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The Crown of Cybertron

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Nightlight, once Grace of the Twilit Stars and great-grandspark of Vos’ Winglord Oversoaring, never forgot that his brother had once threatened to drop Nightlight’s newly-unfurled sparkling out of a window. Given that his brother was one of the heirs-presumptive of Vos and the Winglord Oversoaring’s current favorite, there had never been any point in trying to report it to anyone over Starscream’s head - long experience growing up in the Winglord’s eirie had taught him that if he couldn’t handle his siblings by himself, no-one else would do it for him. It was easier, safer by far to withdraw with what he valued, his treasures as intact as he could keep them.

That one rule had never been in doubt, but this particular incident had only impressed on him the fact that, in this cruel, trammelled world, the biggest threat to his beloved little one was his own spark-family. Dash was always guarded - by his trinemates, by his bodyguard, or by the other members of the family they had found when Nightlight couldn’t be there himself, and he never, ever brought Dash to the Winglord’s eirie. Dash had never met any of his extended family-by-spark, and as far as Nightlight was concerned that wasn’t going to change - he had long since grown accustomed to the distant feeling that his wings were curling in at the tips, that he was living in a cage. Now at least the cage was a tower of his own, one that he could ward against the family that poked and pried and wouldn’t leave him be, even when he was supposedly exiled from their exalted presence. He was barred from the eirie proper, but if he tried to leave Highcrest Gate and the elite spires there permanently, he would have found himself chased back before he could drop three levels.

He had tried, once. It seemed the Family didn’t want any more sweet, happy groundframe sparklings marring their family tapestry.

Now however Ephemeris himself, the Winglord Oversoaring, had ordered his sparkling’s presence in the throne room. Nightlight hadn’t recharged at all the night before, despite his trinemates holding him tight and Dash cuddled up between their frames; his frame shook from wingtips to pedes as he hovered before the Winglord’s highest seat, the tips of his pedes bare inches from the delicately-patterned tiles and his optics fixed on the floor.

“Either you have deliberately disobeyed me, or it seems I was overly optimistic in thinking you could manage even this simple task. Which is it?”

Nightlight’s lips pressed tightly together, his vents running quick and shallow; Dash was safe at home, guarded by Nightlight’s trine. He wouldn’t, he couldn’t bring his little one here, not at the cost of that bright spark being crushed.

“I apologise, Winglord,” he managed, voice barely more than a whisper. Ephemeris frowned at him, while Nightlight held his wings low and kept his expression hidden. He didn’t dare look up.

“It is time decisions were made about your...happy accident’s future,” Ephemeris said eventually, and Nightlight almost fell out of the air. Decisions? What decisions? If they take Dash away from me-!

“The Grand Academy in Farsight Spire is accepting applicants; if he’s reasonably intelligent, he would be a candidate for a spot there. Only a candidate, mind you - there is a long waiting list, and I can’t possibly hold a spot for him among so many deserving students.”

Nightlight had counted at least three veiled insults in that. He’d had to fight not to shudder openly - the Grand Academy was prestigious, true, but the students there were ordinarily much older; Dash would be ridiculed for being ‘behind’ by younglings older than him, kept away from his found-family and friends, forced into whatever mould the Winglord had in mind for him. No-! Nightlight’s vocaliser activated before panic could silence him. “Why send him there at all, Highest? Surely a private tutor would be more appropriate - it’s not as though Dash will ever be considered among the potential heirs.”

“Sadly, this is true.” Ephemeris had shot Nightlight with an icy glare, the brief expression speaking volumes about how very much Nightlight was not forgiven for getting himself sparked up by a nameless, flightless grounder like some common carrier. “But he is still kin, and I dislike wasting resources. With the right training he could be an acceptable servant for one of the heirs-presumptive, and at least be fit for some purpose in the future.”

It had taken all of Nightlight’s hard-won self-discipline not to break and hide from the Winglord’s cruel, watchful optics. He stayed still, stayed low in the air before the Winglord’s seat and said all the right words, and allowed Ephemeris to plan out Dash’s bleak future for him without hearing a word through the ringing in his audials - he would have to replay the memory file again later, find some way of keeping his sparkling from his family’s clutches, and only then he’d be able to shake and cry at the words in safety.

Ephemeris had looked him over when he was finished, the double weight of cool blue optics making Nightlight shiver without looking up. He knew that Ephemeris’ twin Eccentricity was at the Winglord’s shoulder - the High Lord only ever left his own tower suite when something he found interesting was happening, and given that Eccentricity’s tastes ran even sharper than Ephemeris’...

“Dismissed,” Ephemeris said finally, and Nightlight stammered his thanks for pre-emptively ruining Dash’s life before bowing and fleeing the room. Harsh voices called after him as he bolted, some more familiar and frightening than others, and he kicked into the air - his optics blurred with tears and a miserable future, he made for the nearest window out onto open air and dropped like a stone before anyone could follow him.

Their little tower was humble indeed - certainly compared to the glory of the Winglord’s eirie, perched high above the rest of the city and glimmering like a star come to rest - but it had windows and bolts that he could lock against his spark-relatives. After Starscream had invaded Nightlight’s own quarters, the Exile’s Tower had become that rare thing in Vos - a flier’s living space that wasn’t permanently open to the sky. Nightlight still felt himself to blame for the restrictions this put on his Dashlet, for all the little one wasn’t aware of them himself, for all that he had finally brought himself to see that there was nothing he could do, nothing he could say, to make his spark-relatives change their attitudes...

Luckily, the family that he’d found - the trine he’d been blessed with, long after he’d thought himself utterly unlovable - stood behind him, and admitted to feeling easier themselves being able to shut out the rest of Vos even for a little while. It had been a revelation to find out that he wasn’t alone, that he wasn’t the only one in Vos who felt out of place in one way or another - who felt the cross-currents of the city pulling them down instead of lifting them up. He had a family of his own, now, and Dashlet had cousins-by-trine to play and learn with, and Nightlight would not give them up. Not for anything. Not even if the Winglord Oversoaring offered him back his station and everything he had been shut out from - Nightlight had learned that he could live outside of the eirie, that he could live without them, and now he would never forget it.

Unfortunately, it seemed as though his spark-relatives wouldn’t forget about him as easily as he wished they would. For all that he had been removed from the succession, for all that the heirs-presumptive sneered every rare time he was summoned back to the eirie, for all the time he’d spent terrified as a youngling that there was something wrong with him that made his spark-relations turn on him...for all he had been shown that he was the miswire of the clutch, the eirie refused to let him go.

Night dropped fast and far, skimming the edge of the eirie walls and darting in underneath an outcrop. His pale plating came close to matching the finish coating Highcrest Gate’s outer walls - at least in terms of colouring he came close to fitting in - and the loud catcalls and jeers of what sounded like his younger sibling-trine and a cousin or two shot past with them none the wiser. Still, he stayed quiet and held on to the underside of the spire for a count of a hundred, nestled in quietly amongst privacy baffles and heat sinks to listen hard for any sounds of returning shouts. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d been caught out by leaving his bolt-holes too early - at least this time it wasn’t his closest siblings chasing him. Starscream was too fast to dodge for long, and Sunfire was a war-Seeker sparked.

It also gave him time to manage his vents and force his systems to reset, holding off the crash of a panic attack for just a little longer. He had to get home and make sure Dash was all right.

Nightlight might not have had access to the Vosian Emirates’ heirs’ accounts anymore, but he’d put his unspent allowance off to one side when he had been part of the eirie; what he’d saved was enough for them to be comfortable in their own little tower, even without renting out most of the extra space to their friends. That reliable bit of income meant that Dash had a growing collection of well-loved games to keep him and his agemates entertained. It also meant that he and his visiting playmate were thoroughly distracted by the time Nightlight made it home, tired and shaky on his thrusters, wobbling up to the tower gate and tapping in the extended code required just to get into the first entryway.

“Carrier!” Dash cried when Nightlight appeared in the door - he jumped up and ran to him, leaping into the air to hug his carrier tight. Nightlight’s arms wrapped around him tight, breathing in the smell of polish and growing systems and sparkling-fuel, and for that he would face his terrible family a thousand times over.

“Hello, sweetest,” he smiled, snuggling Dash close and nuzzling his helm. “Hello, Haze. Are you having fun?”

“Uh huh.” Dash wiggled in his arms, still young enough to want to be carried about, and held his arms out to Haze. The older sparkling was more than happy to trot over for a hug of hir own, and Nightlight smiled at them both - and at their assigned guard, with a slightly more distant nod of thanks. Safeguard was gradually becoming a friend, but Night was still too raw from his audience with the Winglord to react well to Ephemeris’ sigils on someone else’s armour.

“Well, I’m glad. I had a little time free-” Not quite; he’d needed time to let the wind blow away enough of the hurt clouding his spark and processor before he headed home to his little one. “So I picked us up some goodies. Haze, would you like to stay?”

Judging from both little ones’ delighted squeals, they would both like it very much; Nightlight laughed and carried them both off to the sofa for treats. Now, watching Dash chatter brightly with Haze as he got good and sticky on his favorite goodies, Nightlight swore it again - his Dash would choose his own future. He had an uncomfortable feeling that he knew just who Ephemeris had in mind for Dash to serve, too, for all that he’d never be able to prove it.

How long can I evade them? How long can I keep Dash safe from them?

Well, he had all night to worry and fret over that question, as per usual after a visit up-spire. Right now was for Dash, and for Haze until hir own carrier summoned hir back home. Nightlight threw himself into the role of Carrier, fussing over his little one before settling in to be enthusiastic about a game both Haze and Dash could play with preternatural dexterity and Nightlight was utterly flummoxed by.

*

The eirie had mandated that Nightlight have a guard in exile. Nightlight hadn’t been thrilled, but for all that he was still a little wary of his assigned guard, Safeguard had turned out to be a welcome pair of extra hands when Dash had been tiny and exhausting. There was also the fact that Safeguard had actually been appointed by Fly-by-Night, Nightlight’s friend and Haze’s carrier. Some measure of trust had been called for, and Nightlight was glad he’d extended it - the alternative had been a nightmare of potential sparkling-nappings and spying and Nightlight likely would never have recharged again.

Safeguard was on hand to usher Skydance and Thundersong in when they came home, directing them into the small entertaining-room Nightlight had claimed for himself and Dash with a slight bow for them both. “Oh, Safeguard,” Nightlight called when Safeguard started to withdraw. “Fly-by-Night’s asked Haze to come home. Do you mind shadowing hir there?”

“It’s only two layers down, I don’t need an escort,” Haze argued. “No offense, Safeguard.”

Nightlight and Safeguard found themselves exchanging eloquent, and in Night’s case openly worried, looks. “Please, Haze? Just to indulge a nervous carrier,” Nightlight asked, one hand stroking over Haze’s helm. Haze pursed hir lips unhappily, but agreed and went to hug Dash one more time.

Safeguard lingered only long enough to transfer eir attention to Skydance and Thundersong while Haze said goodbye to Dash. Ei was never off duty, not really, but with Nightlight’s trinemates here, ei had the luxury of relaxing a bit, enough to leave the tower briefly to make sure eir employer’s youngling returned home safely - and promptly.

“I’ll be back soon, Grace,” ei said, and followed Haze out.

“I do wish ei’d stop calling me that,” Nightlight sighed as the door closed. “I was very thoroughly stripped of rank and I never liked it all that much anyway.”

“Yeah, well, maybe ei just thinks you’re all authoritative and stuff.” Sky beamed at him, then hopped over to give Nightlight an enthusiastic hug with Thundersong close behind. Nightlight huffed and tutted at him, then leaned into the hug as though his trinemates were all that was keeping him upright. It came close, today.

“Song an’ Dance!” Dashlet cried, charging headlong back into the room and throwing himself into the three-way embrace. “Songan’DanceSongan’DanceSongan’Dance!”

Skydance whooped and swept him up between the three, enthusiastically nuzzling Dashlet’s cheeks and squidging him tight. “Heeey, it’s our best bitlet! Didja save me some goodies, Dashbit?”

“Uh huh! Didja bring me musics?”

“We-ell,” Skydance hedged, then burst into a ringing laugh as Dashlet wiggled. “Not this time, kiddo, I couldn’t get in. It’s ‘Song you wanna be aiming those hopeful optics at, not me.”

Thundersong only chuckled as Dash instantly squirmed around in Skydance’s arms, pressing his little cheek to ‘Dance’s and both of them giving him the same bright, hopeful smile. “How could I say no to those faces? And I did one better than just an audio track, as a matter of fact. What about sitting and watching a recording of the whole spire display with some fuel?”

“That sounds wonderful,” Nightlight said warmly; concerts were hit and miss for him to try and attend for all kinds of reasons, though Dashlet at least was used to watching recordings and wheedling music tracks from Nightlight’s trinemates. Once again he was faced with the painful reminder that something had to change, if only to give his little one the chance to move freely through the city that was supposed to be his home. “What do we say, Dashlet? Thank you, ‘Song. That would be lovely.”

“Thank you,” Dash echoed, and was rewarded with a squidge from Skydance and a proud, fond helmstroke from Nightlight.

The four of them settled in on the long lounger to watch Thundersong’s recording, Dash colonizing Skydance’s lap with his small container of sweetened sparkling-fuel. Nightlight allowed himself to rest on Thundersong’s shoulder and just - not think. About anything. He’d have to deal with the threats and insults against his baby eventually, but Solus, he was tired and Thundersong was solid and reassuring. It would keep until the oncycle.

“Hey, Dashbit, you got a spill there. C’mere…”

Nightlight roused. “I’ll get it,” he said, but Skydance was already flapping at him to sit back down.

“I got it, I know where the cloths are.” Skydance hiked Dash up in one arm. “You want me to help you, Dash, or do you want to do it yourself?”

“Do it myself!” Dash answered proudly, and Nightlight smiled as he sank back down against Thundersong. Skydance twirled Dashlet towards the door, the littlebit shrieking with delight.

“How are you doing?” Thundersong rumbled softly, his vocaliser close by Nightlight’s audials as Dash and Skydance chattered away and out of the room. His arm tightened gently around Nightlight’s back, hand resting on his hip, and Nightlight sighed through every vent he had and snuggled closer.

“Tired, mostly. I’m so glad we’re all together...”

“So are we. I don’t want to know what we’d have done without you, you know. -No, don’t, I mean it. We’d either be homeless or out of a job - they wouldn’t even let Sky into the hall today.”

Nightlight jerked, shocked and seeking out Thundersong’s optics. “Why on Cybertron would- He’s one of the artists!”

“And the eirie sponsors the musical events,” Thundersong said heavily. Nightlight’s internals ran cold. “I’m not trying to make things worse, starshine, but I’m starting to think maybe we ought to think about moving sooner rather than later.”

Just then Skydance became audible again, his and Dashlet’s voices raised and singing something nonsensical as they came back to the central room, and Nightlight masked his fear and guilt for long enough that they both settled back in comfortably to restart the recording. Thundersong said nothing, only encouraged Nightlight to snuggle in at his side again, but though Nightlight’s optics lingered on the screen his processor was miles away.

//I think you’re right,// he commed eventually, quiet and resigned.

*

Dash’s antigravs were still only set at twenty percent of full power, but he practiced with them every day, every chance he could get. It wasn’t easy to practice indoors - and after the last time, practicing anywhere more enclosed than the large central playroom was Strictly Forbidden - but Carrier was wise enough not to expect Dash to do all his flying in the tower. There were other places where a little one could hone their skills.

“We’re with the party in section two,” Nightlight told the attendant, laughing a little as Dash wiggled eagerly in his arms. “Our names are on the list.”

The attendant faltered in indecision when Nightlight pinged eir his credentials. “Oh - yes, Gr- ...um. This way, please.”

Nightlight sighed. No one knew how to properly address an exiled member of the Winglord’s eirie, and all of them feared punishment for getting it wrong. He was ready to let it go, but Dash, responding to the attendant’s discomfiture, piped up. “‘Lo, I’m Dash.”

That actually got a smile, crinkling up the attendant’s optics. “Hello. It’s lovely to meet you, Dash.”

Sometimes his little one was wiser by far than the adult mechs around him. Nightlight glowed and squidged him gently close, then turned a hopeful variant of that smile on the attendant. “And I’m Nightlight. Just Nightlight, for clarity’s sake.”

The attendant hesitated, then tentatively smiled back. “I’ll make a note. And, um, thank you for visiting the playpark.”

Ei waved them through and into the gate marked as leading to section two, styled like an airlock with enough room for a small party of Vosians to pass through it at once. The first door slid and locked behind them, and Dash wiggled impatiently as he willed the second to hurry up, Nightlight mildly wandering his way over to it and privately very amused. The instant the door began to iris open, Dash let out a crow of triumph and bounced half out of Nightlight’s arms.

“Carrier! Carrier Carrier c’moooon!”

Nightlight laughed, nuzzled his sparkling’s cheek as Dash squirmed, and stepped through the gate as soon as it opened wide enough; the moment he passed the threshold, the anti-gravity field engaged and Nightlight’s pedes gently lifted from the floor.

“Now remember, Dashlet,” he said warningly, Dash squirming around again to look pleadingly up into his face. “Be careful of other people, and don’t forget to practise with your air brakes.”

Wiggle wiggle wiggle. “...promise, carrier.”

Nightlight nuzzled Dash’s cheek, earning himself a giggle. “There’s my best bitlet. Go on now, go have fun.” Nightlight opened his arms, and with a delighted squeal Dashlet lit up his bitty systems and pfutted across the clear antigrav dome to the other sparklings bumbling about in the air.

Most of them were already known to Dash - Haze was there, and so were Bubblebomb’s little ones, Snuggles and Zippy, the latter blurring about even faster than Dash could keep up despite Dash being a shade older; Terra, Moonburst and Sunspot, the oldest sparklings there, tossing a ball back and forth; and Dawn and Dusk, spark of Shimmersea, who’d been one of Nightlight’s first friends out of the eirie.

“Nightlight, you’re just in time,” Shimmersea beamed as Nightlight approached, opening her arms for a hug which Nightlight gratefully gave her. “Bubblebomb’s brought those globes-in-suspension goodies from Hexwrench’s flyby. We wanted to see what they do in antigravity.”

“Ah, well, if it’s for science,” Nightlight laughed, and Bubblebomb eagerly brought out the box of physics-defying goodies. “Speaking of, I think it’s about time I start looking for a private tutor for Dash. Have you heard any good things about anyone?”

“A few names come to mind,” Shimmersea admitted. “But isn’t Dashlet still a bit young?”

Nightlight glanced away uncomfortably. “Perhaps, but I’d at least like to have an idea of what’s available by the time I make a decision.”

Shimmersea’s optics flickered over his averted face, the stiff set of his wings, and hummed softly without committing anything either way. “I suppose it’s better to start looking early, so you’re sure of whoever you choose. I can put some names down on a flimsy, if you’d like?”

Unspoken between them both was the knowledge that Nightlight’s family would find it harder to appropriate a scrap of thin plastic than they could copy the contents of a datapad, and Nightlight’s optics followed Dashlet about the dome as the sparklings played. “That would be very kind of you,” he said, then set about hooking a pede into one of the cable loops that kept the adults tethered so he didn’t have to look up. Just in case Dash looked over and saw his expression.

“Goodies!” Bubblebomb cried swiftly, and opened the box of treats with enough bounce to let the rounds of liquid sweetness rise gracefully into the air between them. Nightlight reached out to one; it bobbed in his palm, a nearly-clear shell encapsulating liquid fuel and a bead of chewy solidified energon. He couldn’t help but smile. “Well, fellow scientists, what are our observations?”

“Goodies are indeed affected by antigravity!” Bubblebomb announced.

“The liquid appears to be taking on amorphous shapes,” Shimmersea put in. “But that is the extent of my observation. Further study is required.” She plucked a treat out of the air and ate it; laughing, Bubblebomb and Nightlight followed suit.

...and at that point one of the little ones spotted the treats, which led to the three grown Vosians being swarmed with hopeful sparklings. Laughing, Shimmersea thought quickly and scooped some of the goodies up in both hands, then gently tossed them in a slowly spinning fan of treat-droplets. “Practise time, little ones!” she announced in her clear voice. “You may each have a goodie, but you can’t use your hands!”

A chorus of squeals was her reply, Terra and her siblings darting over now they were sure they were invited, and Nightlight and Bubblebomb quickly copied Shimmersea to send more of the goodies spiralling out into the antigrav dome. They kept enough back to try one more each themselves, letting the thin shells burst and flood their sensors with thick, sticky sweetness as the dome was filled with the sparklings’ laughter.

Typically, the playful moment didn’t last long. Nightlight was still chuckling at something that Bubblebomb had said, wings moving gently as he drifted against the tether around his ankle, when Shimmersea’s field snapped with sudden alarm like a static shock. He instinctively darted a glance over to the little ones, but Dash was busily spinning in circles with Zippy and Sunspot; the other sparklings were playing happily around the dome and there was nothing he could see to prompt-

“Well, isn’t this nice.

Ice flooded Nightlight’s lines, every bit of plating on his frame clamping down tight as he turned. Starscream made the most of his uncharacteristically silent entrance, wings flared wide to display his steelsilk wrap to its fullest effect, an amiable sort of smirk taking the place of a smile; his optics glittered with malicious pleasure at Nightlight’s dismay. Static claimed Nightlight’s vocaliser - his gaze flickered back to Dash, his first and only thought being to snatch up his little one and run, but Starscream was between him and the airlock and the other flier had always been the fastest of them - and he knew that Nightlight knew it, his smirk growing sharper.

Shimmersea, bless the winds under her wings forever, barely even twitched after the first warning shock of surprise. “Your Grace,” she said mildly, the only one of the three who was both able to manage words and not silenced by protocol. “What a surprise.”

“Sparkbearer Shimmersea, as I live,” Starscream answered, fluttering in entirely feigned surprise that set his draped wrap dancing. “I haven’t seen you since you bore an heir for Fleetwind. What are you doing all the way down here?”

“Enjoying my sabbatical,” Shimmersea answered dryly. “And what brings you down here, if I may ask? Developing a sudden interest in sparklings?”

Starscream glanced around himself. The little ones had knotted up, Dash clinging to the arm of Sunspot, who was both bigger and older than him and the stronger in antigravs - though none of them were a match for Starscream if he were to lunge at them. Nightlight silently worked his ankle loose in the tether, optics on his brother. Superior flier or no, if Starscream so much as twitched toward any of the sparklings-!

“I have no need of an heir until my claim to the Winglord title is secured,” Starscream scoffed. “I do, however, have a passing interest in my kin.” He turned, completely ignoring Nightlight’s rising jet-turbine whine of warning. “Dash, isn’t it?” he cooed. “Wouldn’t you like to come and see me?”

Dash stared at him from behind Sunspot’s shoulder. “No.”

“Oh, no?” Starscream drew a package from subspace, wiggled it enticingly. “Not even for goodies?”

No,” Dash answered, gathering his courage. “You’re mean. I don’t like you.”

This time the heir-presumptive actually lost his composure enough to sputter. Nightlight was so proud of Dash that he could burst, optics shining up at his courageous bitlet. //My brave sweetspark,// he sent over comms, and smiled when Dash’s optics darted to him. //Can you be brave again and come to me?//

Dash landed in his arms with a thump before Starscream had finished spluttering, clinging tight to his carrier’s plating and glowering mistrustfully over one spoiler-point. Nightlight turned with the force of Dash’s charge, not so coincidentally putting his own frame between Starscream and his sparkling; Shimmersea, equally coincidentally, drifted forward a little in the wake of their movement, Bubblebomb humming something spirited and off-key as she bobbled between Shimmersea and Nightlight and held out her arms to her own little ones.

“C’mere, tinies! TerraSpotBurst, you too - hug time!”

The incoming rush of miniature Vosians was enough to make Starscream have to correct in midair, the sparklings all arrowing in towards the friendly adults whether they had been called or not - Shimmersea’s two pfutted rapidly into her arms in the wake of the others, not wanting to be left behind. Multiple pairs of tiny, wary optics flickered at the heir-presumptive, burrowing in close to their creators’ plating.

Starscream was left without support, the flaming wreckage of his plan burning merrily in the silence that followed. “That - you -” he sputtered. “Slag it all, sparklings aren’t supposed to DO that!”

“Ours are good sparklings,” Bubblebomb cooed, to the little ones in her arms rather than to Starscream directly. “They know not to take goodies from strangers.”

“Yeah,” Terra muttered, “and he’s really strange.”

Giggles rippled through the sparklings, and Nightlight’s arms tightened around Dash as Starscream’s optics flashed dangerously. “I’ll show you how ‘strange’ I can be,” he snarled. “I’ll make you sorry you were ever sparked, you little-”

“Starscream!” Nightlight yelped, covering the rather filthy name that came out of Starscream’s mouth with his own voice.

Dash screwed up his face. “When I act like that, I have to sit on the naughty step.”

Starscream moved toward them and Nightlight turned further, putting himself between his bitlet and his brother - but Shimmersea was the one who moved to shield them both, holding Starscream’s optics steadily as her twins hid behind her legs. Nightlight couldn’t see the look Shimmersea was giving him, but somehow it was enough to make Starscream stand down.

“You’re lucky you have value to the eirie still,” Starscream hissed at her, harsh with poison, and put the back of his hand to her face twice: a gesture rather than a strike, but one that rang with Starscream’s contempt.

Shimmersea quietly gripped her twins’ shoulders. “You and I value very different things, Grace.”

“Clearly,” he sneered; the sneer turned to something closer to a snarl as Dawn and Dusk latched more tightly onto their carrier’s legs, wary optics watching him silently. They didn’t flinch at his expression, only clung closer to Shimmersea’s glimmering plating, little pedes resting atop hers just in case Carrier needed to jet away in a hurry. It was something as natural as being carried to the youngest of sparklings, and it kindled a fire of spite and bitter envy in Starscream’s optics.

Starscream increased the strength of his antigravs, lifting himself higher over the heads of the adult Vosians and their disapproving little passengers, his gaze lancing past Shimmersea and Bubblebomb to his clutchmate. “I hope you’re satisfied,” he accused, his voice a laser to the sensors; Nightlight hunched his shoulders and curled in around Dash. He wouldn’t look. “I hope this is all playing out just the way you wanted, since you only have yourself to blame.”

With a flourish of the fabric draped around his shoulders - a scandalously purple wrap with glyphs and decorations woven into the links, one all too close to the design of the cloak worn by the heir for eir confirmation ceremony, which was surely fomenting gossip and wild speculation all through Vos already - Starscream turned his back on them and swept to the airlock. The fact that he had to wait for the doors to cycle open to follow through on his grand exit did nothing for his temper, and the wait shredded what remained of Nightlight’s nerves. He offlined his optics, bent almost in half to wrap around his sparkling, and felt his vents spin up with nigh-hysterical speed as the airlock whooshed closed and his frame reacted at last to being trapped in a confined space with a predator.

“That - that - horrible -” Bubblebomb could no longer hold her vocalizer, clinging to all five of her charges as she bristled. “Solus help Vos if he ever becomes Winglord!”

“Please don’t even say that,” Nightlight whispered harshly, and Bubblebomb’s hand flew to her mouth.

“Oh - Nightlight, spark-of-mine, I’m sorry...” Bubblebomb gathered Nightlight close, little ones latching onto both adults to both seek and give comfort, and Shimmersea joined the huddle from the other side. They were floating uncontrolled in the antigrav dome; nobody noticed or cared. “You take as long as you need, all right? We’re not going anywhere.”

“You sh-should.” The words came out unbidden, twisting painfully in Nightlight’s vocalizer. “Skydance is already being denied entry to concert halls because of me. They’ll destroy your lives just to get at me-” A staticky sob stole his voice; Shimmersea clicked soothingly and stroked his helm as though he were a sparkling himself.

“For you, we’d face down the whole eirie - you’re worth it, dear. Never think Starscream’s right. His bad behavior isn’t your fault.”

Nightlight let out another sob; against his cockpit, Dash started to tear up.

“‘S not fair,” he cried, muffled amidst the frames surrounding him; Nightlight crumpled under old guilt, but Dashlet wasn’t finished. “He’s all horrible and everybody does what he says, it’s not fair! I don’t want cousins anymore, why won’t they go away?”

“I’m sorry,” Nightlight choked out, Dash squirming and fighting his way up from the press of bodies to bury his face in his carrier’s neck. “I’m sorry, sweetest, I’m sorry I can’t make it better...”

“Aftscream go eat gearbugs!” came his sparkling’s furious wail, and Nightlight’s vocaliser misfired completely. Bubblebomb was surprised into a snorting hoot of laughter, clapping her hand over her mouth.

“Aftscream!” she squeaked, and Shimmersea only fought off a fit of laughter through long vorns of keeping her composure in noble eiries.

“He is a frightening, dangerous mech, and it is not sensible to call him names where anyone who isn’t us can hear,” she said firmly, before anything could catch hold in little processors. “Especially since it could hurt Dash and Nightlight. Now, I think it’s time we went home for cuddles - Bubbles, could you take your little ones and get the door?”

“Sure thing,” the other flier warbled, her vocaliser rising and falling in uncontrolled bursts, and hugged Nightlight one last time before heading to the airlock.

*

Dash and the other little ones were finally convinced to take a nap after they’d returned to Nightlight’s tower and Dash had cried himself out. They piled on Nightlight’s berth, snuffling as Nightlight tucked his own thermal wrap around them with hands that trembled only slightly. When he was done, Shimmersea took his hands and led him gently out to where Bubblebomb was setting oil out.

The drink calmed Nightlight’s nerves somewhat. “Thank you,” he said, then, “Thundersong is right. I can’t stay in Vos much longer.”

Bubblebomb couldn’t help a worried look. “Would you still be able to run your tower if you went somewhere else? You’d still be getting the rent from us, right?”

Nightlight shook his head sadly. “Anything I leave behind, I can’t assume I’ll get to keep. I suppose I could try to be a counselor, wherever I end up. I’ve had the training, I just wasn’t allowed to do anything with it.” Bubblebomb didn’t look any less worried, and guilty along with it. “I’m sorry,” Nightlight told her. “I know my leaving could mean everyone else loses their home here, or their rents increased when the eirie repossesses it at the very least.” He folded his hands, twisting them together. “I just don’t see any other way out.”

Bubblebomb cycled hard and gave Nightlight a brave smile. “I won’t ask you to sacrifice your freedom. Or Dashlet’s. We’ll all be all right, don’t worry - I just wish we could all come with you.”

Nightlight returned the smile with a small, resigned one of his own, optics pale and tired. “Sometimes I think that might be safest for all of us.” He turned the cube of oil around in his hands, optics looking through it to somewhere far away. “It’s - it’s probably safer for everyone if I don’t tell you where I think we can go, but if there’s a way for you to follow us...” He hesitated, everything in him shaken and unsteady, but Shimmersea leaned forward and pressed a finger under his chin to make him meet her gaze.

“Vos will not be safe for anyone for long,” she said firmly, Bubblebomb beginning to nod along from her own chair. “We can all see where the city is heading, especially now, and anyone who does not fit or support the Winglord’s ideal will suffer. You won’t have seen as much of it, in the eirie or here-” Nightlight’s field flushed with embarrassment and old, clinging shame, but Shimmersea pushed it away with her own determination and a lack of blame. “But as far as I can tell, Vos has been on a long, slow turn for vorns. Not just the nobles, though I’ve worked for enough in the past who followed along - we never used to be so isolated. So - static. Once Vosians flew the skies of all of Cybertron, not just our own territory; the Winglord’s eirie never used to be so shuttered.”

“And you think - you think it’s going to get worse?” Nightlight’s voice was less than steady, but Shimmersea’s position as a formally-acknowledged Sparkbearer meant she could move easily between the levels of Vos from the highest eirie on down; she had been circulating amongst all walks of life for far longer than Nightlight had been ensparked and kept enclosed in the Winglord’s eirie.

Enclosed was right. I had no idea what the rest of Vos was really like.

Shimmersea nodded, her gold optics pale and serious. “Vos has been withdrawing from the rest of Cybertron for a long time,” she said softly. “Ephemeris began it, and everything since has only wound us up tighter in a net of our own making. The Winglord may think pulling away from everything else in the world makes us stronger, but wilful blindness does not find us more sources of fuel. We cannot trade within the city for materials we do not have, and when whispers of shortages rise and growing numbers of artists whose patrons pull away from them fall into deprivation...”

Her voice trailed away meaningfully, and both of the other full-frames shivered. The first people Thundersong and Skydance had introduced Nightlight to had been their circle of artist and artisan friends; the first friends Nightlight had ever made for himself had been from the lower levels. Nightlight may have been charging them rent to both hold on to what he’d saved of his own credits and to make better use of the Exile’s Tower - far too big for himself and Dashlet alone, far too lonely for a happy little bitlet without voices and games and people to talk to that he trusted - but it was petty credits compared to the rest of Vos. Bubblebomb shifted unhappily; looking after two bitlets alone and still making enough art to cover both rent and fuel without a patron would have been impossible by now if she hadn’t moved into the tower, and she wasn’t the only one.

Nightlight couldn’t give her a home indefinitely, as much as he wanted to, just as he couldn’t protect Dash from the eirie forever. He still felt terrible for having to choose.

“I’ll set up what I can,” he said, and tried not to let his voice wobble. “Maybe I can leave behind a fund for everyone to buy the Exile’s Tower outright, or find some other decent place to live. Or - or travel somewhere else. Whatever you all decide is best. I won’t leave you all with no protection.”

“Nightlight…” Shimmersea covered his hand with her own. “You can’t protect us on your own, if the eirie turns its sights on any of us.” Nightlight stiffened miserably. “So don’t take that onto yourself. The fund is a good idea.” She nodded as Bubblebomb took Nightlight’s other hand. “But make it one we can all contribute to. And we need to tell everyone what happened today and discuss what to do.”

Bubblebomb was nodding. “And in the meantime, we keep a closer watch on the lils and make sure they know not to take goodies from strangers.”

“What was Starscream even trying to do?” Nightlight complained. “I just don’t understand him. Did he really think Dashlet would like him better than me if he was bribed with goodies?” For a moment the image of exactly that made itself known in his mind, and Nightlight shuddered.

“You’re the one who told me that everything good you had, Starscream wanted to take away or destroy,” Shimmersea hedged. “And that Dash is the best thing that ever happened to you.” Nightlight’s hands tightened around theirs.

“Fortunately,” Bubblebomb mused, “Starscream doesn’t appear to have any idea how sparklings work.”

“Thankfully, yes.”

It took more time than Nightlight cared to admit to, but eventually his systems slowed from their tense race and he managed to relax the death-grip on his friends’ hands. Bubblebomb gave him an encouraging grin and squeezed before she let go.

“Well, if nothing else, the tinies are getting their naps in just when we needed them to. How about we call a family meeting tonight and go from there?”

Nightlight nodded gratefully, and Shimmersea smiled. “That is an excellent plan, Bubbles. In the meantime... Actually, I might just check in on the little ones one more time. Why don’t we all go? It might help.”

“Sounds like a good plan to me,” Nightlight sighed, and Shimmersea patted his gauntlet before standing and drawing him up after her. All three soft-footed their way from Night’s comfortable little parlour to his berthroom, sliding the door open just far enough for them to peer inside.

//Awwww,// Bubblebomb murmured over comms to them both. //Isn’t that just the cutest thing?//

The Exile’s Tower had been bare and cold when Nightlight had arrived, the shutters locked tight and the air stale - for all it was still called a tower, it had long since been left behind by the more lofty extensions added onto the eirie, so that it stuck out below the lowest point of what was still considered the Winglord’s private levels of Highcrest Gate. No-one lived there, and it had been millennia since even visiting diplomats were housed there - parts of it had been used for storage, but in the Winglord’s fury he had ordered anything left behind in the Tower be removed before Nightlight was exiled there. It was intended as a punishment, but Nightlight’s family hadn’t considered that their resident odd duck would have few enough diversions to spend his credits on, outside of teaching units and data pads he could hide from his siblings. Nightlight had had a solid nest egg hidden away where his family couldn’t touch it, thanks to his lower-level friends playing courier for his credit chips, and the lack of amenities hadn’t hurt him or his sparkling outside of the first few days. His trine had helped to wash down the walls and sluice off the dust from the floors, and between ‘Dance and the other tactile artists, the walls were soon covered with artwork and Nightlight needed more shelves.

It had also meant, for the first time in his life, that he was able to arrange his quarters any way he liked - the eirie only changed when the Winglord decreed it, and the furnishings there were antique. The thought of so many choices had paralysed him at first, especially when he was dealing with a newly-unfurled and tiny Dashlet at the time, but one thing he had taken entirely for granted was a berth big enough to fit three fully-grown Vosians easily. The Winglord’s eirie didn’t exactly do standard on anything, but a large and comfortable berth fit for a trine was the norm there, and had been for the entirety of Ephemeris’ reign - four generations of Vosians used to lavishly large berths when they were old enough not to recharge in sparkling hammocks. They also made a spectacularly well-suited napping spot for a heap of little ones.

Dash was clinging to one of Nightlight’s cushions, his little nose buried in the steelinen fabric. As Nightlight watched, he took a handful of the cushion and cuddled it close, vents relaxing into a soft sigh. Nightlight thought his spark would burst from love, the fiercest emotion he had ever experienced.

I will keep you safe, little one, he swore. I will keep you safe until the day you are able to keep yourself safe. You’ll be happy and proud and surrounded by people who love you, and the eirie won’t be able to get so much as a handful of your shadow!

He had no idea how he was going to accomplish such a thing when he was still leashed to his family’s every whim, but watching his little one recharge, the doubts could not find a foothold.