Author's Note: WARNING: Contains depictions of mech torture. May be triggering.

There are a lot of speculations about a few things, such as why Megatron keeps Starscream around – as his Second-in-Command, no less – when Screamer's so blatant in his ambitions to kill Megatron and take over the faction. Or how Skywarp, who practically needs direct supervision just to carry out simple tasks sometimes (especially if it's something he doesn't want to do), is in any kind of high position at all. They may be the best in combat, but with their collective shortcomings, they still "should" have been replaced or even killed VORNS ago. This is part of my speculation on why they haven't.

THANKS SO MUCH to my good friend MyAibou for her beta work! This got a major rework after she looked at it for me and gave me several great comments about where/how to improve the narrative for maximum effect.

Disclaimer – "Transformers" and all related characters, events, and concepts belong to Hasbro, Takara, and any other related owners/distributors/producers. I get no monetary benefit from this. My benefit is the enjoyment of dealing with beloved characters.

"The Price of Success"
by DragonDancer5150

Thundercracker shifted on the berth, trying to get comfortable, but the effort was fruitless. His entire sensor net sparked with pain, making his head swim. A few joint servos had been knocked out of alignment. Tension cables had stretched and frayed in spots from limbs wrenched beyond normal tolerance. His wings were bent, the left even more than the right from where he'd been knocked into a wall particularly hard. Barely an inch of his armor had escaped denting, in some places the creases so pronounced that the edges were pursed and buckled, seams separated or folded over one another. He couldn't transform right now if he had to. What was more, heavy weights pinned him down where he laid – one across the hips and legs, another sprawled over one arm and wing.

He couldn't say that he minded the last overmuch.

He rolled his head to the side, looking at the mech whose helm rested on his shoulder. Starscream seemed to have slipped in recharge finally . . . mercifully. He glanced down at the other helm resting on his abdomen next to the canopy. Skywarp had been out for at least a breem, maybe two. Even unconscious, Thundercracker could read the suffering on his trine brothers' faces, the lingering, pulsing ache from harsh punishment he fully felt as well.

All three of them had been beaten half to slag, first by the Autobots and then by Megatron in a fit of vindictive rage at this latest botched raid. If anyone was really to be blamed for what had happened – besides the Autobots for showing up to interfere, of course – it was probably Soundwave's Cassettes for not giving them enough of a heads up before Prime and his lackeys arrived. However, as blame was not clear, neither had been whom to punish. So . . . it had fallen on the Command Trine.

They bore the brunt of a lot of the failures their faction experienced, always had. But that was one of the arrangements they had agreed to when Megatron made them Command Trine.

Even among Seekers, Starscream, Thundercracker, and Skywarp were, without a doubt, the best aerial fighters on the battlefield when all was said and done. Thundercracker had always known it to be a matter of course that they would rise through the ranks into high positions. In fact, no one had been surprised when they were awarded the rank of Command Trine, with their leader Starscream named Air Commander as well as Megatron's Second.

If only he and his trinemates had known what those prestigious positions would entail. What it would cost to keep them.

A deep shudder ran through him as memories teased at the edges of his consciousness. The pain he was in now was nothing compared to some of the things to which he and his trinemates had been subjected in the past. Here, in the cramped environs of the sunken Victory, a spaceship built of what materials the Decepticons had managed to scavenge and steal from the humans, Megatron had neither the excess space nor the resources for it. Plus, he had to be careful just how much damage he did to any of his severely limited number of soldiers as he could no longer consider them expendable. There wasn't even a proper medic among them right now.

Though he missed his homeworld as much as anyone, times like these made Thundercracker glad they weren't on Cybertron anymore. And secretly hope they didn't actually get to return any time in the foreseeable future.

He shifted again with an urge to curl in on himself, but the others prevented the motion, crowded in a pile as the trine was on the single, narrow berth of their shared brig cell. Over the trinebond, he realized that Starscream's subconscious must have sensed his distress. His hand on Thundercracker's canopy flexed and flattened gently in an approximation of a comforting gesture, something Starscream would never have done while awake. Appreciating it, Thundercracker responded by covering the hand lightly with his free one, then reaching down to Skywarp's helm, sensing a similar distress in his trine brother. The touch made the other mech flinch with a faint whimper, shying from the contact and trembling softly. Thundercracker persisted, brushing his fingers over his wingmate's helm, thrumming supportive vibrations across the trinebond. After another moment, his trine brother relaxed again.

Thundercracker could guess where Skywarp's mind was – back on Cybertron, in a damp, dark place of fear and helplessness . . . and worse. From the limp drape of Starscream's body, he knew their trine leader's wasn't there but little doubted that it too would be before long. He knew, with a sense of deep dread, that his own would be. As soon as he let himself lose consciousness. No matter how he fought them, he could feel the shadows clawing at the edges of his mind, ready to sweep over him, to take him back.

Exhausted from a fierce fight, an even more brutal thrashing, and at being hollow from lack of fuel, Thundercracker knew his usual thick walls were weakened. With a soft moan of final protest, he surrendered at last into recharge.

The stink of spilled cydraulic fluid and purged energon filled Thundercracker's olfactory sensors, along with an alloy tang from the thick strut scant inches from his face. The room was dim and unbearably hot, further stressing his already laboring inner cooling fans as his core temperature seemed determined to match the chamber's. Optics off and forehead resting on the vertical strut that held him, he fought to keep the trembling to a minimum. He was next.

At least Skywarp had finally stopped shrieking.

He knew without having to look, but he did anyway, daring a glance around one upraised arm and wincing. The pitiful sight matched the waves of hot agony and shame that beat at him from his trine brother through the bond. Skywarp laid face down, bound over an angled structure, the peak at his hips so that his head was down and his aft up. Their torturer had decided to humiliate the prankster Seeker as part of his particular punishment. From his nether plates to the top half of his thighs, his superstructure had been scorched and deeply dented in long, crisscrossing furrows by an electro-rod, the metal stressed and weakened enough to breach in a few places. Over the bond, Thundercracker had felt the echoes as the electric bite of the rod had shot through the breaches to burn sensitive, unshielded cables, relays, and struts beneath – like having shots of acid sprayed into the wounds – and Skywarp had reached out desperately to his trine brothers for support and escape. Starscream was in no position to help, having pulled in on himself as far as he had (not that he could be blamed), so it had been up to Thundercracker to aid his wingmate, shielding him and diffusing the cruel pain of the whipping as much as he could. Now, Skywarp lay bent over the structure, shuddering and sobbing, hands twisting restlessly in their binds behind his back as his spark clung to Thundercracker's.

Thundercracker stiffened, shivering faintly in spite of himself, as a heavy body stepped up close behind him. A black hand gripped and squeezed the outside edge of one shoulder vent, eliciting a soft grunt of pain. "I'd advise you to look to yourself, my dear Seeker," the gravelly voice warned. The exhalations of their tormentor's circulation vents blew hot on the back of his neck.

Thundercracker tucked his head. "Y-yes, sir." He grimaced at the faint tremor in his voice.

The hand released his vent only to drop heavily onto the top edge of his wing, squeezing again, this time hard enough to threaten to buckle the metal.

"AH!" Thundercracker's back arched, head snapping up, optics bright as they locked on the strut in front of him. Primus, n-not my wings! Please . . . anything but that! His wings were not only his pride and status, marking him at a glance as a prestigious Seeker, but they were highly sensitive. Thundercracker and Skywarp had already been forced to watch as Starscream's wings were carved into, left with sadistically whimsical designs that dripped freely from nicked and severed service lines just beneath the surface. If he hadn't gotten wise and managed to shut up when he had, he'd have lost his wings!

Thundercracker couldn't see Starscream anymore since he'd been bound to the strut by his wrists in manacles over his head, but he could still picture his trine leader. His brother had been left on his knees with his hands bound behind him, his wings cruelly desecrated. Barely an inch of the rest of him had not been torn up by an electro-whip. A short chain leashed him to the floor by a collar around his throat, forcing him to bend forward to an uncomfortable angle, keeping him low to the ground. Starscream had largely shut down, withdrawing from the trinebond as much as he could without somehow severing it. Thundercracker knew it was his way of coping. Still, his brother's suffering pounded a dull, heavy pulse across the trinebond, and he resonated back with support for as long as he could manage.

A length of time that was about to end. Violently.

"Remember, Thundercracker." The gravelly voice pulled his attention back to his own pending punishment. "You swore yourself to me. You agreed to this." It was the same preparatory speech he'd heard given to Starscream and Skywarp before they were tortured.

It was true. He had. They had. Would that they hadn't!

"Submit, without resistance, without complaint . . . and you incompetents walk out of here alive and still officers, your command status intact."

The iron grip was slowly crushing the edge of his wing. Sensors screamed warnings through his systems, hot sparks skittering along the paths of his neural net as panels buckled, cydraulic lines kinked, and cables crimped. Thundercracker didn't dare protest, though his inner fans rattled and whined as he panted. He was trembling in earnest now. He hated it, but he couldn't stop himself, shivering and mentally bracing for what was to come. He nodded, his voice unavoidably strained but as calm and neutral as he could force it. "I r-remember . . . m-my lord." At that, the vice grip released from his wing, coolants and lubricating fluids suddenly rushing through unconstricted lines, reverse pressure dilating and stretching their walls for a few painful astro-seconds. Thundercracker bit back a shuddery moan as things equalized once more.

He heard their tormentor step back. His already labored cooling fans stalled briefly at a click and then the hum and crackle of engaged power. Within his spark, he felt Skywarp shudder and turn his attention in an attempt to reciprocate the support Thundercracker had offered earlier. He appreciated the gesture, but he didn't want it. Or rather, didn't want to know he needed it. He was already beginning to cling in return to his wingmate, and he hated that. It was a weakness and he couldn't afford weakness. Relaxing the best he could, he forced whining, rattling fans to slow and calm to a more steady rhythm.

Until the first lash struck.

Biting back a cry, Thundercracker bucked as the electrified flex-steel cable caught him square across the back and onto the surface of his right wing, branding a thick line of white-hot fire across his superstructure. The heavy whip, he knew, left a deep furrow in his plating, the electric field scorching his paint and his surface sensors alike. His shielding protected his substructure from the majority of the electrical charge, but he knew that wouldn't hold true for long.

The next lash caught him by surprise, landing right along the bottom edge of his left wing. The strike felt like spraying highly corrosive acid across the panels. It startled a cry from him that degraded instantly into a low snarl as he fought to silence himself, hands curled into tight fists over the cuffs above his head.

He flinched, swallowing another startled, pained yelp as the fragger paused to step up and clench his wing again. "Is that a protest I hear?" The warning dripped with the threat of worse to come.

Thundercracker found himself tucking down between his upraised arms, shoulders hunching shamefully. "No, sir! Just . . . j-just dealing."

"You'd better be." The hand released, heavy body stepping back again.

His punisher laid into him with the electro-whip in earnest then, landing strikes across his back and wings until his cydraulics ran freely. Cruel, scorched dents crisscrossed his superstructure, electrical charges skittering along the surfaces of his panels and dipping through wider and wider breaches to lash his unprotected substructure with electric fire. After three dozen lashes or more, the flogging showed no signs of letting up. His entire back from shoulders to pelvis and across both wings was being laid open. Agony blinded him, searing through his entire sensor net, scrambling his neural net so that all he knew was the terrible crack and crackle of the whip and the fire that pervaded every micrometer of his being. Bucking and crying out, it was all he could do to keep from demanding – or begging – for the torturous punishment to stop.

Hands grabbed him suddenly. He jerked against the chains, panicking. Had he said something after all, something he shouldn't have? Primus, please no, please no more!

"Thundercracker! TC, hey . . . hey, c'mon . . . Thundercracker, wake up!"

Thundercracker jolted awake, fans heaving as he scrambled to get away from the bodies crowded around him – too close, too threateningly close. The trinebond registered before his sight cleared, and he managed to identify his "attackers" before his optics finished focusing.

Skywarp had slipped off the berth, crouched next to him and clutching his arm. Somewhat trapped between him and the wall, Starscream had propped up on one hand (he'd been careful to plant his hand above Thundercracker's wing instead of on it), the other resting on Thundercracker's shoulder. Thundercracker had managed to work himself up onto an elbow in his attempt to defend or escape. He let himself fall back down onto the berth in relief, wincing at the wounds the motion excited. He was covered in dents and loosened plating, though nothing like –

He shuddered, fighting back that line of thought, and ran a hand over his face. "S-sorry..."

Starscream scowled, though it wasn't directed at Thundercracker. His gaze slid off into a random corner of the cell as he shook his head, trying unsuccessfully to stifle a shudder of his own. "Forget it."

Next to them, Skywarp shivered and rested his helm on Thundercracker's arm for a moment, drawing comfort over the trinebond from the presence of his brothers.

There was really no telling for sure who had "started it" this time, nor did it matter. It wasn't uncommon, due to the nature of the bond, for trined Seekers to inadvertently affect each other's dreams, especially nightmares.

As the trio had learned the hard way, it was all the more vivid when it was the memory of an actual experience they had shared.

"One day," Starscream swore, his voice soft and lethal as he bored a baleful glare into the wall of the cell. "One day, I will kill Megatron. Just you wait."

"Can't wait," Skywarp mumbled into the edge of the berth, rumpled wings twitching fitfully.

Thundercracker couldn't either, but there was no point in saying as much. Instead, he just bumped back against the roiling turmoil of Starscream's spark with thrums of support from his own.

Starscream shifted to look at Skywarp, then glanced at Thundercracker. He didn't say anything, but Thundercracker saw the brief flicker in his optics, felt the pulse of acknowledgment – of appreciation – across the bond. Then the trine leader huffed. "Come on." He shoved at Thundercracker, who obediently slipped off the berth.

The three switched up positions. Sometimes that helped, moving around. They ignored the security camera, none of them worried about who might see them. If anyone tried to give them grief, they'd just complain that there were three of them and only one berth, what were they supposed to do? The truth of the matter was, Seekers piling for recharge – in "cuddle piles" for those who thought a Seeker couldn't hear – was an unspoken but known aspect of trines (and many other bonded groups like gestalts and symbionts). Though none of them would ever admit it even to each other, each of them felt the need for contact, needed to feel safe while he was vulnerable in recharge, knowing he wasn't alone.

Starscream had laid down, close to the outer edge, and Skywarp took the opportunity to climb over into the protected spot between his trine leader and the wall. Sighing softly, Thundercracker curled up over their legs, resettling his mind and spark along with his body. They were a mess of tangled arms and legs and battered wings.

The three of them bickered and fought at least as much as any other subgroup, and with the trouble they got into between Starscream's ambitions and Skywarp's childish pranks, it was a wonder to Thundercracker sometimes why he didn't just throw his hands up at both of them. But . . . they were who they were, just as he was, and when push came to shove, they were his trine, his brothers, and he wouldn't have them any other way. They'd been through the Pit and back, more than once, and they'd survived. That's what they were – survivors. Let Megatron or anyone else throw at them anything they chose. They were the Command Trine of the Decepticons. They could – and would – overcome anything.

Thundercracker slipped back into unconsciousness with that thought still ringing in his mind, and this time he was able to recharge in peace.


AN: It was my intention to wait to post this until I could include the link for the drawing I want to do, that goes with this fic. The mental image itself came first, after all. I haven't finished it and don't know when I will, but keep an eye on this space. Check back whenever you care to, as I intend to replace the file with a link here to the artwork once it's been completed and posted. Thanks!