Authors' notes : Dead End makes some new friends and finds a job. He's as surprised as you are. (Warnings for dub-con and mild smut.)

Hat tip to Fire from Above for guessing Motormaster's future occupation way back in Chapter 10, and a friendly wave to the reader who got a shout-out in this chapter – you know who you are!

- anon_decepticon and QoS/mdperera

-Thanks to kookaburra1701 for her support and input!

Crash Course, Chapter 16 : Shifting Gears

Motormaster was late.

To the other Stunticons, being granted an extra hour or two of freedom from their gestalt leader's tyrannical rule was like being handed a cube of high grade. Breakdown and Wildrider were laughing over their game of cards, and Drag Strip had left for work with a smile on his face. But as the night wore on, Dead End found himself growing increasingly uneasy.

It's nothing, he thought. Enjoy the reprieve.

There was no denying their human bodies were fragile – Wildrider's recent injuries were further proof of that – but Motormaster's was larger and stronger than most. Few humans would willingly challenge him, even those who lacked personal knowledge of just how brutal and sadistic Motormaster could be. Anyone foolish enough to try would be inviting a world of pain.

But even so, Dead End couldn't help glancing at their new chronometer with steadily increasing frequency, watching the minutes tick by as one hour turned into two, and two became three.

It was somewhat ironic that they were all still awake. Had Motormaster been home, he'd have ordered them into recharge hours ago. But Dead End couldn't bring himself to move from his spot on the couch. Breakdown wouldn't go to bed without him, and Wildrider hated to be alone, so both of them remained close at hand, playing every variation of human card game they could think of. Not having anything better to do, Dead End joined them.

He couldn't really concentrate on the game, though. If Motormaster returned to find them like this, playing human games instead of recharging, he would most certainly be…displeased. Not having jobs meant they had nowhere to be in the morning, but Motormaster didn't appreciate being reminded of that. He'd made it clear that if they weren't working, they should at least make good use of their idle time.

Dead End debated ordering Breakdown and Wildrider to bed himself, just to minimize the collateral damage. He didn't relish the thought of bearing the brunt of Motormaster's wrath alone, but it was better than the alternative. There were limits to how far Motormaster would push him, lines he wouldn't cross with Dead End that weren't in place for the others.

He checked the clock again. Nearly 2 am. Drag Strip would be returning from work within half an hour.

What then? he wondered. A feeling uncomfortably akin to dread welled up in his spark. He didn't know.

He's just late, Dead End told himself, refusing to pursue that line of thought any further. In a few minutes he'll walk through that door and slag us all for wasting valuable time.

As if the very thought had summoned him, Motormaster's heavy tread sounded in the hallway outside. The soft click of the key turning in the lock seemed unnaturally loud in the sudden hush that fell over them.

They looked up just in time to see Motormaster entering the apartment, but looked away again quickly when his forbidding glare swept over them. They waited, tense and wary, for him to do or say something, but Motormaster didn't rebuke them for playing pointless human games at such a late hour, nor offered any explanation for his tardiness. He moved past them without a word, heading for his room.

Breakdown and Wildrider breathed mutual sighs of relief. Dead End frowned, rearranging the cards in his hand. Motormaster paused in the hallway just short of the threshold.

"Dead End."

"Hmm?" Dead End replied absently, glancing up from his cards. Wildrider and Breakdown looked up as well, turning to regard their leader's broad back with wary optics.

Motormaster didn't turn around, nor did he respond. He simply jerked his head in the direction of his room and then stepped inside, closing the door behind him.

"Ah," Dead End said, catching on. He laid down his cards and got to his feet, handing his drink to Breakdown. "Duty calls."

Breakdown and Wildrider exchanged a look. "Do you want us to wait up for you?" Breakdown asked.

"Not necessary," he replied, crossing the room at an unhurried pace. "Finish the game without me."

Motormaster had already shed his clothes by the time Dead End entered the room and shut the door. He stood waiting by the foot of the bed, his human interface equipment standing at full attention.

Dead End vented a little sigh of resignation and began removing his own clothing, peeling off his shirt and dropping it on the floor. Their bodies may have changed, but some things had obviously remained the same.

Motormaster watched him wordlessly as he stripped to the skin and lay down on the berth, flat on his back with his arms held loosely at his sides. The mattress creaked ponderously beneath Motormaster's weight as he moved to join him.

Dead End lifted his chin as Motormaster settled on top of him, turning his head to one side to avoid being smothered by Motormaster's broad, hairy chestplate. Even in human form Motormaster was remarkably heavy, and exuded heat like a furnace. Even though Dead End was lying completely motionless beneath him, he immediately began to sweat.

Resigned to his fate, Dead End stared up at the water-stained ceiling, hoping Motormaster didn't intend to draw this out any longer than necessary. But for a long moment Motormaster did nothing at all, and Dead End realized belatedly that he probably had no idea how to frag him as a human. Certainly none of the others would have volunteered to show him, making this otherwise familiar scenario doubly awkward.

He could have said no, of course. Motormaster had learned a long time ago that it was pointless to force his cooperation. But he'd found other ways to ensure Dead End's compliance – if he refused, Motormaster would single out one of the others for his attentions and vent his anger on them. If he was feeling particularly malicious, he'd force Dead End to watch.

Venting another sigh, Dead End shifted his hips slightly in a small, halfhearted grind. Fortunately Motormaster caught on quickly, mimicking his movement – uncertainly at first, then with greater confidence – and within a few moments established a rhythm that seemed to work for him.

Dead End stoically endured his efforts, promising himself a visit to the washrack when Motormaster was through. Motormaster smelled of cigarettes, stale perfume and human musk, and Dead End couldn't help wondering where he'd been, and if it had anything to do with why Motormaster had chosen to call on him.

That thought stirred another one, reminding Dead End that only a short time ago he'd been wondering whether Motormaster would return at all. An odd feeling of relief passed through him, leaching some of the tension from his muscles. Suddenly having Motormaster's weight pinning him to the mattress didn't seem quite so unpleasant.

Seized by a peculiar urge, he reached up and laid a hand on Motormaster's arm, sliding it up to rest on his shoulder. The heat of Motormaster's skin and the sensation of solid muscle flexing beneath his fingers was strangely reassuring.

Motormaster stiffened at the touch, pausing in his rhythm to glance down at the hand on his shoulder as if it were some new strange form of life he'd never seen before. Then he turned to look at Dead End, his optics narrowed in suspicion.

Dead End met his gaze with a placid expression, offering neither explanation nor apology. His grip on Motormaster's shoulder tightened marginally.

Motormaster eyed him for a moment, then huffed and resumed his rhythm, his ventilations quickening.

Dead End returned his gaze to the ceiling and once more settled in to wait, noting idly that the largest of the water stains looked vaguely like Ratbat, provided his head and part of his right wing were missing. The mattress creaked.

Motormaster grunted, groping at his leg, and Dead End parted them, allowing Motormaster to slip between his sweat-slickened thighs as he continued to ride him. It should have been revolting, and yet somehow it wasn't.

That's odd. Dead End frowned, puzzled by his own response. There was nothing about this encounter that should have remotely appealed to him. As a mech, being pinned to a berth and used by Motormaster was an unpleasant duty he'd grudgingly tolerated for the sake of the team. As a human, it should have been even more repugnant. But for some reason, the extended intimate contact was somehow comforting in a way he'd never associated with an act so inherently physical.

There were no secrets within a gestalt. When you'd been inside another mech's head, personal boundaries became immaterial. No form of physical contact could begin to compare with the overwhelming intimacy of the gestalt link –


That was the answer, he realized. The reason why they all seemed to crave physical contact with one another, and why the thought of being separated was so supremely terrifying. The gestalt link had been a reality of their existence from the moment they'd first come online, a constant, unchanging reminder that they were all merely part of a greater whole.

And now that link was gone, leaving them alone inside their own heads in a way they'd never been, striving to push back the aching void of loneliness that came with being one where they had once been many. No wonder even Motormaster had finally succumbed to the lure of human interfacing. This, Dead End realized, was all they had left to hold on to.

A soft, sorrowful sound escaped his vocalizer even as his body relaxed, his muscles going limp in surrender. It didn't matter that Motormaster was heavy, or hairy, or dripping with sweat. Some part of Dead End needed to feel his presence, regardless of form.

It was galling and somewhat embarrassing to think that for once he didn't mind being used like this, but Dead End took a measure of comfort in the knowledge that Motormaster probably hated it even more. Motormaster had always held himself apart from the rest of them, confident that they needed him, not the other way around. But in the absence of the gestalt link, Motormaster could no longer pretend to be an independent entity. Even though he despised all things human, in the end he too had been reduced to this, this sweaty, sticky, distasteful act of human interfacing.

Dead End's suspicions were confirmed when Motormaster finally finished and slumped over him in sated exhaustion. He didn't immediately rise or order Dead End out of his quarters, but instead remained where he was, his face tucked into the space between Dead End's neck and shoulder, breathing heavily.

Dead End indulged him, waiting until Motormaster's ventilations slowed before he spoke.

"How much money do we have?" he asked.

"Not enough," Motormaster replied. His voice was muffled, his breath hot against Dead End's skin. "It's taking too slagging long."

"Perhaps it's time to consider Plan B," he said.

Motormaster pushed himself up onto his elbows to frown at him, his brow furrowing in consternation. "What's Plan B?"

"I don't know," he said, his gaze roving over the ceiling. "Perhaps it's time we came up with one."

Motormaster made a derisive noise. "Helpful as always."

Dead End ignored the jibe. "Wildrider keeps getting fired; the humans think he's a menace. Breakdown can't face another interview. Drag Strip seems to be maintaining his position, but his earnings alone won't be enough."

Motormaster's eyes narrowed. "What about you?"

"I've been looking," he said with a diffident shrug. "But it's pointless without documentation. They all want an ID, or a resume –"

"So write one," Motormaster said. "Use all those big words you're so fond of."

Dead End huffed, rolling his optics. "I suppose you think it's all just coincidence that only Drag Strip has managed to gain employment thus far?"

"So has Wildrider, even if he's too slagging crazy to keep it," Motormaster retorted. "And so have I."

Dead End blinked. "You found work? Doing what?"

"Security," Motormaster said. "At a club. So I don't wanna hear any more excuses."

Dead End stared at him for a long moment, then sighed, turning his head away and letting his hand fall from Motormaster's shoulder. "So that's what you were doing," he said. "And here I thought you were dead."

Motormaster didn't seem to know how to respond to that. For a second it seemed as if he'd forgotten how to breathe. Then he scoffed. "Anytime someone's late, you think they deactivated in a fiery crash. Or are rusting quietly in a ditch somewhere."

Dead End gave him a pointed look, arching a sober eyebrow.

Motormaster hesitated, then lifted himself off of him – Finally, Dead End thought – and swung his legs over the side of the bed, sitting up. He reached for the pair of jeans he'd left discarded on the floor and dug into the pocket, extracting a wad of bills and peeling off a twenty. Turning back to Dead End, he held it out to him. "Here. Get yourself one of those human wax jobs Drag Strip was going on about."

Dead End resisted the urge to smirk, knowing Motormaster had no idea what human waxing involved. But he took the money. Motormaster wasn't given to acts of benevolent generosity, and Dead End wasn't about to question this one.

After a quick trip to the washrack, he headed back to the room he shared with Breakdown, his clothes folded neatly over one arm. He was mildly surprised to find it unoccupied since he hadn't heard voices from the common room. Putting his clothes away, he turned toward the empty bed…and frowned.

He didn't want to sleep there alone.

At least now I know why, he thought as he returned to the hallway and quietly pushed open the door to Wildrider and Drag Strip's room. Both Wildrider and Drag Strip were in it, tangled together on the bed in a sprawl of limbs with Breakdown in the middle, all of them deep in recharge.

Shaking his head, Dead End joined them, squeezing in alongside Drag Strip on the overcrowded mattress. Draping an arm across him, he offlined his optics and let the soft sounds of their quiet ventilations lull him into recharge.

He was beginning to think the universe was conspiring against him.

Dead End had spent the better part of the day roaming the city looking for work, but once again his efforts had failed to come to fruition. And he couldn't understand why.

Drag Strip and Motormaster had both found work. Wildrider may have had trouble remaining employed, but he had being hired almost down to a science. Breakdown had his paranoia and malapropisms as an excuse for his failure to find a job, but Dead End lacked neither confidence nor erudition.

And he'd done everything he could think of to bolster his chances of success. He'd groomed himself meticulously, used the money Motormaster had given him to supplement his wardrobe with a black blazer of the sort human employers were said to like. He'd even typed up a resume at the local employment center – 1985 to Present: Conflict Resolution, Navigational Data Analysis. Duties included giving practical advice that was largely ignored and taking the blame for others' failures. References attached. – yet none of it seemed towork.

Worst of all, the continuous rejections day after day were beginning to wear on him, to chip away at his normally unshakeable self-esteem. Dead End knew he couldn't be faulted for not having identification or the other forms of paperwork most humans had given that he hadn't been human up until a week ago, but some of his potential employers hadn't asked for those things. They'd simply looked at his resume, asked him a few questions, and then made vague statements about how he "wouldn't be a good fit," or "probably wouldn't be happy" working there.

Those remarks were the ones Dead End found most troubling, the ones that sowed the first tiny seeds of doubt within him. He was certain he'd accounted for all of the external obstacles preventing him from acquiring a job – at least the ones he could account for – but lately he'd begun to suspect there was something about him personally that was barring him from success.

Perhaps it's because I'm so hideously ugly, he thought, catching a glimpse of his reflection in a store window and pausing to examine it. He hated his human face. The pale skin and maroon hair were a mocking reminder of his former paint scheme, and his optics were the faded green of the money they didn't have.

The door to the shop opened and a pair of humans exited, bringing with them the rich scent of coffee that wafted from within. His fuel tank made that peculiar rumbling noise Dead End had come to associate with the need to refuel. He felt in his pocket for the pathetic handful of bills he had remaining, money he'd saved to spare himself a long walk back to the apartment at the end of the day.

Perhaps just one cup of coffee, he thought. He had enough money for that.

A set of tiny bells jingled as he entered the shop and looked around. It appeared to be some form of eating establishment, but not a deli like the one near their base, or one of the fancier restaurants where he'd sought employment. It was smaller, and darker, the air hazy with cigarette smoke from the handful of human patrons clustered around tiny tables packed in close together. It seemed like a curious blend of restaurant, bakery and library; shelves of books lined the walls in-between faded chairs and couches, and at the far end stood a glass counter displaying a variety of baked goods.

And coffee. Nearly every human present had a cup in their hand, and the scent of it was unmistakable. Dead End approached the counter and stared in bewilderment at the massive blackboard behind it listing the options available – what on Earth is chai? he wondered.

"Can I get you something?" the woman behind the counter asked.

"Coffee," he replied.

She grinned. "You're gonna need to be a little more specific than that. What kind of coffee?"

"Black coffee?" he ventured.

"Regular or espresso?"

Dead End blinked. "Just coffee," he said. "In a cup."

The woman's eyes twinkled with amusement. "One coffee, coming right up."

Once he'd gotten his coffee, Dead End settled into one of the unoccupied couches, perusing the titles on the nearby bookshelf as he drank. Some of them he'd already read, and a few others looked intriguing, but he knew he couldn't remain long enough to read any of them, and he didn't have enough money left to purchase one.

Motormaster would probably slag me if I did, he consoled himself. He retrieved his human visor from his jacket pocket and slipped it on. Indoors he'd discovered they made it difficult to see, but wearing them put him more at ease. With that and the coffee – which was surprisingly good – he was able to relax and enjoy his momentary respite.

"Man, I swear the entire universe is out to get me!"

Dead End looked up as the human who'd spoken flopped down on the couch beside him, dropping a bag full of books on the floor at his feet. He was clad in black jeans and a tshirt with the word bauhaus printed across the front, and carrying a cup of coffee. He didn't appear to be addressing Dead End specifically, but there were no other humans nearby.

"It probably is," he said. "That seems to be its nature."

"Yeah, no kidding," the human replied. "I lent my PolySci textbook to this guy in my class, and now he's saying he lost it. Then my roommate goes and spills his beer all over my course notes. And finals are next week! I'm screwed."

I'm an alien robot trapped in a human body, Dead End thought, and no one will give me a job. Out loud he said, "Perhaps you'll contract a terminal disease before then."

The human nodded, taking a sip of his coffee. "Yeah, like cancer or something. That'd be good." He frowned. "No, wait – that could take months to kill me. My exam's next week."

"A fatal accident, perhaps?" Dead End suggested. "Fire, or an explosion?"

"Food poisoning?" the human replied. "Drown in the bathtub?"

"A fall from the roof of a very high building," Dead End volunteered.

"Nah, too messy," the human said. "I'd end up splattered all over the sidewalk. I wanna look good when I die."

Dead End turned to look at him in surprise. "So do I."

The human grinned, regarding him with renewed interest. "So what's your name?"

"Dead End," he replied automatically, and then cursed himself for his own stupidity. He'd answered without thinking, forgetting to use his human alias. His mind raced, trying to come up with a plausible reason why he'd introduced himself with such a clearly non-human designation.

"Wow, that's really cool," the human said. "I tried to get my friends to call me Macabre once, but they just said I was being stupid." He shrugged sheepishly. "My real name's Trevor."

"Mine is…Dan," Dead End replied, inwardly breathing a sigh of relief.

Trevor smiled, his cheeks flushing pink. "I like Dead End better."

"So do I," Dead End replied. Motormaster will slag me if he ever finds out. "But you should probably call me Dan."

Trevor opened his mouth to reply, but was interrupted by the raised voices of a couple who'd been conversing at a table not far from them.

"How can you say starving children aren't important?" the man demanded. He was rather scruffy-looking in Dead End's opinion, and appeared not to have shaved in days.

"I'm not saying they're not important," the woman said, tossing her long, straight hair over her shoulder. "I'm just saying the hole in ozone layer is more important!"

"Some mother you'd be," the man replied with a sneer. "You'd let innocent children go hungry!"

"It won't matter if they're starving if they can't breathe," she retorted. "The hole in the ozone layer affects everyone! If it gets any bigger, the whole planet could die!"

Dead End huffed in annoyance. He heard enough yelling back at their base. "This planet is only one of billions," he said. "Nothing more than a speck of dust in the universe. If it died, none of the others would care. They wouldn't even notice it was gone."

The man and woman turned to stare at him – everyone was staring at him, Dead End realized. The other customers who'd been watching the couple fight were now all looking at him.

"Whoa, man," a male wearing a black turtleneck said. "That's like…deep."

"See, that's exactly what I'm talking about," said the woman with the long hair. "You have to look at the big picture!"

"Tell us more," added a woman sharing a table with the man in the turtleneck.

Dead End blinked, perplexed. Motormaster would have just told him to shut up, but every human in the shop was nodding in agreement. Even Trevor was staring up at him with something like awe. "You want me to say…more?"

"Yeah, man," the man in the turtleneck said. "Lay it on us."

He'd told them more. He'd waxed philosophical about the overall futility of life for over an hour, and they'd hung on his every word, ordering more coffee for themselves and occasionally for him as well. Dead End couldn't believe it. He was talking, and people were actually listening.

They begged him not to leave, and Trevor even asked for his phone number, but Dead End knew he couldn't afford to linger. There were only a few short hours left in the day, and he still hadn't found a job. He didn't savor the notion of returning to the base to report yet another failure to Motormaster. He was quite certain any goodwill he might have earned with his gestalt leader would quickly vanish when Motormaster heard that news.

So he made his apologies and prepared to depart, much to the disappointment of his inexplicable group of admirers. But before he left, he decided to pay one last visit to the counter to pick up a business card. He didn't trust his human processor to retain the shop's address, and he had a feeling he might like to return here someday.

"You really had that crowd riveted," the woman behind the counter said as he neared it. "I'm sorry you have to leave. I hope you'll come visit us again sometime."

"Perhaps I will, once I've found work," he replied.

"You're looking for a job?" she asked.

"Unfortunately, yes."

"Well, I don't know what kind of work you're looking for," she said, "but I'd hire you in a hot minute."

Dead End arched a brow in surprise. "What would the job entail?"

"Making drinks and running the register, mostly," she said. "But really your job would be to do what you were doing just now – keeping the customers in the shop so they'll order more coffee."

It sounded too good to be true, which meant it probably was. Might as well get it over with, he thought. "I don't have any documentation."

"Oh," she said, just as Dead End had known she would. But then she glanced around, and spoke in a lower register. "You foreign?" she asked. "I noticed you have an accent."

His former frame had come from Germany, and Dead End supposed being sparked on Cybertron made him as foreign as he could be. So he nodded.

"No green card or work visa, I take it?"

He shook his head. He wasn't even sure what those things were.

She considered for a moment, glancing around again. "Well, I guess I could pay you under the table," she said, her voice dropping to a whisper. "But I can't offer you any benefits, and I can only pay you in cash."

For a second Dead End was too stunned to speak. But he recovered quickly. "Cash will do nicely."

She beamed brightly at that. "Then I guess that makes me your new boss. My name's Paula, what's yours?"

He wasn't about to make the same mistake twice. "Dan Deed."

"Welcome aboard, Dan," Paula said. "You know how to make a latte?"