Authors' notes : Thanks to everyone for the reviews - those made our day! It's great to know that so many people are enjoying the story. :)

Chapter summary : Things start to heat up, and Dead End loses his cool…along with a few other things.

- anon_decepticon and QoS/mdperera

-Thanks to kookaburra1701 for her support and input!

Chapter 19 : Hitting a Speed Bump

The door to the apartment building struck the wall with a bang as Dead End shot through it, taking all four front steps in a single leap. The bus stop was only two blocks away, but he knew if he missed it he'd have to wait for the next one, delaying his arrival at work by over fifteen minutes.

Even so, he forced himself to adopt a slightly more dignified pace as he mounted the sidewalk, resisting the urge to break into a run. Their recent visitors might still be in the vicinity, and he didn't want to give them the satisfaction of knowing they'd made him late.

He scowled at the thought of them as he set out in a brisk, ground-eating stride, sidestepping to avoid an elderly female human wheeling a metal cart filled with groceries. Perhaps it was just a lingering trace of Decepticon territoriality surfacing, but Dead End hadn't liked having strangers in their apartment.

Drag Strip should never have let them in. Motormaster certainly wouldn't have, but he'd gone out early that morning to buy food and ammunition for the shotgun. Wildrider had been asleep, and Breakdown had been too unnerved by the humans' presence to leave their bedroom.

Under normal circumstances, Dead End would have been content to simply ignore them; he'd been far more concerned with getting himself ready to report to work on time. But then he'd seen the look on Drag Strip's face.

He didn't know what the humans had said to him, but he knew Drag Strip well enough to know it had cut to the chrome. Poking holes in Drag Strip's ego had always been something of a sport for Dead End, but he wasn't about to stand by and allow a couple of humans to do the same.

To his relief, he arrived at the bus stop just as it pulled up, and was able to board without further difficulty. That was fortunate; he didn't want to risk getting fired after less than two weeks of gainful employment. They may have succeeded in acquiring a computer, but that hadn't ended their monetary woes.

If anything, they'd gotten worse.

Motormaster continued to insist that they'd never have to repay the human loan shark, but Dead End didn't share his optimism. They'd missed the due date of their first interest payment two days ago, and that very same night the phone began to ring.

The first time, Motormaster answered it. He'd listened for a moment in grim silence, then hung up without a word. It rang again almost immediately, but Motormaster didn't pick up a second time, and forbade any of them from doing the same. It continued to ring for over an hour, until Motormaster finally unplugged it and ordered them all into recharge.

Dead End had obeyed along with the others, but he knew it wouldn't end there. Sooner or later the human Motormaster was ignoring would come looking for his money, and Motormaster's proposed solution – to kill the human with the gun he'd acquired – only promised more trouble. If robbing humans was bad, murdering them was worse, and not just because of the mess it would make in their apartment.

The bus jerked to a halt with a hiss of pneumatic brakes, jolting him from his reverie. Shaking his head, Dead End rose and disembarked, setting his doubts aside. It was Motormaster's idea to borrow that money, he thought grimly. Let him worry about how we're going to repay it.

"In the end, everything dies," he said. "Insects, people, planets. Even the stars will burn out eventually. In all the universe, only death remains constant and unchanging. Nothing escapes its grasp."

"That's actually sort of comforting," Trevor said. "At least something's permanent."

"Indeed," he replied. It was late afternoon, and only a handful of customers remained in the shop, lingering over their espressos and lattes. Dead End had just finished clearing his last table when Trevor came in for his usual cup of coffee and asked if he had time to talk. After an inquiring glance at Paula – who'd smiled and nodded indulgently – Dead End had joined the human at his table.

"You're really smart," Trevor was saying. "Where did you go to school?"

Dead End hesitated, wondering how much of the truth was safe to reveal. "I didn't."

"Oh," Trevor said, looking nonplussed. "So where are you from?"

"Where are any of us from?" he replied evasively, picking up the remains of the sugar packets Trevor had emptied into his coffee and rolling them into a ball between his fingers. "That's the real question."

"Yeah, but –"

"Sorry to interrupt you two," Paula said, "but it's almost closing time."

Dead End looked up, and realized all of the other customers had gone. He hadn't even noticed them leaving. He got up quickly and began wiping down the nearest table, making a belated attempt to look busy.

Trevor flushed. "Guess I've worn out my welcome," he said with a sheepish glance at Dead End. He rose and picked up his bag, slinging it over his shoulder. "Will you be working tomorrow?"

Dead End looked at Paula. She nodded. "I'll be here," he said.

"Cool," Trevor said. "Then I, uh – I guess I'll see you then."

Paula grinned, glancing at Dead End. "If you'd like to stick around a little longer, it's all right by me," she told Trevor. "As much as you've been hanging around here lately, I'd consider you a regular."

Trevor's flush deepened. "Well, if you really don't mind…" he muttered, fumbling with his bag.

"Not at all," Paula said, her eyes twinkling mischievously. "I already flipped the sign." She looked at Dead End. "I'm gonna go close out the register. Would you mind taking out the trash?"

"If I must," he replied. He'd made the mistake of expressing distaste for that particular task on his first day, and Paula had teased him about it ever since.

"What a trooper," she said with a grin. "Don't get your hands too dirty."

Dead End made a show of rolling his optics as he headed back behind the counter to where the trash was kept. "If I come down with some terminal disease, I'm holding you personally responsible," he called back over his shoulder.

"We all gotta go sometime," she replied cheerfully.

It wasn't that bad, to be honest. Most of the trash that accumulated over the course of a day consisted of crumpled napkins, paper cups, and plastic eating utensils – nothing he couldn't handle. Given the choice between taking a couple bags of trash out to a dumpster once in a while and having to look for another job, Dead End preferred the former.

I've had worse duties, he thought as he wrestled the bulky bags out the side door and lugged them over to the dumpster in the alley that ran alongside the building. He didn't really mind Paula's teasing either, although he'd been puzzled when she'd said that taking out the trash was "man's work." The bags weren't that heavy.

I wonder who did it before she hired me? he thought as he lowered the dumpster's lid with a clang and turned to head back down the alley.

He never saw it coming.

The first blow took him in the stomach, doubling him over and forcing the air from his lungs. The second came when he tried to straighten, slamming into the side of his face with enough strength behind it to knock him off his feet.

He hit the ground hard, his vision flickering in and out, threatening to give way to darkness. Dazed and half-blinded by pain, for a moment all he could do was lie there gasping for air, his processor reeling.

A pair of hands grabbed him by the lapels of his jacket as he struggled to breathe, hauling him up and shoving him against the alley wall. A second set of hands began rifling through his pockets.

Two. There were two of them, and they were human. Dead End squinted, trying to identify who they were, but his left optic didn't seem to be functioning, and the other refused to focus. The entire left side of his face felt like it was on fire.

"Nothing," a male voice said, thick with disgust. "Six bucks and a pair of sunglasses."

The hands holding him up jerked him away from the wall, and once more he was thrown to the ground. He landed facedown in the trash-strewn alleyway, a booted foot impacting against his side when he attempted to rise. He opted not to try again.

Something clicked to the ground a few inches from his face. His human visor. A handful of bills fluttered down beside it.

"Listen up, fag," the voice said. "Tell your boyfriend Mr. Ominsky wants his money."

Ah, he thought. I should have known.

With that, the two humans turned and left, one pausing to deliver a final parting kick before stepping over him. Humiliation burned through his circuits. They hadn't even bothered to rob him.

He thought about shutting down, of retreating into that dark, apathetic space where nothing mattered and conscious thought didn't exist. But he didn't want to be found like this, lying facedown in an alley next to a dumpster like a piece of human refuse. Bracing his hands under him, he attempted to push himself upright.

The alley dipped and swayed drunkenly, and he slumped back to the ground, feeling something give way beneath him with a soft crunch. For a moment he wondered if he'd broken something vital, but then realized he'd fallen on his discarded visor.

Get up, he thought. You don't want them to find you like this.

He took a moment to gather his strength, and tried again. This time he was successful, and managed to sit up. After glancing around to confirm the two humans were gone, he began taking stock of his injuries. The left side of his face felt hot and swollen, and his ribs ached where his attackers had kicked him.

Mr. Ominsky wants his money, they'd said. It was Motormaster who'd borrowed it, Motormaster who'd angered the human by refusing to pay. But it wasn't Motormaster kneeling here amid the garbage wondering how badly damaged he was. It was him.

It was always him.

After a moment's deliberation, he retrieved the money his assailants had rejected. It may have been beneath their notice, but he was in no shape to return to the apartment on foot. That accomplished, he carefully pulled himself to his feet, using the alley wall for support.

The door to the coffeehouse was only a few yards away. It might as well have been miles. Slowly he inched his way towards it, clutching his injured ribs. After what seemed like an eternity, his fingers closed over the handle.

"See, you survived – oh my God," Paula said as he staggered through the door. Trevor looked up as well, his eyes widening as he caught sight of Dead End.

They were at his side almost instantly, Trevor taking most of his weight as they helped him to a couch. Dead End sank down onto it gratefully, relieved to be off his feet.

Both humans spoke at once.

"What happened?" Paula asked.

"Did you get mugged?" Trevor said.

Dead End shook his head. Talking seemed like too much effort.

Trevor ran over to the door, hauling it open and peering out into the alley. "I don't see anyone," he said after a moment, allowing the door to swing shut again. "I guess he got away."

"I'm calling the police," Paula said, turning back towards the counter.

Dead End's head jerked up. "No," he said, wincing at the sudden movement. "No police."

She halted in mid-stride. "Oh. Right, bad idea." She glanced at Trevor, then back to him. "Is, um…is there someone else I can call? To help you get back home?"

"I'll do it," Trevor said. "I'll take him. I've got enough money for a cab."

Paula looked at Dead End, her expression uncertain. "That okay with you?"

Dead End hesitated, not sure how to respond. The offer of a cab ride home was more appealing than the bus, but he didn't think it would be wise to reveal where they lived. Trevor already knew his real name, and seeing the other Stunticons might offer the human too many clues about who they really were. But calling one of the others here would have the same effect.

Maybe just as far as the building, he reasoned. He won't know which apartment is ours.

"All right," he said.

He held off on divulging their address until after Trevor had hailed a cab, hoping that would give the human less time to commit it to memory. Over the past two weeks, Trevor had displayed a marked interest in Dead End's personal details, from his favorite foods to his preferred type of music. His curiosity was a little unnerving.

"Did you get a good look at the guy who attacked you?" Trevor asked as the cab pulled away from the curb. "How much money did he get?"

"None," he said. "And there were two of them."

"They didn't take your wallet?"

I don't have a wallet, he thought wryly. Aloud he said, "No."

Trevor gave him a puzzled look. "So…what did they want?"

Dead End shifted uneasily, glancing at the cab driver. "I don't know."

Trevor frowned, but didn't say anything more for the rest of the trip. When the cab stopped outside their apartment building, Dead End got out. To his dismay, so did Trevor.

"So this is where you live?" Trevor asked as the cab drove off.

"Yes," he said, uncertain how to proceed. If he went inside, would Trevor try to follow? "Thank you for the ride," he added, hoping the human would take the hint and leave.

"No problem," Trevor replied with a shrug. "You sure you don't want to call the cops?"

"I'm sure," he said.

"Why do you think those guys jumped you?" Trevor persisted. "Did they say anything?"

During the course of their previous conversations, Trevor had demonstrated his intelligence more than once, but at the moment Dead End found himself wishing the human were a little less curious. "Nothing of import," he said. He frowned, recalling what his assailants had said to him. "What does 'fag' mean?"

Trevor gave him a startled look. "You mean you don't know?"

He shook his head. "No. Should I?"

Trevor shrugged, looking vaguely apologetic. "It's, uh, sort of an insult," he said. "It means you like to sleep with other guys."

Dead End blinked. "How would they know that?"

Trevor grinned. "Well in your case, it's kind of obvious. I knew it from the moment I saw you."

Dead End stared at him, feeling more than a little disturbed. How could the humans who had assaulted him known about their sleeping arrangements? For that matter, how could Trevor? The only humans they'd permitted inside their base were Doug, the landlord, and the couple Drag Strip had let in that morning. "How?" he asked.

"Gaydar, man," Trevor said. "You can just tell."

"Ah," Dead End replied, struggling not to sound as bewildered as he felt. Did humans have some form of radar, like the one he'd used to have?

"Don't worry, I'm not gonna beat you up for it," Trevor said, edging closer to him. His voice dropped to a whisper. "Might like to do a couple other things, though."

"Like what?" he asked, eyeing him warily. Why was Trevor standing so close?

"Like this," Trevor said, putting his mouth on his.

Dead End froze, too startled to react. He'd seen enough human movies to understand what Trevor was doing; what he didn't understand was why Trevor was doing it to him. He tried to pull away, but Trevor reached up to cup his uninjured cheek, preventing his retreat.

He opened his mouth to protest, and Trevor's tongue slid past his lips. His breath caught in his throat, his fuel pump giving an odd lurch as Trevor deepened the kiss, his tongue dipping in and withdrawing.

It was a curious sensation, liquid and melting, like drinking warm energon. Swallowing nervously, Dead End offlined his optics and attempted to respond in kind.

Seemingly encouraged, Trevor pressed in closer, his lips hot and demanding. His other hand came to rest on Dead End's waist. Dead End yielded to him, his fuel pump pounding in his chest, offering no resistance until Trevor's fingers trailed over his injured side, making him flinch and recoil, severing the kiss.

"Sorry!" Trevor said, drawing back hastily. "I forgot you were –"

Dead End blinked at him in confusion. "Why did you do that?"

"I didn't mean to," Trevor said abashedly. "I guess I just got a little carried away."

"Not that," he said.

"Oh." Color crept into Trevor's pale cheeks. "Because I like you."

Dead End stared at him. "Ah." No one had ever actually said that to him before. Not even Breakdown. "All right."

Trevor grinned broadly at that, leaning in close again.

This time, Dead End didn't try to pull away.

After saying goodnight to Trevor, Dead End returned to their apartment. He had a bad moment when he paused to retrieve his key, worried that his attackers might have taken it, but it was right in his pocket where he'd left it. He was about to fit it into the lock when the door flew open, revealing an incensed-looking Breakdown.

For a moment they stared at each other in mutual surprise, Breakdown's angry expression morphing into one of shock at the sight of his injuries. "What the frag happened?" he asked.

Dead End sighed. Suddenly he didn't want to deal with any of it. "May I come in?"

"Oh, sorry," Breakdown said, reminding him inexplicably of Trevor. He stepped aside, allowing Dead End to enter, shutting the door behind him.

By now the other Stunticons had realized something was amiss, but Dead End kept his optics on the floor as he moved silently to the center of the room and waited.

He heard the slow scrape of a chair sliding back, followed by heavy footsteps. A large hand seized hold of his chin, forcing his head up and to the side. He submitted to the unwanted inspection, his optics narrowing as Motormaster assessed his injuries.

"Who did this?" Motormaster asked, his voice deceptively soft.

Dead End yanked his chin free of Motormaster's grip. "You did."

Motormaster blinked. "What?"

"This is your doing," he said. "That human you made an agreement with wants his money - the money you said we'd never have to pay. This is the price for ignoring him. But you're not the one who's paying it."

Motormaster's expression darkened, his face flushing with rage. "I'll tear that fragger apart," he said quietly.

"Or you could just keep on ignoring him," Dead End replied, gazing up at the ceiling. "I doubt you'll ever have to face the consequences – not while we're around to do it for you." He looked back at Motormaster, pinning him with a cold accusing glare. "I wonder who will be next? Breakdown? Drag Strip?"

Motormaster's arm swung up, his hand balling into a fist. Someone in the room gasped, but Dead End felt only icy indifference. "Or me again?"

Motormaster's fist halted abruptly, hanging frozen in midair.

"Go ahead." Dead End lifted his chin slightly. "Hit me. You can both take turns."

Motormaster's fist trembled, the muscles in his arm coiled like a spring –but then it dropped limply to his side.

Dead End arched a brow. "No? Then we're done here."

With that, he turned and walked out, returning to his room.

Breakdown came in a few minutes later and sat down on the bed beside him. "I brought some ice for your face."

Dead End held out a hand, not bothering to open his eyes. A cold, lumpy wad of paper towels was placed in it. He lifted it to his face, resting it against his swollen optic. "Thank you."

"Motormaster went out somewhere," Breakdown said. "He looked really mad."

"What a shame," he replied. "I do hope nothing unfortunate happens to him."

Breakdown didn't respond, but Dead End could hear him fidgeting. Several minutes ticked by in uneasy silence. Gradually the ice against his cheek became too cold to bear, so he transferred the bundle to his side.

"Who was that human?" Breakdown asked.

"What human?" he replied.

"The one I saw you with outside," Breakdown said.

"Oh." He'd forgotten about Trevor. "Someone from work. He wanted to make sure I made it home intact."

"Is that why you were kissing him?" Breakdown asked.

That made him open his eyes. Breakdown's tone had sounded almost…accusatory. Dead End shifted on the mattress, trying to find a position that didn't hurt. "No."

"Then why were you?"

He shrugged, wincing as the movement sent a flicker of pain down his side. "He seemed to want to."

Breakdown was silent for a moment, his posture stiff, his hands folded tightly in his lap. "Did you?"

He huffed irritably. "This is verging on an interrogation, Breakdown."

"And you're virgin on fragging around outside the team," Breakdown retorted, the anger lurking in his tone boiling to the surface. "What are you kissing some human for? He's not one of us."

"The word is 'verging,'" Dead End corrected him automatically. "And I'm not fragging anyone until my ribs heal."

Breakdown opened his mouth to reply, but then closed it, staring down at his hands.

A thin thread of guilt coiled up in his spark. Breakdown was upset because Trevor had kissed him. Trevor had wanted to kiss him, and Dead End had let him. He'd even kissed back. Why did I do that? Breakdown is right. He's not one of us.

Because I like you.

Dead End bit his lip, shoving the thought aside. "He's just a human," he said, not sure who he was trying to convince – Breakdown, or himself. "He's not important."

"It's my fault, isn't it?" Breakdown said. "I'm taking too long with the computer. You got slagged because of me."

Dead End sat up, wincing again at the pain in his ribs. "It's Motormaster's fault, and he knows it," he said. "That's why he isn't here." He reached up, smoothing the hair back from Breakdown's forehead. It still bore the scar where the knife had cut him.

Breakdown looked up at the touch, meeting his gaze with troubled optics.

At times like this, it almost hurt to look at him. He knew Breakdown relied on him more than the others. Unlike Wildrider or Drag Strip, Dead End indulged him more often than not. He wondered if Breakdown had ever pondered why.

"Everything's falling apart," Breakdown said. "Everyone's fighting with each other; you're off kissing some human –"

Dead End reached up to cup Breakdown's cheek in his hand. "We're still a team," he said. "And we always will be. Assuming we survive this, which seems unlikely."

"But what about –?"

Trevor was human. Dead End was not. He never would be, not really. And it wasn't Trevor he wanted. "He's just a human," he said again. He's not you. "He's not one of us."

And then he kissed him.

It was just a simple press of lip components, yet it felt like more, the sensation all out of proportion to the act. Breakdown tensed, his lips parting in confusion, and Dead End seized the opportunity just like Trevor had, plundering Breakdown's mouth with his glossa.

Breakdown shivered and melted into his arms, a soft sigh of satisfaction escaping him.

When they broke apart, Breakdown's eyelids fluttered for a moment before he reopened them. "Do you really think they'll come after the rest of us?"

"Probably," he said.

"I didn't think it would take this long," Breakdown said. "Writing a program is a lot harder as a human. I can't remember what I've done and what I haven't. I have to keep rechecking the code to make sure I didn't miss anything."

Dead End nodded. "Something Motormaster should have considered when he made that deal."

Breakdown frowned, his brow furrowing. "It's my fault," he said, his hands curling into fists. "I'm the one who broke the machine, I'm the one causing the belay –"

"Breakdown," he said, shifting his fingers from Breakdown's cheek to his lips. He was tired, and his ribs ached. "Enough. We all have our parts in this. If we fail, we fail as one."

Breakdown hesitated a moment, then nodded. Satisfied, Dead End eased back down onto the mattress and closed his eyes.

A minute later he opened them again, because Breakdown hadn't joined him. "Are you coming to bed?"

Breakdown shook his head. "Someone has to keep watch."

Dead End frowned at that, but he couldn't dispute Breakdown's logic. Motormaster was gone, he was injured, and their team was under imminent threat.

It took a long time to fall into recharge without him, all the same.