Warning for this chapter: there is 'M-preg' in the form of a male-gendered robot having an extra spark carried inside his body. It's just mentioned toward the end, but will come up in future chapters.

Thundercracker watched as two mechs waged battle in the arena below. The current match was between Hun-grrr and Tantrum. Thundercracker did not have any real currency on the fight, but his superior foresight predicted Hun-grrr to be victorious this time. Tantrum's rage would likely be his own downfall; Thundercracker knew how emotional outbursts could speed one toward defeat...from the inferior template's memory, of course.

He had been to the arena often recently, so Thundercracker was able to use his detailed observations and keen analytical mind to determine who may be trusted, or just useful. He often saw the same Decepticons, with a minority of Imperials who had assimilated themselves into New Kaon. The games were run by Clench, a Special Teams Leader in rank, who had, Thundercracker supposed, lost his team to war or other circumstances. Now the dark mech, with the flatbed alt-mode, organized the matches, and trained fighters on the side. Thundercracker had seen him win a match against a cycle; Clench had a direct, brutal method of combat, which was vaguely reminiscent of Megatron. It was apparent Clench reveled in the combat, and did not fight for prizes.

The financier and promoter of many of the matches was Banzaitron. The arena was Clench's domain, but Banzaitron brought in many of the challengers from his school of Cybertronian martial arts, and put-up much of the currency and energon that encouraged participation in prize fights. Thundercracker did not know, yet, the full extent of their relationship, but he suspected much of their professional rivalry was played-up for the mob to add drama to the fights.

Even if the rivalry was pretended, the fights were real. There were no advertised or scheduled death matches, but Thundercracker had well-corroborated accounts, some being from Glit, who served the fighters as medic, of mechanisms offlining permanently after a fierce match. He had seen injuries for himself. Most high-power range weapons were restricted from matches, to prevent a fusion cannon ending a match before all bets were placed, as well as mechological warfare – Oil Slick still had a negative reputation among the arena crowd – but all other weaponry was allowed. The mob had a great love of energized melee weapons.

Clench entered the gate of the railed section of the gallery, above the arena floor, where Thundercracker was watching from his private box. He had invited the dark-blue Seeker to join him, having witnessed his continued patronage and focus, over the last several local days. He'd seen a figurative spark in Thundercracker that told him he was a fighter. What kind of fighter, Clench was yet unsure, but he was interested in finding out. Seekers were spectators of matches often enough, here and during their time on Cybertron, but it was unusual for them to go up against others in the arena.

Clench had heard about some heated battles between Megatron and Starscream, and though Megatron had fought in an arena, long ago, Clench had never gotten Starscream to deign to put on a show for him. It was something Clench had wondered about, from time to time, because word was Starscream was arrogant and smug enough to be convinced to make an exhibition of himself, and a particularly cruel fighter. His clone might be the next best thing.

The match looked to be nearly over, as Clench reached the railing overlooking the circular field below. Have you considered my offer?" Clench asked.

He had asked Thundercracker if he would be willing to fight in a match. Thundercracker enjoyed sparring, he liked proving his superfluous strength and skill to others, but the idea of making himself an exhibition for others amusement had rankled his ego. After consideration, Thundercracker decided putting himself in a match might be an effective way to prove himself and inspire other Decepticons to follow. They lacked his particularly powerful perception, and therefore needed proof of his leadership potential. He would be victorious!

"I will fight a match in your arena," Thundercracker replied. The mob cheered and Thundercracker imagined it was for his decision, though he saw Hun-grrr had dealt Tantrum the knock-out blow.

"Excellent," Clench said. He already had the opponent selected. "We need to make some preparations. Would the night after this be to your satisfaction?"

"Fine," Thundercracker said dismissively. "Who will be my challenger?"

Clench chuckled, thinking that Thundercracker assumed himself a champion. "I was thinking Skyquake."

Thundercracker knew of Skyquake, but he had not seen the brightly-colored mech at the arena most recently; though he had seen his teammate, Stalker. There were a surprising number of mechs in new Kaon with flatbed alt-modes, some with missile or cannon mounts. Or, perhaps Thundercracker only perceived it as so, because he assumed all Decepticons would be drawn to flying alt-modes. "Have you gained his consent, yet?"

"Just spoke to him."

"I have not seen him."

Another laugh. "He had his deco altered." Clench gestured toward some onlookers, across the arena, on the tier above.

Thundercracker spotted Stalker's red and blue deco, and then at his side the large plane all in black. "What possessed him to make that change?" Thundercracker bellowed. He would have noticed the change himself, if he had any reason to want to find Skyquake. Thundercracker remembered Cyclonus making light of Skywarp and himself, calling them 'repaints'. Cyclonus had paid! Thundercracker still bore his trophies as proof.

"He heard some femme didn't care for the neon," laughing. Thundercracker did not see what was so very humorous.

Slipstream would be that femme. There were other femmes in New Kaon, of course, many pursuing Thundercracker. Still, he was well aware his sister and Starscream were in courtship and seeking a third. It ultimately was beyond his influence or control – as intimate matters of his liege and subordinates should be – but he did not like the idea of Skyquake as potential kin.

Thundercracker saw then, a tier below Skyquake, a grouping of mechanisms whose colors complimented each other enough to seem a set. Skywarp was there, with Barricade on his right, and Scalpel perched on his left shoulder. Thunderblast was at Skywarp's left side, speaking to him, or possibly to Scalpel.

Thundercracker looked away from them. Skywarp had come here to support him before the local refugee population, but Thundercracker still felt wretched when he thought that he and Skywarp had proven incompatible. It was a pain that went to his very spark and could not be resolved with ego or logic circuits. He was practically perfect; Skywarp was his intended, and therefore above reproach. That they were incompatible mates was something that should not be! Something had to be done. Soon, he would develop a most clever scheme and there little problem would be no more.

Yes, Thundercracker thought to himself, he was sure it would be soon.

Thundercracker excused himself, "I see someone to whom I must speak. I will return within the day to prepare for my match."

"Get some recharge. I want you at your best," Clench called, as Thundercracker exited through the gate. Clench wanted him in the arena, but they both knew Clench would be just as pleased to see Thundercracker lose as win.

Skywarp had seen Thundercracker across the arena, but had not approached. He had come specifically to give Thundercracker public support, but secondarily to do a favor for Scalpel. The excited mob of spectators at an arena match was a hazard for the diminutive doctor to navigate, without a bulk to carry him.

"The box, 'Warp," Scalpel chirped.

Skywarp retrieved a slim, highly polished metal box from subspace storage and then offered it to Thunderblast.

"From me," Scalpel said to the femme.

Thunderblast looked at the box. She and Scalpel had not really spoken since his return to New Kaon, though they had seen each other in passing. "A gift?" Thunderblast asked, hesitating to accept the box from Skywarp's claws.

Scalpel made a low wordless chirrup in apprehension and then, putting a pincher-claw across his chest, bowed and said, "Renew courtship?"

Thunderblast glanced briefly at Scalpel and then looked down again to the offered box. Their previous courtship had not failed, but simply gone without conclusion. They were like ships in a fog bank: passing, calling to each other, and shining lights in vain, without ever truly meeting. Thunderblast accepted the box, and after a nanocycle, opened the slim container. Within, she found an ornamental weapon, a sharp stiletto set with glimmering, dark gems. "Rust Sea pearls?" She was almost certain of it. The pearls were byproduct of the defense machinery of the Cybertronian bivalve, a creature native to the caustic environment of the Rust Sea on Cybertron. They were exceedingly rare, and even more difficult for Decepticons to acquire since their exodus.

"Stiletto," Scalpel said proudly.

Thunderblast lifted her head and smiled. "You know me too well." The metal blade was slim enough to penetrate a transformation seam and would wreak havoc on delicate circuitry; and unlike energy weapons, it suffered no loss of effectiveness in underwater combat. She noted the magnetic mount and fastened the stiletto to her right thigh.

Scalpel briefly returned his gaze to Skywarp, who was onlooking. The mounting of the gifted weapon was a definite sign of acceptance. Scalpel looked back to his intended. "Permission to perch?"

Thunderblast shifted her weight cutely and extended her right arm to Skywarp's shoulder. Scalpel skittered along her arm; Thunderblast shivered slightly at the forgotten sensation of pointy metal limbs dancing over her plating. Scalpel reached her shoulder and there nuzzled Thunderblast's helm. She giggled as she ran a claw-tip over the ends of his whiskers.

Scalpel trilled contentedly.

"You were saying something about courtship," Thunderblast prompted.

"Intention to court," Scalpel chirped.

"I acknowledge."

"Prove worth?"

"Off to a good start," Thunderblast replied. Scalpel did not have the physical prowess of a Decepticon such as Megatron, but he did have intelligence, rank and skill, not to mention encyclopedic anatomical knowledge. He'd always known how to make her feel good. "Consider our courtship renewed," Thunderblast said. The doctor may not have the bulk to act as her protector in the usual sense, but supplying her with weaponry was a good way to enable her to protect them both, plus, Thunderblast had some idea what Scalpel could do to a larger mech, when he believed his allies lives were threatened. It was in his programming to fix, not destroy, but he could use his vast knowledge to disable a mechanism easily enough. And, in dire circumstances, Scalpel could take a life to save others.

Scalpel felt the admiration flare from Thunderblast's energy field and responded with attraction, devotion and willingness to protect. Thunderblast turned her head and showed pouting lip plates to Scalpel. The doctor adjusted his balance on her armor, and pressed his mandibles to Thunderblast's lips in a kiss.

They parted. Thunderblast turned her head. Though she said nothing, Scalpel was confident it had been good for them both. His processor perceived the kiss as briny, which to his calculation was a very good thing. "When was last examination?" Scalpel teased.

Thunderblast sighed. "It's been too long!"

"H-hail Thundercracker!" Skywarp said loudly at their side.

Thunderblast quickly straighted to attention, as she sensed Thundercracker's presence behind her hull-wings. "Hail Thundercracker!" she chorused, as Thundercracker put himself at Skywarp's left side. Thunderblast shifted to make more room, but the crowd was thick enough, in anticipation for the next match, that she remained close.

Thundercracker gave a brief nod to Scalpel, who lifted a pincer to adjust his spectacles. He certainly seemed close with Thunderblast; desire was literally radiating from the pair. Even if Thundercracker did not approve Thunderblast's transfer to his team, she may have found a way to assimilate herself into their company. The doctor would not likely leave New Kaon without his intended mate.

Thundercracker turned his attention to Skywarp, and then to Barricade, on his other side. His little, glass winglets were touching Skywarp's right wing. One pair of his optics tracked up to Thundercracker. "'Cid needs me on shift," Barricade said. He promptly slunk away into the mob.

"It is very crowded here..." Skywarp said, "'Cade's small, but he has Enforcer training, and he is known here."

The Earth phrase "doth protest too much" was suggested from Thundercracker's memory, but he did not allow himself to believe that the little grounder and his math processor were threat enough to warrant overt acknowledgement. Thundercracker looked at Skywarp intently. That Skywarp could imagine Barricade as a suitable protector was preposterous. Barricade may not be worthy of attention, but Skywarp's thoughts were. Skywarp was Thundercracker's consort: a paramour and near-equal worthy of every consideration, whose private argument only made Thundercracker more nearly perfect and stronger. He need not look for protection outside their union. Skywarp must see this, Thundercracker told himself.

Thundercracker put the claws of his right hand to Skywarp's chin and drew Skywarp to him. "I am with you, now," he said firmly. Skywarp smiled, but it was not quite that completely contented and carefree smile that Thundercracker desired. "And, you, My Dear Commander, need no protection from Enforcers, current or former."

Skywarp bowed his head, faceplate rubbing Thundercracker's knuckle joints.

Slowly, Thundercracker withdrew his hand. He desired Skywarp, but all other issues aside, he simply did not judge it proper to seem too intimate with his Second, here in the arena. They should make their alliance clear for all to see, but strength and alliance was all the mob need witness between them. "I am scheduled to be in a fight. The night following."

Skywarp lifted his head quickly to give an incredulous look, then took a cowering step back, bumping into a passing cool-toned 'copter with large gun mounted on his right arm. Skywarp flailed, slightly, then leaned in toward Thundercracker. He commed Thundercracker on their usual scheme, still-incredulous tone carrying over the unvoiced communication, 'Are you insane?'

'Watch your tone, Commander.'

Skywarp stared, optics wide on Thundercracker. 'I am yours, faithfully, still!' Skywarp commed.

Thundercracker wondered at this – for not even a nanoklik – that fractious little grounder with Enforcer tats lately hanging around was a bother to his logic circuit. Not a threat to me, Thundercracker told himself.

Skywarp continued, 'Are you quite serious? An arena match? It is my duty as 2IC to question, Sir!'

'You doubt my ability to win?' Thundercracker commed, holding Skywarp's gaze.

Skywarp lowered his face, ashamed of his doubt. It was true he usually admired Thundercracker very much, had confidence in him, and had long felt safe in his service. 'It is just – not that I doubt your strength, Thundercracker – Seekers aren't built for this type of combat.' Skywarp dared to look up. Thundercracker was still gazing at him, and seemed regal and imperious as ever.

'It is only Skyquake. I can defeat him. When I win, all the mob will know my strength. Others we have not yet encountered will be inspired to follow or join our cause. Our cause is more important than any one of us. If I take any minor injuries, we are acquainted with doctors enough.'

Scalpel had left with Thunderblast, Skywarp noticed then, but it did remain that Red Alert, Glit and Scalpel were all on peaceful enough terms with the team that they could be called to render services. "I will consider it my task to see that you have adequate support among the crowd, My Lord," Skywarp said aloud. It was important Thundercracker did win, honorably, so the best Skywarp could do for him was provide all the moral support possible, and perhaps in doing so, give Thundercracker such an audience that his ego would drive him to victory for fear of losing face before a gathering of his subordinates. Skywarp would also do his best to gather what information he could on Thundercracker's opponent. Slipstream would have been the most suitable team member to assist with that, if he had not sent her out with Vortex. Otherwise, Skywarp would need to visit Acid Storm and drop Starscream's name to beg for the intel.

"Very good," Thundercracker agreed, understanding that a loss in the arena – a distant possibility only conceivable through his own advanced modeling calculations – meant a loss of reputation in New Kaon, but also lost of reputation and rank within his team. He realized then, Skyquake faced the same risk, and the added risk of losing face before one he wished to court, if Slipstream were present.

Thundercracker hoped, for all their sakes, this matter of a third for their Liege and his Intended, was quickly resolved. Otherwise it would be a continued source of conflict, as everyone them met was potentially courtier or challenger.

And in the short term, Skyquake would be a very motivated opponent.

"Do you want to go refuel and recharge?" Skywarp asked, "Or do you need to study further matches?"

"I wish to observe the upcoming match," Thundercracker said, then continued over private comm, 'I have been informed Monstructor is what they term a gestalt, a group of mechanisms that combine to some larger, collective form, with bonded sparks, or else a mechanism with singular spark and energy split across multiple shells. I am not informed which, but it is some of this Imperial science, in which Starscream was interested.'

Skywarp was also somewhat aware of Starscream's interests, though their Liege and Creator had been overall secretive, simply warning their team that Imperials had developed technologies distinct from Decepticon science; this included their methods of reproduction. It was part of their mission in New Kaon to learn what they may of the Imperials and their plans.

Below, in the arena, Clench announced the next match-up: Monstructor versus a the team of Snaptrap, Seawing and Tentakil. Odds were in slightly in favor of the three aquatic mechs. Monstructor had the ability to separate into six component mechanisms, which would otherwise have seemed to put the odds in their favor, but the six monster mechs were small in comparison to the Seacons.

"I will take you to meet Banzaitron," Thundercracker told Skywarp.

"Yes," Skywarp agreed. He had not been to the arena as often as Thundercracker – the crowds at the local gaming arcades attempted access into subspace pockets and bullied smaller mechanisms, but were still not as frightening as the mob here – but he had paid attention when his leader spoke of his experiences before recharge. Skywarp would have liked if he and Thundercracker could have gotten a lot closer, but that unfortunate kiss had not only stalled all progress, but made them too uncomfortable with their situation to even show the affection they had before. They did not even play the same games they once had.

Barricade would touch him. He was getting more daring about it; Skywarp understood it was very likely done to cause strife. Leaning into him, at the moment Thundercracker approached, so that Thundercracker could see the wings touching. Barricade sometimes outright claimed to want to avoid notice of his superiors, but a lot of his actions said otherwise. Skywarp suspected Barricade wavered in his priorities, between his career and his perverse sense of fun, especially if he was at risk of boredom on the job.

They did have fun together, but if Skywarp let Barricade come between Thundercracker and he, then he lost the game. Skywarp liked games; he was good at them. He really did not like to lose. It was often his fear of losing that kept him driven, when a situation would otherwise paralyse him with fear. So long as he viewed things in the context of a game that had rules and could possibly be won, but had the negative result of loss, the cowardice nicely transformed for him, into a competitive edge. This game was about attachment and loss, about making others feel, without yourself feeling hurt. Skywarp liked that it felt a little...more advanced than the games he had played with Thundercracker. Skywarp was determined to win. He just needed to find a way to get to Barricade, before Barricade could get to him.

Thundercracker wanted to win his match, and Skywarp wanted to win his.

The mob about them seemed only to want carnage. Skywarp wondered whether he should comm Slipstream and Dirge now, to distract himself from the crowd, or remain guarded until he was somewhere safer. Sometimes, he wished he had just slightly more of that narcissism some of the others had, so he would not find it so strange that others looked at him. He was cute, of course, Skywarp thought, but that really served to worsen his anxiety, as he thought his particular faction was not known for a love of the cute.

"Can we go to Japan?" Skywarp asked, the words coming out in English, when he thought about Earth.

Thundercracker replied, a string of mechanical language with 'Nihon' somewhere in the middle. "I understand from 'Japan' the assumption you are making, but there are better times for such discussion."

'I don't like this crowd,' Skywarp commed.

"I do not much like the press of the crowd, myself," Thundercracker agreed, and brushed several camouflage-decoed mechanisms out of his way to reach a staircase to an upper tier. He muttered something about disgraceful, unwashed and lowly. He replied to Skywarp by comm, in English, 'Being both cute and a giant robot, by human standards, should serve you well in Japan.'

Skywarp smiled. He wished Thundercracker could see it, but he was walking in front of him. Instead, Skywarp ran a single claw-tip along the seam between Thundercracker's swallowtails, as he climbed the stairs before him.

The swallowtails fanned slowly open, and then remained guarding Thundercracker's back struts, rather than spread to their most open configuration. That was punishment, Skywarp decided. Slowly fanning tails and teasing glimpses of support struts, circulatory lines and control cables. He wanted badly then to touch, but propriety demanded he restrain himself. Or, Thundercracker would devise an even more severe punishment later. He refused to be that mech who regularly beat and shot his Second, but that did not mean he lacked for means of discipline. He was just: more creative.

Banzaitron saw the two Seeker clones approach his box on the uppermost tier. With monitoring devices places below and output in his box, his view was better than that of those on the sidelines, only he did not have to deal with the splatter and shrapnel that inevitably showered the mob. Thundercracker entered first and then introduced Commander Skywarp as his Second-in-command.

Skywarp bowed slightly to the grey mech with purple and green detailing. He thought Banzaitron might be an aquatic type, though he did not have Thunderblast's distinctive hull-wings. He had, to Skywarp's opinion, a lot of guns mounted for a martial artist. Stormshadow activated, appearing at Skywarp's right leg.

Thundercracker glanced sidelong at Skywarp in obvious suspicion.

Skywarp supposed his anxiousness about meeting the heavily-armed prize-fighter combined Stormshadow's developing interest in martial arts had triggered the activation in autonomous mode.

"It is just Skywarp's plaything," Thundercracker said dismissively.

Banzaitron looked down at the holomatter figure. "Do you put your puppet in fights?" he asked.

New Kaon had every kind of fighting. Skywarp had heard of holomatter combat, at the arcade. There were fights between holomatter combatants, mostly avatars, but some were designed to run from external hardware under remote control, for those who did not like the idea of risking their shells in public, by transferring consciousness. Skywarp was not certain Stormshadow would be legal, given he was AI. He could assume full control and enter him as an avatar, but then it would mean a lot of fighting...and if they found out he was AI, even if not activated, it could cause trouble.

"He's AI," Skywarp said.

"It operates under it's own intelligence."

Thundercracker wished to distract Banzaitron from this subject. "Clench came to me and proposed a match," he said.

"He just commed me as you were coming up," Banzaitron said.

"Skyquake is to be my opponent."

"A lot of guns," Stormshadow said to Skywarp, in Japanese.

"That's what I thought." They did share a processor, partitioned though it was.

"He is master of Crystalocution technique?" Stormshadow asked.

Thundercracker had mentioned this during a discussion before recharge. "Yes." It had come to light, when Thundercracker acquired his swords from Cyclonus, that Starscream had sword fighting protocols, though he did not currently carry such weapons. This was what had enabled Thundercracker and Stormshadow, through Skywarp, to use the weapons. The protocols came with basic level programming in Crystalocution, which Thundercracker had previously directed Stormshadow to use against the bounty hunter Crosswise.

Stormshadow was interested in learning more.

Skywarp gave a nod. "I need to use the comm," he said. He saw that Stormshadow went to Thundercracker's side and stood at his left heel.

Skywarp placed a comm to Dirge. He received the pinged response to confirm the channel was active, but Dirge did not immediately speak to him. 'Dirge.'

No response. Skywarp's comm system said the connection was active and the signal strong.

'Dirge?' Skywarp began to feel anxious. He looked for Thundercracker. He was not looking back toward Skywarp, but standing close with Banzaitron at the railing. What if Dirge was dying again? What if...? 'You are not doing something...disgraceful?'

Dirge's laughter finally transmitted over the comm. He was in Starscream's small lab in the Seeker Research Facility, leaning over one of the workstations. He grinned at Starscream, who was standing opposite. "Starscream hates us to interrupt his lectures," Dirge said aloud, as he let the words transmit directly to Skywarp over comm. He continued his conversation, unspoken, so that Starscream did not hear, 'You know how he gets to monologuing.'

Skywarp laughed. 'I need you to be within the city tomorrow night to provide support for Thundercracker.'

'What do you think of the designation "Hurtlocker"?'

'I'm afraid I have no idea what you are talking about,' Skywarp replied.

Starscream, who could not hear the comm conversation, gestured to Dirge. "You are supposed to be assisting. Hand me that glass rod."

Dirge lifted the rod from a tray on the workstation and leaned forward slightly, as he extended his arm to pass the rod to Starscream. One of the silver masses near Starscream extended toward Dirge's canopy.

'Dirge?' Skywarp called over the comm.

Starscream quickly captured the protomass in a gel-coated claws. "Sample's a little more reactive than I expected," Starscream admitted.

"I think it's a keeper!" Dirge told him, as he carefully twisted to put the glass rod near Starscream, without getting closer to the samples.

Starscream's expression went sly. "Yes. I do, too."

Dirge grinned smugly at his creator, and Starscream mirrored the expression on his faceplate. 'Hurtlocker, for the name of My offspring,' Dirge commed to Skywarp.

'I think it is a little scary...that means it took? You are carrying?'

'That one dispersed,' Dirge commed sadly, and then, 'But I got a new one already! And it's strong!'


'I got the first one. It's mine!' Dirge said proudly, 'Swindle doesn't like the designation; I thought he would.'


'He's picking out weapons systems already, though!'

'That's good,' Skywarp said in a manner that was so like Ramjet's most deadpan statements that it was obvious he did not agree. 'Dirge, I need you to be in the city tomorrow night, to support Thundercracker.'

'Support? My Leader?'

'He's going to fight in the arena against Skyquake.'

Dirge relayed this information to Starscream. "We will go!" Starscream told him, "We will all go show our utmost support for the General!"

'Starscream says-' Dirge started.

'I heard. I think he opened comms to everyone,' Skywarp guessed.

Author's End Note:

Yeah, the first part of the chapter was all a big homage to Megatron Origin 2.

It took me a while to work-out this chapter. Partly things IRL. Partly time sucked-up by an lj RP. Also, feeling that kind of dread that this epic is turning to crack with just how many characters are involved.

I'm trying to get a good focus on the upcoming climax(?). All these parties and factions that have been introduced are all going to converge on New Kaon shortly. The alliances and teams going into that situation may not be the same coming out.

That's not to say we are at the very end, yet. This convergence and conflict will probably take a number of chapters to unfold. And, I actually already know how this little epic ends, and that has something to do with Earth, which means some voyage there, even if not a cycle-by-cycle log of that journey.

I think chapter 40 will include Slipstream, Vortex, Onslaught (what more flatbeds in New Kaon?) and a Quintesson; and have something to do with a journal. The chapter may also include Autobots, but I am not certain of that, yet.