Perceptor twitched out of recharge, his sensor span indicating a sudden warmth on his right side. He cycled it through a half dozen improbable alarm codes. Not hot enough to be critical damage of any sort, no fire, no chemical reagent. His optics onlined slowly, for visual feed.
Verity. The diminutive xenomorph had settled against his side, face buried against his red armor, one bare leg thrown over his waist, wedged between his arm and chassis. She seemed…deep in her own kind of recharge.
“Verity,” Perceptor murmured.
She mumbled something, the sound vibrating against his chassis, one small hand curling over the edge of one of his armor plates.
Perceptor pushed up one shoulder. “Verity, are you…unwell?” He couldn’t imagine any other reason why she’d be here. Perhaps she was ill and had come to him thinking he was Ratchet?
“Mmrmph.” Verity’s face lifted from where she’d pressed it against his side. “Me? Nah, I’m fine.” She flopped over, wriggling her back…struts(?) against his side.
Perceptor blinked. “Then…why?” He immobilized his right arm, for fear of shifting and pinching her in the slide of his armor.
Verity pushed up onto one of her hands, her brown eyes blinking wearily. “Trying to sleep here.”
Verity flopped back down, grabbing Perceptor’s hand and twining around it with her legs. “Sleep,” she muttered.
Perceptor frowned but, well, she wasn’t ill and wasn’t doing any harm…he’d ask her again in the morning. He lay back down, stiffly, acutely aware as his systems slipped to recharge, of the alien warmth against his dermal plating. It had been a…long time since anyone had touched him voluntarily.
Ironfist’s optics were a heavy weight on Perceptor as he took his ration. Perceptor ignored it as best he could—he’d gotten used to some judgmental glares since he had done his upgrades, but this, somehow, was different.
“There a problem?”
Ironfist straightened. “Problem? No. No! I, uh…just…was, well…curious.”
Perceptor tilted his head. “Curious.”
Ironfist studied his cube for a long moment. “I, uh, saw Verity leaving your quarters this morning.”
Oh. Perceptor frowned, unsure how to answer. Unsure, he realized after a moment, what the question he’d be answering was. “Yes,” he said, quietly. The truth. She had left his quarters, after explaining, in her usual, telegraphic style, that she’d had some…bad memory purges. And for some reason, they did not affect her when she was curled up with him. It hadn’t explained why she’d chosen him, but… Possibly, he thought, some effect of the electromagnetic impulses of his field. It bore research.
If he’d ever have time for such benign projects again.
Ironfist stared at him for a long moment, before nodding. The nod perplexed Perceptor—as if Ironfist had figured something out. While Perceptor…hadn’t. “None of my business,” Ironfist said, blue optics dropping to his cube.
“You might ask Verity,” Perceptor suggested, the words an effort, but a shield, keeping distance between him and what he did not know.
Ironfist looked shocked, stammering some excuse, his optics irising wide, almost, Perceptor thought, with alarm.
“Ask me what?” Verity’s voice rang behind Perceptor.
Perceptor waited, while Ironfist staggered awkwardly through a series of ‘erm,’ and ‘well, I…,’ and other hesitations. “Last night,” he said, finally, turning his head, when he decided Ironfist and coherent utterance were not going to happen.
“Oh that?” Verity hopped up onto the bench. “What? Girl can’t snuggle with a hot mech every now and again?”
“I…my core temperature readings are within normal tolerances,” Perceptor muttered, lamely, suddenly sharing in Ironfist’s acute discomfort, aware that he’d spilled too many words, wanting to snatch them back out of the air.
Verity laughed, the sound ringing high and clear through the small shipboard refectory. Springer and Pyro shot strange looks at them. She punched Perceptor’s shoulder. “You’re cute!”
It was Perceptor’s turn to make a strange, slightly choking sound, while Ironfist seemed to just…simmer in some discontent.
“So, what’s up today, guys?” Verity snapped open the white plastic pouch of food, taking an implement she called a spoon and shoveling the contents in her mouth, apparently oblivious to their discomfort. “Oh,” she said, around a mouthful of food, “When you get a chance, Percy, baby, you might want to have a talk—ya know, as much as you do—with the fabber. ‘Cause I gotta say? Pizza-flavored oatmeal?” She made a face. “Nicht sehr gut.”
“I’ll…look at it?” What was he even saying?
Verity beamed, tossing the glossy black mop of hair from her face. “You are an absolute doll!” She wriggled on the bench, nuzzling her face against his upper arm. Perceptor stiffened, confused.
“I-I could take a look at it?” Ironfist cut in. “I’m pretty good with fixing things.”
“You? Oh right! Research boy!” Verity beamed. She leaned forward, swallowing another mouthful of breakfast. “Hey, you any good at weapons mods?”
“I…uh,” Ironfist rubbed a rueful hand over his dented blue helm. “Yes. You might say that.” He seemed to melt in the blaze of the sudden smile that broke over Verity’s face.
“Verity,” Perceptor warned.
“What? No harm in having him check out the power suit, is there? Two brains are better than one and all?”
“I’d be glad to!” Ironfist blurted. He seemed…strangely eager. No, Perceptor thought, probably just feeling proprietary of the suit. And the engineering was sound. He should have no problem letting Ironfist look over his work. After all, it had kept Verity alive more than once.
“It would be something I can do,” Ironfist said, quietly. “I’m…not much of a soldier, I think.”
Perceptor frowned. Verity twisted, sitting on the table in front of him. “Hey, come on! Two geeks, geeking out together? Could be fun!”
Fun…? Perceptor didn’t…do fun.
“This is really interesting!” Ironfist’s large blue optics were wide and sincere, looking up from the opened chassis of Verity’s body armor. “This is mostly your work?”
Perceptor grunted, frowning at a bent plate in the elbow joint. How many times had he told her to report mobility issues to him? And it wasn’t like he said all that much to her, so he rather imagined it would stand out in her memory.
“The life support is unique—well, I’ve never seen it before.” Ironfist was nearly bouncing. Happy. Perceptor remembered when science made him happy. It seemed a very long time ago.
“Modified from her indigenous species.” Well…heavily modified from the NASA suit he’d seen. But it had given him the requirements and the chemical mix for her ‘air’. He’d simply compressed those elements to a solid wafer, using a modified nebulizer to disperse them as needed.
Ironfist had moved on to one of the gauntlets, holding it up to the light. “Huh. You lose a lot of power because of the weight of the armor.” He looked at Perceptor. “We can trim the weight and make her faster.”
Perceptor’s mouth flattened. “No.”
“But,” Perceptor repeated, then braced himself for a torrent of words. “Verity is not like us. You get a hand shot off,” he made a gesture to Stores. “We get you another. She loses one, it’s gone.” His optics grew hard, drilling into Ironfist, to make sure he got the point, his targeting reticle lighting up as though lining up a shot.
Ironfist nodded, cowed. “I…sorry. I didn’t think.”
Perceptor softened. It wasn’t Ironfist’s fault, really. And he was trying to learn: Perceptor could see the keen way Ironfist was studying the engineering of the suit that he was appreciating, now, the balance between protection and mobility. It wasn’t perfect, not by a long shot. But it was the best Perceptor could do. As always…not good enough. He bent back to the other gauntlet, reaching for a multimeter to check the speed of the sensor relays.
“What’s this?” Ironfist tapped a probe at a flattish node.
Perceptor frowned. Trust Ironfist to find that. Well, he was thorough at least. “Targeting alarm,” he said, keeping his voice flat and neutral.
“Huh, okay.” Ironfist bent over it, examining it. “Why’s it need a RF transmitter?”
Perceptor shuttered his optics briefly. “Verity…needs to be protected.”
Ironfist picked up a tool, aiming at the node. Perceptor’s hand twitched. “So when a target locks on to her, it pings you?” Ironfist asked.
“She needs to be protected,” Perceptor repeated, hating at the same time as admiring how quickly Ironfist had figured it out. Verity didn’t always pay attention, nor did she have his reflexes. Or firepower. Ironfist looked confused. Perceptor frowned. “Balance of strength and liability. Point of being on a team.” That’s what he told himself, anyway.
“Oh,” Ironfist said, unconvinced.
Perceptor jerked awake. No. He’d locked the door this time. But…there she was, face on his black pelvic span, body draped along one thigh, hands....
“Gah!” Verity jerked awake, her hands clutching at…Perceptor winced.
“What? Hey it’s cold here and that’s warm in there.” Verity wriggled her fingers around the gap in his thigh armor.
“Verity. Hands.” He tried to sound commanding, while his sensornet spiked. Why didn’t this happen to Springer? Or Kup? No, better not Kup. Not…uncontrolled. “You…could be injured.” That was not the reason at all, but…she didn’t have to know that. “Verity.” He squirmed as she moved her hands again. “Please. Hands.”
“Sheesh,” Verity frowned. “Don’t know why you’re gettin’ all—ohhhhhhhh.”
Perceptor did not like the crafty gleam in her optics. “Verity,” he said, warningly, readying a hand to snatch at her, his ventilation hitching.
“Perceptor,” she said, through a giggle. “Someone…ticklish?”
“Awwww, come on! It’s fraggin’ adorable! Big scary frowny Percy? Ticklish?” Verity wriggled upward, straddling his thigh. She wiggled her fingers threateningly. “Now, where else could we try…?”
Perceptor covered the gap in his armor. “The door was locked,” he said, deflecting.
“Psssssh,” Verity shrugged. “That.” She leaned forward, tickling—he guessed that’s what the gesture was called—at his abdominal plating. He flinched back. She laughed, lunging forward, digging in under the coolant hose. Perceptor jolted upright, throwing his head back at the spike of sensation over his net, ventilation catching in sharp gasps. Her hands were…small and could get into some normally unreachable places. She cackled.
“Verity!” he gasped, hands curling into empty fists on the berth, as though clutching after control.
Verity chortled. “I’ll make you beg for mercy!”
“Please,” he choked out, at the ceiling. Something in the tone of his voice got her attention. She froze.
“Uh…that doesn’t tickle?”
He didn’t trust himself with words. He shook his head.
“But…it doesn’t hurt.”
He cycled a ragged vent, shaking his head again.
“Oh.” Something he never thought he’d see: Verity, confused, embarrassed. Her hands fell to her sides, rumpled hair framing a face torn between laughter and embarrassment. “I, uh, could just leave?”
Perceptor shuddered another ventilation, dropping back to his elbows, staring at the ceiling as though begging for composure. His sensornet was ablaze, and the heat and strange velvet softness of Verity’s limbs over his thigh armor was…a bit much. “Just…go back to sleep,” he muttered, falling back, flat, fighting his ventilation, fighting his sensornet, fighting the memories of other hands—larger hands—other touches, hard and sleek. “Back to sleep,” he repeated, as if hoping to quell the disobedient sensations.
It was a miserable night.
Ironfist saw it now that he was looking for it. No one had complained when he took rear guard, figuring that meant more action for them and…kept him out of the way. But he was learning, he was determined to learn, and this time, he was learning the cool precision of Perceptor’s aim as the taller mech drove forward, ducking behind cover, popping up to fire a precise round at a target. Periodically whirling, lobbing an energy bolt seemingly at random. But Ironfist knew what to watch for now, and could see the near misses on Verity’s red armor from shots disrupted by Perceptor’s almost careless precision.
The enemy opened a barrage. High caliber fire ripped through the air—Ironfist was proud he could recognize it by the sound.
//Perceptor,// Springer said on mission comm net, //We’re pinned till you get him.//
//On it.// Ironfist, behind the hulk of a burned out vehicle, saw Perceptor cock his head, getting an audio triangulation of the source of the fire, then drop to his back, worming along the ground, heels and shoulders, to change position.
Ironfist ducked as a spray of bullets thunked into the vehicle he was hiding behind. He felt a small burst of pride. See? Cover, not just concealment.
But Verity…? Oh no. She was bouncing behind a small outcrop of stone, preparing to dash for something. No!
Ironfist couldn’t do much, but he could do that. He bolted forward as Verity moved, throwing himself to the ground in front of her just as the gun swept back around, homing in on the target. Rounds thudded into his backplate four hot red punches against his sensornet, just as Verity’s powersuit slammed into his chassis.
And then the heat and roar of an explosion behind him, as Perceptor had reared up and taken his shot, hitting the gun in its magazine, igniting the rounds.
Cheers went up over the commnet, just before Springer’s voice had tiredly called for an evac for Ironfist. Perceptor was a hero and Ironfist, even as he curled himself around Verity, knowing with 100% probability that he had saved her, felt like a loser.
Perceptor tried to ignore Verity’s surprised look, and the rush of murmurs as he beckoned her from the edge of the rec room. “Come with me,” he said, turning and heading down the corridor to his quarters, without looking to see if she was following, his face rigid, trying not to ask himself why he was doing…what he was about to do.
Verity trailed into his room, looking for once a little embarrassed. “Hey, uh, I know you’re gonna chew my aft off about Ironfist and stuff. Springer’s already laid into me. And Kup. And…pretty much everyone else.” She shrugged. “Guess I deserve it.”
Well. “It could have been you instead of he that got hit,” Perceptor said. “And in the end, he can be repaired.” Ironfist was mostly already repaired, actually. Just spending the night in the medbay to be sure, because of his…other infirmity. “Not why I called you here.” Well, it sort of was. Faintly related.
“Okay, sure! I hacked your lock!” Verity pouted. “But if you really wanted to keep me out, you of all mechs? Yeah, you could find a better way than a 16 digit random code.”
True. But…irrelevant. “Also not why.” He seemed exhausted by words. And really, really having second thoughts about this. He blinked, tiredly, and headed over to the berth, sitting down. How to explain this? “The other day. The, uh…the ‘tickling’.”
“That didn’t tickle.”
He nodded, cycled a vent of air. “Verity. Mechs are primarily electrical systems.” He decided that the wall on the far side of the room was suddenly grippingly fascinating to look at. “We have innate piezoelectric charge. Additionally, tactile friction raises charge and can lead to a…semi-spontaneous cascade of capacitor influx and—“
“You get off on it.” Verity’s arms were folded over her chest.
“…yes.” In so many words, yes. Why was this so hard?
“And…?” Her brown eyes glinted, and Perceptor got the very real sensation that she was somehow enjoying his discomfort. Well, perhaps she could, because he, certainly, was not. He wondered if it was too late to shift to yelling at her about Ironfist.
“And,” AND that wall was really fascinating again, he decided. “There are, uh, ways to go about it that are, ahem,…more effective than others.”
“And?” He could hear something almost like laughter in her goad.
“And…perhaps you should know them.” He fought a sudden urge to bolt out of the room. And settled instead for staring at his feet.
“Wait, what? You offering to teach me the ways of Robot Perv?”
Perceptor’s hands clenched helplessly. Not into fists, but after some imaginary sense of control. He…hadn’t really planned this stage of the operation all that well, apparently. “Perhaps,” he repeated, lamely, “You should know them.” He cleared his vocalizer, roughly.
He blinked. “Yes…?”
Her face broke into a grin. “So, Percy, baby, how do we get started?”
It had been…an excessively long time since someone had touched him. And he feared that he overloaded rather faster—and harder—than did him much credit, but Verity’s small hands, almost impossibly fine and mobile, had traced the seams in his armor, mapped the lines of his power cabling, dipping in under the armor to flirt over the gyros and actuators, to the point where…he’d had no choice. And it was…unseemly, most likely, the way he lay, now, shuddering and limp on the berth.
Verity flopped to the berth beside him, in between his arm and chassis, leaning her shoulders against his side. “That,” she said, “was insanely hot.” She prodded at his elbow with one bare foot, eliciting a wrung-out whimper.
Perceptor flopped his other hand over his face. He hadn’t planned for this, either. He’d meant for…a short demonstration, a few of the major sensitivity lines, but things had gotten out of hand. Things being…his starved sensor net, really.
“I give me an A+,” Verity nodded smugly to herself. She turned. “So, this how I thank you for all the times you’ve saved my ass?”
He shook his head. “Was supposed to be…Ironfist.”
Verity stroked his teal forearm with her foot, idly. “Ironfist? The new guy?”
“He…,” Perceptor’s overload-surging cortex failed at words. Not that he’d done much better earlier. “…is interested in you.” The pieces were easy enough to put together.
“And you’re not?” Verity sat up, folding her legs under her body, her hands gripping into her thighs. Oh frag. This was…exactly not what he wanted.
“Verity, I…?” He looked away, but this time the blank wall was not helpful. At all. “I’m too damaged. You need someone…,” he struggled again. “…less damaged.” He thought of Drift, and their strange, violent, completely symbiotic relationship. Drift, who had left the Wreckers, left him. Possibly, finally, too damaged even for Drift. He ached.
Verity rose to her knees, punching at his rib strut. It didn’t hurt, beyond the emotion on her face. “Know what, Perceptor? YOU don’t get to decide that. You don’t get to pick who I like and who I don’t like. Don’t think I don’t know you’ve saved my ass about 187 million times already. And don’t think I don’t know why.”
“Team,” he said, feebly.
“Team, my ass.” That…made no sense. “Listen, Perceptor. You saved me. You think that doesn’t…do something? Make a bond? You telling me I can’t feel that?” His mouth opened, wordless, thinking of Drift, of bleeding out on the floor of the Decepticon ship. And then….
Verity’s face moved, white with rage. “You know what? Fuck you, then. Seriously. You think you’re in control of everything, huh? Think ‘cause you built me a suit, you get to control how I feel? FUCK YOU.” She kicked off the berth, vaulting his forearm, her bare feet slapping against the floor.
She jumped up to slap the door controls, her black hair whipping over her shoulders as she turned her head. “Where? To Ironfist, right? That’s what you want?”
And she was gone.
Yes…he thought. That’s what I want.