Scrapper may have been the Constructicon foremech – and by that their spokesbeing – but Bonecrusher was the most outgoing of the team. Bonecrusher was also the youngest of the group – unlike most combiner teams, they hadn't been built at the same time – and had been a Decepticon for some time before the others signed on. He was loud where the others were quiet and destructive where they were creative. He was the one most likely to be found apart from the team. In these and many other ways, outsiders tended to see him as the odd one out of the Constructicons, and some even forgot he was part of the group.
Those people were wrong. Bonecrusher was an individual, yes, but he was a Constructicon, and the Constructicons were equal.
For the time, at least, they were back on Cybertron. From the looks of things, pretty much the entire surface of the planet needed to be repaired. What the Wars hadn't destroyed, time had – two million years of shut-down was a long time, even for the industrial alloys of their world. Optimus Prime and his crew were still on Earth, but Scrapper had managed to convince Megatron that the Constructicons could do more for the cause back on Cybertron. Devastator was obsolete beside the power of such creatures as Bruticus and Menasor, but helping rebuild fallen cities … there they could properly serve. It had sounded good and patriotic, and Megatron probably saw right through it – frankly, the Constructicons were sick of being overqualified medicroids to the force on Earth and wanted a chance to fulfill their primary functions again. To their surprise and delight, the request had been granted.
Bonecrusher was working in the same city as his gestaltmates and they had temporary use of a few apartments together, but due to his skill set, Bonecrusher was working apart from them. Ordinarily after his set tasks for the day had been finished he'd seek out the others, but either they were still on shift or he was detecting faint 'do not disturb' vibes. He had nothing to do in his quarters, so he simply drifted into the first bar he encountered, with the intention of wasting time until one of his partners was free.
Many of the other workers from his section seemed to have had the same idea; the bar was fairly crowded. Bonecrusher didn't care and shouldered his way to the counter. He had no pressing need to refuel, but there was no harm in topping up.
There were no seats left at the counter and the bartender was momentarily busy, so Bonecrusher amused himself by eavesdropping on the two techs beside him. It wasn't so much that he was nosey than that it was hard not to overhear the conversation, though 'conversation' wasn't the right word. An orange and purple hauler-truck of some kind was seated at the bar, patiently intaking an energon cube, while a black driller was chattering away, apparently without noticing that when he wasn't being ignored, he was being insulted. "… I hate neutral sympathisers."
"You can identify them just by looking, hrm?" drawled the hauler-truck. She could easily talk while she drank; she had no mouth and the cube was simply sitting on the counter with a fuel-siphon from her side plugged into it.
"It's like I've got a radar for it," insisted the driller. "I can tell. Once one was looking at me funny and kind of hiding his hand, so I went," – here he did a short upward jab with the borer that was his right hand – "and left him there in his own fluids. He'd have attacked me otherwise. I could tell."
"Sure you could."
"Bad times are coming. I can sense it," the driller confided. "Once we get rid of all the Autobots and neutrals, then things'll be good, but until then, I have to fight. Want to see a move I pulled on an Autobot dumb enough to bump into me?"
"And a 'Bot was in a Decepticon city why?" asked the hauler-truck, but the driller was already demonstrating a few moves. They looked reasonably impressive, but not to someone who was used to real combat.
When the driller sat down again and opened his mouth, Bonecrusher leaned an elbow on the bar. "You know, someday someone's gonna call your bluff and beat the scrap out of you," he said conversationally.
The driller glared at him. "I'm not bluffing! You want some of this?"
"He doesn't," said the hauler-truck, who merely held out her left arm, then swept it back into the driller's face, backhanding him off his stool.
Bonecrusher sat down on the newly-cleared seat. "I'm surprised you let him go that long."
"Yeah, well, I paid for the cube so I wanted to finish it," she retorted, holding the empty vessel in one hand and watching it dissipate. Anger had made her optics bright enough that he could see the sense-points shift from the cube to his face. "You want to annoy me now?"
"After you cleared this seat for me? Wouldn't dream of it."
He signalled the bartender and ordered. When the hauler-truck noticed he'd bought two small cubes, she tilted her head quizzically. "You must have really wanted to sit there."
Bonecrusher scooped up the second cube before she could grab it. "It's not for you." With that, he made a motion over his shoulder –
– which smashed the cube into the driller's face. The cube exploded, blasting the driller off his feet and into the crowd. However, given the range, the explosion also slammed Bonecrusher and the hauler-truck into the counter. "Oof! Dolt! You trying to get us killed?"
"Ah-h-h, stop whinin'. Your armour can take a bitty cube blow-up," Bonecrusher retorted, then let out a bellow of surprise and pain as the driller's borer attachment ripped into the treads of his foot. He kicked the driller away with the other. "So can this guy, I guess … Hey!"
The explosion had been small and hadn't done much more than scuff the driller's paint. The hauler-truck yanked the driller to his feet and slammed her fist into his jaw. "C'mon, Auger, can't you even take a design-tech on?"
"I can handle this guy!" Bonecrusher yelled, still on the floor and cradling his foot.
"He's my rightful punching-bag, pal!" she shot back as she drove her foot into Auger's side. "You hadn't been stuck working with him all day, listening to him all day! I got a hundred better things to do than clean up after this idiot and listen to him blither. I'd get in trouble for thrashing him on the clock, but we're not on shift any more. Where're your fancy moves now, slagsucker?"
The final statement wasn't directed at him, so Bonecrusher simply retook his seat and sipped at his cube. He would have preferred to be in the fight himself, but he could sympathise with the hauler-truck and let her work out her frustrations on her co-worker. She wasn't a graceful or even particularly competent fighter and Auger managed to score a few hits, but sheer size, strength, and fury eventually won out. She walked back to the counter, scratched, dented, and leaking from her left forearm, and very deliberately stepped on the fallen driller on her way.
She sat down on her stool again, then started fiddling with her gauntlet, looking for the shut-off valve. Bonecrusher pushed his mostly-full cube at her. "Feeling better?"
"Much." The hauler-truck's optics darkened in the equivalent of a grin as she jabbed her fuel-siphon into the cube. "Need to be walked home, Treads? Bad times are coming. I got a radar for detecting morons in need of a beating."
Bonecrusher smirked back and tapped the side of his optic visor. "So do I. Present company excepted, eh?"
He told himself he was just filling time until the other Constructicons were done for the day. Besides, it was always good to have contacts. Bonecrusher wandered through the local industrial materials plant, taking in the building as much as looking for a specific worker.
The specific worker noticed him first. "Hey! Treads!"
"Bonecrusher," he corrected, walking over. "Hey, yourself."
"Ooh, big, tough name," she mock-shivered, despite being in vehicle-mode. Currently she was parked on a loading pad while her crucible filled with molten metal. "I'm Steelcast, in case you were wondering. I'm supposed to design prefab, but I've been working on-site lately, which is fine when I can stand my co-workers. What're you in for?"
"Ha! Should've guessed. What're you down here for?"
"Finished work. Rest of the crew's still busy. Got bored. Looked you up."
Steelcast radiated puzzlement. "How? You didn't even know my name."
He shrugged. "I knew Auger's. I looked up where he was and who he was teamed with."
"Hnh." Crucible full, she drove off the loading pad. "You can tag along if you want. I was supposed to be working with Auger again today, but he's still in repairs so I'm just messing around on company time."
Bonecrusher followed. "Yeah? What company?"
"I'm on contract to Project Solutions. You tell me a more generic name."
"I'm a Constructicon."
"You win. Hey, open that door."
She would have some way of doing it herself, but it was easier for someone with fingers to push the button. Steelcast rolled past him and set about pouring the contents of her crucible into a holding tank. When that was finished, she unfolded into her robot-mode and walked over to a wire frame in a large, shallow pan. "This is just a thing I've been playing with in my spare time. I heard about a couple new alloys and had to test 'em out. Professional curiosity and all." A press of a button and a lid lowered the cover the pan.
Steelcast fussed over the machinery for a few minutes, then glanced up. "Waitaminute … 'Constructicon' as in 'Crystal City'?"
"Great stuff. Loved your work in Si'hilex. There should be more planned cities, rather than just putting buildings any old place."
The designer chuckled a bit as she worked. "Am I boring you, or do you just not talk much?"
"Eh?" Bonecrusher turned the idea over in his mind. 'Company' and 'conversation' were two concepts that in his mind had only faint ties to each other. "Oh. Right. I just wanted to hang out until one of my people was off-shift."
"You get lonely that easy, huh?"
"I never get lonely. I'm just used to being around people," he shrugged.
Stated as offhand fact rather than denial, Steelcast didn't question him. She even seemed to forget about him entirely as she checked temperatures and tapped controls. Several minutes later, the lid raised, and a series of manipulator arms descended from the ceiling to lift the finished piece from its pan. It was nothing more interesting than a wall-section, now held by clamps on the floor and ceiling. Steelcast picked up a scanner to inspect her handiwork.
At first glance, it was good work. In fact, under anyone else's scrutiny, it was probably excellent work. But looking at it longer revealed imperfection, and the flaw scratched at Bonecrusher's senses, blocking out any merit and leaving only ugliness. "What's the impact capacity for this wall supposed to be?"
She told him. Bonecrusher drew back his fist. "Got it. Okay, here's eighty percent of that pressure …"
He punched the wall. For a moment nothing happened, then a dozen cracks radiated from where the metal was struck. Steelcast glared at him. "Thanks a lot, pal."
"Look, I'm specialized to know the best way to destroy any given target," Bonecrusher retorted. "You wanna put up shoddy work, fine, but if I could see a weak point in it, so could someone else."
Steelcast spent a few minutes glaring at the damaged wall, then turned to Bonecrusher. "Get out of here before I belt you one."
"You again?" demanded Steelcast. One day wasn't enough to take the sting of her failure away, and she was sulking in a break room of the industrial materials plant. "I'm not talking to you."
"Relax. I come in peace." Bonecrusher handed her a datapad. Another might have tossed it, but if there was one thing construction workers learned early, it was never to catch things; too often those 'things' were rotating saws or crucibles full of molten metal.
Grudgingly, she glanced at the diagram sketched out on the small viewscreen. "I don't need you telling me how to do my job, Bonecrusher."
Bonecrusher snorted. "Not my work – I ran it by my crew. I had to point out what the problem was, and they fixed it. You weren't that off."
"Hnh." Design committed to memory, she handed the datapad back. "Fine. I suppose it's not like I sign my name on my work, so who cares who does it so long as it gets done right."
"You're lyin', but you're not being a jerk about it. Good. C'mon; lemme buy you off."
Her optics flashed a blink. "What if I say no?"
Bonecrusher returned her look of stunned incomprehension for a second, then frowned. "Oh. Right."
Steelcast stared at the demolitionist for a minute. She had encountered others who couldn't comprehend rejection, but it had felt … different. The radiations she got from Bonecrusher weren't 'I am Primus' gift to Cybertron, and you must bend to my will.' Steelcast wasn't even sure what she was reading from him. It was extremely weird, and Steelcast found it piqued her curiosity. She stood. "Aren't your crew going to wonder where you are?"
The Constructicons were equals, but they were still individuals and had to be dealt with on their own terms. Bonecrusher's best friend in the group was Longhaul, so Longhaul was the one to talk to him. Thus Longhaul found himself waiting in the foyer area of the Constructicons' current apartments. "Hey."
"Hey, yourself." Bonecrusher stopped. At this range, he could easily feel the interrogative radiating off the other. "You gonna ask me where I've been all night?"
"Pfft. Like I need to," Longhaul countered. "We asked around. We know where you were."
Bonecrusher frowned at his partner suspiciously. "Whadd'ya want, 'Hauler?"
"You've been broadcasting like crazy for the last two weeks and it's disruptin' the rest of us."
The demolitionist's optic band flashed his indignity. "I do not broadcast!"
"Do so," countered the other. "It don't bother me much, but Hook and Mixmaster are getting twitchy. You know those two can't stand distraction." Longhaul folded his arms under the truck-front bulk of his chest. "You gonna go see her again?"
"You want to try and stop me?"
Longhaul snorted. "Even if I managed to beat you, I'd regret it. Nah, we wanna try something else."
"Scrapper gonna get us a transfer now, get me away from this subversive influence?"
"Ah-h-h, don't get all dramatic," Longhaul taunted. "Nah, all we want is a merge. We ain't been Devastator fer nearly three weeks now, and we're all curious ta see who this person you find so fascinatin' is."
Bonecrusher took a step back. "I don't think that's a …"
"Don't be dumb." Longhaul grabbed Bonecrusher's arm and steered him into the apartment. "We already know the important bit. We just need to figure out what ta do about it."
The others were waiting, of course. Bonecrusher glanced up. The ceiling in one of the two common areas was quite high, by request of the Constructicons. For once he didn't find himself looking forward to combining.
Scrapper, arms crossed over his chest, got straight to the point: "You're in love with her."
"I am not!" Bonecrusher protested. When the only response was five incredulous stares, he relented somewhat. "Okay, so I like her. We've got no 'no friends outside the group' rule, so there."
Mixmaster snorted. "Dumb. We know your mind better than you do, and we haven't even been you in weeks."
"Prove us wrong, then," Hook demanded.
"If you think you're gonna use Devastator to brainwash me …"
Scrapper threw up his hands in exasperation. "Paranoia, now!"
"Bonecrusher, you know better than that," sighed Hook. "We couldn't change your thoughts even if we wanted to."
"We wouldn't do that kind 'a thing to a partner," said Longhaul.
"Friend," added Scavenger.
"Comrade," said Hook.
"Hexadmate," said Scrapper.
"Gestaltmate," Mixmaster finished.
"But we can't just ignore it, either," said Scrapper. "Not this. Like it or not, Bonecrusher, it affects all of us."
The demolitionist scowled. The problem was, the others were right, and it was against his Constructicon nature to hold back from them for any reason. "Fine. Fine, we'll do it."
Scavenger smiled, in his way. The others radiated a range of 'now we'll see' to 'it's about time.' Scrapper took a step back. "Constructicons, transform and merge."
The ceiling wasn't quite high enough for Devastator to stand, but he could sit quite comfortably. Bonecrusher radiated belligerence while he still could. All right, you mooks, I'm here, I'm open. Whatever you're gonna do, do it.
Trust us …
Trust us …Scrapper replied.
Identity dissolved, and all thoughts, all memories, all emotions were one. For long moments, the giant sat, impassive. Then Devastator smiled.
I have a plan.
She glanced up from the booth in the bar. "You're late."
"Enh, I was waitin' for him to get off-shift," Bonecrusher retorted, one hand jabbing a thumb over his shoulder at a nearly-faceless lime green Decepticon and the other snagging a chair from a nearby table. He swung the chair into place for the other tech, and both sat down.
Steelcast looked the other over, then flicked her attention back to Bonecrusher. "What, you decided to bring a friend in case I got too dull?" she drawled.
"Nah, I thought I'd show you off. This is Longhaul."
"Primus – matching paintjobs," Steelcast chuckled, but caught Longhaul by his forearm. "Nice to meet one of this crew 'Crusher keeps bragging about."
Longhaul returned the gesture. "Bragging, huh? What's he told you?"
"Only that you lot are better at absolutely everything than anyone else."
"'S not bragging when it's true."
There was a long moment where Steelcast just stared at Longhaul, then both burst out laughing. Another Constructicon would have noticed the sudden release of tension like a sigh from Bonecrusher and a slight wince from Longhaul as he received the mental equivalent of an upside-the-head, but both reactions went completely past Steelcast. She chuckled. "Great, I gotta put up with two of you now."
"Six," said Longhaul idly, then, "Ow!" when Bonecrusher kicked him.
Bonecrusher looked back blandly. "Foot slipped." Then, turning to Steelcast, "How's that braggart pal of yours?"
"Auger? Oh, once he was repaired, he went back to his old ways," sighed Steelcast. "Now he's telling everyone that he's going to become a celebrity and be known for his attitude. He's already pricing the merchandising on his image. He spouts so much slag I'm surprised his vocaliser hasn't melted."
Longhaul chuckled and poked Bonecrusher in the arm. "Remember Dredger?"
Bonecrusher's mouth twisted into a smirk. "The guy who claimed to be part of a secret army."
"Yeah, and when we asked him why he was telling us this if it was supposed to be secret, he said that because we had worked together so long, we were 'part of his group', so it was okay that we knew," Longhaul continued. "Ignoring the fact that we'd only known him for about a month. Also, it was fine because it's 'secret only if he reveals his real name' or something like that. I never figured out what he was talking about."
"Would you want to be named 'Dredger'?"
"Ever run into a guy called Outline?" asked Steelcast. "He kept trying to convince the rest of us that he was a split personality, and that he was a perfectly nice guy, but his other side was evil, and that we should be careful around him, just in case the other decided to manifest. Woogy, woogy, woogy." She shook her head. "I think he wanted us to fear and pity him or something, but at least he eventually caught on that we weren't buying it, so he dropped the act and turned out to be an okay guy."
"Then there was that Nullist," said Bonecrusher. "Had some weird Primaltongue name none of us could ever remember. Azhkezh or something. Wasn't a bad engineer, but completely self-absorbed. Kept claiming he had psychic powers too, but of course he'd never demonstrate."
"We liked him, though," added Longhaul. "At least, he kept us in running gags for years after we had that job with him. Even now if there's a power failure, one of us will say, 'there is no light for me – only dark' and we'll still crack up at it."
"Torque." Steelcast's optics flickered. "There was an idiot. He kept saying really obvious things like 'Autobots have wheels' and expecting us all to bow to his wisdom. Then when we didn't, he'd get mad and threaten us with weapons he didn't and never would have. He would also throw cubes in bars, then hide so no one knew he did it – which, of course, we did, and he'd get huffy and indignant when we beat him up for being a twit."
Bonecrusher settled a little in his chair. "Flame. He was an Autobot. Scrapper and them found him lurking around the Kalis Underground, and Starscream adopted him. He was smart enough, but he was honestly nuts. Mixmaster took it as a personal insult when we were told to work with him. Ran out on us in the end when he realised things weren't going the way he expected. That was a weird job."
"Job's not even finished," grumbled Longhaul. "Just got fobbed off to the locals."
Steelcast poked him. "If you two are talking about the job I think you're talking about, I should warn you that my trinemate's one of those locals."
The procurer spread his hands. "Hey, better him than me. 'S a loopy job anyway."
It was an apology and she accepted it as such. "I still claim that Auger's the worst I've met. A couple weeks ago, he was chattering to one of the techs about gladiatorial matches, while Crowbar just looked more and more bored. Auger asked him some question, and Crow told him flatly, 'I don't watch gladiatorial matches.' And you know what Auger said to that? 'Well, I do,' and kept going! I don't know what planet Auger lives on, but it's not Cybertron."
"Ya meet some morons on these jobs," agreed Longhaul.
He had picked Longhaul carefully. The procurer was the one closest to him in temperament, and reasonably laid-back in the right situations. Scavenger had wanted to come, but Scavenger was Coming On Too Strong incarnate. The last thing Bonecrusher wanted to do was scare Steelcast off. Not that she seemed the type to scare easily, but Scavenger could be overwhelming in his innocent way.
Longhaul had left some minutes ago, on some excuse that Bonecrusher couldn't even remember. He did remember that Longhaul laughed in his head and told him that it served Bonecrusher right to feel nervous for once. Bonecrusher would get him later. Now he toyed with a nearly-empty energon cube and projected nonchalance. Any of the other Constructicons would have seen right through it. "Whadd'ya think of 'Hauler?"
"He's fun, once he finishes complaining." Steelcast grinned, in her way. "Actually, he's fun anyway. You gonna bring him along again?"
"You want me to?"
"Didn't I just say that?"
Scrapper was unhappy with the situation, which rather biased Hook against it. More than any of the others, Hook and Scrapper saw themselves as extensions of each other; what upset one upset both. There were rumours that the two were actually twins, a spark split at creation, each incomplete without the other. It was a feasible theory, but incorrect – they had been built two of a trine, but their souls had been separate.
Being the one most open to him, Hook could also understand Scrapper's worries. An outsider was a break in a nine million year pattern. Breaks in the pattern were trouble. Scrapper was the one who held the team together, and Hook held Scrapper together.
Hook reminded himself that he was Hook and not Scrapper, and that Bonecrusher was as much a part of him as Scrapper was. Both of their opinions held equal weight. For now, Hook would try to keep an open mind, for the sake of the demolitionist. "Where exactly are we going?"
"Here." Bonecrusher unfolded to his robot-mode, and Hook copied the action. "Generally she's at the plant, but right now she's stuck in the site-office, making sure they're setting up her stuff properly." He tapped the door-chime.
Hook's first impression of Steelcast was the sheer size of her. She had seemed closer to Constructicon-sized in Bonecrusher's memories, but Bonecrusher thought himself taller than he was. In reality, the top of the demolitionist's head barely cleared Steelcast's shoulder. Her paintjob was scuffed in places, there was some wear on her tires, and she had occasional droplets of splattered metal hardened to her frame. However, her hands were in immaculate condition and she was free of rust or grease stains – thus she was simply too busy for full maintenance rather just unhygienic.
He realised Bonecrusher was talking about him: "… is Hook. This is the guy who fixed your design."
"Ooh, I get to work with non-idiots for once. C'mon in. Watch where you step," said Steelcast, leading them into the office. "I'm sharing with three others, so the place is a mess."
Hook watched, which unfortunately brought his attention to something else. "What on Cybertron is that?"
Steelcast looked embarrassed, but a bit defiant. "That's mine. I make sculptures out of found objects when I'm bored enough."
"It's hideous," stated Hook.
"Primus, Hook, even I got better manners than you!"
Steelcast laughed. "It's all right, 'Crusher – I know my sculptures are lousy. Prefabs I can do, but real art is beyond me. I tend to destroy the things myself, but I enjoy making them."
"Ah," said Hook. "Performance art, then?"
"Only if my statement is 'I like welding junk together'."
Hook might not have been the best second choice. Bonecrusher would have preferred Scrapper, but Scrapper was in a mood, so Bonecrusher picked the architect's other half. If nothing else, Hook was probably the best-known in their group and considered the most skilled by outsiders, despite not being the foremech. He was the trophy, the one to show off. "Sorry about Hook. He can be charming when he wants to be, which is almost never."
"Relax, 'Crusher." Steelcast slumped back on the stool, leaning her elbows on the bar. "I know my sculptures are ugly. Ugly in, ugly out. It's what I get for making 'em out of junk."
"'Found objects,'" Bonecrusher smirked. "You've got to meet Scavenger."
"'Who Finds Worth In Things Discarded.' I like him already."
"He's a good guy, even if he tries too hard to be nice." The demolitionist snorted. "Not like Hook. Thinks everything can be fixed and doesn't know when to give up."
Steelcast snickered. "And here I thought Hook was the perfectionist. He's just pushier; he'll make you redo something until he thinks it's right. You just destroy it."
"It doesn't help, though," Bonecrusher admitted, looking past her. "In the first few seconds after an ugly building is torn down, it's not so bad, but it doesn't last. The removal of ugliness isn't beauty, and there's still a big mess to clean up."
She reached over to touch the back of his fingers. Steelcast was a tactile – the gesture wasn't meant to be intimate, just to ask a question: what do these hands want to make? "Do you think you'll ever find it? Perfection or beauty?"
"I'll know it when I see it." And, because he couldn't lie, "I hope."
Steelcast carefully held the tiny object by what she assumed was its handle. The main mass of the thing was pale pink; an ovoid body with a stiff wire out one end, and a tapering pink curve off the other. It looked vaguely like a data-tap, but the pointed pink end of it was no device, merely shaped plastic. If it had a function, she couldn't guess it. Steelcast looked past it at her company for the afternoon. "All right, I give up. What is it?"
"It's a lawn flamingo," said Scavenger proudly.
"Lahhn-flaah'mngoe," Steelcast repeated. "A what?"
The miner fluttered his hands, realising he had used words with no Cybertronian equivalent. "You know plants, right?"
"I know the word …"
"Organic constructs. Grass is like tiny green blades, but soft. A whole lot of it together in front of a house is a lawn," Scavenger explained. "A flamingo is a type of flying organic, all fluffy and pink. Humans make plastic ones and put them on their lawns for decoration. I think they're cute."
Steelcast carefully held the ornament between two fingers. "That's so neat! There's actually a market for low art on the Earth planet?"
"Huge," said Scavenger happily.
"Primus, they must have a lot of spare time and disposable income."
"They do! It's great! Most of my collection's down on Earth, but I've got some of it here. Want to see it?"
Another person might have found Bonecrusher's gruff demand threatening, but Scavenger was a Constructicon, and he could sense that under the impatience was a nervous hope. Instead of cringing away from the demolitionist, Scavenger flung his arms around his partner's neck in an enthusiastic hug. "You're right! She's wonderful! She likes lawn flamingos!"
Bonecrusher freed himself from the embrace and held his partner at arm's length. "So you like her?"
"Yes! We're going to swap some parts of our collections," the miner bubbled. "I mean, she hasn't got any Earth-made things except the flamingo I gave her, and she's got stuff that I don't have, and …"
"That flamingo is probably going to get welded to one of her ugly sculptures, you realise."
"Yeah, but I gave her the lawn flamingo so she can do what she likes with it," Scavenger shrugged. "Besides, I can get more."
"So you like her?"
"Oh, yes, definitely." Scavenger's optic band darkened happily. "I vote we keep her."
It was a date. There was no other word for it. It was a date and Bonecrusher had set him up on it. All right, so it had been dressed up to Steelcast as "well, if our paths are going to cross on the job, you should meet my boss," but that didn't change things. Scrapper knew the truth. Besides, what meet-the-boss meeting took place in a bar? It was of the quieter type that Scrapper favoured, granted, but it didn't take away from the sheer lack of professionalism in the atmosphere. Steelcast didn't seem to mind – according to the others, she was perfectly good at telling truly competent people from those who put on a good show, so outside appearances didn't matter.
It was still a date. Scrapper was seriously considering wringing his demolitionist's neck, but Bonecrusher was so eager about the whole mess, all concealed nervousness and poorly-repressed excitement … and, well, it spilled over into the rest of them.
Mostly, anyway. Scavenger was absolutely crazy about Steelcast, but Scavenger was Scavenger. Longhaul wanted to keep her as well. Hook seemed to like her well enough, but had demurred in a fit of tact and said he would reserve judgement until he could compare notes with Scrapper. Mixmaster hadn't met Steelcast yet, having gone into near-seclusion after Devastator's manifestation. Scrapper could guess why.
So it was Scrapper's turn and he wasn't thrilled. He knew he was biased – as the Constructicon foremech, he saw himself as the guardian of the others. Scrapper was the one the others turned to for help, he was the one who held the group together. He was protective of his crew, and now the others were thinking of letting this random factor into their lives. Especially so quickly … Well, taking lunatic risks was Bonecrusher's department, after all.
Bonecrusher had offered to come along, but Scrapper had convinced him not to. With the way the demolitionist was broadcasting, it was hard to think with him around. Scrapper wanted his perceptions to be his own.
Her files were good. Not perfect – Scrapper wouldn't have trusted perfect. There were several infractions on her record, generally times when she hauled off and punched a co-worker, but nothing too recent. She sometimes borrowed site materials for her own side-projects, which got her in trouble as well. She was a draft-dodger, which irked the authorities, but she was a useful enough technician that the issue was never forced. Had seven official kills to her name anyway – Autobots who made the mistake of snooping around her projects. Reasonably intelligent, but no genius. Expanded her skill set at any opportunity, but rarely followed up on the training. Talented, but lacked ambition. Tended to stick with civilian projects and avoid the Wars as much as possible. She didn't tend to stay in place long, which could mean anything. Still, she could hold up her end of a conversation …
"… The eternal argument," Steelcast chuckled. "Prefab's good when you need something fast, and it's usually as good a quality as what's built on-site."
"Factory conditions can be different from the outside environment," argued Scrapper.
"And buildings created for a specific place tend to look better than prefab structures just plunked down," she agreed.
She didn't argue like the others. Not like Scavenger, who immediately caved and agreed with everything anyone said. Not like the others, who, after several hours of debate, might grudgingly concede a point, but only one point. It wasn't often Scrapper got to bicker with someone who could argue both sides, even though she generally disagreed with him.
He was drifting and she noticed, changing the subject to recapture his attention. "Bonecrusher tells me you sculpt."
Internally, Scrapper cursed Bonecrusher again. "In a way."
"Either you're lousy, modest, or something weird like a cyberbiotic deconstructionalist," Steelcast teased. "You can't be worse than me, if you're better you don't have to be modest, and I think slogism is neat in a creepy kind of way, so you can't spook me."
Scrapper considered that. Bonecrusher wanted them to be as open with her as they were with him, after all, and if she couldn't handle the Constructicons and everything they were … "I'm known for cyberbiotic integrational construction." If it was going to end, it was going to end now.
She gave him a long, appraising look, then her optic band dimmed in a grin. "You ever do it to a co-worker you couldn't stand?"
"Once to an overseer," Scrapper admitted. "But the world really was a better place without him."
"Do you take requests?"
"Auger would like being art too much."
"I felt you trying to read my mind all night," Scrapper declared loudly, arms folded across his chest. "Let's get the interrogation over with."
"C'mon, how many times have I gone along with your pet projects?" Bonecrusher retorted, getting out of his chair. They were in the other common area, the one with furniture and a regular-height ceiling. He had been waiting up, but he wasn't going to admit that. "All right, what's your take?"
"She knows what she's doing," Scrapper allowed.
Bonecrusher counted to ten. He was violent, but he would never hurt a fellow Constructicon, no matter how deliberately annoying he was being. "Do you want to see her again?"
"I wouldn't be against it." Scrapper cocked his head slightly, easily reading the demolitionist. "I still don't like the idea of introducing a random factor to the group, but if the vote goes against me, I won't fight it."
"She's not a random factor." Bonecrusher rumbled. "All right, she ain't a Constructicon, but she's one of our kind. She'd fit right in – you hired me on less recommendation! 'Sides, we all trusted you and Hook back when we first became Devastator, and again when we bonded. Trust me this time."
Scrapper sighed. "I'm going to go talk this over with Hook."
"You do that." Bonecrusher had other things to do anyway. Such as locating Mixmaster. He could sense the chemist nearby, which meant he was in the apartment somewhere. Probably locked in his room. Bonecrusher set off to find him.
A couple minutes later, walking away from Mixmaster's empty room, Bonecrusher stopped in a hallway. "Lurking in shadows doesn't do anything, Mixy. Even if I couldn't see in the dark, you're still broadcasting."
The chemist stepped out of the shadow of a doorway. "I'm the last one."
"That's because you've been dodging me."
"You could have found me." Mixmaster folded his arms over his chest. "Afraid I'm going to scare your little techie-muffin away?"
"Are you afraid you're gonna scare her away?"
Chemist and demolitionist glared at one another for a few seconds, and Mixmaster looked away first, letting his hands fall to his sides. "N-n-not fair. You kn-kn-know …"
Bonecrusher laid his hand on Mixmaster's upper arm. "Yeah, I know. I'll be there, if you want."
Bonecrusher couldn't remember a time he'd seen Mixmaster so nervous. Even casting through the memories of the other Constructicons, he couldn't find one. The others had all met Steelcast and decided that they liked her to varying degrees, and she returned the affection. Mixmaster was the last one; everything hinged on him, he knew it, and the pressure was getting to him. He wasn't too worried that he wouldn't like the design-tech – through the minds of the others, he had a fair grasp on her personality and found it appealing. The worry was that she wouldn't like him.
"She won't like me. I'll let you all down."
"I know she'll like you."
"Feh." Mixmaster paused for a moment, then, "I'm going to stutter. I know it. I'll stutter and I'll sound like an idiot."
"You'll be fine."
"She won't like me."
"She likes intelligence and you're one of the smartest guys I know."
"What are we supposed to talk about?"
"She designs prefab, you create materials. Start there, but if you're gonna brag, you'd better back it up."
Mixmaster fell into a pensive silence as they reached the side-lab in the industrial materials plant. Bonecrusher tapped the intercom. "Hey, 'Cast. It's me again."
After a moment, the door opened. "Hey, 'Crusher. Oh, this must be Mixmaster." With that, she caught their hands and dragged them in. "You two are just in time to be my break."
"Stuck again?" Bonecrusher teased. Steelcast had her experimental prefab apparatus set up again.
"Blow it out your exhaust, hammer-jockey," Steelcast retorted without malice. "Some of us have more complicated jobs than knocking over buildings with our faces."
Mixmaster drifted over to the crucible. He waved a hand over the molten metal, then with an experienced motion, flicked a few drops into the barrel on his back. "This is a mix of carbon and Tinge's new alloy, right, yes?" he questioned, interrupting the name-calling. Bonecrusher vaguely recognised Tinge as one of the leading Decepticon scientists, in that dim way that tagged it as a spillover memory from another Constructicon rather than his own.
"Sixty-forty, give or take a few decimal places," Steelcast agreed.
The chemist's optics unfocused, mind drifted to an inner space. After a moment, the light returned to normal. "Try sixty-eight-point-nine-two-nine-three carbon, two-point-zero-zero-three-one beryllium, twenty-nine-point-zero-six-seven-six Tinge-78."
"What will that do?"
"Maximize the compression strength of the alloy," said Mixmaster. "Un-un-unless you weren't trying for compression strength. For elasticity, the formula would …"
"Slow down," Steelcast chuckled, tapping her fingers against Mixmaster's chest for emphasis. "Let me just double-check your numbers first." She entered the formula into one computer, then reached to another console. A hologram sprung out of the table, showing one of Steelcast's wireframe wall diagrams. The wires rearranged themselves as she typed. After a moment, her optics dimmed. "Nice. In two minutes, this design gained a thirty-one percent increase in strength. How do you do that?"
Bonecrusher could feel the tension drain from Mixmaster, now that he chemist was in his own territory. Mixmaster drew himself up to his full height. "I'm a very good chemist, I am."
"Heh." Steelcast glanced at her screen. "According to my computer, this stuff would be impossible to work with – it would harden too quickly and set badly. Keeping the strength, how would you slow down the cooling time?"
Mixmaster grinned. "Oh, is that all you want?"
"Make it resistant to theta-series radiation and more cost-effective than ditainium," Steelcast added, arms folded across her chest in mock-challenge.
This time, Mixmaster zoned out for several minutes, but when he came out of it, he was smiling. He listed off a string of chemist-talk that went entirely over Bonecrusher's head, but Steelcast seemed to understand it. She typed it all into her computer, then let out a whoop of triumph. "This is brilliant!" Steelcast crowed. "It would've taken me ages to figure out this formula, and you did it in minutes. Primus – 'Crusher, if Mixmaster follows me home, I'm keeping him."
She turned away from the two Constructicons to work on a few calculations. Behind her, Bonecrusher and Mixmaster exchanged glances and smiled.
Steelcast, while generally perfectly happy to solve problems on her own, wasn't above asking for help if she found herself in over her head. A penchant for travel and an outgoing personality gave her a fairly wide circle of acquaintances, but the former also made it difficult to keep up on relationships. Close friends were rare, but there was at least one person she could turn to for anything.
When she was first built, Steelcast had been part of a trine. An industrial accident killed one, and the two survivors went their separate ways; Steelcast as an independent contractor, and Tackle into the service of the watchtower of the Sixth Sector. The Amnimount was too far away to visit physically, and while Steelcast preferred to deal with people in person, she wanted to talk now.
After a few questions, one of the Monitor's assistants shunted her call down to the break room of the assorted watchtower technicians. Tackle was the one who answered, probably having been forewarned of the caller. His optic band darkened in pleasure. "Steelcast!" The emotion didn't hold – he could read the mask of his trinemate's face. "What's wrong?"
She started to talk, then, "Hang on … your boss isn't listening in, is he?"
Tackle chuckled. "Either you're overestimating how interesting you are or how skilled he is. Unless you're openly plotting treason or something, he's not going to pay attention to a private conversation – he's got too many other things to concentrate on."
Steelcast wasn't entirely convinced, but Tackle seemed certain, so she let it go. "I was working with this guy, and we hit it off really well. I mean really well. Thing is, he's part of a work-gang – the Constructicons – so I've been dealing with the rest of his crew for the last few weeks as well."
Her trinemate nodded sympathetically. "The others can't stand you."
"No, that's not it. I get along with all of them, on and off the job."
Tackle's optic band brightened in surprise. "Are we talking about the same Constructicons? Crystal City, Dragonmount, the Dominion Gate? The Constructicons like you?"
"Yeah, that's them. So?"
"They're just notoriously hard to deal with, so I've heard," shrugged Tackle. "But brilliant. Lots of techs would kill to be you."
"No they wouldn't. The problem is …" Steelcast trailed off, looking at her hands. "Tackle, I think I'm in love with all of them."
"It occurred to you they might want that?"
Tackle shrugged. "So maybe they're all in love with you. They're not just a tight team – they're a combiner." When Steelcast looked startled, Tackle snorted. "They're Devastator, 'Cast. Primus, you didn't know who they are? And you call yourself a tech!"
"That's dumb," Steelcast opined, ignoring the dig. "Combiner or not, I've dealt with them all – they're individuals. They can't all feel the same way."
"Group-mind overflow. If one feels strongly enough, they'll all feel it."
"They still think for themselves."
"Oh, suddenly I've-Never-Heard-Of-Devastator is the Constructicon expert," Tackle heckled. "You tell me what they think."
"You see 'telepathy' anywhere in my design specs?"
"Well?" demanded Tackle. "What are you talking to me for? Go ask him!"
"Hey. Buy you a drink?"
It was the tone that caught his attention; Steelcast wasn't usually so serious. Unusually sociable as he was, there were still certain things Bonecrusher hadn't needed to think about for millions of years. The Constructicons were complete in and of themselves and thus didn't care what anyone else thought of them. The realisation that an outsider's opinion meant something to him was worrisome.
But then, if he had it his way, Steelcast wouldn't be an outsider for long.
He shrugged and let her lead the way. Steelcast seemed preoccupied as she led him to their usual bar, and instead of sitting at the counter, she merely ordered two cubes then chose a booth near the back. It broke pattern.
Between themselves, Constructicons were open. Outsiders were closed, their minds and emotions inaccessible, making them unpredictable. The others were creatures of habit and routine and disliked dealing with other people and their stranger's ways. Bonecrusher, pattern-breaker by nature and general creature of destruction, could deal with random factors much more comfortably than his team could.
Any of the others would have been gibbering by now, metaphorically speaking. Still, he couldn't handle silence for long. "Something up, 'Cast?"
She watched her hands twist on the table. "I love the rest of your team, but … 'Crusher, you're the one I want."
His visor flashed a blink. Of all the things she might have stated, Bonecrusher had been a Constructicon too long to predict what she actually said. The concept had become too alien. "You can't pick me."
"What? Your crew gets to choose who gets me?" Steelcast demanded. "Forget it."
"That's not what I meant. You can't pick one of us. It's all or nothing." He shrugged. "There ain't no such thing as 'exclusive' in the Constructicons."
Steelcast's optic-points sharpened. "When were you going to tell me you were part of a combiner team?"
"You didn't know?" Bonecrusher asked incredulously.
"Combiners are war-machines and my security clearance only lets me look up tech records," she said, annoyed. "Look, the only reason I pay any attention to military affairs is to avoid 'em. I can only name off the Decepticon High Command because my trinemate works for a Monitor."
"You are out of it."
"Stick a blasting-cap to your aft and sit on it." She settled back, folding her arms across her chest and glaring. "Comes down to I just found out today and I don't like the idea of being shared."
He shook his head. "Not just a combiner. We're bonded, too. There's no lies, no secrets, no privacy, and we like it that way."
"Bonded?" Steelcast yelped. "I just made a bid for companionship with a bonded guy?" She covered her face with her hands, embarrassed. "Primus, I've been reading you guys all wrong. I thought you were flirting, but I guess …"
"We were." He leaned forward slightly. "It's not you getting shared between the six of us, it's us letting you into the group as an equal partner."
Her optics brightened. "If I were more romantically-inclined, you'd be wearing this cube."
"If I were more romantically-inclined, you wouldn't find me any fun," Bonecrusher reminded her. "I want you in the crew, 'Cast."
"But won't you get jealous if I'm paying attention to the others, too?"
"So? They're all paying attention to me as well. We can't get jealous." Bonecrusher leaned his elbows on the table. "Primus, how do I explain this … All right, say you decided that you wanted Longhaul instead of any of the rest of us. You and Longhaul make plans to go bar-hopping or something, but Megatron bellows and Longhaul's gotta work instead. Longhaul doesn't want to leave you hanging, but he knows Hook's free, so Hook shows up instead of Longhaul. See, it doesn't matter which one of us is there, because it's all the same to us. Sure, you and Hook go to, I dunno, an art gallery rather than a bar, but he enjoys himself and the feeling eventually comes back to the rest of us."
"But that doesn't make any sense!" wailed Steelcast. "Going by your example, wouldn't Longhaul have preferred to have gone to a bar with me, rather than getting a completely different experience second-hand from Hook?"
"Yeah, but he's not going to fuss about it, because he still gets to be with you in a way, and he knows he'll see you again anyway."
"Not if he keeps sending substitutes," Steelcast huffed. When Bonecrusher laughed, she glared at him. "You cannot tell me that you never play favourites."
The Constructicon shook his head. "We've got favourites," he agreed. "We don't play them. I mean, slot, Scrapper and Hook are practically welded together, but that doesn't mean they like the rest of us less. It's all equal."
"But you're still individuals. You can't all have the same tastes."
"We don't, but with the gestalt, there's a lot of overlap." He shrugged. "I think Scavenger's junk collection is dumb, but if I happen to see some chunk of scrap I think he'd like, I bring it to him because it makes him happy."
Steelcast frowned. "Not like that. With people."
"Of course we all react to each other differently. Longhaul's my best friend, Scavenger's more like a ward or something, Scrapper's a cross between a boss and a pal, Mixmaster would take too long to explain, Hook … Hook's just a challenge," he grinned. "I like 'em all for different reasons, but I still like 'em equally. C'mon, you said you loved the rest of them. Is it all for the same reasons?"
"There you go."
"But it's not equal!"
"At the beginning, it wasn't for us, either." He stood, tapping Steelcast's arm. "C'mon."
She looked puzzled, but followed. "Where are we going?"
"Over to the apartment. We gotta talk to the group."
They were waiting of course, vaguely spread throughout the common area of their apartments. Steelcast looked around suspiciously. "How come they're all here? Some kind of combiner sixth-sense?"
"I radioed ahead."
"Silly me." She had met everyone in Bonecrusher's crew, but this was the first time she got to see them all in one place. The five in the room were all absorbed in their own activities – Scavenger had a spread of junk on the main table, Scrapper was idly toying with a blueprint hologram, Mixmaster was reading a datapad, Hook was rewiring a hand-scanner, Longhaul was lounged back in a chair trying to balance an energon cube on his toe – and somehow they were all connected. Now that they were all together, now that she was looking for it, she could see it easily; Bonecrusher's arrival completed a pattern. The demolitionist fit into the scene easily, leaving Steelcast feeling rather like the inevitable leftover part of a repair job.
Bonecrusher didn't sit down and rejoin his collective though, instead folded his arms and radiated something like defiance. "She didn't know about Devastator until today."
"You never mentioned it?" asked Longhaul incredulously, catching the cube in the concave bend of his foot.
"You go around announcin' you got no mouth?" Bonecrusher demanded. "She knew the tech stuff we did, but not the war stuff. She's never met a combiner before. Go easy."
The others shifted a bit, setting aside their tasks to pay attention, keeping their loose non-formation. Spread-out but not surrounding, individuals instead of a collective, and Steelcast realised the arrangement was for her benefit. They were doing their best to welcome the outsider, so she would accept it. She found a chair and sat on it, while Bonecrusher went to stand by Mixmaster's chair, resting one foot on the low armrest, then leaning on his raised knee. Somehow their proximity didn't throw the pattern off. Making herself as comfortable as she could, Steelcast addressed the collective: "All right – how far back did the planning go?"
"Not far," Scrapper shrugged. "We weren't looking for a seventh, but you and Bonecrusher hit it off strongly enough that the rest of us could feel it though our bonds. His interest was enough to pique our curiosity, so we made sure that we would all get a chance to meet you personally."
"And since he's not as dumb as he looks, Bonecrusher realised his interest in you was returned," Longhaul added. "Which meant that if he wanted to pursue you he needed buy-in from the rest 'a us. Which he didn't really need ta work for. We don't all have the same taste, but none of us would go for someone unless we thought the others'd like 'em."
"Subconsciously, Bonecrusher realised that you had qualities that were attractive to all of us," said Hook. "Not the same qualities, mind, and qualities that we lack."
Steelcast folded her arms across her chest. "And you guys all compared notes after dealing with me for a few weeks and voted on this?"
"Nah, we'd been comparing notes pretty much since Bonecrusher met you," said Longhaul. "Don't get huffy – that's just the way we operate. Group mind an' all."
"I've only known him for two months. You guys make life-decisions awfully fast," she said sceptically.
"Group mind, again. Seven million years gestalt … we can debate very fast." Mixmaster shrugged, then jerked his thumb up at Bonecrusher. "His fault, too. And Scavenger's, but mostly him. Overwhelming when he wants to be, but I suppose you've noticed that."
"We also looked up your records," added Scrapper, then frowned at Bonecrusher. "At least I did. Some people would rather crash headlong into things."
Bonecrusher snorted. "Someone has to get things going."
Two of them, Steelcast knew, could run off on tangents for hours. There was no telling how long things would go with all six. "All right, so you voted on this. Should I be flattered or angry?"
"'Flattered'," Hook informed her. "We are the Constructicons and we have no need for outsiders. You, however, have been our primary interest for over a month now."
The design-tech's optic points sharpened, and Scrapper stepped in again. "You're right, Steelcast – because we're gestalt, we all need to agree in matters like this, which meant we all had to deal with you separately to find out whether we liked you individually, then confer back to the group."
"We want you to be a part of us," said Mixmaster bluntly, then blinked at the others. "What? You lot were waffling, you were."
Bonecrusher had said as much, but he had said it in less-emotional terms. Also he had said 'I' and not 'we', and while it meant the same thing, now, surrounded by the collective, Steelcast found the phrasing made a difference. "It's … it's too much."
"Peh. Knew a nine-way once, we did," chuckled Mixmaster.
Bonecrusher poked him. "She doesn't mean it that way."
Scavenger ducked around the table, and before Steelcast knew it, he had knelt down, holding her hands and gazing up at her imploringly. "It's never too much, 'Cast. I thought it was wonderful suddenly finding myself with five bondmates … and I like the idea of adding a sixth. Please?"
"Scavenger speaks a bit quickly," Hook said, walking over and rescuing her from the miner. "It wasn't 'sudden'. It began almost two million years before the arrangement became formal, then another three years before all the, hrm, bindings were complete."
"All right, I'm curious," Steelcast admitted. "What happens when you guys bond? Is it better than just ordinary two-way is supposed to be?"
As one, the Constructicons looked away, the only sounds a bit of foot shuffling and some embarrassed noises. Hook was the first to break the silence. "It … doesn't work like that. The interflow of energies is very complex. Trying to keep the levels balanced between more than two participants …" Hook trailed off.
"Basically, we tried it once and ended up in the wrong bodies," Bonecrusher drawled.
Steelcast fought valiantly, but ended up doubled over with laughter, and the pained, patient expressions of the others made it worse. After several minutes, she managed to regain control of her vocaliser. "You're kidding."
"It took us four days to sort ourselves out," said Longhaul. "I was stuck wearin' Scavenger."
"Ahem," said Hook. "As I was saying, spark-bonding is complex. Two-way interflow requires no fail-safes, as the energy simply flows back to its proper form. More than that and the energies become mixed and require conscious effort to draw back to the body. One isn't quite in his right mind during the process."
"And sometimes not in his right body," chuckled Bonecrusher.
Hook glared at him. "Add the fact that as Constructicons, we already think of each other as extensions of one self, and we got … confused rather easily."
Scrapper folded his arms. "Speaking of that … she still hasn't met one of us, Bonecrusher."
The others all turned to look at the demolitionist, waiting for his reaction. "Devastator," he murmured. "C'mon, guys, you know he'll …"
"But will she?" Scrapper demanded.
"He can be pretty scary," Scavenger agreed. "But Steelcast won't think so," he added confidently. "He's just us."
"Only bigger," chuckled Mixmaster softly.
Devastator. Combiners were rare, at least in Steelcast's circle of experience. Combiners were creatures of war, not construction … but the Constructicons were both. Steelcast stood before she could stop herself. "Like you said, 'Crusher, Constructicons are all or nothing. Let's meet your seventh."
They led her to an adjacent chamber, approximately the size that the common area had been, but empty and with a much higher ceiling. Scavenger squeezed her hand reassuringly, then joined his fellows.
Steelcast knew the theory behind combiners, as much as any tech did. She knew the mechanics of it and had an idea of what to expect when the merge completed. It didn't help prepare her for the sight.
Devastator knelt, unable to stand in the space, but the sheer impressive bulk of him wasn't diminished. Steelcast looked up nervously. "So … um … are you the Constructicon collective, or are you a different mind entirely?"
"I am Devastator."
"I guess that's an answer." These might have been the Constructicons she knew and loved, but the giant was intimidating.
Apparently he knew that. He reached down – with his left arm, Bonecrusher, was it on purpose, was he even Bonecrusher any more? – and held out his hand. "Do not be afraid."
"I'm trying, guys, I'm trying," she mumbled. Hesitantly, she touched her hands to the giant's outstretched fingers. There was power here; Devastator's electromagnetic aura was almost overwhelming. Steelcast tried to sort out the various fields, but they were too entangled. All she could sense was a nagging familiarity, no individuals.
She felt the giant's other hand at her back, and found herself carefully picked up. Devastator held her so she sat on his hands, and brought her up to his chest. Steelcast got to her feet, standing on the unsteady platform, to finally look the gestalt in the visor. "So, this is who you are when I'm not around." Then, throwing fear aside, she laid her hands on either side of the giant's face. "All right – am I accepted by you too, or is that a forgone conclusion?"
Devastator laughed, and the sudden motion caused Steelcast to tumble back. The giant caught her, set her back on the floor, and collapsed into his component parts.
Bonecrusher grinned and clapped her on the shoulder. "Way to not panic."
"You liked him, right?" asked Scavenger earnestly. "Oh, tell us you liked him!"
"He'll take some getting used to," Steelcast admitted. "Erm … what is …"
"Actually his personality is the lowest common denominator of all 'a ours, filtered through a central relay, which is why he's so slow," Longhaul explained, guessing the obvious question. "He's us and he's not. We talk about 'im like he's a separate entity."
"You're all so established with each other and you're a combiner team," said Steelcast. "I'd feel like I was intruding, even with your invitation."
The Constructicons exchanged glances. "We've been meanin' ta upgrade Devastator …"
"A seven-binder? It's never been done."
"Call it a challenge."
"Maybe we can make it so he transforms, too!"
"You guys are serious." Steelcast shook her head in wonder. "You guys are totally serious about this."
Bonecrusher frowned at her. "You doubted us?"
"No, it's just … I don't think what you were proposing really sunk in until you offered to make me part of … part of him as well." Steelcast chuckled nervously, waving a hand at the space Devastator used to occupy. "Would he change if I joined you?"
Scrapper shrugged. "Maybe. We don't know."
"C'mon, 'Cast, stalling's not like you," Bonecrusher interjected. "You with us or not?"
"I … No." Steelcast looked at her feet. "Maybe someday … but right now the idea is just too overwhelming. I need some time to take it in."
She didn't look at him. "I don't know."
The Constructicons looked at one another. Bonecrusher looked away. Scrapper touched Steelcast's arm. "We can respect that."
Steelcast caught Scrapper's forearms, and he returned the gesture. "You were wasted on the Dominion Gate."
"Thanks. I hated it, too."
Very lightly, Steelcast took Hook's fingers in her own. Hook smiled slightly. "Don't leave us waiting too long. Bonecrusher is insufferable when he's impatient."
"Yeah? 'Least I'm not insufferable all the time, Hook!"
"Remind me why I'm going to miss you guys …"
Steelcast left Hook to lean down slightly and catch Scavenger in a tight embrace. He snuggled against her shoulder, as well as he was able. "Don't go."
She tilted his head back and leaned down so their foreheads touched. "It's not like I'll never see you again. I'll be around."
She raised a hand and pressed her palm to Longhaul's. "Don't let the morons get you down."
"Give Auger a belt in the mouth for me, eh?"
She took Mixmaster's hands in hers and held them to her chest. The chemist looked down. "It-it-it's my fault, isn't it? All the group stuff is-is-is always about me …"
"Not this time, Mixy."
Steelcast held up her hand to Bonecrusher, but swept him up in a fierce hug instead, lifting the demolitionist off the ground, to his loud annoyance. After a moment, she set him down again. "You ever want to ditch these bozos, you know where to find me."
"You ever want to join these bozos, you know where we are."
A week later, Bonecrusher found himself slumped in the booth of what had been his and Steelcast's usual hangout. He was annoyed at himself for that – he was slipping into a pattern. He was even more annoyed at himself for not moving despite the fact that Steelcast had left over two hours ago. He was Bonecrusher – he did not mope … except that was exactly what he was doing.
He felt the other before he saw him and didn't bother looking up. "Well, you got what you wanted. She's skipped town again."
"You couldn't predict what she would do," Scrapper replied mildly.
Bonecrusher fixed the architect with a glare. "Don't start on your 'outsiders are bad news' speech. I'm not in the mood." He looked away again. "She liked us all. She faced down Devastator. I was sure …"
Scrapper slid in across from him. "Do you know where she went?"
"The Sapphire City. She said she wanted more time to think. Y'know, away from us." He shrugged. "I understand it, I guess – I just don't like it. How long do you think she'll take deciding? Megatron wants us back on Earth in a few months."
"Days. Years. I don't know. It's a big decision and she has to make it alone." Scrapper tapped Bonecrusher's forearm. "She told you where she was going. We've got her contact information. She promised to keep in touch. Be patient."
"I don't do patient well."
"Then what?" Scrapper asked. "You're going to sulk until she comes back?"
"Hey! I do not …"
"Then stop doing it. We don't want to wait for both of you."
Bonecrusher blinked and sat back, staring at his partner. Scrapper continued. "The others are as upset as you – remember that. Steelcast will come back when she comes back. In the meantime, we need you."
Scrapper waited a moment, but Bonecrusher had gone back to staring at his hands. The architect sighed, stood, and stepped out of the booth.
The architect turned back. "Yeah?"