The amount of time between the regain of consciousness and the return of awareness was uncertain. Perceptor did not know whether it was for short astroseconds or dragging groons that he lay in a vegetative state, staring without seeing at the surgery ceiling; his chronometer, disintegrated in his chest, had not been replaced.
A strange tingle started in his legs and lower abdominal plating, as though they were receiving power after a long period of deactivation. The sensation was irritating, akin to an itch, but distant; though he could feel it, he did not recognise it as an ailment to his own body, nor was he quite able to process anything – as though he was trying to remember something but could not quite bring it to mind. Just as he could not quite manage to remember how to work his limbs.
As the circuitry of his cerebral cortex slotted back into place to link to his meta-processors, Perceptor became very aware in an instant. Nerve impulses from his body suddenly reached his brain, delivering both touch and pain from the sensory inputs in his extremities. Onlining was not a pleasant experience, perhaps he should consider developing some sort of treatment to combat the aches...
Wait a nanoklik. Wasn't he supposed to be dead?
The red-bodied scientist sat bolt upright, seeing in his periphery vision a white mech – Ratchet, he verified after a second glance – take a step back in surprise. Drip wires fell from his torso and tray, the energon feed in his upper forearm disconnecting at the violent movement and spraying droplets of viscous purple liquid over his side.
Shaking off the initial dizziness, the microscope gaped foolishly at the medic, who was already starting forward to reconnect the discarded feed wires. Though conscious of his own blank gawking and what a gormless idiot it must have made him seem, Perceptor could not think how he could have been delivered from falling at Megatron's hands to the safety of his own people, not when he had been so out of the way and had not put out a distress call.
"I'm alive?" He managed, surprised to find that his voice was just as he remembered it, not damaged or raspy in any way. Ratchet gave him a quizzical look before smiling sardonically.
"I can see why you're said to be one of Cybertron's most intelligent," he mocked gently, "can't put anything past you. Perceptive as ever, hmm? Yes, you're alive."
"B-but – how? I -" Perceptor cut himself off, confused. He wasn't upset that he was still functional, far from it; the thought of death repelled him as much as it would any rational living being with the instinct for survival, and he was glad that he had been given another chance. On the other hand, his position had seemed hopeless; Megatron had shot him through, watched him fall. Warriors as powerful as the Decepticon commander did not make mistakes – and Megatron had certainly been aiming for his termination.
"We got your distress signal, and Skyfire got there just in time to stop Starscream from killing you." Came the distracted answer, Ratchet waving a dismissive red hand as he checked over the other Autobot's reconstructed midriff.
"Distress signal?" Questioned the patient, utterly nonplussed. He hadn't sent out – he'd deliberately avoided sending out - "Starscream?"
Another quizzical look from Ratchet. "Your memory databank chips aren't damaged, are they?"
"Probably just glitching until they settle back into place..."
A shrug as Ratchet accepted the reasoning. "Well, Skyfire reported that you'd been shot down by Starscream, you'd put out a distress signal, he reached you just in time." A shrug. "It's quite miraculous, really. Screamer was really aimin' to kill, but, though the laser core was damaged, your spark wasn't harmed at all. Primus must watch over you."
"And Skyfire?" He found himself asking, trying to make sense of it in his head. Facts didn't add up. Starscream? He hadn't even been there to kill him...
"No damage. Screamer flew off at the first sign of danger, just like the coward he is. Flex your fingers for me."
Perceptor acquiesced, watching in silence as Ratchet adjusted a transistor in the complex behind his examination tray and removed the feed vessels that had been supplying him with vital energon. It took but a moment, then the ambulance-transformer was standing back and brushing his hands together in accomplishment.
"Well, I reckon you're all set. No strenuous activity, though, you need to let the new body acclimatise and fully reconnect to your neural nets. So try to avoid anything that'll put unnecessary stress on you. Come tell me if you lose function in any of your circuits, but there may be partial paralysis while the motor relays connect."
"Th-thanks Ratchet..." murmured the microscope, completely overwhelmed and trying to find the correlation between the last memories he had of being attacked and the situation Ratchet had just told him of. His head felt as though the diodes would melt.
Thankfully, his cogitation was interrupted when the door to the medical bay opened, revealing the tall, white figure of Skyfire standing there, his honest and kind face creased with worry. Taking a step in, the Cybertronian shuttle saw that Perceptor was sitting up, and the concern dissipated, melting tentatively into a small smile of relief.
"Ratchet," the large Autobot spoke quietly, nodding at the recovering microscope, "could I have a moment alone with Perceptor? I need to have a word."
"Sure." grunted Ratchet with a shrug, tidying away a small number of devices from the work surface and examining a surgical laser with exaggerated interest. "Nice to have me a chance to refuel, I haven't energised since you brought him in. Give me a call when you're done."
As Ratchet slid out of the surgery, Perceptor felt the cold vice of apprehension grasp at his core; he fully expected Skyfire to start lecturing him about safety and security, to have the shuttle start with 'What were you thinking...' or, even worse, 'I told you this was a bad idea...'
So it came as a mild but pleasant surprise, then, when Skyfire did not immediately launch into disapproval reprimands. Rather, the shuttle smiled briefly (though somewhat apprehensively, as though he himself was not entirely at ease), patted the edge of the berth that Perceptor was reclining on and asked, "may I?"
"Oh!" The microscope drew his knees up to his chest to make room. Ignoring the tingles as newly-connected wires bent in ways they were not yet accustomed to, he reached absently over to the work surface to the side of his sickbed, where his detached microscope shaft and lens lay, and began the meticulous process of refastening it to his shoulder. "Of course, uh..."
Skyfire sat. An uncomfortable silence dragged on, the larger robot staring at his own huge white hands, as though formulating what he was about to say.
"You're very lucky." He stated at last, with a brief smile to his smaller companion, who returned it, though not without nervousness.
"Thank you for – for fetching me -" but Skyfire cut him off by waving a hand. Again, the awkward silence enveloped the two of them, dragging on for some kliks longer than it needed, until finally Skyfire found how to explain.
The huge white shuttle smiled an enigmatic expression. "I picked up your distress call. When I reached you, Starscream was circling you like he usually does with a kill. He flew off when I arrived. Ratchet chalked your wound down to laser shot."
"But -" Again, Skyfire cut Perceptor off before the sentence could be completed, and this time the larger Cybertronian seemed somewhat wistful.
"I.. I shouldn't have doubted you." He murmured quietly, voice subdued.
Rather than giving a straight explanation, the huge scientist glanced at his hands and then launched into a medical analysis.
"Carbonisation at the lips of the wound, slow disintegration of partially struck controls, heat warping in the surrounding struts? I don't know if anyone else thought to consider it, but those aren't symptoms of laser damage. Especially the carbonisation, that's a sure sign of fusion damage." Skyfire regarded his smaller companion coolly for a moment, seeing the relief over the white face. "And I know of only one mech with a fusion weapon of that power potential, and that's Megatron, not Starscream."
Perceptor stared, uncharacteristically unable to think of anything to say as Skyfire paused his explanation momentarily, cycling air through his intakes.
"Besides, when I reached you, your emergency power jack was open and online."
"I – It was? But I didn't -"
"There'd have been no point for you to open it." The shuttle waved an impatient hand and gave Perceptor a knowing look. "Someone else supplied you with enough energy to keep you alive. You should thank Starscream. He probably saved your life." For a moment, he seemed stern, but then the expression melted into gentle encouragement. "And from what I remember, Starscream doesn't risk his own well-being for others unless he's very fond of them. So I'm sorry for doubting you."
"Wha – Starscream saved me?" Perceptor stared at nothing, dumbfounded, unable even to acknowledge his friend's apology. The words 'Starscream' and 'hero' did not connect together in his mind, especially not in the same sentence.
Skyfire seemed astonished at the unbridled shock apparent in Perceptor's tone at the exclaimed question, as though he could not quite understand why the fact would be so hard to accept. "Does that surprise you?"
"Well, yes." Perceptor stared down at his lap, wondering at his mate's affection. Despite the tenderness that the jet occasionally showed, the red-bodied microscope had been sure that his... lust? desire?... feelings for his warlike lover had been one-sided. "Starscream... does not process as normal people do, I... I would not have expected him to..."
Cutting his own sentence short, puzzlement flashing over his expressive white face, the microscope stared blankly at the plating of Skyfire's thigh as the shuttle in turn stared at the surgery door. Moments later, the latter noticed the slow smile spreading across Perceptor's face, and he tilted his head in an unspoken question.
"You know," the microscope spoke obligingly, more to fill in the dragging silence than to explain himself, his voice aching with relief "I'm so... I'm happy. If you hadn't told me what you just did, I would have sworn that this was all unrequited."
Even after several instances trying to compute, Skyfire still could not understand such an impersonal approach to something he had always regarded as intimate. "Why would you stay in a relationship like that? I do not understand."
"Who knows," shrugged the smaller Autobot airily; the relief of being alive, the relief that Skyfire knew he was not a traitor, the relief that Starscream cared enough to save his life – it was making him feel almost drunk with a giddy near-ecstasy. He swung his legs around to sit at the edge of the berth, his smile distant and unreadable as he gave a non-committal response, inexplicably feeling like bursting into laughter. "I guess he grew on me."
"I still cannot say that I am... pleased with knowing my close friend is tangled up with a Decepticon, but I will let you alone. I trust you are intelligent enough to make your own decisions."
Touched, the lithe microscope lowered his gaze, expressing his gratitude meekly – but sincere. "Thank you."
Skyfire's reply, if he gave one, was drowned out by the sudden and unexpected clamouring of Starscream through the ethereal connection, which took Perceptor with such surprise that he jerked in fright and almost fell off the berth. Even more shocking than the volume at which the jet was making demands, perhaps, was the raw need in the high voice, conveyed through the connection as a powerful and spark-tugging emotion. The microscope's manic glee dissipated in a matter of astroseconds and melded into concern, especially when he heard where Starscream wanted to meet him.
"Hey... Skyfire?" He asked, voice small and uncertain, and he could barely hear himself over Starscream's loud whining. "I feel like taking a – a walk..."
For a moment, Skyfire regarded him critically, pursing his lips in a pensive manner before giving thoughtful acquiescence. "I think that's a good idea, actually. It would be better for the new circuits to be worn in, and Ratchet needs to be told if there's any problems so he can replace them before they latch on to your meta-processors."
"Quite," Perceptor pressed himself to his feet. As he moved to take a step forwards, his weakened limbs betrayed him, causing him to stumble, and had not Skyfire been so quick to rise and steady him, he would have fallen.
Regaining his composure, the red-bodied Autobot thanked his taller companion, gingerly testing his legs before trying forward again. Rebuilt struts and pistons stiff with lack of use caused odd twinges in his waist and pelvic gimbals, but apart from an unusual locking about his knees on his first few steps, there was no real problem with his mobility – for which he was thankful, after such major surgery as having half of his motor net replaced.
Skyfire helped him out of the medical bay and towards the main arterial tunnel into the Ark, supporting him when he needed to lean or pause and reset his equilibrium. The soft metal of his abdomen was tender after the extensive repairs he had undergone, and the new energon vessels not quite yet aligned – he felt frequent fatigue, involuntary spasms racing through neural nets as they onlined again, making him feel frail and unwell.
"Thanks Skyfire." Even his voice was shaky as he expressed his gratitude once they had stopped in the entrance to the crashed starship and he felt the sun warming his exostrucutre.
"Do you need me with you?"
"No, I'll be fine." Perceptor broke away from Skyfire's steady grip and held himself upright, shaking his head – if only to dispel the shuttle's concern.
"Well..." the white Autobot did not sound convinced. "Don't go too far, radio me or Ratchet if anything troubles you."
"I know." He smiled gently and limped away.
Kicking at the dust and growling when that only smeared it further on his immaculate paint, circling his position, which was less than twenty vuns from the Autobot space cruiser, Starscream perked up the moment he heard the other robot come closer. Only a slight whir indicated his null rays gathering power – just in case it was not Perceptor but a hostile who approached.
"Starscream!" The jet eased up the slightest bit when he heard his mate's voice. Perceptor appeared in his field of vision just astroseconds later, rigid, looking most displeased. "Why are you so close to the Ark? You fool, it's a wonder you haven't shown up in Red Alert's security net! What are you thinking?"
Before he could reprimand the Decepticon any more, Starscream was grasping his chassis tight, dragging him further away from the Autobot headquarters, running insistent fingers over the previously-wounded areas. The fiery red optics, bright as they always were these days, would not meet the blue eyes.
Perceptor could not think of what to say as Starscream explored his repaired injuries with an oddly focused determination; the seeker was acting very strangely, even for one so unpredictable. The microscope swallowed the choked gasp that almost escaped his vocaliser when his bondmate suddenly swept him into a crushing, metal-bending embrace, clutching so tightly as though he thought Perceptor might disappear if he was not anchored down.
Unsure of Starscream's intentions, and with his stomach twinging again, Perceptor did not struggle. Instead, he stayed still and silent, watching Starscream as the larger robot withdrew again. It was only because he was studying so intently that he noticed the smear of silver paint at the corner of the seeker's dark mouth. He reached up to touch it; Starscream swatted his hand away, and the same silver traced the tips of those cobalt fingers.
Forcibly, the jet kissed his mate. It was not long, and when they broke apart again, Perceptor finally could stay silent no longer.
"Starscream?" He prompted, still nervous at the proximity to the Ark, partly expecting an entourage of Autobot warriors to arrive and destroy his mate. The red-eyed warrior slapped his face – but it didn't sting nearly as much as it usually did. Regarding the abused white cheek for a moment, Starscream moved the hand down to again finger over the healing wound.
"Don't you ever do that again." He hissed, his high voice hoarse and dangerously forceful. Perceptor did not have to inquire about what the 'that' referred to; the hand firmly caressing his stomach plating told him all he needed to know.
"Look, I'm fine, you saved –" he tried quietly, but was silenced when Starscream's burning scarlet eyes met his azure. He didn't know why. Perhaps it was the silent, seething anger behind them.
And then a blue finger, streaked with scraps of silver, prodded him in the chest, around the proximity of his spark chamber. "Why the frag didn't I feel anything?"
Perceptor looked away. "I didn't want you to know."
The jet snarled, as though taking the mumbled excuse as a personal affront. "How dare you keep me in a one-sided bond! You selfish! little! glitch!" Growling, he turned and glared off at the horizon, leaving his microscope lover in stunned silence. The afternoon sun caught the red of Starscream's fuselage, outlining it with golden hue as he muttered sullenly. "I deserve better from you."
"I'm sorry." Thoroughly chastised and wretchedly guilty, the microscope raised his grey hands to Starscream, flutters of thrilled hope in his spark when they were caught up and held by the seeker's blue. "I thought – I was worried that you might try to take Megatron on."
Finally, a characteristic smirk flitted across the flier's dark face, wry and twisted. With a sinking feeling, Perceptor realised he knew where the scrapes of silver sullying his mate's perfect paint were from.
"You already attacked Megatron?" He asked quietly, knowing the answer without being told, tensing his hands inside his partner's. Starscream bared his teeth and licked at the smear of silver at the side of his mouth as though savouring the taste.
"I almost had his throat out with my teeth." An insane glint passed through his optics. "How dare he try to take what's mine away from me!"
"How are you still alive?" Questioned the red-bodied microscope in a small voice, astounded – Starscream did not bear a single injury. Surely Megatron had not fallen -?
But Starscream shrugged and snarled and would not answer.
As the silence drew on, Starscream sulkily refusing to speak, Perceptor took the initiative and pressed himself into the crook of his mate's arm, up against the crimson fuselage, tracing a groove in the metal with one finger, thinking (or perhaps imagining) the seeker relaxing beneath the attentions. A sideways glance and a reluctant sneer being the only obvious responses, he tilted his head back to look at the sky and sighed from deep in his spark.
"We can't go on like this." Starscream turned his head sharply, obviously about to protest, but the microscope cut him off. "I don't want to live in fear of being found out, Starscream! All this sneaking around, it feels so much like treachery – this is a war."
"You think I'll let you leave me after all this?" Growled the jet warningly.
"Not leave, but let's start over." Imploringly, Perceptor brushed his lips against the side of one pectoral vent. "Megatron is convinced he killed me, correct? And Skyfire has agreed to hold our silence. Then that's a fresh start in each faction. We just need to be more careful!"
Starscream seemed content with the contact, no longer obsessively exploring the grievous injuries Megatron had inflicted on his mate. He snorted non-committally.
"I still want to meet up with you," Perceptor was continuing mildly, "because, and I know you don't want me to say this, but I do care about you – and no, before you ask me, I don't know why. We need to be discreet. Let's... let's not see each other for a while, just to make sure all the suspicions have died down."
"You must be joking." Sneered the air commander, his lip curling in disgust at this new development.
"And what about me!? What about my wants?" A blue hand loosely closed around the white neck, fingertips pressing in small careful circles, belying the demanding words. "If I want you, I will have you. Understand?"
"And when Megatron finds out where you're going again, he'll kill you, or come after me again. I don't want to die, and I don't want you to die." The microscope rested his head back against Starscream's shoulder as the jet wrapped his spare arm around the red waist.
Irritably, the Decepticon spat an ill-tempered agreement. "Keh, it's the only fragging way I'm going to get you to shut up, so whatever!"
Perceptor knew Starscream well enough to not be riled at the offensive and surly tone. With a soft smile, the microscope clung to his bondmate's chassis, revelling in the comfort of the closeness and the warmth of the seeker's body as it was expelled from chuntering vents. He was pulled closer, gently, and kissed on the helm – such softness of action was unexpected from Starscream, who was rough and coarse and unrefined.
... but, as insensitive and self-centred as he was, and as cruel as he could be, it seemed that even Starscream could show compassion. The unadulterated need he had displayed when greeting Perceptor from the Ark could almost be interpreted as a mixture of concern and relief, and the easiness with which he accepted the limitation on their escapades was a pleasant surprise, for Perceptor had expected his argumentative partner to put up much more of a fight.
He smiled. Skyfire was wrong – he wasn't lucky, for no one with his history of torture and imprisonment and near-deaths could count themselves as fortunate... but his connection with Starscream had proved to be an unforeseen pleasure.
The future promised to be brighter, and that was all that any mech could hope.
Starscream kissed him irritably. It still felt good.
"Hey. Perceptor, you out here?" A familiar, amiable voice cut through the desert air, and the two partners started.
"Shoo, get out of here. I'll – I'll be in touch..." Whispered the microscope urgently, pushing himself to his feet unsteadily, and, for once in his life, Starscream did not argue – though he did pause to tilt Perceptor's chin up and steal a last parting kiss.
Waiting until the jet was just a speck in the sky, Perceptor called to the other Autobot. "Right here, Wheeljack. Is everything all right?"
The approaching scientist, thankfully, did not notice the fleeing Decepticon; he seemed distracted by whatever was running through his mind. Certainly, his step had the spring of eagerness that appeared whenever he was contemplating developing anything complex and, because Wheeljack was the mech in question, potentially life-threatening.
"I was wondering if you could come help me with the skeletal blueprints for a new project I was thinking of starting?" The engineer said warmly, aural protrusions flashing away neon blue. "I think it might be right up your street."
Welcoming and kind, Wheeljack lent a shoulder for Perceptor lean on as they started their slow and casual return to the Ark.
"Sure, I got the idea from Cybertron's mechaforming substructure – if you can have a transforming planet, why not an urban state or a battle platform? If it works it'll be a huge advantage against the 'Cons, and it'll keep us busy for quartices!" The excitement was obvious in the masked face, the eyes alive with opportunity.
"An urban transformer? That would dwarf even Omega Supreme! And you've already drawn up the blueprints?"
"Mm, yes! I already worked out the basics, but it'd be a real help if you could help me with them."
"I'd be glad to." Replied Perceptor, feeling the excitement of an intellectual challenge licking at his cerebral circuitry, as he hadn't in too long. Life was back to hectic normalcy at long last.
"Excellent! And once the blueprints are finished, we can begin construction of Scramble City."
The two scientists disappeared into Wheeljack's laboratory, lost in a discussion of the future and the possibilities it held.
That's all for this story, and I'm quite satisfied with how it turned out. It's quite strange to have finished, after it and Until the Dream Ends took over half a year of planning and writing.
Thank you to everyone who has read, everyone who has reviewed, and especially to those who have recommended this story of mine to others or who have met me through this series. Special thanks to Juujinkan who has been my beta for Salvation.
I managed to delve a little too deeply into Starscream's character development and wasn't always able to explain my choices. I'll likely be writing a character analysis, and the link will appear (with everything else) on my profile.
Thanks for reading, and I hope I didn't disappoint!