Chapter 30: The Secrets We Keep and Those We Create

Let me know that I've done wrong
When I've known this all along.
I go around a time or two
Just to waste my time with you.

Tell me all that you've thrown away,
Find out games you don't wanna play . . .
You are the only one that needs to know.

- Dirty Little Secret, The All-American Rejects

"Why are we leaving, sir? Where are we going, sir?"

"To the mines," Smokescreen ground out as he herded the Vehicons along the corridor. "Like I told you ten times before. You're gonna dig up energon. You know what that is, dummy?"

"I know what energon is, sir." The Vehicon sounded almost offended.

"Great. Awesome."

"Sooo . . ." A different Vehicon spoke up. "Where are we going again, sir?"

"Shut up before I turn you into spare parts, you Decepticon piece of smelt."

The Vehicons murmured in confusion. The mining drones had more sense than the brainless Vehicons that were sent on suicide missions to the Heretic but they were still about as baseline stupid as Ratchet could make them while still leaving them enough common sense to avoid caving the mine in on themselves. Among other things, they were programmed to unquestioningly accept commands from Smokescreen and any other member of Team Prime, to think of themselves as Autobots—Magnus and Ratchet had had a long boring theological argument over that—and to shoot any and all 'Cons on sight. The paradox of Smokescreen calling one of them a Decepticon, minor though it was, caused some of them to start glitching, their helms jerking blindly as they fell over twitching, knocking over even their unaffected comrades. Soon almost every Vehicon was flailing on the floor.

"I don't believe this." Smokescreen tried to pull one up and almost got knocked over himself. "Fine, you're Autobots! You're all Autobots! Now are you happy, you useless slaggers?"

He waited impatiently as the drones slowly staggered to their feet. Primus, Ratchet was such a hack.

"Now listen. I'm going to open the ground bridge. You will follow me through it. There will be a mine. The Vehicons there will show you what to do." Technically Smokescreen was supposed to tell each miner their job and instruct them on how to do it—Ultra Magnus had given him a checklist—but frag that. "You got that?"

One of them raised a sky blue arm, but did not actually wait to be called on. "So we . . . f-follow you. Through ground bridge?"

"Yes. Brilliant. You are truly the dumbest lifeforms on this planet as of this moment." Smokescreen slapped a button on the console. He couldn't wait to get this over with. He made himself walk through the portal slowly, so the Vehicons wouldn't lose sight of him.

This wasn't what Smokescreen had dreamed of when he'd signed up with the Autobots. The smoke of Decepticon bombs still clung to his plating when he left what remained of Praxus and signed up, full of fury and zeal, ready to cut a path through the ranks of the Decepticons right alongside Optimus Prime, because of course the Prime would see he had 'destiny' written all over him.

Instead, Optimus was comfortably asleep in his berth (probably) while Smokescreen was stuck in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, herding Vehicons past the corpses of their fellows. Smokescreen had piled the Vehicon bodies that Knockdown (if that red bot really was Knockdown) and Yellowjacket had killed just inside the entrance of the mine. He didn't know what else to do with them; normally he would've dumped them on Ratchet for spare parts, but Smokescreen didn't want to bring up the Yellowjacket thing again. Not until he found some proof.

Luckily none of the other Autobots ever checked on this mine; it was one of Smokescreen's "responsibilities" because Ultra Magnus hated him and enjoyed gave him boring-aft jobs as a form of torture. Smokescreen had waited a while before "explaining" that a cave-in had killed a bunch of Vehicons and they needed more. See, this was why he should be leading the Autobots. Pure inspiration. Nerves of steel.

"And more brainpower than the rest of them combined," he muttered as he returned through the portal.

"That so?" a gruff voice said.

Smokescreen whipped towards the speaker, forearms peeling apart to reveal his blasters. When he saw who it was, his alarmed expression was replaced with a superior smirk. "Yeah, Wheeljack. Verified fact."

Both Ultra Magnus and Ratchet despised Wheeljack, so Smokescreen enjoyed his visits. That didn't mean he admired Wheeljack or anything. He was smarter than Wheeljack and tougher too. Wheeljack always scurried away from base when things got tough, not like Smokescreen. But at least Wheeljack looked tough. He studied the dark grey and indigo bot who was leaning against the wall, holding his sword in a casual stance. Like he didn't expect Smokescreen to notice that he looked like slag, paint falling off in big flakes and grey metal faded to white around the joints.

"So why are you here, huh?" Smokescreen said. "Haven't seen you in months."

"Just passing through." Wheeljack slid the sword back in its sheathe and stretched. "You always leave the ground bridge open for ten minutes straight, kid? That's a lot of energy."

"So what? That's why we've got mines." Besides, Smokescreen was on monitor duty and everyone else was asleep. If he'd set the bridge to auto-close, he'd have been stuck. But yeah, he knew he'd catch it if the others found out. Wasteful expenditure of resources, blah blah blah, should have moved the Vehicons while someone else was on duty, blah blah blah. Whatever. He'd done two boring duties at once, saving precious time and probably his sanity. "You gonna tattle on me?"

"Eh." Wheeljack shrugged his dark blue shoulders. "Nah." This was why Smokescreen did not actively hate Wheeljack.

"Where's your gross pet?"

Wheeljack gave a short whistle and a scraplet popped out from behind the ground bridge console and scuttled over to him. Wheeljack held out his arms and the vermin jumped right into them. He even scritched its head. Unreal. "Ya wanna hold 'em?"

"Like frag I do. Just don't let it bite me."

Wheeljack chuckled, then said, "Hey. You got the Phase Shifter, right? 'S not in the relic room."

Smokescreen gave him a deep, deep scowl. "It's gone and I don't want to talk about it."

"Frag, kid."

"I said I don't want to talk about it!"

"Don't get your circuits in a smelt, Smokes." Wheeljack rubbed his jaw, thinking. "Coulda used that though."

"Where've you been, anyway? You look fragged up." It was true; Wheeljack's optics were dimmer than usual and his paint was peeling. Not that he'd ever looked like a shiny showroom model, but his fingers were really twitching today. Maybe the scraplet had transmitted some horrible disease to him.

"You know where Ratchet keeps his supplies and junk?" Wheeljack asked, unknowingly confirming Smokescreen's worst fears.

"His office or the basement . . . Well, gotta go. See ya, WJ." Smokescreen started to stride away.

"Sure thing." Wheeljack crouched to let the scraplet hop onto the floor. "Hope no one finds out how long you had that bridge open, that's all."

"Damn, you're a real jerk."

"An' proud of it."


Wheeljack suggested that they start downstairs. Smokescreen shrugged and led the way, almost tripping on the scraplet as it cavorted around them. He was tempted to give it a good kick, but even if it didn't take his foot off, Wheeljack would probably take his head off. Crazy fragger loved that thing.

"This is it, this room. But it's locked."

Wheeljack took the direct approach. He transformed his arm into a gun and blasted the lock off.

"You crazy, old timer?" Smokescreen's optics flicked up and down the hall. "If anyone heard that—"

"Nah, they won't." He sauntered in.

Smokescreen hesitated, but no one came. He followed Wheeljack into the room.

Aspects of a morgue and a pharmacy overlapped in the cramped space. A large cabinet stood against the back wall, while in the middle of the room tables were piled high with Autobot spare parts mixed with Vehicon (or Citizen, as the Decepticons called them) arms and legs, stuff Ratchet used to patch up the ones that were dragged in blubbering and missing limbs.

Smokescreen lounged in the doorway, projecting aloofness and cool, although Wheeljack didn't seem to notice. The Wrecker's optics swept around the room, seeming to linger on the locked cabinet. Instead of investigating them, though, he just picked up a couple Vehicon limbs off a table.

"Okay. Let's go."

Smokescreen couldn't believe it. "Are you serious? You broke in for Vehicon arms?"

"Sure." Wheeljack's swords bobbed on his back as he gave an easy shrug. "Gotta feed Scrapper something."

"Un-be-lieveable. You could pick those up after any fight." Smokescreen stepped into the hallway, shaking his head. "Crazy. That's what you are. Cra—"

He stumbled, pain blossoming in his sensory net as Wheeljack slammed the hilt of his sword against his head. The world fell into darkness as Smokescreen crumpled onto the floor.

"Not that crazy," Wheeljack said, tossing the Vehicon arms aside and throwing the cabinet open. A moment later he was hefting a stiff, tarp wrapped bundle into his arms. He stepped over the prone rookie and slipped away, like he'd never been there at all.

"I got 'im." Wheeljack said, holding out the bundle.

Shockwave didn't even look away from his workstation. "I am busy. Wait."

Wheeljack stood there another second, arms extended towards Shockwave. Then he gave a shrug and tossed the bundle on the floor. It landed with a clang and rolled. Shockwave's head turned slowly, his massive optic fixing on Wheeljack. Wheeljack leaned against the wall and met Shockwave's stare with an impassive expression.

"How much do you wanna bet I could shoot that big target outta your head from here?" Wheeljack said conversationally. He transformed his arm into a gun. "Betcha ten credits I could get a shot dead center."

"Take your best shot, Autobot." Shockwave's voice was as unexpressive as ever. "If you would like to see me take mine."

Wheeljack transformed his arm back and spat on the floor.

"Leave it, Scapper," Wheeljack growled as his pet nipped at a the tarp-wrapped bundle. Scrapper skittered off a few feet, whining as they track through the organic bat goop coating the floor. The scraplet stopped to groom their legs, sliding each one delicately against their sharp, serrated teeth.

"You should destroy that creature. It will devour you one day," Shockwave said abruptly.

"Yeah, and I'll bet you'll be cryin' the loudest at the funeral. If you even can."

"I am merely stating a fact."

"Yeah, and you're going to drown in bat poop one day. Merely stating a fact."

"There are cleaner parts of the lab but I entertain you here so you will feel at home."

Wheeljack stared. Was he crazy or had Shockwave just obliquely called him a piece of shit?

"Whatever. You ready to deal finally?" He kicked the bundle towards Shockwave. A corner of the tarp came loose, leaving a stiff white leg hanging out of the wrapping.

Shockwave's finials flattened against his frame, but his tone didn't change. "Yes, that is what I requested."

"Well, it ain't comin' for free, pal."

"I am well-aware of the terms of the trade, as I myself set them."

"Blah blah blah. Gimme the formula."

Shockwave held out a holopaper covered in figures. "I am sure you are skeptical. I will allow the use of my laboratory equipment this once to satisfy you of its authenticity. Then you will leave."

Wheeljack grunted as he looked over at the workstation, which had energon and basic supplies and tools set out by it. It was more than he'd expected; maybe any 'Con, even one with the personality of an automaton, couldn't help being soft at the core.

That makes him as dumb as the rest of 'em then, Wheeljack thought, shrugging the thought away. He glanced over the formula again and set to work.

Been a while since he'd been in the science division, but making homebrew explosives was similar enough that he could follow a formula, no problem. The way his fingers shook, though, that was a liability. Frag. He should've raided Ratchet's supply store sooner, but he hated that place. Didn't matter, he'd be feeling better in no time.

The compound took less time to complete than he'd expected. He stared at the golden-yellow liquid steaming in the beaker, wondering if Shockwave was on the level. He'd had Wheeljack slaving away as a gofer for months by offering a drop here, a vial there. Why give away his biggest bargaining chip?

The stuff was the riight color, though. And it smelled right. He picked up a syringe and glanced over his shoulder.

Shockwave was staring at him. Of course Shocks' optic didn't have any range of expression so he was always 'staring'. But this was a little more dead-on than Wheeljack would have liked. Usually Shockwave ignored him when he was . . . consuming the stuff. Scowling, the Wrecker turned his back on the 'Con and found a fuel line. He injected it slowly, now shaking from eagerness as his systems began to buzz. Oh yeah, this was it, this was living. Everything else was just a shadow.

"This is the real deal all right," he said, a little faster than usual.

"Yes. I have completed my end of the bargain. Now leave."

"Yeah, yeah," Wheeljack sneered. He felt taller than Ultra Magnus, more powerful than the Prime. Who was Shockwave to order him around? "This is really the stuff though, right? You'd better not be crossing me, 'Con. If you're feeding me poison or something—"

"It is unfortunate that your scientific skills have degraded to such an extent that you are unable to tell whether or not you have brewed poison."

Wheeljack growled, swinging on his heel and striding up until he was right in the big bot's face. Shockwave leaned back a fraction, but did not retreat.

"Okay, so then why?" the Autobot demanded. "You've been stringin' me along for months and now you just hand it over? You know how strong this makes me?"


He slammed his hands against the Decepticon's big orange chest and felt savage satisfaction at making Shockwave stumble. "So why?"

The scientist steadied himself and this time he was the one who advanced on Wheeljack, looming over him. "Because I have foreseen the logical outcomes of my actions."

"Yeah, I'll bet you're real good at that. I'll bet that's why you're living alone in a stinking cave." Wheeljack scowled at Shockwave. His reflection scowled back from the depths of Shockwave's eye, all fishbowled and disproportionate. "Whatever. Have fun fixing up your hunting trophy."

Wheeljack scooped Scrapper up under his arm and stormed out, gripping the holopaper tightly. He boarded his ship without a backwards glance.

He never noticed the figure crouching in the bushes by the cave—Smokescreen, pressing a cold compress to the side of his helm as he scowled at the Wrecker's retreating back.

Knock Out's spark stuttered every time the ship creaked and he kept looking over his shoulder, half-expecting to see Trauma standing in a pool of gore, staring at him with dead eyes.

Raiding Trauma's office immediately after having a vivid nightmare about him was probably not one of Knock Out's better ideas. But he had to do something.

Flinching at every shadow, he bumped his way through the wall and into the room, feeling around for the lights. They flooded on, making him squint as his vision adjusted to the brightness.

He couldn't decide if the lights made the office better or worse. True, they added a sense of normalcy as the pictures on the walls regained their cheerful colors. The alien ripples of moonlight were banished as well. But now the windows framed nothing but solid black squares of seawater, a void pressing in.

Knock Out turned away from them, discomfited, and was confronted with the desk where Trauma usually sat, patient and kind and annoying. He slowly settled into the chair, staring across a light chaos of paperwork to the seat where he sat in session after session, doing his best to keep his lies smooth and untangled and trying not to look at Trauma. Just thinking about it drained him, made him want to lay his head down on the desk and let this friendly, cluttered, terrible room smother him.

He gripped the Phase Shifter, rotating it slowly around his wrist. He could leave, slip out the way he came. Go back to bed. Sneak some sleeping medication out of the med bay, maybe?

But he was tired of this—the nightmares, the damn sessions in this damn office, and most of all that fragging handprint. Bumblebee had said that he needed to separate his memories of the Decepticon Trauma and the Deceptibot Trauma—or something like that—and as silly as that struck him, Knock Out was willing to give it a try. He drew in a deep vent and looked around, studying the office.

Well, okay. The fact that Trauma had an office was a huge difference. The one Knock Out had known had been a field medic. They'd lived crowded, communal lives—shared tents, shared workspace, never any privacy or recognition from the higher-ups. But Knock Out had been happy . . . Happier than any time in his life, except maybe after he met—

You're getting distracted. Focus.

He thought about Trauma, actual Trauma, who had been sarcastic, smug, and condescending. Who rarely took a swing at anyone, and yet whose reaction to the end of his short and messy affair with a frontliner (Knock Out had told him to stick with medics, what was he thinking?) had been to secretly implant a bomb in the cheating fragger's cerebral cortex, patiently wait half a year before detonating it, and then frame his ex's new lover.

It was a little difficult to imagine him as a therapist.

But maybe it wasn't so far-fetched. The purple and gold jet had lent an audial to any medic who had a problem, and if his advice came with an attitude of self-importance and perceived superiority . . . well, he still gave pretty good advice. Even near the end, when tension and dread settled over the Decepticon field hospital Trauma had carried a sense of stability with him.

Knock Out picked up a Human-made toy car from the desk and gently propelled down a slope of papers as he tried to imagine Trauma working here, filling up his schedule with sad genericons. Would he have filled up an office with knickknacks, pictures, and datapads like the Heretic's pale imitation? Knock Out had bunked with Trauma on occasion but that didn't provide an answer. No one in the semi-nomadic field camps kept more than they could carry. You just couldn't.

"This isn't helping." Knock Out muttered, sinking back in the chair as he tried to push away his turmoil. His unease felt physical, like it had filled some unoccupied space inside him and was now expanding, pressing outward. Great, now he was going crazy. At this rate he would need a therapist. And that pretender was the only one on the ship!

He was tempted to give up, go to bed. But he had another therapy session tomorrow, another occasion for this friendly, cluttered, terrible room to smother him. Maybe he could skip? He had done that before but Trauma often came looking for him, and the prospect of being discovered and accosted (gently, of course, because everything about him was so fragging gentle) was worse than just gritting his dentae and getting it over with.

He nibbled his lip as he shifted the holopapers back and forth with the tips of his fingers, caught up in his thoughts. His fingers still as he looked down, focusing on them.

Listening to Bumblebee had been a mistake. Knock Out didn't need to understand Trauma, he just needed him to back off. And surely, tucked away on some datapad or hidden in the depths of a file, Trauma had some skeletons just waiting to be rattled.

So many documents and files . . . with nothing useful in them.

What Knock Out had gathered from his research was that Trauma fully believed the clone story (good) and that Trauma was a conscientious, highly principled doctor (bad).

There were no 'accidental' deaths in Trauma's history, no under the table drug marketeering, no secret addictions, nothing but squeaky-clean concern and a complete lack of potential blackmail material.

With fading hope, Knock Out opened the last folder.

It was a collection of carefully preserved thank-you notes from clients.

Fuming, Knock Out slammed the folder back on the desk, then almost leapt out of his frame when a picture fell off the wall. Swearing under his breath, he got to his feet to replace it. Then he froze.

A slim collection of datapads was hidden in an alcove that had been covered by the painting.

This! This was it! Soundwave's file had to be in there, maybe the other officers' as well—Knock Out had known there was a reason he couldn't find them. And if Trauma had hidden them, that meant there was something juicy in them!

Knock Out wasted no time in booting one up, eagerly scrolling to a random section.

The midnight moons caressed the sturdy expanse of Rev's shoulders, fondling each notch of his voluptuous tires with their heady glow. Stratosphere gripped his waist and flared his wings, jealousy hiding Rev from the twin moons' watchful gaze. The handsome orange grounder was his and his alone.

"My love, you know we cannot be together," Rev moaned, engine growling to match his name. "Return to your gilded tower and live in the luxury that befits you. Forget me."

"Never!" Stratosphere growled, kissing him with all the intensity of a hungry petrorabbit spotting its first meal in days.

As Stratosphere ravaged his mouth, Rev slid a hand to his—

Knock Out lowered the datapad.

He gazed at it a moment, then calmly turned it over. A cheap lithograph revealed its title: Lust in the Fastlane. Knock Out checked the rest of them.

Pothole on Romance Avenue.

Crystal Beaches Under Luna-2.

Under the Hood, In the Spark.

Wayward Motors.

And Revving My Engine: Part 2.

Knock Out turned on each of datapad, looking for signs of hacking, telling himself that one of them could have encrypted information on it. But deep in his spark he knew these were exactly what they looked like: cheap romance novels.

Knock Out dragged a hand down his face, then forced a smile. He'd tried, at least. No one could say he hadn't tried. And . . . and the scuffed lithographs on the back were amusing, at least. Wayward Motors was daring enough to suggest the silhouette of interface cables as the leads kissed in the window of some distant, fancy tower, but most of the covers were less shocking, yet more overwrought. Like Revving My Engine, featuring a slender, stately Seeker pulling a distinctly curvaceous grounder into his arms as they stared at hungrily at each other.

Knock Out leaned back, his expression becoming thoughtful as he studied the illustrations and the short summaries printed beneath them.

'When Jetwing sponsors a grounder racing team, he gets more than he bargains for—excitement, intrigue, and the attention of Speed Demon, the most exotic Cybertronian on four wheels.'

'Stationed on a distant planet, Starflight expected problems when he patched up a barbarian grounder. What he wasn't expecting . . . was to fall in love.'

'Flyby is a restless, charming ne'er-do-well who takes flight after each of his scams. But an injured wing and the care of a down-to-earth ambulance just might change his perspective . . .'

"Oh, I see," Knock Out murmured, tapping a sleek digit against the particularly exaggerated physique of 'Speed Demon, the most exotic Cybertronian on four wheels'—although he'd been drawn with six of them.

Knock Out pulled his leg onto his knee, walking his fingers along his own tire as he pondered.

He made a decision. Before he could talk himself out of it, he sunk his claws into his tire. His mouth set in a straight line as he held the wheel in place with one hand and shredded through the rubber with the other. It didn't hurt—much.

Since his lower leg components were held in place by the tire's mass, his heel and his forward leg plating collapsed inward as the tire deflated. Knock Out hobbled into the hall with some difficulty. Fortunately Trauma's room was close.

Knock Out knocked. In a few minutes Trauma answered the door, he gazed at the red mech sleepily. "Yes?"

His gaze fell to Knock Out's injury and his expression changed. "Knock Out! What happened?"

Knock Out quickly dimmed his optics until Trauma blurred into an ambiguous silhouette. If I can't see his face it won't bother me. It won't. "I was racing in the halls and I took a corner too fast . . . Can I come in?"

"Oh Knock Out," Trauma sighed. He made a movement that Knock Out couldn't see clearly—rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, perhaps. "Yes, yes, come in."

Knock Out aimed a penitent smile in his general direction, steadied his nerves, and limped in.

Somehow, and Trauma wasn't exactly sure how, he'd ended up sitting on his couch with Knock Out's pedes in his lap, unbolting the injured wheel. He had to admit that it made more sense to tend to Knock Out's leg here instead of making him hobble halfway across the ship to the medbay.

"I'm going to ease it out now, okay?" Trauma said, slipping a hand in to grip the unbolted wheel.

Some mecha were squeamish about their frames being manipulated, but Knock Out just nodded, watching with half-closed eyes (Trauma made a note to check them before Knock Out left, they seemed too dim) as Trauma slid his fingers under the glossy red paneling and gently tugged it outward. The metal wheel rim wobbled as Trauma worked it out of the leg at a diagonal angle.

"You did it," Knock Out said, a surprising amount of admiration in his voice as he took the yellow-rimmed wheel from Trauma. He reached out, vaguely patting at Trauma's shoulder."Thank you, doctor!"

Trauma smiled and wiped his hands on a sterile cloth. "Let's save the thanks for when the procedure's complete."

"All right." Knock Out smiled back, apparently unbothered by the fact that his lower leg was more compressed than ever. "So now, I suppose—" His legs slid across the medic's as he half-twisted, looking questioningly over his shoulder and giving Trauma a clear view of his perfectly matched back tires, mounted on smooth silver struts.

"Ah—yes." Trauma cleared his throat. This had been Knock Out's suggestion too—to temporarily replace his heel tire with one of his shoulder tires. Well, it did make sense. "If you're ready. Which one?"

Knock Out finished rolling over, now resting on his stomach. He gave a thoughtful frown as he tapped his finger against his lips. "Well, it's going to take all my weight so it has to be sturdy. Which one has better air pressure, do you think?

"Ah . . ." Trauma gave each tire a ginger, assessing squeeze. They rotated easily under his hands. "They seem . . . about equal."

"Your choice then, doctor."

"Right." Trauma shifted awkwardly out from under Knock Out's legs, opting to kneel beside the couch as he worked. The righthand one, he decided, simply because it was easier to access. "Tell me if hurts at all."

"All right."

Knock Out's wheel kept rotating as Trauma tried to detach it. The therapist decided the best solution was to grip the wheel mount with one hand while hooking two fingers into the grooves on the tire treads to keep the wheel immobile.

Knock Out sighed and shifted; the smooth silver metal pressing against Trauma's palm for a moment, and the medic's hand slipped. "You know, this—" He lifted his leg and let his empty plating clank. "—isn't the only reason I'm here. I wanted to . . . to say sorry."

"Knock Out." Trauma steadied the tire again, giving the smaller mech a warm smile. "You don't have to keep apologizing. I know I surprised you in the hangar. I should have called out to you. It was an accident."

"But the way I lashed out—you wouldn't have reacted like that."

"Well, probably not. But I haven't been through what you have," Trauma said soothingly. "Give it time. As you become more comfortable you'll feel less inclined to respond like that—" He lost his grip on the wheel as Knock Out abruptly sat up.

"How do you know?" he demanded passionately, barely keeping his balance as he surged to his feet, making Trauma scramble back. He clutched his tattered tire like a shield. "How . . . how do you know it's not just how they made me? I mean, look at me." He swept a hand up and down his frame, from the curves of his wheels to the headlights gleaming in his well-polished chest. "I'm a car . . . a literal auto bot. Maybe . . ." He dropped his optics. "Maybe I'm just fooling myself thinking I could be anything else."

"Knock Out—" Trauma had risen as well.

"I'm sorry—shouldn't have bothered you—I'm sorry—" Knock Out made to pass Trauma, flee for the door, but his leg betrayed him. He cried out as it collapsed out from under him, sending him tumbling towards the floor.

Without hesitation Trauma sprung forward, catching Knock Out under the arms and pulling him up to his chest. "Listen," he said softly as Knock Out leaned heavily against him. "You're not broken or wrong. You're just trying your best—like we all are, me and Knockdown and even Megatron." He hoisted Knock Out up further, so the glossy red mech could get his good leg under him.

"But—" Knock Out looked off to the side, although he didn't move away. His fingers played along the edge of Trauma's cockpit. "How do you know?"

Trauma smiled and tilted his chin up. "I just do." His look suddenly became one of concern. He could barely make out Knock Out's irises. "Knock Out, are you all right?"

It all happened so fast. Trauma had a brief glimpse of those faint red rings brightening until they dazzled like stars. Then Knock Out was squeezing them shut, surging up to kiss him.

After a long frozen moment, Trauma crushed him close and kissed back.