the hall, Bumblebee bumped shoulders with him. “Ratchet seemed in a good mood.”

Knock Out snorted. “That’s what you call a good mood?”

“Did he throw anything?”

Knock Out stared at his lover. “No.”

Bumblebee shrugged, his doors wriggling, the window handles spinning uselessly. “Good mood.”

Knock Out rolled his optics. “I think you need to set the bar higher,” he drawled. Though to be fair, he and Ratchet had somewhat come to terms in the past few months.

Knock Out had taken Bumblebee’s advice to spark and stopped asking permission. He stopped pretending to be meek and obedient around Ratchet. If a patient came in, Knock Out attended to them whether Ratchet allowed him to or not.

It helped that the Vehicons had started asking specifically for Knock Out when they came in for surgeries or regular maintenance or whatever they needed. Knock Out didn’t know if it was because he’d started to befriend them, or if it was because Bumblebee had asked them to do so. It stung his pride a little to rely on Bumblebee’s favor, but he was back to being a medic rather than a glorified sanitation worker, so Knock Out could hardly argue with the results.

“I did,” Bumblebee said, and Knock Out startled when something touched his fingers. It took him an embarrassingly long moment to realize Bumblebee wanted to hold his hand.

Knock Out’s face heated. He tangled his fingers with Bumblebee’s. “True,” he conceded as his tires wriggled, and he told the fool things to be still. “There’s no bar higher than mine.”

Bumblebee snorted. “I adore you for your modesty.”

His spark fluttered. Bumblebee meant it in jest, of course. They teased one another quite frequently. The words themselves still sent a surge of want through Knock Out. A desire he never intended to actively seek.

“What you call vanity, I call truth.” Knock Out rolled his shoulders and swept a hand down his frame in a broad gesture. “Why deny what’s obvious?”

Bumblebee laughed harder. “You’re right, I admit.” He squeezed Knock Out’s hand and pulled Knock Out against the warmth of his side, leaning in for a nuzzle. “You smell like solvent and disinfectant.”

“I was scrubbing the med berths,” Knock Out grumbled as he subtly pushed his partner away. They were still technically in public and while Bumblebee had announced to anyone who had something to say that they were together, Knock Out apparently cared more for Bumblebee’s self-image than he did. “Remember? It’s one of the few tasks Ratchet thinks I’m suitable for.”

“Nah, I think he’s warming up to you.” Bumblebee nipped him on the audial before putting a respectable distance between them. “Give him time. He’ll come around.”

“He needs to come around faster. I can’t keep having Vehicons fight my battles for me.”

They rounded a corner, emerging from a corridor of plain taupe walls into a hallway of stark white walls with doors at military precision intervals, each with a number and a title. Autobot HQ is just one big octagon with each of the halls dedicated to a different department and delineated by a different paint color. Given the lack of habitable buildings in Kaon, it’s the best use of space.

Most of the offices on this hall were empty. There simply weren’t enough mechs to staff the various positions.

“Think of it more like moral support,” Bumblebee said. “You have more friends than you think you do.”

No. Bumblebee had a lot of friends, and by proxy, they’d latched onto Knock Out.

He didn’t say so aloud, however. He didn’t like the pained expression on Bumblebee’s face, that mixture of disappointment and pity and confusion.

“Yeah, I know,” Knock Out lied, and painted it over with a smile. Fake it until it was true. That was how he’d learned to survive.

Said little trick had served him well during his tenure as a Decepticon.

The end of the hall came into view, just before it angled into a new department. Ultra Magnus’ office stood proud here, a large door for a large mech.

“Well, here we are,” Bumblebee said as he swung Knock Out to a stop in front of Ultra Magnus’ office, and used the momentum of the tug to wrap his arms around Knock Out and press their foreheads together. “Safe and sound.”

Knock Out rolled his optics. “You know, I didn’t need an escort. I was going to take the stupid exam regardless.”

“I know.” Bumblebee bobbed his shoulders. “But I wanted to be here. For moral support.” His hands swept up and down Knock Out’s back, briefly tweaking his tire mounts before resting chastely above his hips again. “Plus it gives me an excuse to do this.”

He slanted their mouths together, and Knock Out was not one to protest. The almost-public display of affections never ceased to surprise him, and maybe it felt like a bit of a claim, too. The pressure of Bumblebee’s mouth was warm and sweet, and Knock Out melted into him and the kiss, tension burning out of his hydraulics. He hadn’t realized he was so anxious. Especially without cause.

It was an exam. Not a fight for his life, for Primus’ sake.

Still felt like one though.

“Fine,” Knock Out said against Bumblebee’s lips. He stroked his field along his partner’s, giving it a pop of affection. “I suppose you’re forgiven then.”

Bumblebee grinned and slid Knock Out free of his arms. “Guess I better let you go. You know how Magnus is about punctuality.”

Knock Out snorted. “Yeah, I know.”

He chimed the door to announce his presence. It slid open for him without a reply, and Knock Out braced for what was about to be the longest, most tedious few hours in his current functioning.

He stepped inside just as Bumblebee called out “Good luck!” and any chance Knock Out would have had to reply was gone with the closing of the door behind him.

Stupid Autobot. Always getting in the last word.

“Hello, Knock Out.”

His attention swiveled back to the occupant of the room. That nervous tic returned in his spark, but Knock Out forced it down and a smile on his lips.

“I’m here for my exam,” he said, dumbly. Of course he was. Ultra Magnus knew that.

Amusement made Ultra Magnus’ lips twitch.

“And right on time, I see,” he said as he rose from behind his massive desk, not a creak to be found on his frame. Unlike some, he took care of himself. As much as he did everything else around him.

Knock Out took notice of the carefully ordered desk, how it was decorated with very few items, that the datapads on the shelf were organized alphabetically, that there didn’t seem to be a speck of dust visible anywhere. Frag, even the stylus sat perfectly perpendicular to the datapad presently the object of his attention.

“Yeah, well, let’s just get this over with,” Knock Out drawled.

He pretended he didn’t notice the console arranged in the corner. It was small, meant only for one, and Ultra Magnus had taken pains to label it.

‘For Autobot Code of Conduct Examinations Only.’

Primus on a pogostick.

“I am glad you have finally decided to finish the last step in your effort to become an Autobots,” Ultra Magnus said, clearly ignoring Knock Out’s attitude.

Knock Out bristled before he could stop himself. “I didn’t do it for you,” he said. He didn’t like Ultra Magnus’ tone. He sounded… proud. Ugh.

Ultra Magnus’ lips twitched. “I’m aware. You are doing this for yourself.” He paused and tilted his head, something glinting in his optics. “And perhaps for Bumblebee as well.”

Knock Out stiffened. His tires twitched. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Of course not.” Ultra Magnus’ face betrayed nothing. He gestured to the small station in the corner of the room. “You’ll take the exam there. It’s on a private server in order to prevent cheating of any kind. I don’t expect I’ll have such an issue with you.”

Knock Out waffled between being outraged and flattered and didn’t know which he should settle on. Instead, he stalked over to the chair and sat down in it.

It was too low.

He fiddled with the controls until it brought him high enough to comfortably see the screen. The plug glinted at him, shiny-new, demanding he connect.

“Let’s just get this over with,” Knock Out muttered as he withdrew his data cable. Small compared to the menagerie of Soundwave’s, but then, no one could match Soundwave when it came to sheer data processing.

Not even Lord Megatron’s precious Orion Pax.

“Good luck, Knock Out,” Ultra Magnus said as he moved back behind his desk. He picked up his stylus and nudged his datapad an inch closer. “I suspect you’ll perform admirably.”

Again with the compliment that felt like an insult.

Knock Out internally snorted. Whatever. He didn’t need anyone to believe in him. He was a survivor. It was what he did. He had nothing to prove to anyone.

So he logged into the console and took the damn exam.

~

It was, quite possibly, the longest and most grueling human-measured hour of his entire life. Knock Out could have sworn time stopped, or at least slowed down, to extend the seconds he spent on each question.

He’d studied far too hard for something which meant far too little to him. But he was a perfectionist, and he refused to fail. Even if he didn’t care about the content.

He passed with flying colors.

Ultra Magnus was too reserved to show his surprise, but Knock Out knew he had to be. He probably expected Knock Out would do the bare minimum. Hah, served him right for having so little faith.

“Congratulations,” Ultra Magnus said as he shook Knock Out’s hand. The other handed Knock Out a small datachip. “You now have full access to your funds, and I’ll begin adding you to the patrol rotation as well as full medbay shifts, if you like.”

“I do.” Knock Out tucked the datachip away. He’d deal with it later. “But don’t assign me any patrols with Arcee. For both of our sakes.”

“Oh, I’m quite aware.” Ultra Magnus’ orbital ridges lifted before drifting down again. “Though don’t expect you’ll be getting as many with Bumblebee as you’d like either.”

Knock Out’s face reddened and heated both. He pretended they hadn’t. “I’m happy to assist however I can,” he replied through gritted denta.

He didn’t know Ultra Magnus could look smug. But he was certainly seeing it now. “We could use all the help we can get,” he said and tucked himself back behind his desk. He was probably most comfortable there. “And with that, you’re free to go.”

Knock Out debated saying something smart back, but decided he’d pushed his luck enough already. He’d take his passing score, the passcode for his purchasing accounts, and he’d skeddadle.

First thing tonight, he was ordering some proper polishing supplies.

He tipped his head in the closest thing he had in his arsenal to a polite salute and let himself. Bumblebee waited for him in the hall, which was a bit surprising as Knock Out hadn’t expected him to. He was currently propped up against the opposite wall, deep in conversation with a bouncy Smokescreen who always tended to look at Bumblebee with stars in his optics.

Knock Out used to be jealous, until he realized Bumblebee treated Smokescreen like one might an annoying younger sibling. Smokescreen’s fascination was more hero worship than romantic inclination. Knock Out couldn’t fault him for that much. Bumblebee was pretty amazing.

Also, he seemed to get over the whole “Knock Out rummaging around his insides for the Omega Key” pretty quickly, so Knock Out cut him a little slack.

“Really?” Smokescreen was saying as his door panels wriggled up and down in a manner that should not have been as adorable as it was. “I mean, you’re not afraid I’m going to kick your aft?”

Bumblebee snorted a laugh. “The day you can do that, rookie, is the day I proudly retire.”

Some of Smokescreen’s step lost its bounce. “Awww, you don’t think I can?”

“Not right now.” Bumblebee clapped Smokescreen on the shoulder. “But that’s only because as much as you practice, so do I. Maybe one day when I’m old and rusty, you’ll have a chance.”

Smokescreen blocked Bumblebee’s view of Knock Out and vice versa, so he decided to announce himself by stepping up behind Smokescreen and tweaking one of his door mounts.

“And you still gotta go through me first,” Knock Out said as Smokescreen jumped and whirled around, doors arched as he fell into a defensive stance.

His reflexes were getting better at least.

“What th—oh. It’s you.” Smokescreen’s mouth twisted into a moue of disbelief. “Come on, Knock Out. You’re just a medic. I can take you any day.”

Knock Out folded his arms. “You think so, do you?” He arched an orbital ridge. “Care to make it a wager?”

Bumblebee laughed and pushed off the wall, sidling up to Knock Out’s side. “Don’t you think it’s a little unfair to take Screen’s credits like that?” He gently nudged Knock Out with an elbow.

“That’s not going to happen!” Smokescreen insisted. He bobbed on his heels.

“Isn’t it though?” Knock Out looked Smokescreen up and down, easily marking several weaknesses he could capitalize on. “If you think just because I’m a medic, I don’t know how to bring the hurt in ways you can’t imagine, then you’re as dumb as you look.”

Bumblebee snorted, his field brimming with amusement.

Smokescreen’s jaw dropped. “I’m not dumb!” he said, close to a whine. His doors jerked higher. “And I look great!”

“Only to someone who has no sense of color whatsoever.” Knock Out flicked a hand. He had to admit, pummeling Smokescreen into the ground would be fun, but teasing the Pit out of him was even more so.

Smokescreen’s face colored. He looked a split-second from making some smart-aft retort, but Bumblebee cut him off with a smooth reply of, “Don’t worry about him, Screen. He’s teasing you.”

Bumblebee slid a hand around Knock Out’s waist, lightly resting his fingers on the curve of it. “Aren’t you?”

Like the Pit he’d apologize or admit to it.

“Wouldn’t you rather hear about my test results?” Knock Out asked. “Or are you more interested in soothing a bit of wounded pride?” Oh frag. That sounded jealous, didn’t it?

Well, maybe he was. A little. Not because he thought Smokescreen was going to steal Bumblebee, but because of the easy camaraderie they had. It wasn’t as though things were tense between Knock Out and Bumblebee, and Bumblebee certainly didn’t treat him poorly.

Maybe it was irrational.

“You make a fair point,” Bumblebee said. “So are you going to share with the class or am I going to have to torture it out of you?” The way he purred torture made it sound like something far more pleasant.

Smokescreen heard it, too, because his face flushed a brilliant pink.

Knock Out rolled his optics. “I passed,” he said, without any fanfare.

“Of course you did.” Bumblebee swung Knock Out into his arms right there in front of Smokescreen and planted a kiss on his lips. “Congratulations. You’re one of us now.”

Knock Out’s processor spun. “Don’t remind me,” he managed even as he slanted a gaze at Smokescreen, whose pink flush turned a bright scarlet.

He coughed a ventilation and scratched at the side of his jaw, his optics very focused on the ceiling. “You’re, uh, not going to start celebrating that now, are you?”

Bumblebee chuckled. “Not in front of tender virgins, no. But celebration is definitely in order.” He brushed a kiss over the corner of Knock Out’s mouth. “I’ve got just the thing, too.”

“A date? Now I do feel special,” Knock Out drawled. His spark went pitter-patter. “Pick me up after my shift?”

“Nope.” Bumblebee grabbed Knock Out’s hand and pushed and spun him into a dance move. “You’re going to head home and get shined up. We’re going to do this properly for once.”

Properly? What in Cybertron did that mean? What romantic nonsense had gotten into Bumblebee’s head now?

Knock Out tossed his head. “I’m always perfect.”

“Of course you are.” Bumblebee pressed their foreheads together. “Now come on. You gotta get back before Ratchet starts thinking the medbay is his again.”

“Isn’t it though?” Smokescreen asked.

Knock Out pinned the rookie with a Look. “Didn’t you skip out on your last inoculation, Smokescreen?”

Blue optics cycle wide. “Wow, look at the time?” Smokescreen spluttered. He broke into a light jog, backward, and waved at them. “I’m going to be so late for my patrol. Later!”

“You are so evil,” Bumblebee said as Knock Out broke into laughter barely audible over the sound of Smokescreen hightailing it down the corridor. He grabbed Knock Out’s hand, threading their fingers together.

Knock Out winked and pointed at himself. “Decepticon.”

“Former,” Bumblebee corrected, and tugged Knock Out closer for a quick kiss.

Mmm. Former indeed. Bumblebee was quite the consolation prize, too.

“Keep that up and I might decide not to go back to my shift,” Knock Out said against his lips.

“Tempting, tempting.” Bumblebee squeezed his hand and turned, towing Knock Out up the hallway. “But let’s not have you catching a lecture. I’d hate for you to be stuck scrubbing a recycler when we’re supposed to be on a date.”

“Fair point.” Ratchet would be that petty, too. He seemed to take glee in giving Knock Out the scut work.

They really needed to find more medics.

Blinding white walls turned into the supposedly soothing shade of taupe. Knock Out’s internals knotted with a mixture of pride and dread because he had nothing to prove to Ratchet, but he’d passed his exam and he was officially an Autobot. He didn’t care so much about the last bit, but he’d done what no one expected him to bother doing, and there was a certain measure of pride about it.

He wanted to brag.

Even so, his feet dragged the closer he got to the medbay. Knock Out couldn’t put a finger on exactly why. Maybe because he didn’t want to leave the comfort of Bumblebee’s field.

They moved to the side to avoid a Vehicon pushing a cart stacked high with various supplies. Who Bumblebee of course greeted by name because he knew every Vehicon and Eradicon in Kaon apparently.

But once Roughroad passed, Bumblebee didn’t seem in much of a hurry to get moving again. Instead, he crowded Knock Out against the wall, his hands barely appropriate as they landed on Knock Out’s hips and squeezed. Thank Primus they were just out of sight of the medbay’s main entrance and by proxy, the cameras pointed at it.

He didn’t need a citation from Ultra Magnus for inappropriate workplace conduct only minutes after receiving his certification.

“Don’t forget.” Bumblebee nuzzled into Knock Out’s intake, his vents teasing Knock Out’s cables and making a shiver dance through his lines. “Tonight. I’ll come pick you up.” His ex-vents puffed over Knock Out’s lips.

“I’ll remember,” Knock Out said. A low thrill ran up his backstrut, his imagination conjuring all sorts of surprises. “It had better be worth it.”

“You always are.” Bumblebee pressed a kiss to his forehead as Knock Out stared at him, stunned.

The words had been offhand, casual, as though they cost Bumblebee nothing to say, while they meant the world to Knock Out.

“Have fun working with Ratchet.” Bumblebee squeezed Knock Out’s hand before letting him go. “Tell him ‘next time’ if he asks about that maintenance appointment.”

“So he can turn his ire toward me? I don’t like you that much,” Knock Out retorted.

Bumblebee laughed, and then he was gone with a backward wave and a jog down the corridor. No offense taken. No sign he’d so easily admitted Knock Out was special.

Knock Out didn’t understand Autobots at all.

He gnawed on his bottom lip and reluctantly turned to the medbay. Might as well get back to work.

Very little had changed during the few hours of his absence. They still had no patients, and Ratchet had moved on from categorizing to cleaning. He was in the process of sterilizing the few medberths they had, and he looked up as soon as Knock Out entered.

“Huh,” he said and looked back down, scrubbing harder. “You actually came back.”

Knock Out wasn’t sure how to label that tone. “Sorry to disappoint.” He checked his schedule, realized he had a couple appointments this afternoon. Two Vehicons, one for a frame consult and the other needing a fluid flush.

“Well, I figured you and Bumblebee would have found another empty closet to explore,” Ratchet said, his tone light, almost teasing if Knock Out dared guess.

He stared at Ratchet. “Not this time,” Knock Out replied, cautious. But then, he was a Decepticon wasn’t he? “I worried about leaving you alone to handle this. You’re not getting any younger.”

“That’s called experience, kid,” Ratchet said. He tossed the dirtied rag into the laundry bin. “I’ll let you slide for that remark.”

Knock Out moved to the sanitizing sink and scrubbed up. “And what did I do to deserve that mercy?”

“I’ve never seen Bumblebee smile that hard.”

Solvent splashed over his fingers. Knock Out went still. “Is that approval I detect in your tone?”

Ratchet snorted. “Don’t get ahead of yourself.” The front door chimed as Knock Out’s appointment arrived early. “I’ll be in my office if you need me.”

“Take a stasis nap,” Knock Out called after him.

The rather rude gesture Ratchet sent in return had to be taught to him by the humans. Probably Miko. Or Wheeljack. That was Kaonite slums through and through.

Knock Out grinned despite himself.

“Uh, maybe I should reschedule,” his patient – an Eradicon by the name of Wheels said. He was here for a consult.

Hm. Perhaps his grin did look a little manic.

Knock Out chuckled. “Don’t worry. I’m not planning on taking you apart.” He paused for dramatic effect. “Yet, of course. You haven’t decided what new look you want.”

Wheels didn’t look relieved. His wings – because yes, he was a flyer who chose the name Wheels – twitched. “You’re really scary sometimes, you know that, doc?”

“It’s part of my charm.”

~

Ratchet sent him home early, once excitement and anticipation coiled into a hot knot in his tanks, and Knock Out cleaned the same medberth twice. He’d sketched and erased and sketched and erased Wheels’ rebuild, unable to decide how he wanted to approach it. The Vehicon wanted an actual mouth, rather than an intake valve, and Knock Out couldn’t blame him. Mouths were useful for more things than intaking energon.

He’d once reduced Bumblebee to a quivering heap of sated muscle car with his mouth alone, after all.

“Get out of here,” Ratchet had said by the third time Knock Out wiped the holographic interface to start Wheels’ design anew. “Whatever it is that’s got you bouncing and grinning, I don’t want to know. It’s creepy. Go.”

“I’m not bouncy,” Knock Out grumbled, but he went. Ratchet was right. He wasn’t focused.

He went back to his apartment, and he hopped in the washrack where he stayed for the better part of an hour. Bumblebee told him to look good. Knock Out left no seam untouched. He scrubbed, and he oiled, and he polished until he gleamed like a newspark fresh off the assembly line, and his paint had a lustrous glow to it. He had to admit, he looked damn good.

Frag, he’d ‘face himself if that were possible.

His door chimed right as he twisted and turned in front of a mirror, trying to decide if a few accenting paint lines were over the top or the perfect addition.

Excitement turned to full-blown anxiety, but Knock Out cycled a few ventilations and went to answer the door. Bumblebee had the code, but he was apparently taking this ‘real date’ seriously.

He opened the door to Bumblebee on the other side, clutching a bouquet of… not flowers. Were those rolled up mesh, microfiber, and sheepskin cloths? Brightly colored caps popped up around the rolled fabrics like little candies. Knock Out recognized those caps.

“Congratulations on passing your exam.” Bumblebee thrust the bouquet at Knock Out, who accepted it automatically, shock still echoing through his frame.

Their fingers touched, and Bumblebee leaned in, lips brushing a kiss over Knock Out’s cheek. “I sort of hacked your account to see what you liked.”

“You’re forgiven.” Knock Out accepted the bouquet and rifled through the presented items. Everything he’d been wanting to order was right here. He was set for the next month. “I’d get a vase for this, but I don’t think that’s appropriate.”

Bumblebee laughed. “It’s the thought that counts.” The heat of his gaze landed on Knock Out’s frame, and a shiver crawled up his backstrut. “You look amazing.”

Knock Out’s tires twitched. He turned and set the bouquet of supplies on a nearby table. “You clean up nice, too.”

It was a bit of an understatement. Bumblebee shone every bit as prettily under the lights as Knock Out did. It was like he’d finally taken the time for a good, in-depth wash and wax. Maybe he’d splurged and taken advantage of the new shop that opened down the way. Run by a couple of Vehicons – including the aforementioned Wheels – it was the newest up and coming place for a full detail.

“What? This old thing?” Bumblebee brushed the back of his hand over one shoulder. “I found it in the garage. Dusted it off. Special occasion use only, you know.”

Knock Out chuckled. “You’re ridiculous.” Warmth blossomed in his spark, which throbbed like a foolish thing. “So. We going back to Illumination?”

“Nope.” Bumblebee held out an elbow in offering. “We’re going to Earth.”

Knock Out cycled his optics. “What?” He threaded his arm through Bumblebee’s and let the Autobot tug him out of his quarters. “I don’t have clearance for that.”

“You do now.” He nudged Knock Out with a shoulder. “I pulled some strings and got us a night pass to Earth. Butte, Montana as a matter of fact.”

“What the frag is in Montana?” Knock Out asked. He only vaguely remembered the important bits of Earth. Jasper, Nevada was burned into the back of his processor. As was that large city of stench with the underground railroad.

“You’ll see,” Bumblebee all but sang as he guided Knock Out toward the lift. “Trust me, okay? You’re going to love it.”

~

Butte, Montana was empty, dry, and cold. It was late fall on Earth, and the chill in the air made Knock Out’s armor tighten, and his ex-vents emerge as pale fogs of gray. The ground bridge deposited them on a rise in the land, man-built Knock Out figured, since the rest of Montana seemed to be as flat as a datapad.

“How’re your holoprotocols?”

Knock Out cycled his optics. “What?”

Bumblebee grinned at him, excitement reflected on his face, his doors wriggling up and down, up and down. “Your holoprotocols. Can they stand up to some mild scrutiny?”

“They’re functional,” Knock Out said. “Why?”

Bumblebee hummed thoughtfully. “All right, give me your port.” He popped open the peripheral panel in his wrist and withdrew a cable. “No one’s got protocols like a spy, and if this is going to work, you need better than functional.”

“If you wanted under my armor, you didn’t have to come up with an excuse,” Knock Out teased, and offered his left wrist, commanding the panel to open.

Bumblebee snorted and gently connected their systems with a tiny click. “Good to know.” He pinged for a connection, and Knock Out permitted the upload. “These are state of the art protocols. Only the best in sensory perception, the works.” He looked up at Knock Out with a grin. “I took the liberty of designing you a holoavatar, but don’t feel obligated to employ it.”

The update slotted into place with a cheerful chime of completion. Bumblebee gently disconnected while Knock Out finished the install and started unpacking the files. It was four times the size of his current holoavatar program and had a thousand more options.

“This is for hardlight,” Knock Out said, surprised.

“Yep.” Bumblebee beamed and wriggled his fingers. “That way if you can’t resist touching me, you don’t have to. I’ll be as solid as solid can be. Until the battery runs out anyway. I’ll show you.”

He took a step back and shifted to alt-mode, engine purring in an idle, his paint gleaming in the midday sun. The air in front of his driver’s side door started to shimmer. It took shape, forming a bipedal figure Knock Out recognized as human, dressed in dark, form-fitting clothing. He’d spent enough time on the internet to recognize most of it.

Thick, heavy boots with silver buckles. Dark pants tucked into them and belted at the hip. Some kind of shirt sized far too small, and a leather jacket over the top of it. He had fingerless gloves, smooth dark skin, visible tattoos and dark hair, with a shock of white visible above his brow. The most intense blue eyes stared back at Knock Out from above a wide mouth Knock Out would never admit aloud he wanted to taste.

“Well,” Bumblebee said as he spread his hands, stretching the limits of the leather jacket around his broad shoulders. “What do you think?”

Knock Out wanted to eat him.

He worked his intake. “You’re a human, how would I know?”

Bumblebee laughed and moved forward, patting him on the armor shin. “Solid, too.” He had the audacity to wink before he stepped back, leaning against himself. He folded his arms, the leather creaking. “Your turn.”

“I guess it is.” Knock Out vented and examined the avatar Bumblebee had designed for him. It would be a good place to start at least.

It wasn’t half-bad. He was paler than Bumblebee, but dressed similarly. His under shirt was a different color, and the buckles on his shoes were more chrome than silver. There were small dots over the bridge of his nose and cheeks. His hair wasn’t quite right though.

Knock Out tweaked it a little, made the silky strands more red than brown, and cut it shorter. Bumblebee also hadn’t bothered with accessories so Knock Out fixed that, adding some ‘bling’ as the humans would say.

Satisfied, he took a step back as Bumblebee had done, shifting to alt-mode first. Only then did he focus on the holoavatar program to activate it. There was an odd pulling sensation as his avatar took shape. Dizziness briefly swept through his processor as his focus split between his primary form, and the human avatar gradually solidifying.

He’d never much liked taking a holoavatar. But then, they’d never quite felt like this either. More solid, more grounded. His sensors actually worked through it, so he could smell and see and hear. It was formed of his own nanites, he realized. And it transmitted charge across the space between them. Knock Out wouldn’t be able to go too far from his real frame, but he could wander far enough.

Bumblebee – or well, his avatar self – grinned and whistled. “It looks as good on you as I thought it would.” He pushed off himself and strode toward Knock Out, hands shoved in the pockets of his leather jacket. “I like the changes. It’s definitely more you.”

“Am I still handsome?” Knock Out asked. He ran a hand through his hair, marveling at how fine it felt to his human skin. It was odd to hear his voice coming from an organic mouth.

“The prettiest,” Bumblebee confirmed, and he bit on his bottom lip, the blue of his eyes growing darker. “May I?” He held out a hand inches from Knock Out’s face.

“What’s the point of making it solid-state if you don’t touch it?” Knock Out asked. He leaned against his own driver’s side door as Bumblebee leaned in, the solid weight of him pinning Knock Out against himself.

He felt hot to the touch, firm but yielding in a way that was different than their metallic shapes. Knock Out couldn’t sense the thrum of life in Bumblebee’s body, not like he could as their transformed selves. But his sensors could detect that active nanites. It was oddly intimate thing, to touch nanite to nanite like this.

Bumblebee’s hand cupped Knock Out’s face, soft and warm and dry. His thumb swept over Knock Out’s cheeks, more giving than any dermal layer had right to be. Knock Out felt dangerously fragile.

“You kept the freckles,” he murmured, and his lips curved into a grin. “I like it.”

“You got a kink for humans I need to know about, Bee?” Knock Out asked, pointedly ignoring the way his body seemed to hitch and warm at the pressure of Bumblebee’s against his. His insides didn’t bother to be an approximation of a human’s, but it still felt like his spark were throbbing in his chest.

Bumblebee snorted. “Only when they look like you.”

He leaned in, his lips brushing over Knock Out’s, and it was a sensation wholly unique to them kissing in their Cybertronian forms. It was softer, sweeter, and Knock Out leaned forward to deepen it, moaning softly at the first touch of Bumblebee’s glossa to his.

Hotter, wetter, slicker. Bumblebee still tasted, oddly, of energon and metallic things. It was a dissonance of sensation, and Knock Out loved it. He curled an arm around Bumblebee’s torso, yanking the broadness of it against him, their chests mashing together. He felt the bite of a zipper through the thin fabric where his shirt was. It pressed in against his skin.

So soft. So giving. So vulnerable. He shuddered and felt himself shudder, too, his engine revving audibly.

He shifted his hands to Bumblebee’s hips, and his thumbs found the gap where Bumblebee’s shirt parted from his pants. There was a bare strip of skin here, so smooth to the touch, and Knock Out skimmed his palms under the thin fabric. He felt skin and muscle flexing, felt Bumblebee shudder against him.

“This okay?” Knock Out asked, because the last thing he needed was Bumblebee thinking he was some kind of former Decepticon deviant.

Bumblebee groaned over the corner of his mouth. “More than.” He shifted, hands bracing against the edge of Knock Out’s vehicle roof, trapping Knock Out against himself. “Explore as much as you want.”

Permission was permission.

Knock Out pushed the shirt up, because he could, and sucked his bottom lip into his mouth. There were miles of bare skin here, soft and flat and Primus, Knock Out was not attracted to humans at all, but Bumblebee’s grill had translated to a firm, toned abdomen and Knock Out couldn’t imagine not touching it. A dark something peeked over the top of his belt, and Knock Out’s fingers danced over to it.

A tattoo?

“What’s this?” he asked as he swept his thumbs over it and felt Bumblebee’s body vibrate as he laughed.

“Guess you’ll have to find out,” he said.

Tease.

Knock Out rolled his eyes. His curiosity won out, however. He slid his fingers beneath the hem of Bumblebee’s pants and tugged them down enough to get a better view of the shadow.

It was indeed a tattoo. And there, a mere inch above a thatch of dark, curly hair was an Autobot symbol. Which, mentally reviewing Bumblebee’s metallic frame, was where it definitely belonged.

Knock Out snorted. He knocked his forehead against Bumblebee’s shoulder and let his hands retreat to the safety of Bumblebee’s hips, no matter how much he wanted to dive further down and see what else was familiar.

“I can’t believe you,” he said. “Where is your shame?”

“Don’t have any.” Bumblebee chuckled, and his mouth wandered away from the curve of Knock Out’s jaw. He audibly inhaled. “Primus, you smell good.”

“You programmed me to smell this way,” Knock Out retorted, but his insides fluttered, and his hands clenched on Bumblebee’s hips. There was a need radiating inside him now, flushing through his limbs.

“Mm.” Bumblebee tucked his face into Knock Out’s throat and gave it a lick, the wet slide of his tongue a hotter sensation than it had right to be. “We might have to play like this later.”

Knock Out laughed and rubbed up against Bumblebee. There was only a few inches height difference between them. Their human avatars seemed to exaggerate their size difference.

“You’re so kinky for an Autobot,” he said. Then again, the fact that he was considering it enough to conceive potential positions in the back of his mind meant Knock Out was equally kinky.

“You’re an Autobot too now.” Bumblebee kissed him on the corner of the mouth. “Come on. We don’t want to be late.”

He pulled back, and Knock Out resisted the urge to tug him back in. There was a throbbing fire in his groin, and Knock Out didn’t need a medical manual to know his human appendages were now aching just like his spike would be. The lack of valve would be problematic, however. The experimentation might be fun.

“Late for what?” Knock Out asked.

Bumblebee pulled open the driver’s door and slid into the driver’s seat. He winked. “You’ll see. Just follow my lead.”

International mech of mystery.

The door shut with a thump. Knock Out rolled his eyes and climbed into himself, which was another odd sensation. Bumblebee revved his engine and took off with a spray of gravelly dust. Knock Out cursed and hurried to follow, his undercarriage complaining as debris pinged it. Bumblebee owed him a wash and wax later.

They pulled onto a narrow road so rarely maintained that the paint lines down the center were cracked and faded. Weeds popped up through the pavement, and the one highway sign hung upside down from a rusted screw.

He followed Bumblebee for a good ten minutes, down a twisting, winding road into a low valley until it finally started to even out. When they rounded a corner, Knock Out’s vents stuttered.

It was a race track. Not some dirt road, backwater track built by humans who only had vague dreams of racing, but an actual, concrete and steel and paint lines race track with viewing stands. Colorful banners flapped in the breeze, which did little to ease the sticky, stifling heat. But not even the stench of too many humans in too small a place could detract from Knock Out’s excitement.

A race track.

“Like it?” Bumblebee asked, his voice coming tinny and smug through the radio.

“Shut up,” Knock Out said. “How’d you even manage this?”

“Raf pulled some strings. And by strings I mean he hacked into the system, booted out a few racers and added us in as substitutions.”

Knock Out sighed a vent. “I love that kid.”

Bumblebee’s snorted laugh rattled through the speakers. “Just follow my lead. I’ll do the talking. And uh, we’re going to be faster than all of these cars so maybe dial it back a smidge.”

“Win but don’t stand out. Got it.” Excitement made Knock Out’s engine rev. His holo-human hands tightened on his steering wheel.

Best congratulations gift ever.

~

There was no time for gloating afterward.

The humans wanted to take pictures, and they demanded interviews, but Knock Out followed Bumblebee’s lead by diving into himself and peeling out of the arena. Cameras flashed behind them, and humans shouted and whistled in their wake. Bumblebee laughed, and Knock Out echoed him, exhilaration flashing high and bright in his spark.

He’d won. There was a trophy involved apparently, and normally Knock Out would have been one to linger and soak in the praise, but they couldn’t be caught out. He’d have to be satisfied with being smug and mysterious when the news reports later talked about the strange winners.

Knock Out couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt like this. Like the world was his for the taking, the ground so smooth and quick under his tires, the headlights of someone he cared about in his rearview…

Granted, he was on Earth, a planet he simultaneously loathed and loved, and his partner was a member of the faction he’d fought against for millennia until he decided to turn the tables. He worked with the crankiest medic this side of the universe, and nothing was how he ever imagined his future might be.

But yes.

He’s happy.

Bumblebee pulled ahead of him on the narrow dirt road, honking his horn as if demanding Knock Out follow. They were heading back the way they came, toward the huge and high cliff overlooking an empty valley. It was probably where the bridge would retrieve them. It wasn’t waiting when they arrived, but Bumblebee shifted to alt-mode, so Knock Out followed suit.

“We’ve got a few more hours before we’re due back,” Bumblebee said as he grinned, doors flicking up and down in barely restrained glee. “But don’t worry. I’ve got one more thing–”

Knock Out kissed him. He snagged Bumblebee’s head with both hands and dragged their mouths together, his glossa plunging past Bumblebee’s lips as their chests collided with a dull thunk of metal on metal. Heat pulsed between them, their fields clashed, and Knock Out shoved as much gratitude, affection, and satisfaction into it as he could.

Bumblebee made a startled sound before his hands finally found Knock Out’s hips, squeezing and drawing him closer until they were pressed as close as they could be.

Only then did Knock Out end the kiss with a gentle nip of his denta.

Bumblebee stared back at him, optics bright. “What was that for?”

“Thank you,” Knock Out said. “And also, ha! I won.”

Bumblebee chuckled and pressed his forehead to Knock Out’s. “Yes, you did.” His hand swept up and down Knock Out’s sides in light caresses. “But I still think I got the grand prize.”

“You charmer,” Knock Out laughed and slid his hands down to Bumblebee’s shoulders. “So if our ride isn’t going to be here for a few hours, what’s left to do with the time?”

“I have a plan, of course.”

Bumblebee drew back and winked. He turned, jogging away from Knock Out, to a nearby outcropping of boulders, which looked like they’d been discarded by some giant hand ages ago and left to erode in the elements. Bumblebee disappeared behind it, and seconds later there was a loud thunk followed by a rustling noise as Bumblebee lumbered back into view, his arms laden down with a thick tarp and a basket dangling from one elbow.

“Picnic!” he declared.

“It’s past sunset,” Knock Out said.

“Your point?”

Bumblebee set the basket down and unfolded the tarp with a sharp snap of the thick plastic. It fluttered as it covered the ground and crinkled noisily when Bumblebee painstakingly flattened it out.

“What’s with the tarp?” Knock Out asked.

Bumblebee snagged the basket, walked to the middle of the tarp, and sat down, laying the basket next to him. “I know how you feel about your paint.” He patted the tarp next to him. “Come on. The show’s going to start soon.”

“What show?”

“Don’t make me spoil the surprise.” Bumblebee flicked the basket open with his other hand and pulled out a small bottle of engex. The label glinted in the light of the dying sun – Knock Out’s favorite flavor, of course.

Bumblebee gave it a wiggle. “Sit next to me. Or on me. I’m good with either.” He grinned.

“You’re ridiculous.” Knock Out stepped gingerly across the tarp, hearing it crinkle beneath his feet.

He sat next to Bumblebee rather than on top of him.

“Yeah, and?” Bumblebee grinned and grabbed Knock Out’s nearest hand, tangling their fingers together. “Are you protesting or just making an observation?”

“Either or.” Knock Out leaned in, resting his head on Bumblebee’s shoulder, soaking in the lingering warmth from the dirt around them, and the buzzing warmth in Bumblebee’s field. “I guess this isn’t so bad.”

Bumblebee’s free hand offered him the opened bottle of engex. “Could be better.” He gave it a wiggle.

“What? No glasses? You heathen.” Knock Out snatched the bottle and eyed it. “Your mouth has been all over this.”

Bumblebee laughed. “My mouth has been all over a lot of things lately.” He waggled his orbital ridges. “If you want, it can even be all over you later.”

Knock Out almost spat the engex flooding over his glossa. As it was, he coughed a vent and wiped the back of his hand over his mouth. “You’re obscene,” he accused. He thrust the bottle back toward Bumblebee.

“Don’t act like you hate it.” Bumblebee accepted the bottle and took a large swig, head tipped back as he drained a third of the bottle in one long glug.

Warmth tightened within Knock Out’s belly. He’d been buried in that intake just this morning. “Never said I did.” He squeezed Bumblebee’s hand. “I can’t decide if you’re a romantic or a pervert.”

“Both.”

A loud shriek followed by an even louder boom made Knock Out startle. He whipped around, searching for the source of the noise, just as a crackle and spray of colors lit the evening sky. It was immediately followed by a second and then a third, and then a barrage of pops and booms and crackles.

“Ooo, it’s started,” Bumblebee said. He set the bottle aside and leaned back against the tarp, carefully flattening his doors over the ground. He patted his chest, the bright lights reflecting on his windshield. “Lay with me?”

“Fireworks?” Knock Out said as his spark slowly startled to cycle down from the abrupt noises. It sounded too much like artillery for his comfort.

“They’re from the race. Celebrations and whatnot.”

Knock Out slid down and carefully notched himself against Bumblebee’s side, resting his head on Bumblebee’s shoulder and tangling their legs together. Like this, the night sky stretched above them, perfectly clear and dotted with stars, while bright bursts of color sprayed and danced among them.

“For my victory,” Knock Out said, smug.

Bumblebee chuckled. “That, too.” He squeezed Knock Out’s hand where their fingers were still linked. “So, uh, yeah. Congratulations and all that.”

“Thanks,” Knock Out drawled. He rested his hand on Bumblebee’s abdomen, fingers playing in the grooves, but not with arousing intent.

It was kind of nice, actually. Just to be here, enjoying this, with nothing else expected out of it. Kind of like they were actual partners and not merely two mechs who kept romping in each other’s berths.

He could get used to this.

[TF] Past Impending 06

Blue Sun was closed, for a week at minimum according to Prowl, pending an investigation. Streamline worried whether or not they’d ever recover.

Starscream was less concerned. Mechs would always have creds to spend on pleasure. Their customers would be back.

Fewer escorts jumped ship than expected. Only a handful quit, though Streamline wasn’t interested in filling their slots anytime soon. He was too preoccupied with keeping his aft out of prison.

Apparently, Streamline had made a deal with the Enforcers – he’d turn over everything he knew about Turmoil, as well as provide a stage for the final exchange, and they would not prosecute him. They would pretend he’d never been involved. He would, more or less, escape cleanly.

Good news for him.

Bad news for Rodimus, who’d held a thin hope that Turmoil’s arrest might make his debt disappear. But Streamline owned his debt, and if Streamline couldn’t be prosecuted for it, then Rodimus was still liable for it. Maybe he wasn’t wrong when he said he couldn’t escape. Maybe none of them would.

Those who stuck around for Blue Sun’s eventual reopening treated the week like a vacation. There was not an escort to be found within the four walls. They’d all scampered elsewhere, enjoying their temporary vacation. Starscream wondered how many would actually return, and how many would be lost to more… dangerous temptations.

Starscream managed to convince Sunstreaker that they, too, needed to be free of Blue Sun, even if only for a day. More than that, Rodimus needed to see what freedom would mean, once he earned enough creds. He also should be far from the investigators poking into the nooks and crannies of Blue Sun, the ones who kept giving Rodimus speculative looks like they wanted to arrest him as well.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Rodimus asked as they ventured out the front door of Blue Sun, polish toned down to blend with the crowd, their face paint and markings scrubbed clean of their frames.

Well, Starscream’s and Rodimus’ polish was muted and appropriate for the common masses. Sunstreaker couldn’t be convinced to leave looking anything less than perfection, though he’d removed the markings easily enough.

“Of course. It’s not like we have to be on shift anytime soon,” Starscream assured him with a smile. “And I think we all need to get out of Blue Sun for awhile.”

“It might even be safer now that Turmoil is behind bars,” Sunstreaker said.

Starscream shot him a look. Rodimus stiffened.

He laughed and scratched at his jaw, though the smile didn’t reach his optics. “Yeah, you’re right,” he said, and spun around, tucking his hands behind his back. “So where to first?”

“Wherever you want.” Starscream injected brightness into his tone. “But there’s an exhibition at the Pavilion if you’re looking for suggestions?”

“What kind of exhibition?” Rodimus spun back around, walking backward, his spoiler twitching upward with evident glee, like it hadn’t in days.

“All kinds.” Starscream followed him, Sunstreaker in step beside him. “It’s sort of like a shopper’s fair for new merchants. They’re competing for five open storefronts in the new center they’re opening up, so they’re all trying to build a customer base to prove they are suited for business.”

“Let’s go there!” Rodimus’ face brightened. He grinned, and Primus, it was unfair how adorable he was. “Sounds like fun.”

Starscream grinned. “You know the way?”

“Yep. Follow me!” Rodimus whirled back around and pointed ahead of him, picking up a rapid pace as he pushed through the crowd like he’d lived here all his functioning.

And well, he probably had. Blue Sun and this particular market district were all within Turmoil’s stomping ground. Had Rodimus ever walked these streets freely? With creds in his subspace? Creds he could spend?

Starscream and Sunstreaker maintained a more sedate pace. Rodimus was full of restless energy, so he could be forgiven for near-skipping.

Starscream could not blame him. He’d been pulled in for multiple interviews in the wake of Turmoil’s arrest, and it had been Drift who ensured Rodimus would suffer no punishment for anything he participated in under Turmoil’s control. But he had given the Enforcers several key details they’d been lacking.

With any luck, Turmoil would never be free of his cage ever again. If there was truly a fair deity, he’d get the ultimate punishment of spark imprisonment.

“Not to echo Rodimus, but are you sure this is a good idea?” Sunstreaker said suddenly. He made a pointed glance to Starscream’s splinted wing. “Shouldn’t you still be resting?”

Starscream would have shrugged, but that would have caused pain to radiate from his right wing, disproving his point. “I can’t rest anymore. Besides, it’s a walk. What harm is that going to do?”

Sunstreaker’s mouth opened as though he wanted to say something else, before it clamped shut again. His expression rippled, and then he tore his gaze away. “You’d know best.”

“I appreciate you being worried about me though,” Starscream said, keeping his tone gentle, trying to aim for the camaraderie that used to come so easy to them. “Been a long time since anyone cared what happened to me.”

Sunstreaker sighed and stared hard at the backs of the mechs walking in front of him. “It would be difficult to train a new roommate.”

Starscream’s lips curved. “You’d be lost without me.” He rolled his optics. “And you know it.”

“Yeah, I guess I would,” Sunstreaker said, but it was almost absent, like he’d let it slip without meaning to.

Starscream stared at him, his spark pounding hard in his chassis. “Sunny, what–”

“Hey, come on you two! Stop lagging behind!” Rodimus shouted ahead of them. He waved his arms wildly to get their attention, standing in a mill of mechs all trying to get into the exhibition hall.

Sunstreaker twitched. “Guess we better hurry before he gathers even more attention.” His pace quickened. “Slow down, Rodimus. We’re coming.”

Starscream lagged behind, only because Sunstreaker had left him so stunned. Sunstreaker caught up to Rodimus, the two of them exchanging some conversation that made Rodimus laugh. They moved into the exhibition hall, leaving Starscream milling outside with the rest of the crowd.

Damn it.

He hustled to catch up.

~

“Look what I found!”

Rodimus’ gleeful announcement distracted Starscream from his perusal of more storypads that he didn’t need anyway.

“What is it?” Starscream turned to face the other mech.

Only for a finger to poke between his lips, painting his glossa in something tartly sweet. Rodimus beamed up at him, half-innocence, half-mischief, his spoiler canted high.

“Edible paint,” he said with obvious glee. “Tasty, huh?” He drew his finger free, and Starscream’s glossa swept over his lips in its absence.

“It is not unpleasant,” Starscream admitted, and he peered at the container in Rodimus’ hands. The substance was frightfully glittery. “You didn’t pay too much, I hope.”

“I wouldn’t know if it’s overpriced or not.” Rodimus laughed. His field poked at Starscream’s, rich with amusement. “But I thought it would be fun to play with.” He thrust the container toward Starscream. “This one’s for you and Sunstreaker.”

“Did you pick something out for yourself?” Starscream accepted the container and peered at the ingredient level. One could never be too careful. For all he knew, this stuff was toxic to a Seeker.

Rodimus peered at his finger and poked it in his mouth, swirling it around to lick it clean. Apparently Starscream’s own glossa hadn’t done the trick. “I did,” he said around his mouthful. “But I’m not going to tell you what it was.” He pulled his finger free with a pop. “It’s a surprise.”

“I wait with bated breath,” Starscream drawled. He sniffed at the so-called edible paint.

It was an interesting concoction. Perhaps he could reproduce it on his own, design several more colors to go with it. Garish bright orange was not appealing in the least.

“Where’s Sunstreaker?” Rodimus asked. True to form, by the time Starscream had entered the exhibition hall, both Rodimus and Sunstreaker had vanished.

Starscream had shrugged and started shopping on his own. He’d spied Sunstreaker a few stalls back, but he’d still been keeping an optic out for Rodimus.

“Arguing with the mech selling canvases,” Starscream replied absently. “Apparently they are of poor quality, and it offends his artistic sensibilities.”

Rodimus crinkled his forehead. “Okay, but… why bother? No one says he has to buy them?”

“Yes, I know. It’s offensive that they exist, he says.” Starscream rolled his optics and tucked the paint into his subspace. “To each his own.”

Rodimus made a noncommittal noise. “I guess.” He shrugged and looped his arm with Starscream’s. “Well, come with me then. I found something I know you’re going to like.” Starscream allowed himself to be dragged. Rodimus’ enthusiasm was gratifying to see.

“You know me so well, do you?” Starscream asked.

“By now? Yeah, I do. Better than you know yourself, I’ll bet,” Rodimus said. He tucked in against Starscream’s side, guiding them effortlessly through the crowds. “Or, well, I mean, better than you’re willing to admit.”

“Well, aren’t you the little know-it-all.”

Rodimus smirked. “I know enough,” he said, his tone smug. He pulled Starscream through a makeshift gate and into a very small seating area. It was occupied by a few mechs.

On the far end was a long counter of display cases. Cheap lights flickered over a glittery selection of treats. Oh, my. Starscream’s mouth watered. Were those… were those oil cakes? And magnesium puffs? Rust sticks? Rust chews?

He didn’t press his nose to the case, but it was a near thing. His tank rippled, reminding him that while he’d had his daily dose of energon, it was nothing like satisfying a craving. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had genuine pastries.

“The spiced roll is particularly good,” Rodimus said from his right side. He pointed to a tray of twisted treats, dusted with some mixture of metallic shavings.

“I want two,” Starscream groaned, even though he knew he shouldn’t.

“I thought you might,” Rodimus said, absolutely smug. He stepped up to the register, catching the attention of the smiling clerk on duty. “Could I get two slushes, two of the spice rolls, a strip of sweet taffy, and anything else he wants.”

The mech, whose nameplate read Rocky, grinned. “Sure thing. You know I can do an assortment plate, too. How about that? It’s a little bit of everything.”

Starscream tried not to show evident interest. He pretended the spice rolls were the only thing that appealed to him. But he must have betrayed himself somehow, because Rodimus laughed and said, “Yeah, I think that’s best. Star’s going to want to try it all.” He whipped out a cred stick and handed it over. “The assortment plate, plus two extra of the spice rolls and the slushes.”

“Sure thing.” Rocky winked one of his three optics, and the cred stick vanished. “Have a seat. I’ll bring it out to you.”

“I’m not a youngling, you know,” Starscream muttered as Rodimus pulled him over to one of the tables. The chairs didn’t look capable of bearing anyone’s weight.

“So that means I can’t spoil you? Or say thank you?” Rodimus pushed him into a seat and sat across from him, folding his arms on the table. “You think I don’t know what you did for me?”

Starscream sat gingerly and squirmed. “I did nothing special.”

“You saved my life. In more ways than I can count.” Rodimus shook his head, a darkness flickering through his optics. “If it hadn’t been for you, I’d still be a freebie in Blue Sun. I wouldn’t have made any creds toward my debt. And Turmoil probably would have had his fun with me half a week ago. Do you have any idea how terrified I was?”

Starscream chewed on the inside of his cheek. “Some.” He remembered how much Rodimus had trembled, how his field had become this sick, curdled thing.

“The kind of thing we do, what we are, most mechs wouldn’t care. But you did.” Rodimus nibbled on his bottom lip and ducked his head. “Most mechs wouldn’t have bothered. So yeah. I’m grateful. I don’t think I can ever repay you. If treating you to some sweets I know you wouldn’t get for yourself is all I can do, I’m going to do it.”

Starscream’s wingtips fluttered. “I… you’re welcome.” His face flushed with heat.

What else could he say? Clearly, his actions had meant a lot to Rodimus, whatever Starscream’s original intentions had been. Starscream was not so cruel as to spit in the face of Rodimus’ gratitude.

Rodimus smiled, soft and sincere, echoes of the young, bright youth he must have been.

“Here you go!” Rocky arrived, dispelling the moment.

His cheerful tone slipped between them as he whisked a platter filled with over a dozen treats onto the table. He set some type of small, chilled glass before each of them as well. Starscream received his own plate of spice rolls.

“I hope you enjoy!” Rocky said as he gestured to the plate with one of his primary arms. “If you do, please make sure to leave us a favorable commentary on the board, that way we can continue to provide this service.”

Rodimus grabbed a small puff and popped it into his mouth. “Done deal, mech. Your stuff is delicious.”

“Thank you, sir. I appreciate it.” Rocky bobbed his head in gratitude and scuttled off, leaving them to sample his fare without standing over them.

“Well.” Rodimus spread his hands. “Dig in. Eat as much as you want. Whatever’s left we can take with us.”

Starscream, for once, listened. They were on vacation, weren’t they? So what if he wanted to consume himself into another ache? He had every right. So he piled his plate high with at least one of everything, and started to eat.

There wasn’t a single selection he didn’t like.

The treats were sweet and savory, tart and delectable. They were chewy or smooth; some melted in his mouth. He hummed his delight, though Rodimus was right, the spice rolls were his favorite. Even the slush tasted good, though it was unusual. It was a chilled energon, with little nodules of some kind of gelled energon, and it had an odd texture to it. But it was sweet and cool and puddled in his tanks, offering little spurts of energy. Starscream resolved to save some of it, if only so he could run tests and see how it was created. Perhaps Wheeljack would have some ideas.

“I should have known I’d find you here.”

The little flick of delight in his spark was wholly warranted, but Starscream had long since learned his spark didn’t obey him when it came to Sunstreaker. His roommate slid into the empty seat beside him, his optics assessing the array of treats spread across the table.

“Did you buy the whole case?” Sunstreaker asked.

“I didn’t buy anything,” Starscream retorted. His wings flicked back. “Rodimus did.” He pointed his fork at Rodimus and promptly speared a spice roll, plopping it down onto his serving plate. They were only a handful of bites, but he still wanted to savor each and every one. They were delicious.

Rodimus laughed. “Yes, but I bought them for you.” He scooped up one of the drizzled oil cakes and slid it over to Sunstreaker. “Here. I know you’ll like this one.”

“I doubt it. Sunstreaker’s not fond of sweets,” Starscream muttered around a mouthful.

“It’s not sweet,” Rodimus said, and nudged it closer. “Go on. Try it. Expand your horizons.”

Sunstreaker’s optics narrowed. He stared at the cake as though it were created to personally offend him. He poked it with a fork.

“Did you manage to badger the salesmech into submission?” Starscream asked, his tone carefully innocent.

Sunstreaker rolled his optics and cut into the cake. “We came to an understanding. He won’t sell his product under false pretenses anymore, and I won’t report him to the Enforcers.” He selected the smallest piece, peered at it, and then poked it into his mouth. That he didn’t immediately spit it out was a good sign.

Rodimus propped his elbows on the edge of the rickety table. “Look at you. The picture of law and order. We should all live by your example.”

Sunstreaker huffed and forked more of the cake into his mouth. He didn’t dignify Rodimus with a response, which in Sunstreaker-speak meant, he knew Rodimus was right but refused to admit it. Stubborn mech.

“Did you buy anything?” Starscream nudged his slush toward Sunstreaker in silent suggestion he try it.

“Not yet.” Sunstreaker sniffed at the slush before giving it a tentative sip. He made a face and gave it back. “But we’re not even halfway through the exhibition. I’m sure I’ll find something.”

“I thought I saw a stand selling waxing kits and supplies.” Rodimus nonchalantly dropped something onto Sunstreaker’s plate. “We could check that out.”

Starscream’s lips curved with amusement. “You really do know us well.”

Rodimus winked and stuffed more puffs into his mouth. “Better than you think.”

Sunstreaker snorted and rolled his optics. But he kept eating the cake Rodimus had given him, thereby proving Rodimus’ point.

~

Reality returned with a vengeance as they rounded the corner, and Starscream caught sight of who waited for them in front of Blue Sun. If they were trying for inconspicuous, they both failed miserably.

“What are Nightshade and Drift doing here?” Sunstreaker asked as ahead of them, Rodimus’ eager pace slowed.

“I have no idea,” Starscream murmured and caught up to Rodimus. “It’s okay. I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about.”

“How are you so optimistic suddenly?” Sunstreaker appeared on Starscream’s other side before he passed them, soldiering on as though determined to prove he wasn’t afraid and never had been.

“Because I have to be.” Starscream hooked his arm through Rodimus’. “Come. Let’s go see what they want.”

“I’d rather run away,” Rodimus muttered, but he let Starscream pull him along.

They warily approached the waiting mechs. Sunstreaker angled to put himself between the four of them, his broad, gold shoulders a protective wall.

“Afternoon,” Nightshade greeted, his tone carefully pleasant. “You three are looking very well.”

“Spare us the niceties. Why are you here?” Sunstreaker said, ever polite that one. His armor ruched up, aggressive and angry.

Starscream sighed. He unloosened his arm from Rodimus’ and placed a hand on Sunstreaker’s shoulder to tug his roommate back a pace.

“What Sunstreaker means to say is that the week has been stressful enough. We don’t have the patience we ought.” He offered Nightshade a genuine smile. He ignored Drift. “What can we do for you?”

“You can relax, to start.” Nightshade shifted into a stance that better qualified as ‘at rest’ while Drift lingered in ‘attention’. “We are only here to talk.” He looked at Rodimus. “If you have a moment, Rodimus, Drift would like to speak with you.”

Starscream glanced at Rodimus, but where he expected there to be anger, staunch refusal even, Rodimus only cycled a ventilation. He shifted the weight of his packages.

“Yeah,” Rodimus said with a sigh. “Okay. That’s fair.” He tucked his parcel under one arm. “Let’s go. I’m not going to talk this out where everyone can eavesdrop, even if I am going to tell Star all about it later.”

Despite the situation, Starscream chuckled softly. He was delighted to see Rodimus regaining some of his usual attitude.

Rodimus gestured for Drift to come with him and the two entered Blue Sun.

“I feel as if I owe you several explanations,” Nightshade said once they were gone. His tone was gentle. Apologetic even.

Starscream shook his head. “You don’t owe me anything. You are a client. Whatever you do when you are not within the walls of Blue Sun are your business.” He paused and leaned in closer to Sunstreaker. “But if you’d like to tell me, I wouldn’t mind.”

He had so many questions, he wouldn’t even know where to begin.

“I understand. Come with me.” Nightshade tucked his hands behind his back and turned toward Blue Sun’s main entrance, where Rodimus and Drift had gone. Strange that he should be allowed to come and go so freely.

Blue Sun felt odd, quiet and dim as it was, without the usual bustle of activity on the sales floor. Everything had been cleaned and put to rights after Turmoil’s arrest, but it still didn’t feel the same. Something in the atmosphere had changed.

Rodimus and Drift were nowhere in sight. They must have sought privacy elsewhere.

Nightshade selected a comfortable chair while Sunstreaker and Starscream shared a lounge across from him. Starscream sat, rigid and waiting. Sunstreaker might as well have been carved from stone beside him.

“It is probably quite obvious I am not entirely who I claimed to be.” Nightshade laced his fingers together, resting them in his lap. “I am not a merchant who earned his creds through smart investing and family inheritance, though the latter is true in part.” He looked perfectly at ease, one leg crossed over the other.

“I am, in fact, superintendent of an elite investigative task force who operates in the shadows of Iacon and if you were to ask the Prime, whom I report to, whether or not we exist, he would deny it. I am listed on no personnel record or employment docket. If anyone were to look into my past, they would see only what I’ve shown you, Nightshade, merchant and entrepreneur.”

Starscream had read about the act of jaws dropping and gaping in surprise. He didn’t think people did it in real life.

Until now.

“The Enforcers have been after Turmoil for a very long time. Longer, even, than your Rodimus has known him,” Nightshade continued. “Long enough that their superintendent stooped to asking for my assistance in a joint operation to finally bring him down. For decades, we have been slowly infiltrating Turmoil’s reach at every level, including placing agents here.” He gestured to Blue Sun as a whole.

“As you probably guessed, Atomizer is one of my own. As are Jazz and Skids. Spinner and Bluestreak are Enforcers under Prowl’s leadership. Tumbler is one of Prowl’s as well. Drift, as I understand it, is a free agent.”

“That…” Starscream searched for words and failed. He shook his head. “If I hadn’t been here, I wouldn’t have believed it.”

Nightshade nodded slowly. “It’s a lot to absorb, I know.” He shifted, angling his frame into the comfort of the chair. “But I want you to understand that while we were here to bring down Turmoil, that doesn’t mean we didn’t have personal reasons as well. I, for one, quite enjoyed our sessions, and with your permission, I’d like to continue them in the future.”

Starscream flushed.

“It’s nice to know it wasn’t all business,” Sunstreaker said, his tone tight with annoyance. His face pinched, his armor drawn taut.

Nightshade’s gaze shifted to Sunstreaker. “You are angry,” he observed.

“No.” Sunstreaker’s lips formed a thin line as he vented. “I’m furious. You put us all in danger, and we didn’t even know we were at risk. More than that, you put Rodimus and Starscream in danger. They could have been killed. But I’m sure we were considered acceptable collateral damage, yes? We are, after all, only buymechs.”

“Sunstreaker!” Starscream hissed, embarrassed on his roommate’s behalf. “That’s–”

“No. It’s quite all right.” Nightshade held up a hand. His gaze softened. “He’s right to be upset. While we made every effort to ensure the safety of the employees here, there was always the possibility someone might be hurt. It was a calculated risk. If I could have obtained your consent without compromising the integrity of the operation, I would have.”

Sunstreaker’s field buzzed with agitation. “That’s not an apology.”

“Because I can’t give one. We accomplished our mission. Turmoil will never harm another again.” Nightshade audibly cycled a ventilation, his posture relaxing. “By proxy, Rodimus is also free of Turmoil’s influence.”

“But not his debt,” Starscream commented.

Nightshade shook his head. “No. That is owned by Streamline, and through the lines of the deal we struck, he cannot be prosecuted for it, therefore, the debt stands.”

Sunstreaker’s engine revved. He shot to his feet, hands forming fists at his side.

“It must be nice,” he snarled, “to be safe and comfortable in your tower while the rest of us are pieces moving around your game board. If you’re looking for congratulations, you’re not going to get them from me. Any of us could have died, and we’re worth so little to you, it wouldn’t have mattered. Not one fragging bit.” He whirled on a heel, stomping away from them.

Starscream half-rose. “Sunstreaker, wait–”

“Let him go,” Nightshade said. “In some ways, he’s not wrong.”

Starscream settled back into the couch, though he frowned at Sunstreaker’s back. Things between them had been so strained, and he was at a loss how to fix it. It was like they were back to the beginning, when Starscream had first met Sunstreaker and they walked on bolts and brackets around each other.

“He cares for you very much,” Nightshade said.

Starscream worked his intake. “We’re roommates.” He managed a thin smile. “And only that.”

“I think you undervalue what is between you.” Nightshade’s voice quieted.

Starscream cycled a ventilation. “I’ve learned the perils of putting too much hope in an impossibility.” He sat back in the lounge, but his attention kept drifting to where Sunstreaker had disappeared down the hall. “So. What happens next?”

Nightshade waved a hand. “Blue Sun will reopen in due time, once our investigation is complete. Streamline has been very cooperative, perhaps in an attempt to speed up the process. Afterward everything can return to business as usual.”

“No, I meant…” Starscream nibbled on his bottom lip. “Your agents.”

“Ah.” Nightshade nodded. “Well, Atomizer is not going to return. Blurr will have to find a new bodyguard. Bluestreak and Jazz, as I understand it, will still seek out your services, though I leave that up to them to discuss with you. You will have to ask Drift his intentions.”

None of it was surprising.

Starscream scrubbed a hand down his thighs. “And you?”

“Well, as I said, if I am welcome, I would like to visit again.” Nightshade smiled, and it was so soft, it felt genuine. “I have enjoyed our time together. That was neither a lie nor a pretense.” He chuckled. “I would welcome Rodimus join us as well. He is quite adorable.”

“Yes, he is.” Heat flushed Starcream’s face. “I’d like it if you returned. And Bluestreak, too. Though I’ll be sure to tell him that myself.”

Nightshade’s field reached out, tentative and warm. “I’m glad to hear it.”

A door clicked open behind Starscream. He turned as Rodimus and Drift stepped into view, emerging from the kitchen staging area. An odd place to have a private chat, but who was Starscream to judge.

Rodimus’ armor was open. His field locked on to Starscream’s immediately, and in it was relief. He looked pensive, but not harried. Perhaps he and Drift had come to an accord of some kind.

Drift was smiling, also. There was relief in his optics as well.

Good.

Starscream had no intentions of liking Drift anytime soon, but if Rodimus saw fit to forgive or at least listen to him, then Starscream wouldn’t interfere. Rodimus’ life was his own. But if Drift had thoughts about bringing more pain into it, Starscream would show him the error of his ways.

“I’ll let you get back to your vacation,” Nightshade said. He stood, rotors flicking as they readjusted around his frame, settling against his hips and thighs. “And to your roommate as well. I gather you two need to have a conversation.”

“Or two,” Starscream sighed.

He pushed himself out of the chair, and blinked when Nightshade unexpectedly reached for him. Starscream offered his hand without thinking, and was surprised when Nightshade gently grasped his fingers.

“I’ll see you again,” Nightshade murmured as he bent to brush his lips over Starscream’s fingertips, the most forward behavior he’d ever displayed.

“Don’t wait too long,” Starscream said. His hand slipped free of Nightshade’s, tingling where his favorite patron had touched him.

Nightshade left, taking Drift with him, but not before Drift pulled Rodimus into a quick hug, one Rodimus tightly reciprocated.

“You okay?” Rodimus asked as he bounded up to Starscream, spoiler twitching.

Starscream managed a smile. “I should be asking you that. Everything all right with Drift?”

“It’s better.” Rodimus nibbled on his bottom lip and rubbed his hands down his thighs. “I let him apologize for real this time. I didn’t really forgive him, but I can work on that. I guess I can’t blame him for everything.”

“Just most of it.”

“Yeah. Just most of it. I never really hated him, you know.”

Starscream slung his arm over Rodimus’ shoulders, pulling the younger mech into a half-embrace. “Yes, I know. You were disappointed in him more than anything.”

“That, too.” Rodimus looked around. “Where’d Sunny go? I thought he was with you.”

Starscream sighed. “He didn’t take Nightshade’s revelations very well. He’s sulking in our room.”

“He was mad you got hurt, wasn’t he?”

Starscream gave him a sharp look. “How did you guess?”

Rodimus scratched at the side of his nose. “He’s as transparent as you are. I really wish you two would get your head out of your afts sooner rather than later. Honestly, it was funny at first, but now it’s just sad.”

“What are you even talking about?”

“I don’t know why I bother,” Rodimus sighed. He threaded an arm through Starscream’s, tugging him toward the lift. “Come on. You and Sunstreaker need to talk, and I need a nap.”

The role-reversal amused him. “Do we now?”

“Yes,” Rodimus said as though it were a foregone conclusion.

Starscream allowed himself to be silenced. It wouldn’t hurt for Rodimus to win an argument for once, or be given some measure of control. Considering all that had happened lately, it was no surprise Rodimus felt he needed some. His life had been a whirlwind, out of his handling from the moment he’d been sparked.

The quiet of Blue Sun wrapped around them. Rodimus’ field was a warm, content presence against Starscream’s own. He leaned into Starscream’s side, offering and demanding comfort, and Starscream patted the arm linked around his.

“I am glad your conversation with Drift went well,” he murmured. “Though I’m annoyed the Enforcers couldn’t do the least for you and erase your debt.”

Rodimus’ shoulders sagged. “Being sent here was one of the worst things I thought could happen to me.” He looked up at Starscream and grinned. “But I met you out of it, so I guess it’s not all bad.”

There was something absolutely wrong with a universe which could cause such pain to a mech as sweet as Rodimus. That he could hold onto that sweetness, even through the agony, was a testament to his inner strength.

Starscream tweaked Rodimus’ chin. “You are pretty lucky, aren’t you?” he teased, and pressed a kiss to Rodimus’ forehead. “You going to be all right by yourself tonight?”

“Pft. I’ll be fine. Besides, I don’t want to get in the way of the storm waiting for you in your room.” Rodimus winced and patted Starscream’s arm. “Go gentle on him though. He was worried about you.”

Starscream snorted. “I don’t know what you think I’m going to do.”

“Probably the wrong thing, knowing you two.” Rodimus rose up and pressed a kiss to Starscream’s cheek. “See you in the morning.”

“Good night, Rodimus.”