Warped - Chapter 30
A/N: And at last! After almost… 5 months of waiting (bah)… the final chapter is completed! Thanks to all those who have been kind enough to review, and keep me on track! (And especially those who have prodded me about inconsistencies and got me to improve my game a bit.)
(For those curious folk: I 'won' my Nano, but still haven't finished the story. ¬_¬)
FYI - "eclosion" is (among other things) the process where a butterfly emerges from its chrysalis. I just thought it fitted what I was trying to describe. ^_^
The return 'home' was not the sort of triumphant return that Starscream had wished for before they'd set out, as the little group came in for a semi-graceful landing outside the Ark, but at least they were all back, and he was grateful the fates had at least allowed them that much. After all the smelt that had been thrown in their faceplates over the last few Terran months? Although he'd never have voiced the concerns to Skywarp, he'd spent most of the campaign semi-convinced they'd just be bringing back a couple of bodies.
The welcoming party bristled with the usual heavy armoury, but most of it was pointed downwards, for a change. More of a, a… just in case, rather than a we-expect-trouble-from-you. Optimus stood at the very front, watching, and unfolded his arms as the travellers approached; to the red Seeker, it looked like he was trying to present a non-hostile, non-threatening face to the awkward machines now approaching. After all, if he remained calm, hopefully so would his warriors, and with no overt targets to shoot at, perhaps the weapons of their former enemies would remain powered-down, too. Starscream gave the remains of his trine a bitter, disappointed glance, and wished they were in any kind of shape that would even make it possible to shoot.
The scarlet jet stood and held the Prime's gaze for several long moments, watching from the periphery of his vision as Forceps guided a blanket-wrapped Thundercracker carefully into the Ark's main entrance corridor, with an aggressive Skywarp doing big protective back-and-forth circles around them like some sort of bizarre, over-armed sheepdog. (He was clearly serious because he was almost silent, not even trying to goad the Autobots with insults.) The broken blue jet was still determined to make it to the medical suite on his own two feet, even if his stride was a slow shuffle and he had to cling to the big femme just to remain upright. Footloose hung precariously to her sire's shoulder-vent, which threatened to make the image even more absurd, but just made the dark Seeker look more like the sort of devoted, angry parent that no-one should cross if they valued the continued functioning of their spark. Slipstream took a moment or two to gaze in awe at the rest of the assembly of Autobots, before scampering after his sister, half excited to be here, half anxious about being separated from his family again.
Starscream dropped his gaze briefly to the ground, vented long-held stale air in a tired sigh, and studied his thrusters for a moment or two, rehearsing the words before trusting his vocaliser enough to voice them without going discordant. "I'd like to negotiate a more permanent cease-fire," he explained, quietly, bringing his gaze back up to study the Autobot's reaction.
There were murmurs from the crowd, but none of the usual suspicious assertions that it must be a trick. Seeing what remained of Thundercracker was apparently enough to convince most onlookers that the fallen air commander was serious, at least for the short term.
Optimus nodded, barely even raising an eyebrow. "Of course. But we can discuss particulars in my office, not on the doorstep." He gave the rest of the crowd a look, then waved his former enemy into the main entrance. "I'm sure they'll disagree, but I don't think the peanut gallery needs to have any input, just now…"
Night had finally descended, and the mixed bag of fliers and Policebots had long since departed, when activity around the ruins of Siphon's little Egyptian base picked back up.
Unfortunately for him, the control room of the tanker's underground bolt-hole had been within the radius of the 'Sun Grenade' blast. Perhaps also unfortunately, Megatron had recognised how underpowered the device had been – by human standards, the explosion had been one of terrific heat and noise and raw power, but it would have barely singed the plating of the average adult Cybertronian, and certainly not been lethal. Even a sparkling survived it. Which meant there was a good chance that the injured mech was still alive.
Scrapper was the only one down on the floor of the new crater, his treads crunching over the brittle substrate, but he seemed happy enough to be working without his fellows getting in his way. Not that there was much to find; the sandstone that hadn't been vaporised in the fireball had instead been turned to glass, leaving behind a shallow crater of sickly black glass. The open mouths of tunnels pocked the floor in an even blacker black than the scorched ground, drinking in all light that fell by them.
The Constructicon paused near the edge, curiously, and re-ran his scan over a particular little spot of scarred ground. "Yes… yes. There's definitely something down here," he confirmed. "Could be a spark. Could be salvageable!" He hesitated, waved his primary sensor for a moment or two, appearing almost aimless, and when he finished his report, he sounded genuinely disappointed. "…but it's too weak to get a good reading, and there's too many exotic particulates for me to tell without digging it out. Could just be the generator."
Megatron stared down into the crater for a long time, looking… tired. Old, even.
"Sir?" Scrapper prompted, awkwardly. "Um… did you want-"
"Do it," Megatron commanded, at last, in an unexpectedly quiet, sombre voice. "Dig it out. I want to find out if there's anything at all down there that's worth saving."
Megatron wrinkled his nose in an angry glare; he didn't particularly appreciate the way they were all looking at him, as if he'd lost his mind. "I've already lost three vaguely competent warriors in this useless debacle," he said, grimly. "Perhaps four, if Hook can't restabilise Thrust's harmonics. So I plan to salvage anything I possibly can from this mess. Whatever else he might be, Blue displayed a talent for psychological persuasion I could use."
"Well, he gives me the creeps-" Dirge started, but quickly went silent at noticing Megatron's glower.
"What you do and do not want is of little consequence to me, Dirge," the warlord snapped, stabbing a finger for threatening emphasis. "Be glad my concern for your trine's overall health is currently greater than my desire to punish you for letting Thundercracker escape in the first place."
Dirge retreated a step or two behind Ramjet, found himself an interesting grain of sand between his thrusters, and concentrated on counting its sides. "…yessir. Sorrysir."
Down in the Autobot medical suite, Thundercracker sat on a berth with his back curved, quietly putting up with the irritating pick-pick of Forceps' surgical tools working down his ruined wings, and the sporadic internal buzzing of a badly tuned communications relay.
"…I suppose it's fitting," he said, in a voice that did nothing to hide his crippling exhaustion.
"Hmm?" Forceps glanced up, midway through 'unzipping' the plating holding his ruined wing on his back. His 'good' wing already lay on the surface of the nearby berth, to help him maintain his precarious stability – behind them, so he didn't have to look at it. "What is?"
"That when we finally crashed and burned out of the war, we'd do it pretty spectacularly." He gave a quiet little bark of humourless laughter. "And that Primus should reserve his most enthusiastic kicking for the one with the biggest chip on his shoulder." His voice dwindled down to a rasp. "What a way to make a point, eh. Let's see to it that the stupid slagger who is most disparaging of groundlings gets beaten by a groundling, rescued by groundlings, turned into a fragging cowardly dirt-crawling piece of-"
A gentle hand covered his mouth; he startled, very slightly, and swallowed his words.
"Don't you dare," Forceps instructed, seriously, "give that psychopath validation by associating his actions with some kind of divine intervention. All you're going to end up doing is giving meaning to his actions." She shook her head and straightened up, letting her fingers remain on his shoulder for a few more comforting seconds. "He shouldn't even be worth a lingering place in your thoughts."
"You think I should just… brush this all off?" Thundercracker challenged, quietly. "Forget it all happened? Act like it was no big deal, life goes on as normal?"
"No." She forced a smile, gently removing the last shattered piece of plating from his back and using an inbuilt air-jet to puff away the traces of sand that had worked their way behind it. "Even emotionally-stunted old grouches like me know that some things can't just be magically wiped away with a bit of…" What was it Starscream called it? "… of 'handwavium'. Just… treat it like it is. It was terrible. He was terrible. He did things with the sole intention of breaking you, hurting your friends, punishing your brothers for having the gall to defeat him in a fair fight. But that was all it was – cruel, blind revenge. Not... not some Primus-sent punishment for war crimes, not something you deserved in any way, shape or form, for whatever made-up reason he fed you... just meaningless cruelty. Calling it anything more than that-"
"...will mean I didn't have the bolts beaten out of me for nothing." Thundercracker finished the sentence for her, miserably. "I can't help it, Sepp. If none of this means anything, if it was all pointless and all that struggle was for nothing, I just-…" His words grew muddled. "They… they kept telling me I was worthless, and I believed them, and this just… it just… if it all meant nothing, it… confirms everything. You know?"
"No, I don't. Because you're not." The surgeon instructed, underlying her words with a gruff attempt at a soothing harmonic. She applied the sheet of tough film carefully to the raw circuitry of his back, and applied a low heat to get it to shrink into place, forming a protective temporary covering. "If you believe nothing else I tell you, at least trust me when I say you'll get through this, and probably stronger for it. You've survived the war, you survived life as an active Decepticon warrior, and some of the things you've seen? Must have been countless times worse. And even after everything Siphon did to break you, you survived. All of you survived. And with a bit of time, you'll heal."
"The war was different," he argued, quietly. "The war at least had the smallest smidge of meaning. Wasn't just me willingly brutalising someone already injured and defenceless, because I'm so weak-minded I just go along with what I'm told-"
"Hey, come on, stop that. You know that's not true. If it was, people would be saying the same about you regarding the entire war." His head sagged, and she realised it had been a bad choice of words; he probably knew people did say that about him. She cursed inwardly and gave herself an inner kick, and hastily added; "and even if they do, you know they're wrong. Starscream would never let anyone get away with calling you the sane one of the trine if you weren't."
"But-… All the things I did-"
"-were things you had no control over. You were being played, TC. He was a… puppeteer, if you like. He knew your weak points, he knew what they'd do to you, and he focused his attention on them. And you know why? To get you to react like this!"
"For goodness sake, pick your spark up off the floor, Thundercracker!" she scolded, resisting the urge (but only just) to give him a swat around the back of the head. "Right now, you're just wallowing around down there in self-pity. It's like you want them to reject you out of hand, so you have an excuse to feel sorry for yourself! You have family around you, who want to help you, to get you through this – and you'll be stronger for it!" She put her heat gun back onto the trolley, and vented hot air in a frustrated sigh. "If you keep pushing them away, rejecting their help for no reason other than you think you don't deserve it? If I ever heard anything so stupid! They will give up on you. You'll have no option other than to struggle through on your own, a martyr of your own making. Just trust me when I say you need help after trauma like this."
She'd clearly bruised his feelings, because his optics glittered an irritable crimson, and the aura of self-pity had turned into one of prickly defensiveness. His shoulders had hunched, and she could tell that his wings would have hiked up, had they been attached. "What is this, voice of experience, surgeon?"
She held his gaze, angrily. "Not that it's any of your business, but yes." Her voice dropped to a growl. "Because I was too ashamed of what happened, too proud to talk to my friends, and too fragging stubborn to accept the help they offered? I had to muddle my way through the early days of the war all on my own."
"Big deal. So did everyone else," he cut back, sharply.
"Not everyone had just had their uneclosed sparkling die inside them-" She sliced the tail of the words off, brusquely, embarrassed that she'd gone so far as to actually voice what had been prickling at her for the last few orns. "The war killed far too many good machines, and we have frag all except a mostly-dead planet to show for it," she snapped, trying to cover her slip-up; as though if she talked enough, maybe he'd miss the fact that she said it. "And I'll be damned if I'm going to just stand by and watch as yet another decent spark rolls over and lets it beat him."
"Maybe I'm tired of all this," he argued, glaring half-heartedly up from beneath hooded brows; she stood close enough to him that he could feel her bristly static envelope. "Maybe I'm already beaten."
"Fine, then." She abruptly downed tools, and waved a threatening finger. "Maybe I'm fed up of wasting my time, too, if you can't even be bothered to look after yourself."
Thundercracker listened to the angry thumps of her departing footsteps, and sighed, softly, curling protectively in on himself. It hurt to think that maybe she was right – and hurt to think he was doing exactly what she said he was doing, bruising feelings and pushing everyone away. Maybe he was just… torturing himself. But-… not for no reason, not to feel like a martyr. Just in a quiet desperation to find something to prove he still meant something. Still had some value. While people were paying attention to him, he wouldn't just fade into the background and slowly disappear-
The soft little raspy voice made him jump harder than it should have; belatedly, he recognised the muddled communications he'd been receiving as positional requests, and worked out it wasn't a badly tuned communications relay but that someone had been looking for him. He turned his head to find a familiar dirty-grey little Policebot standing just behind and to one side of him. "…Pulsar?"
She managed a strange, hesitant little smile for him, and very briefly wiggled her spasming fingers hello; she had a length of brightly-coloured cloth tied around her head, blinding her optics, and a pale blue shawl to hide her missing limb, and her whole arm was shaking where it wrapped protectively around her chest… but she wasn't running away from him.
There was a very long beat of near-silence; her lips hung open, but only the faintest of static emerged. Thundercracker waited for her to buckle, confess she was terrified just being near him, plead forgiveness and run away.
At long last, she gave a distorted little 'cough' and rebooted her vocaliser. "Are-… how are you?"
He wanted to explain about his wings, but it hurt to think about, and he found himself unable to get the words out. "…functioning," he managed, at last.
She advanced another couple of tiny steps, waving her hand in midair as though looking for him; he thought about reaching for her hand, but changed his mind before he could grab her. Instead, he lifted his arm, and placed it carefully in the way of her questing fingers. She startled at bumping against him, but rapidly recovered, and moved all the way up to his side.
"Where are-… they took-…" Her hand waved aimlessly in the space that should have contained his wings. "I'm sorry."
He stared at the floor, listlessly. "Yeah. Me too." He sighed, softly. "Had to take them off to fix them. Not like I could fly with what's left." He hesitated, for the briefest of instants, weighed up what Forceps had said, and decided to confide in his fellow former prisoner. "Not like I even want to fly, right now."
She remained silent. For a Seeker to be reluctant to take to the air… "I, uh-… I heard what Sepp was saying to you," she volunteered, trying to change the subject and get his mind off his wings.
"Yeah." He snorted a humourless little laugh. "Way to kick a guy when he's down, huh. We'll make him grateful for what he does have. You got off easy. At least you're still alive. It could have been a lot worse. How dare you bitch about it-"
"She didn't mean it like that," Pulsar interrupted, hastily. "I-I mean… She never talks about-… that. Not even to us." She groped blindly for his arm, for a second, and rested her fingers on his shoulder when she finally found him; the gesture surprised him into a temporary silence. "She probably only mentioned it accidentally, because she's worried about you," she went on, faintly. "You know she's about as good with her emotions as… as…"
"Screamer?" Thundercracker suggested.
"I was going to say a brick," Pulsar mused, gently. "But… I guess it's much the same sentiment, right?"
They shared a very brief, strained chuckle.
"I just… guess I can't believe you guys are as willing to forgive this abject smeltery as everyone says," the broken Seeker explained, finally finding the right words to explain. "After I could have fought him, could have resisted, and instead I just… did everything he told me to." He gazed down at his damaged fuselage – the creases in his wrists where he'd been pinioned too tightly, the chips and dents from his various crashes – and admitted, bluntly; "I'm waiting to wake up from my hallucination, and find I'm still trapped in that… that noxious little hole under the desert. He fed me so many different virals I can barely believe my own sensors when they tell me this is real. Small wonder I don't believe you guys when you say you want to help me."
Pulsar managed a tiny smile. "Believe it, Thundercracker. If not for you, I'd probably be greyed out in a million pieces, scattered across the globe like some sort of hideous scavenger hunt. You kept me alive, you saved my life, and you got me out," she explained, softly. Her fingers were very nearly convulsing where they pressed against his arm, they were shaking so hard, but she was making no move to back off. "I promise, if I can? I'll do the same for you."
As should have been expected, Footloose and Slipstream ultimately took over the corridors. Although Jazz had given them some more paper, in an attempt to lift Footloose's mood, they ended up painting on each other, and for once it hadn't been Footloose that started it.
The little femme was obviously pretty shaken by her experiences in the desert. A quick check-up by Forceps as soon as they'd got in had confirmed it was mostly external cosmetic damage, nothing bad enough to need a temporary repair until they got home and could do it properly – Jazz affectionately joked it was a 'suntan', which comforted her a tiny bit – but then the surgeon had needed to attend to greater things, and left the twins to their own devices. For Footloose, that involved snuggling up to Ama in her private room and just... staying there; quiet, and sad, and a lot more clingy than normal, apparently still scared, frightened into a subdued little silence. Rather than spend every spare waking minute looking for new things, she was content to just sit. Ama always made the bad things go away, so she fully intended to stay with Ama until they were safely back in Deixar.
Pulsar let them stay in her lap until Slipstream started to get twitchy, at which point she comm'ed Jazz for a little assistance. The saboteur had proved himself strangely adept at looking after Footloose, and with any luck he'd have more joy at cheering both sparklings up than she was having.
Slipstream had bounced on the spot and clapped his hands at seeing the enormous pad of coloured paper that Jazz produced, and immediately got stuck in with the paint; the extensive blobs of blue and yellow and purple suggested the abstract picture was probably – but only probably – family. Footloose had just sat, for several breems; she'd started out with an attempt at painting a picture, but ended up filling her pieces of paper with sad, distracted little circles of muddy green paint. Not want play. Want sit with Ama.
Slipstream had watched her for a while, his own scribbling getting slower and more distracted, until at last he leaned forwards and painted a little four-point blue star on the upper right quadrant of her scorched chest. It was rather smudgy and lacked the "face" present on the real insignia, but it was obvious what it was; a little Policebot emblem. She found him a little smile from somewhere.
Letting Slipstream take the lead for a little while seemed to pull her mood up. They spent a cycle or two busy giving out "parking tickets", in the form of carefully torn up bits of yellow paper with abstract attempts at Cybertronian writing on, and investigating "traffic violations" in the corridors. (Neither sparkling was particularly sure what one of the latter was, but they'd heard the hoomings talk about them on the "cop shows" Spike had been watching on the television, so figured it must be a good thing for them to investigate.) Hound finally swooped in to rescue his comrades from the antics of over-energetic sparklings, and took them away to explore outside.
The aftermath of the orn's activities resulted in Footloose sitting on the spare berth in the medical suite, her arms folded sullenly across her chest, shoulders rounded and lips grumpily pursed, patiently waiting while Slipstream picked her shoulder joint clean. Both were filthy – not only covered in mud and bits of twig from their romp outside to find "flowers" (read: broken foliage, but it was a fair effort) for Ama, but Footloose was also covered in glue after getting into Spike's stationery drawer in her quest for more exciting art materials. A great shiny plaque of it drooled down the side of her neck, all the way from her blinker to the top quadrant of her chest, and her shoulder was so gummed up it was frozen in place. The resident medics were happy to let Slipstream try and deal with it, at least in the short term; it kept the pair mostly out of trouble, to start with, and saved them a job if it was going to just be a minor cleanup operation.
"I wouldn't be surprised," Ratchet commented, amusedly, watching as the little mech carefully peeled a long rind of dried glue out of his sister's shoulder, "if Skywarp doesn't find he ends up with a nurse in the family."
Forceps had returned to the infirmary after spending a breem or two in the sanctuary of Hardline's gentle arms; the police chief knew exactly what had upset her, and just let her silently rest her head on his shoulder until the static faded from her voice. "Beg pardon?" She looked up from the spare Aerialbot wings they were now trying to jerry-rig in such a way they'd fit Thundercracker, just long enough to get him home, and gave the Autobot medic a quirked-brows glance.
Ratchet gestured to the twins. "The little guy's got a big spark in there, bless him. He might not have the smarts to make it as a doctor, but I'll bet you he could make a name for himself as a paramedic."
Forceps snorted amusedly. "I wonder if there's any openings for racers," she quipped, dryly. "Because I don't see Lucy being tied down in a slow ground-based job for more than an orn or two, if she lasts that long." She flipped the magnifying lenses down over her optics and focused in on a microcomponent. "Maybe I should see if Envoy has any openings for global couriers. She'd make good time with that little teleport of hers."
"...if she doesn't get distracted by shinies on the way, I'm guessing..."
Over on the twins' berth, Footloose had tired of being patient. She growled and gave Slipstream a shove. "Hurts."
"Still dirty," her twin argued, pinning her down and using one of Ratchet's styluses to winkle the last few rinds of glue from her shoulder joint. "Got to make clean."
She endured the picking for another quarter of a breem before squealing more loudly, for emphasis, and giving him a kick in the midsection. "Hurts!"
Now was Slipstream's turn to yelp. "Owow, no fair!" He glared and jumped on her, pulling at her stubby antennae-
There was a very brief scuffle, then an "…uup!" noise from Footloose, an astro-second of silence, then a heavy crump on the floor. Ratchet looked over, automatically, to find the berth now empty of both its occupants.
"Behave yourselves, you two," Forceps instructed, dryly, not bothering to look up. "No fighting in the infirmary or Ratchet'll kick you out."
Two little heads bobbed up from behind the berth, and two little voices said in unison; "yes aunnie Ausept." They were still shoving at each other, but it looked more playful than angry, now, and after a second or two of jostling they both vanished again, obviously up to some sort of mischief.
"Found stick-dots!" the little female squeaked, quietly. "Look, see? Was with glue!"
Slipstream clicked, curiously. "What to do with?"
"Show you!" There was the noise of something tearing – sounded like the adhesive strip sealing a package being opened – and a rustle of papers.
There followed in rapid succession the clunk of plating, then a squeak and a thump, and Slipstream's annoyed retort. "Lucy! Not to stick dots on!"
Footloose squeaked amusedly. "Seem got pink spot on face now. Is the zeesed!"
There was a growl. "No disease! Give stick dots!"
More crashing sounds emanated from behind the berth, and another tearing noise… then Footloose shot past, squealing excitedly, hotly pursued by her twin; both seemed to be clutching bits of brightly coloured paper, and Slipstream was reaching towards his sister with something blue in his hand, but they vanished (shrieking) into the corridor before either medic could see what they were up to.
"Those two are going to destroy this place if they stay here much longer," Forceps growled, with a weary shake of the head. "I better apologise in advance."
"What makes you think Cybertron's going to fare any better? Some of the buildings there are a lot more antiquated than this old warbird." Ratchet gestured around himself to imply the Ark.
The surgeon wrinkled her lip, and deadpanned; "we've had longer to hide the breakables, and coat everything we couldn't hide in triphase carbon armouring."
Ratchet laughed, openly. "Isn't that a little, you know... overkill, when it comes to sparkling-proofing the place?"
"You better come back to me on that one once you've had to polish a sparkling-sized dent out of your gamma-camera."
The comment was so very deadpan, Ratchet almost believed it. "Fair point," he chuckled, inclining his head. "On a more serious note," he mused, quietly, while they worked. "You've talked to them. What do you suppose will happen now?"
"Happen?" She glanced up, and her soft golden gaze met very briefly with the Autobot's considering blue. "What do you mean?"
"Well, right now we have three very lost ex-Cons trailing like confused little sparklings around the Ark, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if it remains as quiet as this for very long. Someone is going to end up getting a punch in the faceplates, and we'll end up with everyone confined to quarters, and I don't really want it to be one of my rabble that starts it, if you know what I mean."
She dropped her gaze and shrugged, in a calculatedly offhand manner. "I've been busy. I haven't really thought all that hard about it."
"Of course not."
She gave him a little glare.
"Regardless. I can tell you're worried about them."
"I'm more worried about how much work it'll take to keep them out of my operating theatre."
"I don't think it'll take much. Just threaten them with not fixing them, and they'll buck their ideas right up. They might even behave."
"Pssh," she snorted. "You give me far more credit than I should be due, Autobot."
Ratchet shrugged, one-shoulderedly. "Maybe," he accepted. "But they do seem to like you. And trust you. The threat of 'their' medic not working with them any more? Primus forbid!" He pointed a stylus, in a way that could have been construed as threatening. "Besides. Are you telling me you didn't see the way they both got in the way when I suggested we took Thundercracker's wings off so we could repair them, but when you suggested it a bit later, Skywarp even offered to help?"
"I think you have it the wrong way around. It's because he doesn't like me, and doesn't trust me not to do anything to his wingmate," she scoffed, but her words were without quite so much heat as usual. She almost sounded embarrassed. "You should have heard the accusations he heaped on me the last time I put one of them back together."
"Oh come on," he grinned, wryly. "A few accusations? That's nothing. I've put those ungrateful fraggers back together once or twice, and the only thanks I got was a shot in the back the instant they were back on their thrusters. They might be rude about it, but they're not exactly slow to come to you if they need to be put back together." He sighed, softly. "I guess that there," he tapped her chest, "might be what makes the difference."
She followed the crimson finger, puzzled. "What does being green have to do with it?"
"The fact there's no little red symbol etched into it, that's what." Ratchet gave her an arch look. "I don't know. I guess… maybe they just trust that you're not doing it to prove a point, or to get leverage, or to use it as blackmail afterwards. There's no strings attached. I mean, if I'd done it? They'd be wanting to know what I wanted from them in return. Pit, maybe they just like you; Primus forbid a Decepticon could have friends, huh? That's just ludicrous."
She managed to find a wan smile from somewhere, for him, taking it in the humour it was intended. "You're going to miss them too. At least a little bit."
"I'm not going to miss the noise..."
Starscream's conversation with District Commissioner Boxer was very short; yes, the offer still stands, when can you start? We'll discuss particulars when you get here.
The former air commander hadn't yet vacated the communications office, however; instead, he'd just sat and stared at the blank viewscreen for five or six breems already, and Red Alert was getting… well, 'fidgety'. (Although it probably hadn't helped matters when Sideswipe jokingly suggested that the fallen Air Commander probably had a subspace linkup into the security chief's personal files and was even now rifling through them for juicy gossip.)
Optimus' voice bumped the smaller mech rudely out of his introspection. He glanced up, and for a moment or two just stared, mutely, before bullying his vocaliser into a reluctant, scratchy co-operation. "What?"
"Is everything all right?" Optimus coaxed. "You finished your call a while ago, now-"
"-and your chief of security wants his sanity back, I know, I know." Starscream dropped his glare back onto the control panel. "Well, he can get in line behind me. I think I deserve a bit of sanity more than he does."
Optimus chuckled, quietly. "I think everyone needs a little time to get their thoughts back in order," he agreed, softly. "Have you decided on what course of action you're taking?"
Starscream nodded, just the once. "I'm taking them home," he explained, at last, after weighing the decision to speak for almost half a breem, and his voice was low. Almost hollow. "Back to Cybertron. There's nothing here for us, any more." Beat. "And if we're going to self-destruct, better to do it in private than in full view of your lot."
"They're that bad? Skywarp looks… not so bad. I thought-"
"Well you thought wrong," Starscream interrupted, sharply. The sympathetic look he received in response got under his plating and made him glare, hitching his wings – it was as though the Autobot leader thought he was just over-stressed and over-reacting to nothing. "Warp's walking a fine line where he's equally likely to either pull up out of his emotional nosedive or crash and burn in the most spectacular fashion," he added, with a sour laughed. He briefly covered his optics with one hand, pinched the bridge of his nose and vented hot, stale air in a sigh. "Never thought I'd live to ever see that, but this smeltery seems to have brought out the worst in us, huh? As for TC, well… you've seen him. Good at hiding it, but the cracks are all there." He let his arms dangle loosely at his sides. "It's like he's been glued together with old engine grease, and he'll just… slide to pieces at any moment. I don't want him to go falling apart in public."
"You don't have to take them home," Optimus offered, albeit softly, just in case anyone else was in hearing distance. "Not immediately, at least. We can offer a modicum of medical support. Energy. Resources."
"Still trying to get us to sign on the dotted line, eh, Prime?" Starscream found a dry, tired smile from somewhere. "You and I both know that's not going to work for longer than an orn or two." He shook his head. "Even in the unlikely chance your underlings don't object to you flinging care and attention at us, without asking for payment of some kind? There's got to be better places for recovering warriors to go than the middle of their former enemy's territory. Too many potentials for things to go wrong, here. And I don't want the less charitable sparks in your faction to decide it's best to kick us out the instant that Megatron comes calling for us."
"You think he might?"
"Maybe. Probably. What do I know, any more. I'm the enemy." The red jet threw up his hands in semi-despair. "Just another target to shoot at. He let us go this time but I doubt he'll leave us in peace for long. Let's face it, it's worth making the effort to kill us to stop all that juicy information on the Decepticon inner circle getting out." He gave the Autobot leader a sidelong glance. "I'm surprised you've not interrogated us for it, yet, to be honest."
Optimus inclined his head. "I'm sure the, ah, 'less charitable sparks' will insist I do, soon enough, once they're over the shock of having you three here," he accepted, honestly. "But right now, my concern is for your wingmates. If you want to provide us with information, I won't refuse it, but I'm not going to actively try and wrest it from any of you." His optics betrayed a vague smile from behind his mask. "Plus, you might be more likely to offer it to us if we don't heckle you, and I value information given freely much more than information given under duress."
The Seeker curled his lip in a sneer, but didn't comment on it. He pushed himself up out of his chair, with some amount of difficulty. "I suppose I'd better go and track my two idiots down before they get themselves in trouble."
"It may not mean much, coming from someone like me," Optimus said, softly, blocking the doorway just enough that the Seeker had to hesitate – and listen – before he could leave the room, "but I'm sorry the war had to end this way for you. All three of you. Especially when there was a good chance you could have left it peacefully."
Starscream met his gaze, boldly, but it was plain in the sag of his wings and the muted crimson of his optics how exhausted he was. "Can't all be rainbows and energon candies, Prime," he drawled. "Eventually Primus gets up off his aft and deals out punches to deserving machines, and all you can do is keep your head up, and take it like a mech."
"You're suggesting you're deserving of all this?"
"It had to happen sometime. We've been on the 'bad' side and playing the odds for long enough." Starscream shrugged. "Your pet species would say it's 'karma'," he added, softly. "You telling me you're not going to say 'I told you so'?"
"No, I'm not," Optimus confirmed. "I may not trust the three of you any further than I can throw you – yet – but that doesn't mean I take any pleasure from seeing you in these circumstances."
Starscream smiled, bitterly. Always the optimist, eh, Prime? "I guess that's what makes you a leader, and me just a long-term pretender to the throne." His quiet words were brittle, humourless.
"I'm serious," Optimus commented, quietly. "You've got out, and got your brothers out, and although you've all suffered some damage, you're all alive and functioning. That's more than a lot of my brethren have been granted."
"Telling me I should be grateful, Prime?"
"No. Just telling you that you still have something to live for." The Autobot took a step back out of the way, but made sure his serious blue gaze held the tired maroon one for several more quiet moments, to ensure that his point got through. "Don't waste your chance, commander. I have every faith that you'll get your trine through this – you wouldn't have survived so long as Decepticons, otherwise. I just hope that when we next speak, it will still be on friendly terms."
Unexpectedly, Starscream was the one to break eye contact. "I just hope we're all still alive and functioning, if and when we next speak."
When he finally tracked his wingmates down, it was to find Skywarp sprawled out on the couch in front of the television, thrusters propped on the low table in front, with his twins (strangely covered in brightly-coloured paper spots) curled up together in his lap, and a wingless, plastic-coated Thundercracker tucked up under his arm, snugged into his side, clearly needing to be close to his wingmate after so long kept apart from them.
Seeing Thundercracker looking so small and broken made his own wings hurt in sympathy. A fraction of a second of suspicion flashed alerts into his forebrain, until he remembered the medics saying they'd need to take the blue jet's wing remnants right off so they could attempt to rebuild them properly – the broken jet hadn't complained at all, which spoke volumes about his mindset. Just… do what you like. I'm past caring. It doesn't even matter any more. Skywarp took it more personally, as if on his behalf – You keep your dirty Autobot hands off him! – and generally got in the way until a little group of small white shapes clustered around him and steered him away to talk to Pulsar for a while.
Skywarp had spent the rest of the orn in a stasis pod; his two meagre exposures to Pace hadn't done much damage at all, and he certainly got over the withdrawal easily enough on his own, but Starscream wanted him operating as optimally as possible, particularly given their uncertain future, and cooked up a story believable enough to persuade the claustrophobic flier into the little booth for a while. If nothing else, it'd help him stop thinking for a while; the teleport seemed to be particularly wounded by the idea that it was his actions that had caused all this, and that if he'd been a little bit smarter, he'd have found them quicker-…
Frag it, they all needed to spend at least a cycle in there – as soon as he scrounged up a spare moment, Starscream himself was planning to get his poor tired cortex straightened out a bit. Fix up his firewalls, de-clutter his temporary memory stacks, purge all the file fragments that lurked in bad sectors. Much as he hated to admit it, the Ark's main medical computer was better than the one on Nemesis, and this was going to be his last chance for Primus-only-knew-how-long to fix all the tiny vulnerabilities he knew lurked uncorrected his trine's systems.
At least Thundercracker had made a marginal smidge of improvement; he'd seen him and Pulsar sitting together on the berth in the medical suite, which had reassured him. Knowing that the little Policebot held no ill feelings towards him would at least help start to pick the blue Seeker's mood up out of the mill. Rumours of some kind of verbal spat between Thundercracker and Forceps had reached his audios, too, but last time he'd looked they seemed to be back on friendly terms, so he didn't pry.
For a few tired moments, Starscream just stood in the doorway and watched his little family; you two better be worth it, or I'm kicking your useless afts. His head felt… tight, and not just because he hadn't had his turn in the pod. After all those hundreds of Vorns, chasing leadership of the Decepticons, with all the passion he could muster, to suddenly ditch that in favour of these two? He sighed, tersely. It felt like… well, even with a job lined up for him to go to, to keep his mind active and away from everything he couldn't have, he knew there was a fifty-fifty chance of him going completely crazy. Maybe he just had to think of this as his own faction. A little faction of three. Five if you counted Warp's troublemaking offspring. Perhaps the seed of something new and better. Ha, take that, Megatron. I'll find a new source of fuel, good enough to get all our grounded trines back in the air, and we'll rebuild and snatch this world out from under your grubby groundling fingers. You don't even deserve to fly.
…Because of course, you alone will succeed at the impossible, where thousands of equally-brilliant scientists down the ages have failed. He snorted humourlessly at himself. Yet another pipe-dream, wing commander? You'll go just as crazy with that one. Find something achievable, for a change. Maybe getting your trine back to health is all you should be aiming for, right now.
No-one had noticed him, yet, and it looked like at least three of the four were dormant and recharging. Skywarp was the only one awake, and he looked like he was at best 'muggy', barely conscious. The news channel that the television was tuned to chattered quietly to itself in the background. Starscream sighed, tiredly, and plopped down on the floor close to Skywarp's thrusters.
Something jabbed him in the back of the helm, and he looked up to see Skywarp watching him, quietly, poking finger still outstretched.
"What?" the red Seeker challenged.
"What you sat on the floor for?"
"No room on the couch."
"I could budge up."
"I'm not sitting in your lap, Warp. The floor is fine."
Skywarp shrugged with one shoulder, careful not to disturb Thundercracker. "Your loss." Beat. "You spoken with Boxer, yet?"
Starscream nodded, silently.
"His offer stands." The dark head continued to nod, carefully, as if to convince its owner that he was making the right decision. "He just seemed… disinclined… to discuss it until we're face-to-face."
"Oh come on, it's gotta be a trick-!" Skywarp protested.
"That or a sensible precaution to take when you don't know how secure a communications channel is." Starscream gave him a little glare. "Or do you want us to be stuck here for all eternity, living off Autobot generosity?"
Skywarp backed down, mumbling self-consciously. He glanced down at his lap, and ran his fingers absently across Footloose's 'suntanned' winglets; she twitched, and curled a little better around her twin, but didn't wake. "No. I wanna go home," he confirmed, softly. "I just-… this whole thing sucks, Screamer. I'm tired of it."
"Tired of which bits?"
"Tired of all of it. Tired of being useless. Just… kicked around for nothing." Skywarp sighed, hard enough for his wing leader to feel the hot air from his vents. "Used to have some kinda meaning, right? We were doing all this for a reason, not just… just… you know." His words trailed off.
Starscream remained quiet. That was the worst part of it – everything they'd struggled to achieve was for nothing. Cybertron was still derelict, still in terminal condition. All those noisy ideals they'd spouted about wresting control from the stagnating ruling classes, giving the planet back to the people, rejuvenating and renewing? Had fallen by the wayside in the name of the megalomania of a select few machines, himself included.
"And I still didn't slagging manage to kill that stupid pipeline," Skywarp despaired, quietly, from behind. "I just… left him there. I figured-… I just-… I don't know what I figured." His wings sagged, defeated. "In case he was lying about Lucy, I guess I figured I could go question him some more. Then it all kicked off with that squishy and his bomb, and I forgot about him." Sigh. "All them chances I had to end it once and for all? And I still fragged it up."
Yeah, you did, Starscream agreed, but didn't voice it. "If we're going back to Cybertron, he won't be able to sneak through the space bridge without someone noticing," Starscream reassured, although both knew they were thinking the same thing. Well, he got here without too much bother. "We can monitor the Cybertron end ourselves. I'll try and bribe Prime to set up his own monitoring station, give us forewarning if anyone tries to sneak through." He forced a smile. "If we do ever see him again, you can have the honour of ending him."
It wasn't as if they really needed the escort, when Starscream finally decided he'd tolerated the Autobots for long enough and the family ought to head for home, but they got one anyway, in the form of Optimus, a handful of nosey soldiers (who joined the group just to ensure that the Screaming One and co actually left), and Skyfire, for reasons known to himself. Thundercracker 'limped' his aerial way to the space-bridge, barely flight-capable but determined to get there, just to convince himself he wasn't too scared to do it. Vantage was watching and waiting for them; he greeted them cheerfully enough, grinned stupidly at Surefire and wiggled his fingers hello, and waved Hardline over to discuss getting past Shockwave.
The voice attracted the red Seeker's gloomy attention; he turned neatly on one thruster to face the speaker.
Skyfire held out his hand, hopefully. "Before you go, can we at least reconsider our stance?"
"Our stance?" Starscream sounded like he wasn't quite sure if he should be confused or outraged. "What is that supposed to mean?"
The big shuttle backed up a half-step, although he kept his hand out, hopefully. "I-I mean-… I'm sorry. Wounding your feelings was never on my agenda. I guess I was hoping that… someday you'd realise this war wasn't worth it, and it could all go back to how it was before, that we could try and pick things back up. I know it was naïve of me. I just-… don't want you to hate me, Star. Even if we can never be friends again, I just… I suppose I hoped we could be civil. Now we're not staring at each other from opposing factions."
Starscream stared at the hand for a very long time, fully aware that everyone was watching him, waiting to see what he was going to do. Is a little privacy too much to ask for, you nosy bunch of glitches? "I don't know. Even civility seems too good for what you turned us into."
The shuttle averted his gaze.
"Everything I became," the smaller mech went on, softly, "was because of you. When you, you… flew off, and got yourself 'killed'? I struggled through. I survived the pit that was Kaon. I survived life as a Decepticon, always… wondering. And when ultimately I found you… you snubbed me. Couldn't push me away fast enough. You decided you'd rather be a glorified drone than pick our friendship back up. And then you had the gall to tell me that you were willing to forgive me? For doing everything I had to do just to survive? With your death on my conscience?"
Skyfire's big wings had sagged. "Then I hope some day you'll find it in yourself to forgive me," he husked, softly. "I mean it when I say I regret… everything."
Starscream stared down at the larger hand for several very long moments, before turning away, silently, and rejoining his wingmates. "Come on, you lot. We're leaving." He spread his arms and waved them in front of him. "There's nothing left here for us…"
There was a ripple of indignance, from Autobots hurt on Skyfire's behalf – how dare he, after everything you did for him! – but Skyfire smiled in spite of the hurt, and waved the concerns away, letting the ignored hand drop back to his side. "He didn't try and kill me," he reasoned, sadly, watching the pale wings vanish through the entrance to the bridge, "so it's a start."
Everyone knew he was lying, but no-one pushed about it.
"Hey, Vanner!" Skywarp hesitated just outside the perimeter of the torus. "You gonna come with, or what?"
Vantage unhooked his feet off the control console. "What?"
"I said, are you coming? Or are you gonna stay here, under Megs' thumb?" The teleport wrinkled his nose, as if to say what he thought of that idea, then jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "We've got room for one more, if you wanna."
The silver groundling actually found a smile from somewhere – Skywarp wasn't sure he'd ever seen the apathetic little mech wearing any expression except tired, downcurved ones of one sort or another, but then having Surefire's little hands on his shoulders probably helped. The femme was supposedly staying as Deixar station's Earth attaché, but most people saw straight through the story to the real reason she wanted to stay behind. "Nah. Someone's got to guard this stupid thing, right? Call the alarm if needs be. You never know, one day, something dangerous might actually come through."
"You know that'll only be if we ever elect to come back," Skywarp quipped, amusedly, stepping to one side so the rest of the police team could feed past him. "Which isn't likely. Horrible little dirt-ball. Hope I never have to see it again."
"I'll be the feeling's mutual," Vantage snerked back, thumbing his nose. "Besides." He hooked his feet back up on the controls, crossed his ankles, and winked, broadly. "It's not like I'm gonna get bored…"
Skywarp snorted, knowingly.
"…Anyway, where else would I get 'paid' for slacking off?"
"Front desk at the police station?" Hardline wondered, from a distance. "One of these days I'll work out how to motivate Whisper."
"I'll 'motivate' him for you," Skywarp offered.
Hardline lifted a finger. "Correction; I'll work out how to motivate Whisper without sticking a gun up his exhaust pipe."
"Pfft. From what I heard, he might like that, anyway," Skywarp commented, finally turning away and ambling through the entrance onto the bridge, leaving only Thundercracker still standing outside.
The blue jet glanced back over his shoulder; Starscream was watching him from the entrance of the big transport device. "It's okay. I'm coming," he reassured, quietly. "Just... give me a second."
Starscream emerged a step or two onto the grass. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah." Thundercracker forced a smile. "Just... apprehensive." Well, not just apprehensive, but Screamer didn't need anything else on his plate to have to worry about, right now.
"About going home?"
"About... all of it, I guess." He stared down at his smeary fuselage and tried not to think about the uncomfortable, ill-fitting silver wings on his back. "It's gonna be a big change."
Starscream managed a smile for him - faint, exhausted, but undeniably a smile - and closed his fingers on his brother's arm. "I know. But the trine is back together, and together? We'll prove we can do anything."
…aaand that's it!
Sorry for the downer ending. I couldn't work out any other way around it. -_- But! SBM3 ("Future Tense") is in the works, so… watch this space, eh?