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An Art and A Fortunate Accident

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“I was suicidal. But then I met someone who saw the best in everyone—even me.
Maybe there's someone out there who can save your life, too.”
— Chromedome, The Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye Annual #1


The sad-looking mech was tall and boxy, his paint a warm orange and visor a lonely yellow.

“The worse the death, the more painful the memories,” he said, sympathy written in the tilt of his head. Rewind frowned at the non sequitur. The mech must have assumed from Rewind’s frustrated cry that he was mourning a deceased friend—a logical assumption about someone visiting a Relinquishment Clinic, but incorrect in his case.

“Who are you?” Rewind asked, a touch sharper than intended. He always felt defensive of Dominus Ambus and his search for his friend. More often than not, explaining his quest led to the hated, skeptical, “Are you sure he's not dead?” No, Rewind knew in his spark that Dominus still lived. He would know if he had died. He would.

“Everyone calls me Chromedome,” the mech said, holding his slender fingers out in greeting. Rewind craned his neck upward, appraising Chromedome and recording him in full. He had a pretty average frametype, but the lines were attractive and colors cheerful. They didn’t match his drooping shoulders and the downward slope of his visor.

“Why are you here?” Rewind asked for the sake of documenting as much information as possible. He liked to give his spontaneously recorded footage some kind of context, especially when it came to meeting new bots, even if he never saw them again.

“To do something about it,” Chromedome said cryptically.

Rewind tensed. It was one thing to witness all these bots going willingly to their deaths, but another to actually speak with someone who would rather die than face the war.

“What happened to make you give up?”

Chromedome didn't hesitate to answer: “It stopped being worth it.”

“The war?” Rewind asked.

“Living.”

*

Despite his sobering honesty, Chromedome must not have been a bot of conviction, because it didn’t take much effort for Rewind to convince him to leave the Relinquishment Clinic and grab a pint at Maccadam’s Old Oil House instead. Over a pitcher of cheap high grade, Chromedome loosened up, and they talked about their lives before the war and what they had been up to since. Chromedome was younger than him, but he bore a deep-set weariness that aged him. Rewind had been delighted to learn that he had been a cop before the war—a detective, really, Chromedome had corrected him, which Rewind immediately told him was even cooler.

“So I've been wondering: What's with the camera?”

Rewind touched the blinking camera mounted at the side of his head. “I'm an archivist,” he said. “I archive.”

“Are you filming right now?” Chromedome asked. Rewind nodded. He could tell Chromedome was bothered by it. A bot with something to hide, then. But who wasn’t?

“I'm always filming,” he explained. He didn’t see any reason to be apologetic about it. As the old saying went, Everyone’s shape serves a purpose.

“What do you do with all the data?”

Rewind shrugged. “Lots of things. Sometimes I’m paid for it. Sometimes it serves as court evidence. Sometimes I make documentaries. Sometimes I just like having videos of my friends. And more often than not, it's good to have a sense of self-preservation in these times. My memory banks go back millions of years—before the switch to the New Calendar, even.”

A brief but intense expression of worry crossed Chromedome’s face, obvious despite his visor and mask. He looked much more concerned than the average bot who found out about Rewind’s camera. Oh, Rewind was suddenly very, very intrigued.

“Don’t worry,” he said, trying to modulate his speech to sound reassuring. “I won't pry.”

“Thanks. I’m probably not that interesting enough anyway. I’m just a mech,” Chromedome said, clearly lying. He wasn’t even looking at Rewind.

Rewind tilted his helm to the side, looking thoughtful. “You’re interesting to me,” he said sincerely.

Startled, Chromedome looked up. He appeared surprised, and then pleased, before he hid his embarrassment behind a large gulp of energon.

Sipping his own drink, Rewind gestured for Chromedome to talk. He prompted, “Tell me more about what it was like to be in Mechaforensics. Did you do total autopsies as often as they show on TV?”

*

As last call was announced, Rewind found himself reluctant to say goodbye to Chromedome. It had been a long time since he had really connected with anyone and spent so much time just hanging out. Though he made friends easily, his quest meant that he was constantly on the move, so maintaining them was difficult. He had recently stopped trying.

But Chromedome was smart, with an acerbic (if rather self-deprecating) wit and lots of interesting anecdotes, and Rewind wanted to know him better. As they spoke, he had found himself distracted from ruminating about Dominus Ambus’s fate. It was nice to take a step back from his exhausting search to talk for the sake of talking. And part of him worried that once they parted ways, Chromedome would find his way back to the Relinquishment Clinic.

He was trying to think of some way to stick by Chromedome’s side without seeming too clingy when his new friend said, “You’re not from around here, right? Do you have a place to stay?”

Rewind shrugged. “I was just going to check in at a hostel or something. Sometimes I just sleep in little nooks I find in the city. I’m a little low on Shanix.”

“I have an extra recharge slab at my place,” Chromedome offered. “You’re welcome to crash there.”

“You don’t have to feel obligated,” Rewind said, but Chromedome shook his head.

“No reason for you to pay for a slab when I have a perfectly fine one not in use. And honestly? I’d be grateful for the company.”

Rewind reminded himself that this was a bot who had been waiting in line to kill himself not so long ago. It would be good for him to be with someone who could watch over him. And if Rewind was being honest with himself, he ached for companionship, even if it would be a poor substitute for Dominus’s towering intelligence and kindness.

“All right,” he consented. “But you have to let me buy you a drink or two next time, okay?”

Chromedome’s visor flashed briefly at his words, and then he seemed to stand up straighter. “Deal,” he agreed.

*

His third night at Chromedome’s apartment, Rewind found out about the nightmares. Awakened by the sound of screaming, he burst into Chromedome’s room, ready to tackle some intruder. Instead, all he found was Chromedome twitching on his recharge slab, clutching at his helm and shouting. Sympathy flooded Rewind.

Though he nearly got smacked in the head when he tried to get closer, he managed to grab one of Chromedome’s shoulders and shake it as vigorously as he could.

“Wake up,” he said. “Chromedome, wake up. Wake up!”

Chromedome snapped awake and reached out wildly, choking Rewind with a vice grip.

“Hrk!” Rewind choked, his voice box emanating static. “Chrome—kzzt!—dome! It’s me—kzzt!—Rewind!”

Chromedome’s visor cleared, and Rewind dropped to the floor with a soft clang. “Rewind?” he said sleepily, then sat up straight. “Oh Primus, I didn’t mean to . . . I’m sorry.”

Rewind rubbed his neck as he got to his feet. “Quite the reflexes you have there.”

Chromedome looked embarrassed—no, ashamed. “Cop training,” he mumbled. “Are you all right? I’m really sorry.”

“It’s fine,” Rewind grumbled. He climbed onto the wide recharge slab, and Chromedome shifted over to make room for him to kneel on the still warm surface. “What were you dreaming about? It sounded like someone was killing you.”

Chromedome rolled onto his side away from Rewind, curling his limbs in close. “I wish,” he murmured, quiet and miserable, into the darkness of the room.

Rewind didn’t know what to say to that. He reached out to rest his hand on Chromedome’s shoulder. It was shaking.

Silence hung between them, tense and awkward.

“Sorry for waking you,” Chromedome said finally.

“Don’t be,” Rewind said and immediately hated how useless he felt. He wished he could do something, say something to make Chromedome not sound so sad. Instead, he tried a distraction: “You haven’t asked me why I was at the Relinquishment Clinic.”

Chromedome flipped around to face him, and even in the dark Rewind could see his morose expression tinged with curiosity. “I thought you were grieving. I didn’t want to force you to talk about it.”

“I was searching for someone,” replied Rewind. “Someone I’ve been searching for for a long time.”

“Who?”

“His name was Dominus,” Rewind said. “Dominus Ambus.”

“The name sounds familiar,” Chromedome said. “Who was he? Your friend?”

Rewind’s visor flickered, and now he was the one to look away. Softly, he answered: “Dominus was everything.”

*

Chromedome tried to convince him he was fine, but Rewind knew a tortured bot when he saw one. He insisted he would stay with him, curling up on the left side of the slab. He was tired, but he stayed up combing through recently acquired footage until he was sure Chromedome had fallen asleep again.

When he finally succumbed to his exhaustion, he dreamed of Dominus Ambus and Luna-1.

*

In the morning, they shared an energon cube and watched the news. It was the broadcast of some patriotic speech Optimus Prime was giving after returning from the battlefield. His inner circle hovered around him, wearing expressions ranging from annoyed to nervous.

“I still can’t believe you used to work with Prowl,” Rewind said as the officer fielded the reporters’ prying questions deftly.

“Yeah, well,” Chromedome said, sounding uncomfortable and just a little sad. “We don’t really get along anymore.”

“I'm not sure he gets along with anyone,” Rewind pointed out.

“I guess not,” Chromedome said, but he still looked downcast. “He wasn’t always like that.” He laughed immediately after the words left him. “Okay, that’s a lie. He’s always been like that. But not with me.”

“Were you close?” Rewind wondered, though he thought he could guess.

“We were partners,” Chromedome replied simply. “We were inseparable.”

Rewind knew something about inseparable partners. His spark ached for Dominus Ambus, the one bot who had always gotten him, who had treated him so well. He missed him so much. “What happened?”

Chromedome shrugged. “After the war began, circumstances changed and we went our separate ways. And after a while, we stopped seeing eye to eye on things.”

“You miss him?”

Chromedome vented softly, looking down at the table. “I still see him sometimes.”

“That’s not what I meant,” Rewind said. Chromedome’s head shot up, and their gazes met. Rewind tilted his head.

Looking down again, Chromedome said quietly, “Yeah. I miss him a lot.”

*

It turned out that Chromedome didn’t have work that day, so Rewind asked him for a tour of the neighborhood. It was nice to have company, after being alone for so long. Rewind was a social bot who had once been surrounded by friends, but after Dominus Ambus’s disappearance, he realized that they were more Dominus’s friends than his own. Although shapism wasn’t as openly rampant as it had been in the old days, he was still treated differently from the bigger, “regular” bots. Unfortunately, his non-mobile alt mode hardly helped matters.

But Chromedome didn’t seem to mind walking, and he adopted a gait that was slow enough for Rewind to catch up but not so slow that it was demeaning. Rewind was embarrassed at the surge of gratitude in his chest.

“So what do you want to see?”

Shrugging, Rewind said, “I’ve been off-planet for a while and haven’t visited this part of Iacon in ages—not since Zeta Prime was in command. Any footage would be great.”

Chromedome took him to Autobot Memorial Plaza, where a sobering projection of fallen soldiers’ designations and serial numbers scrolled endlessly. Rewind took the opportunity to record the entire list until it looped back around again. Though he didn’t see Dominus Ambus’s name among the deceased, he knew he would scour the list in detail later. After a while Chromedome took a seat on a nearby bench and busied himself with a data pad. He waved off Rewind's apology for making him wait.

Once the data was logged and filed away, Rewind climbed up onto the bench, pulling his legs up onto the smooth surface and hugging them to his chest. “Have you lost anybody?”

After a long pause, Chromedome said, “No one close to me has died so far,” but he looked disproportionately sad for this statement. “Just coworkers, neighbors, bar buddies, you know. All things considered, I guess you could say that I’ve been lucky.”

Rewind wondered if Dominus Ambus had perished in battle, his body mangled beyond recognition or salvage and forever lost among a field of corpses. His Conjunx Endura had preached pacifism, but his build was big and strong, and he was a formidable threat in combat. It wasn’t completely inconceivable for him to end up fighting in the war—although what Rewind couldn’t believe was the way he had disappeared. He had been there one day and gone the next, without a single word. Whatever Dominus’s fate was, he just wanted so badly to know. His spark wouldn’t rest until he knew for sure. “Yeah,” he agreed. “Definitely lucky.”

Chromedome didn’t say anything, eyes fixed on the memorial. The data pad lay forgotten in his lap. Rewind noticed the slouch of his shoulders and wondered if he should try to distract him from what were clearly dark thoughts.

“So why did you join the Autobots, if don’t mind me asking?” he tried.

Chromedome glanced at him in surprise, as if he had forgotten that he was there. After a moment, he shrugged.

“It was never much of a conscious choice,” he admitted. The people I worked with, the friends I had—they all joined the Autobot cause, and it seemed natural for me to, too. Besides, I was a cop. For a long time, I was taking down Decepticons because they were insurgents. It was my job to maintain law and order. After that, it just seemed to make sense.” He grimaced. “I know it’s not exactly an inspiring story, but it’s the truth.”

“Do you ever wonder what it would be like if you’d done the opposite?” Rewind asked.

“Joined the ’Cons?” Chromedome said. “No. They’re terrorists who need to be put down, or else Cybertron and its citizens will never find peace.”

His vehemence startled Rewind; Chromedome had never seemed particularly political before. He almost sounded like he was reciting one of those old propaganda holovids. Rewind’s confusion must have shown on his face, because Chromedome added, almost accusatorily, “Why? Do you?”

“Sometimes,” Rewind said. “I’m old enough to remember the Ratioists and the rise of the Functionists. Before Dominus Ambus picked me up, I was what amounts to a slave. I remember being treated like a drone, as if I lacked a spark. I remember being constantly starved for energon because the slag we were allowed barely ever tided me over. I don’t agree with the Decepticons’ methods, but I understand their cause.”

“They’re depraved lunatics,” Chromedome declared. “Their revolution has spun out of control, and the more bots that are romanced by their dangerous ideology, the more our race is at risk.”

“Some people call them heroes,” Rewind said.

“Some people are blind,” Chromedome scoffed. “They’ve grown far beyond what their cause was supposed to stand for. I’m not against revolutionary upheaval—as I told you, I was constructed cold and haven’t forgotten the apartheid—but the Decepticons can’t be allowed to continue this madness.”

“For someone who wasn’t invested from the get-go and hasn’t lost anyone, you’re pretty passionate about the cause,” Rewind observed. Chromedome shrugged, seeming to deflate. That empty, lost look washed over his visor again.

“Hey,” Rewind said, laying a hand on Chromedome’s arm, which was practically half his size. “Why don’t you show me something else? Maybe something a little more uplifting?”

Chromedome nodded and helped him off the bench.

“When was the last time you visited Trion Square?”

*

Chromedome took him to Trion Square, the Museum of Cybertronian History, the Center for Alien Cultures, and somewhere Rewind had spent many, many vorns in the past: the Iacon Public Library, a dazzling Cybertronian institution millions of years old, made of banks on banks of data and slender towers that spiraled up toward the sky. It was one of Rewind’s favorite places in the world—there were millennia of data to absorb, with new information being filed away every day.

Rewind instantly raced to a computer terminal. He heard Chromedome’s quiet chuckle behind him. By the time the taller bot joined him, Rewind was already plugged in.

“Where should I start?” Chromedome asked. Rewind instantly felt guilty. He didn’t mean to make Chromedome work on his off-day.

“You don’t have to do anything,” he said. “You can go back if you want to. I’ll be fine here.”

But Chromedome said, “I don’t mind,” and Rewind felt a surge of pleasure in his abdomen. He could certainly use the help . . .

“All right,” he said, waving a hand at the terminal next to his. “Let’s get you hooked up, and you can help me sort through all this stuff.”

*

In the evening, they returned to Chromedome’s apartment to refuel and recharge. Rewind projected an old movie onto an empty wall, and they moved the chairs so they could sit facing it. Chromedome filled two cubes with energon and handed one to Rewind. Rewind thanked him and patted the chair beside him.

“Thanks for spending the day with me,” Rewind said. “I had fun.”

Chromedome beamed. “Me too,” he said. “I should be thanking you. It’s nice to have company.”

“Agreed,” said Rewind. “And I really do appreciate your help. Sometimes I feel like this search is driving me off the deep end. But I can’t stop looking. You know?”

“Of course,” Chromedome said. “Anything I can do to help, let me know. I can’t imagine losing a Conjunx Endura like that . . .”

Rewind’s hand rose to rub the plating over his spark. He looked down and confessed quietly, “Some days, I wake up thinking he’s still with me. Getting up after I remember that he’s not is always the hardest.”

Chromedome grabbed his hand and squeezed it tightly. “Then you’re doubly strong for getting up every day. I don’t know if I could do it, myself.”

Rewind squeezed back in gratitude, shamelessly loving the comforting sensation of a big bot’s servo engulfing his significantly smaller one.

“Do you date? I know a lot bots prefer not to, especially since the war started . . .”

Shrugging noncommittally, Chromedome answered, “Just here and there. But the last bot I was really committed to . . . It was a long time ago.”

“It didn’t work out?”

“We fell out,” Chromedome said. “I blamed extenuating circumstances at the time, but in retrospect I think we would have been terrible for each other in the end.”

“Do you still talk to them?”

“Occasionally,” Chromedome said, fidgeting with his hands, “but it can be awkward. Sometimes I suspect he still has feelings for me.”

“Ah,” Rewind said. He had no experience with former lovers; he and Dominus Ambus had been each other’s firsts—something that had delighted Rewind at the time. It seemed so inconsequential now. He just wanted Dominus back, regardless of circumstance.

“I also suspect he tries to scare off anyone I go on more than one date with, but really, he needn’t,” Chromedome was saying. “I’ve met some nice bots, but I always feel like something’s missing. There aren’t many second dates.”

“That spark of immediate connection,” Rewind supplied, and his spark gave a desolate twinge at the memory of Dominus Ambus offering him his first taste of proper energon, purely out of compassion.

“Exactly,” Chromedome said. “I’ve started to accept that it’s just not something I’m meant to have. I guess I don’t deserve it.”

Rewind frowned. “Don’t say things like that. Of course you deserve it.”

Bowing his head, Chromedome mumbled, “I don’t know about that. On a logical level, I understand why people refrain from intimacy, given the war and everything, but I always told myself that if I ever found someone I truly connected with, I would ask them to be my Conjunx Endura as soon as I could. I've started to think that I'll never get the opportunity, though.”

“Hey,” Rewind said, tipping Chromedome’s chin up with his free hand so he was looking directly at his visor. “You’ll find someone, all right? And they’ll be lucky to have you.”

He jumped as Chromedome embraced him suddenly. “Thank you, Rewind,” he whispered shakily against Rewind’s helm. It was an unexpected but not unwelcome gesture. Rewind leaned into Chromedome’s shoulder and shut off his visual feed briefly, simply enjoying the feeling of being close to another bot.

When they separated, their hands were still linked, and Rewind certainly wasn’t going to remark on it if Chromedome didn't. Lonely abandoned creatures like them needed the comforting reassurance of another bot. There was nothing wrong with that.

And as they settled down to fuel up and watch the movie, Rewind realized that he felt more whole than he had in a very long time.

Chapter Text

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou


Over the next few weeks, Rewind returned frequently to the library. Except for the days when he had to work, Chromedome accompanied him without complaint, plugging in and rifling through whatever data streams Rewind pointed him toward. Rewind was touched by the compassion of this mysterious stranger willing to dedicate his time to a search from which he had nothing to gain—a search that rarely bore any fruit. And on top of that generosity, he refused to accept Rewind’s meek offering of Shanix in payment for housing him and letting him refuel from his energon dispenser.

So Rewind didn’t return to the recharge slab in the other room, even though he sometimes woke up with creaky joints or on the floor after being violently shoved off the slab by Chromedome’s thrashing. Though Rewind didn’t feel that his presence did much to make Chromedome’s nightmares subside, Chromedome confessed that this was the best he had slept in years. And Rewind would be lying if he said he didn’t find the presence of another bot comforting; he had been alone for so long now that he had forgotten how safe he felt in the presence of a kind, warm bot. It was nothing like the closeness he and Dominus Ambus had shared, but Rewind wasn’t foolish enough to believe that anything—anyone—would ever measure up to that.

But Chromedome was nice and funny, and he seemed happy when he was with Rewind. Perhaps it was selfish, but Rewind was proud of that—proud that he, who the Ratioists and Functionalists had deemed disposable, had saved someone’s life.

*

The bar was packed with warm, overcharged bodies buzzing with excitement and clamoring for a glimpse of Blurr, who had just returned from an outpost on a distant space station. Chromedome shoved his way through to the bar, deftly weaving through the crowd. Clinging onto his extended arm, Rewind tried his best not to get trampled on. Briefly, he wished they had chosen a different joint.

He waited patiently as Chromedome poked his head between two massive tanks hunched over at the bar in order to flag down the bartender. After a moment of everyone dialing their vocalizers up to be heard over the noisy crowd, the frazzled-looking barkeep handed over two energon cocktails.

Rewind thanked Chromedome and, with his drink in hand, said as loudly as he could, “Do you see your friend? Or any seats?”

Chromedome craned his head to scope out the tables and shook his head. He said something that Rewind couldn’t hear over the roar of the crowd.

“What?” Rewind shouted as he was jostled by someone trying to wave down the bartender.

Sorry, Chromedome said over the personal frequency channel Rewind had set up and given him a week after they met. This is probably even worse for you.

It’s okay, Rewind said, and then was unceremoniously shoved into Chromedome as a pair of jets made their way to the bar. Automatically grabbing Chromedome’s waist to brace himself and avoid spilling his drink everywhere, he grimaced and apologized. But Chromedome didn’t say anything at all for a moment, simply staring at the arm that had immediately come up to steady Rewind in turn.

You okay? he asked at last, visor flickering in annoyance at the rude fliers.

It’s fine, I’m used to it, Rewind replied. Chromedome’s arm was still holding him in place. He marveled at how nice it felt to be casually embraced like this. But just as he began to lean into the spontaneous hug, Chromedome hastily removed his arm. Rewind missed it immediately. Do you want to try pinging your friend?

Yeah, give me a nanoklik, Chromedome said. Rewind retracted his facemask and tried the energon, which was bright yellow and tangy. A little bland for his tastes, but he had always been partial to more exotic energon blends with off-world ingredients sprinkled in.

Once, long ago, on a techno-organic world a light year from Cybertron, he and Dominus Ambus had gotten overcharged to the point that the normally composed Dominus—"Pleasure is a distraction from pursuit of truth," he used to say—had lifted a giggling Rewind up onto the bar and kissed him shamelessly before declaring to all and sundry that Rewind was the most important bot in his life. The next morning, as the planet’s red sun rose and warm light streamed through the gauzy curtains of their temporary lodging, Dominus Ambus had asked Rewind to be his Conjunx Endura. That had been one of the best cycles of his life.

Oh, there he is, Chromedome said, leaning around a heavily modded helm with spikes jutting out in every direction. He held his arm out for Rewind. Come on, I don’t want to lose you in this crowd.

Chromedome’s friend was a smug but tipsy-looking flier with a yellow facemask and a teal paintjob, sitting alone at a booth a little ways away from the crowd, with a container of high-grade in his hand. Three empty glasses littered the table.

“You just missed Highbrow,” Brainstorm said, playing with his ludicrously fancy straw. “He wanted to turn in early because he’s super boring.”

“You’re the one who’s always stuck in the lab,” Chromedome replied, motioning for Rewind to slide into the booth. His pedes dangled above the floor when he sat up.

“That’s because I have work to do,” Brainstorm scoffed. “Work to do, brilliant inventions to invent, you know how it is.”

“Whatever helps you recharge at night,” Chromedome said, clearly teasing. His easy tone spoke of centuries-long camaraderie and a comfortable friendship. Rewind would be lying if he said he wasn’t curious about Brainstorm, who Chromedome had called an old friend but only ever mentioned in passing during their long conversations.

“This is my new friend Rewind,” Chromedome was saying, clasping his hand on Rewind’s shoulder. “Rewind, Brainstorm the mad scientist.” Rewind nodded and waved. “Be nice,” Chromedome said in a stage whisper. “I’m his only friend.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Brainstorm grumbled, knocking back some of energon. “Geniuses like me don’t have time for friends.” Rewind couldn’t tell if he was being serious, but if not, his deadpan delivery was flawless.

“Well, it’s nice to meet you anyway, Brainstorm,” he said.

“What the slag, are you recording this?” Brainstorm replied, staring at the blinking red light on his camera.

“I record everything,” Rewind answered.

“Fascinating,” said Brainstorm.

“So you two used to work together?” Rewind asked.

“Yup,” said Brainstorm. “Come on—ask me what I did. Ask me.”

Bewildered, Rewind tilted his head at him. “What did you do?”

“If I told you, I’d have to kill you.”

Chromedome covered his face with his hand. “Primus,” he muttered. “I did tell you he was obnoxious, Rewind.”

Brainstorm was weird and almost comically pompous but not hostile, so Rewind had no trouble getting along with him—though he had to protest when Brainstorm insisted on modifying his camera so that it could transform into a head-mounted cannon. At a later point in the conversation, Chromedome said, “I’ll grab the next round,” and climbed out of the booth. Rewind instantly missed the warmth of his presence. His gaze automatically followed his friend as he weaved through the crowd, around bots tall and small, to get to the bar.

“Hey, little guy,” Brainstorm said as soon as Chromedome was out of hearing range. Rewind bristled. He hated being called out on his size. He opened his mouth to voice his displeasure, but Brainstorm interrupted him. “No, shut up, I have something important to say.”

“What?” Rewind said testily.

“You need to stay away from Chromedome,” said Brainstorm.

Rewind stared at him. He couldn’t be serious. “Not going to happen,” he said simply.

“No, look,” Brainstorm said, sounding frustrated. “It’s nothing personal, okay? But he’s clearly crazy about you, and if it doesn’t stop here, it’s not going to end well for any of us.”

“Are you threatening me?” Rewind asked, incredulous. “No wonder you don’t have any friends.”

“I don’t need friends,” Brainstorm said absently before reaching across the table to grab Rewind by the shoulders and inadvertently knocking over his empty glass. “Listen to me; I’m not kidding around. You seem like a nice bot, but he’s dangerous. Unstable. It’s imperative that you get out while you can.”

Rewind wrenched himself out of Brainstorm’s grip and made his best effort to shove him away. “You know where I found him?” he hissed. “In a pit-damned Relinquishment Clinic, going to his death. You know what I did then? I got him out of there. And you know what I do every night? Comfort him after waking him up from his nightmares. So don’t tell me what I can and can’t do with Chromedome. I saved his fragging life.

His words seemed to sadden rather than anger Brainstorm, for whatever reason, and the other bot sagged in his seat. “So it begins,” he murmured to himself. It was so quiet that Rewind wasn’t sure his audials were working correctly. “Look,” Brainstorm said, “I get it. Don’t look at me like that. I really do. Why do you think I’m still hanging around with his sorry aft? But if you plan on sticking around, you’d better commit to it. See that way he looks at you? Right now, you’re what’s keeping him going.”

“What are you saying?” Rewind said, puzzled by the sudden change in tone.

“I’m saying,” Brainstorm said, optics blazing fiercely, “if you’re going to stay, then you have to promise to stay. Chromedome is . . . bad . . . at coping with loss, and he’s already in a bad place. If he loses you, I don’t think he will recover.”

“I’m not going to leave him,” Rewind said. Where did this mech get off thinking he was such a bad friend that he would ditch a suicidal bot? He wondered if all of Chromedome’s friends got this talk.

“You’d better not,” Brainstorm said, but he sounded satisfied. Attention shifting to the bar, he glared haughtily at the crowd of bots as if they personally offended him. “Now where are our drinks?”

*

Rewind and Chromedome settled into an easy routine, spending their days together, taking energon together, and recharging together. It astounded Rewind how quickly he became accustomed to Chromedome’s presence. After being alone for all these years, he still couldn’t quite believe that he had met someone so wonderful—troubled, perhaps, but kind and funny and easy to talk to.

Not to mention accepting of physical comfort. They usually kept to their own sides of the wide recharge slab, but sometimes Rewind awoke to find himself cuddled against Chromedome’s side, or Chromedome’s arm draped across his waist. He would be lying if he said he didn’t enjoy the closeness. He had always been a tactile person, probably due to being deprived of touch back when he had been seen as a mere data receptacle. Hard wire transfers had been plentiful, sure, but he had never experienced touching just for the sake of it before Dominus Ambus had come along. But Chromedome leaned against him when he laughed, put his arm around his shoulder as they strolled down to the library, and nudged him when he saw something funny on the street or when Rewind teased him.

Though they tended to just hang out in the apartment, they did visit various fueling establishments from time to time, sometimes with Chromedome’s friends and other times just the two of them. And once in a while, Rewind would suggest a day trip to another region of Cybertron—always in uncontested Autobot territory, of course. It was difficult to find transport, and Rewind found himself wishing he just had wheels and feeling guilty for slowing Chromedome down. But his friend never once complained, purchasing transit tickets for them to places like Kalis, Tyger Pax, and Hydrax Canyons.

They suited each other well, Rewind thought. Some of Chromedome’s friends teased them about it, calling them inseparable and even codependent. But Chromedome didn’t seem to mind, and Rewind didn’t either. There was no shame in enjoying the company of another bot. Besides, he couldn’t deny that he grew anxious when he was away from his friend for too long, or that he always felt relief wash over his spark when Chromedome made it home from work safely.

What they had was good and easy. It was, without doubt, one of the most fulfilling friendships Rewind had ever had. And that was probably why he was so thrown when things took a turn for the worse.

*

Three months after Rewind saved Chromedome’s life, Prowl appeared at the bar.

Despite all the holovids in Rewind’s database involving the severe officer, he had never seen Prowl in person. But the red crest and displeased expression were unmistakable as he marched right up to their table.

“A word, if you please, Chromedome,” he demanded imperiously.

Chromedome’s visor flickered in surprise. “Prowl? What are you doing here?”

Prowl directed a pointed glare at the rest of the room and then held Chromedome’s gaze. “Business,” he said sternly. “Urgent business.”

“I’m listening,” said Chromedome.

“Privacy is paramount.”

Chromedome frowned, seeming to hesitate. Something about his expression made Rewind feel uneasy. He laid a hand on his friend’s arm. “Chromedome, what’s this about?”

Prowl’s intense gaze shifted immediately to Rewind’s hand and suddenly became razor sharp. He crossed his arms and tapped his foot impatiently. “Well?”

Chromedome held up his half-finished energon cube. “At least let me finish my drink,” he said. “Five kliks.”

Prowl huffed but didn’t protest.

“You can sit down, you know,” Rewind piped up.

Looking like he would rather eat a live turbofox, Prowl slipped into the other side of the booth, arms remaining folded and expression haughty.

“I’m Rewind,” Rewind added, trying to break the odd tension at the table.

“Charmed,” Prowl said, sounding anything but. Rewind frowned at the lack of manners, but before he could say anything, Prowl continued, “Where did you pick this one up? Didn’t think minibots were your type.”

Glaring at Prowl, Chromedome slammed his cube down, the remnants splashing over the edges.

“Quit it,” he snapped. “Can’t you be decent for two nanokliks?”

Prowl gave him an even look. “Just making conversation,” he said icily.

Rewind felt like he was missing a vital part of this conversation. He had no interest in being caught up in whatever messy history the two of them had. Chromedome still hadn’t explained why he and Prowl had stopped being friends, and Rewind had no idea what he had done to merit Prowl’s disdain. “Uh, Chromedome, I can head back to our apartment if you two want to talk,” he offered.

Prowl stiffened suddenly and cast him another sharp, calculating look. It was beginning to unnerve Rewind.

“No,” Chromedome replied, patting Rewind’s hand before getting up from his seat. “Don’t leave. We’ll just be a few kliks.”

“You sure?” Rewind asked. Prowl hovered impatiently behind his friend, still glaring at Rewind for Primus-knew-what reason.

Nodding, Chromedome squeezed his shoulder and said, “Absolutely. Order another round; my treat.”

Rewind did, but when the two bots left, he contemplated following them for a nanoklik. What was so secretive and important that Prowl had come to find an old friend who he clearly wasn’t on good terms with? He supposed he could just ask Chromedome later, but he had never been good at suppressing his curiosity. And what if it was something Chromedome didn’t want to share with him? It startled Rewind how upsetting that possibility was.

“Shanix for your thoughts?”

Brainstorm’s voice was recognizable even before Rewind looked up. “Hey, Brainstorm,” he greeted. Maybe Brainstorm could answer his questions.

*

Mnemosurgery. Rewind’s processors spun with the knowledge. After he and Chromedome had bid goodbye to Brainstorm and said goodnight to one another, Rewind had turned on his side and stayed up all night researching the obscure field. Much of what he discovered—often locked behind multiple layers of security—made his plating crawl. The thought of another bot having access to his memory banks and the ability to fiddle with them, the idea of his memories—so many so precious—being toyed with, the gruesome images of those skinny needles penetrating vulnerable metal and editing what someone remembered about their own experiences. . . .

Conspiracy theorist communities floated chilling ideas of mnemosurgeons being hired by the government to brainwash people, being behind the rising of the Decepticon movement, being shadowy figures that wore no badges and engaged in mind control warfare. It sounded fragging nuts to Rewind, but he engulfed the articles and forum posts regardless.

However, he struggled to reconcile the images all his research conjured with his friend. Chromedome wasn’t shadowy or threatening; he was an insecure dork who took sarcasm to a whole new level. Could he really be one of these mysterious, menacing mnemosurgeons?

Rewind’s entire existence was centered around data storage. The thought of someone going into his mind and messing with it horrified him down to the spark.

But even more interesting than the science was the effect the procedures had on those operating. It was well documented that long-term exposure to other bots’ memory banks—especially dead ones—messed with the surgeons’ heads, giving them “inherited memories.” They suffered from chronic nightmares, insomnia, hallucinations, and depression, among other things. The suicide statistics were alarming.

And suddenly, Chromedome’s frequent nightmares made so much sense. And the ability to read memories would have been a useful tool for a detective before the war—and just as useful to Autobot High Command now.

As much as Rewind didn’t want to believe it, the facts fit, and Brainstorm had nothing to gain by lying.

He didn’t know what to think, and the fact that Chromedome had kept it from him only made it worse. Rewind’s own recharge that night was tumultuous, troubled by thought that his friend—his only real friend in the world—wasn’t at all who he had believed he was.

*

In the morning, Rewind struggled with how to bring it up. But before he could figure out how to tactfully ask a bot if he was an evil memory-wiping mastermind, Chromedome was already eyeing him in concern.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, passing Rewind a filled energon cube. “Your F.I.M. chip glitching up?”

Rewind vented, rubbing his helm. Best to just get it out. He had never been one for secrets. “I’ve been thinking,” he blurted out. “You’ve never told me what you do for a living. You skirt the issue every time it comes up, but I didn’t even notice because you’re so good at deflection. I looked you up, but there’s no record of your employment after your stint at Mechaforensics.”

“I told you,” Chromedome said. “I freelance. Anyway, I begged off for this morning. Do you want to go to the library today?”

“You’re doing it again,” Rewind accused. “Stop trying to hide it, Chromedome. Brainstorm told me.”

Chromedome froze, hand on the energon dispenser. “What? What did he tell you?” Rewind didn’t miss the panic in his voice. He flashed his visor in irritation.

“That you’re a mnemosurgeon. That you specialize in accessing memories and—and that you even have the skills to change them.”

Chromedome set down the cube but didn’t make eye contact. “Brainstorm is well known for his wild imagination,” he said, leaning against the counter.

“Don’t lie to me,” Rewind said in disgust. “I looked it up. It all makes sense. Your nightmares, your insomnia, why you were at the Relinquishment Clinic . . .”

After a moment, Chromedome said, “I’m really good at it,” as if it made a difference.

Rewind gaped him. “What does it matter? Chromedome, you could be the worst mnemosurgeon that ever lived and it wouldn’t take away from the fact that it’s your job to read people’s memory banks. Do I really need to explain how creepy that is?”

Chromedome covered his face with his hands. “Listen—it’s not my job anymore. Not really. I quit.”

“Brainstorm said you still do it for Prowl,” Rewind pointed out. “He said that’s what you’ve been doing whenever you say you’re going to work.”

“I’m going to kill him,” Chromedome muttered, rubbing his visor.

Rewind pointed accusingly at him. Sitting on a bar stool at the kitchen island, he was still far shorter than Chromedome, but he wasn’t going to be cowered. “That’s what he wanted to talk to you about last night, isn’t it? He wanted you to . . . To violate someone.”

“It’s not like that,” Chromedome said.

“Then what, Chromedome? I’m grasping at straws here—you won’t tell me anything, and yet you expect me to just let this go?”

Head bowed, Chromedome examined his hands. “Look, it’s . . . It’s an autopsy thing—I’m good at reading corpses, figuring out how someone died. Finding out the last thing they saw. It’s useful.”

Rewind shuddered. “Is that what you tell yourself?”

Frustration rolled off Chromedome in waves. “Why is this such a big deal?”

“Because it’s sick,” Rewind snapped. “What gives you the right to pry into people’s memories, dead or alive? You honestly can’t see why that’s disturbing?” But Chromedome’s troubled expression lacked comprehension entirely. Rewind threw his hands up in frustration. “I’m a data bank, Chromedome. Once, my existence was justified by the value of the information I stored. That includes empirical data from my memories. The thought of someone else getting into my head and editing or deleting them is frankly terrifying.”

Chromedome was quiet for a moment, the soft hum of his systems amplified in the silence. “I would never hurt you,” he said, as if that meant anything.

“You don’t get it,” Rewind said, frustrated. “You’re not listening. It’s not about me. What about all the bots whose memory banks you’ve invaded? The corpses?”

“The corpses were dead and couldn’t feel anything,” Chromedome retorted.

“That is not the point,” Rewind shot back. “You’re not listening to me.”

“What do you want from me?” Chromedome snapped. “It’s a job. High Command compensates me for it, which pays the bills—which is especially necessary since I quit my other job when I made my decision to go to the Relinquishment Clinic. It’s not like I take pleasure in the act.”

But Rewind didn’t think that was entirely true. Chromedome was much too defensive of his skill, seemingly oblivious—or apathetic—to the ethics of his so-called talent.

“Right,” Rewind said, crossing his arms. “Well, I don’t think you should talk to Prowl anymore. Clearly he’s just using you, and you’re letting him. It’s not healthy.”

“I don’t talk to him, he just offers me jobs and I take them. Look, he used to be my partner. We saved each other’s lives loads of times. I owe him.”

“Oh, sure,” Rewind scoffed. “Police buddies, you told me. But that’s not all he was, is it?”

“Oh, for Primus’s sake—!” Chromedome threw his hands in the air. “I really am going to kill Brainstorm. Yes, we used to date. It’s not a big deal.”

“Was he the bot you told me about—the one who didn’t work out but can’t seem to let go?”

“Yes, okay?” said Chromedome. “But that was a long time ago—a million years in the past, back before the war. It doesn’t matter.”

“Then why did you keep it a secret? And what else are you keeping from me?” Rewind asked softly, hunching in on himself. “I thought we were friends, Chromedome, but I feel pretty lousy about being kept in the dark. I opened my spark to you.”

“We are friends,” Chromedome said, grabbing Rewind by the shoulder and spinning him around so that they were facing each other. “We are,” he repeated savagely, as if to convince himself.

“Then promise me you won’t do it anymore,” Rewind said, sensing he would only have the opportunity to ask this of Chromedome once. He didn’t want to lose his new friend, but he also couldn’t stand by and associate with someone who did something so heinous for a living and couldn’t seem to muster up any shame about it. “For the sake of our friendship, please swear to me that you’ll do the decent thing and stop.”

“You can’t ask that of me,” Chromedome said, and it was obvious that he didn’t understand how deeply disturbed Rewind was by these new revelations. Rewind felt like the ultimate fool for thinking that he had finally found someone who understood him the way Dominus Ambus had; someone who would save him from his loneliness at long last. Indignantly, Chromedome continued, “That’s not fair. Look, I wouldn’t ask you to stop recording—”

Rewind blurted out: “If it were Dominus, he would—”

“I’m not Dominus!” Chromedome shouted.

Taken aback by the vehemence in his voice, Rewind could only stare.

“And I’m never going to be,” Chromedome said more quietly. “So please stop expecting it of me. It’s hard enough feeling this way.”

“Feeling what way?”

“Forget it,” Chromedome said abruptly. "Just . . . forget it." Ducking his head, he headed for the door. Irritation resurged in Rewind.

“We’re not done yet,” he said to Chromedome’s back, jumping off the stool to follow him. “Seriously? Are you leaving in the middle of this conversation?” he asked. “Chromedome?”

He gaped, aghast, as the door slid shut before him.

What a stupid jerk.

*

Rewind sequestered himself at the library for the remainder of the day, jamming the library terminal cable into his data transfer port and furiously sorting through files through the afternoon and evening. He was so focused that he didn’t even register his fuel warning pinging him. When he unplugged from the data terminal, his hurt and anger at Chromedome from the morning bubbled back up to the surface.

Though part of him had hoped that Chromedome wouldn’t be home so he could stew in his anger in peace, another part was disappointed at the empty apartment. It was just another instance that proved how quickly he had become accustomed to Chromedome’s presence. Even when they were just sitting around watching the news or one of Rewind’s old reels, it was comforting to have someone there with him.

It wasn’t until hours later that the door to their—see, Rewind had even started thinking of it as theirs—apartment slid open, followed by the unmistakable sound of Chromedome’s transformation sequence and then footsteps. They didn’t stop as they went past him.

Rewind looked up from his data pad and stared.

There were paint scuffs on Chromedome's armor. Tiny swaths of black and white where there shouldn't be any, where there hadn’t been any a day ago. Rewind’s spark felt heavy, lurching inside his chest.

“Wow,” he said, surprising even himself with his scorn. “Been to see Prowl?”

Chromedome froze.

“How do you . . .” Chromedome followed Rewind's gaze down to his chassis. “Oh.” He didn’t even bother denying it. Rewind fumed inwardly.

“What did he give you, huh?” Rewind said snidely. He could feel his visor blazing even as disappointment churned his insides. “Some more corpses to desecrate? Or maybe live patients to violate?”

“No, it wasn't anything like that,” Chromedome replied.

Cocking his head skeptically, Rewind crossed his arms.

Chromedome huffed. Throwing his hands in the air, he said, “Fine. He wanted me to do an autopsy on a case. It's for the Autobot cause.”

“What about interfacing with your ex who regularly takes advantage of you? Was that for the Autobot cause, too?”

“I . . .” said Chromedome.

“You're a real piece of work, Chromedome,” Rewind bit out, throwing his data pad aside and getting to his feet.

“What do you care?” Chromedome shouted. “Who I frag is none of your business! It’s not like you even—”

He interrupted himself, turning away. Shoulders drooped, he seemed to shrink apologetically into himself. Rewind frowned up at him, curiosity piqued. It was the second time Chromedome had cut himself off in the middle of a sentence in a single cycle.

“I don’t even what?”

“Nothing,” Chromedome mumbled, already heading toward his recharge slab. “I’m tired; I’m going to go recharge.”

Rewind stared after him, indignation roiling within him at being shut off again. “Unbelievable,” he muttered, and went back to staring angrily at his data pad.

*

Rewind returned to his own recharge slab in the other room that night. He immediately missed Chromedome’s warmth and bulk; the slab felt too wide and cold with only him in it. But he was still furious that Chromedome had done exactly what Rewind had asked him not to do—run back to his appalling ex, who was so obviously just using him. He clenched his fists at the thought of Chromedome and Prowl interfacing—Prowl was probably a really boring lover and didn’t even appreciate Chromedome’s lovely frame properly. Then again, Chromedome wouldn’t have gone to him if he was really that bad a lay.

The thought only infuriated Rewind further. He hooked himself up to the slab and glared up at the ceiling, willing himself to fall into recharge so he could escape this disappointing day.

*

Rewind awakened with a massive, throbbing processor ache. Groaning, he turned on his side and was momentarily surprised to find the recharge slab empty.

Right. He was in his own slab, because he had been slagged off at Chromedome last night. He was still slagged off.

With the benefit of recharge and a defragmentation cycle, though, he saw where he could have been more sympathetic. Replaying his recording of their argument through his head, he winced as he realized his hurt and fear had sharpened his words into accusations. Maybe what Chromedome needed wasn’t to be reprimanded but rather to be helped. He reminded himself firmly of the state in which he had found Chromedome, and how much happier he seemed to have grown in the past months. How much happier Rewind had grown.

His mind made up, Rewind climbed out of the recharge slab and headed to Chromedome's room to see how he could go about fixing things. When the doors of the quarters slid open, Rewind nearly tripped in surprise.

“Chromedome?” he exclaimed.

Chromedome, curled up into a ball on the floor in front of his door, stirred. Rewind gave him a moment to boot up before kneeling down and rubbing his shoulder in concern. “What are you doing? Why are you recharging on the floor when you have a perfectly fine slab? All to yourself, I might add.”

Chromedome sat up but folded his legs up and laid his helm on his knees. “I was afraid you’d leave,” he said quietly.

Guilt tugged at Rewind’s spark. “What? I’m not going to leave,” he said. “Chromedome, why would you think that?”

“It’s okay, you don’t have to pretend,” Chromedome said into his lap. “I know you have no reason to stay. I’m a screw-up. I have no resolve, and I’ve done horrible things, and I . . . I’m a real piece of work,” he said, echoing Rewind’s words from the night before. Shame washed over Rewind, whose anger and hurt suddenly seemed inconsequential.

He put his hand on Chromedome’s shoulder and squeezed in what he hoped was a comforting manner. “I’m sorry for saying that. I was angry that you haven’t been honest with me. You should have told me from the start.”

“I know,” Chromedome said, and though he felt bad about it, Rewind was gratified that he sounded ashamed. “But I didn’t want to scare you away.”

“I guarantee that lying will scare me away much faster,” said Rewind.

Chromedome rubbed his helm in distress. “I’m sorry,” he said lowly. “I’m so sorry.” Rewind wrapped his arms around him, leaning his own helm on Chromedome’s shoulder.

“Okay,” he said. After all, what good would it do for him to remain angry at his first real friend in so long? Chromedome wasn’t a bad person. He was just misguided. Rewind would help him right his life and get him back on a better path. “Apology accepted. But don’t lie to me again, all right?”

“How can I make up for it?” Chromedome murmured.

Rewind tilted Chromedome’s chin so they were visor to visor. “You can promise not to perform mnemosurgery again. We’ll find you another job.”

“I . . .” Chromedome looked away.

“Chromedome,” Rewind said sharply. “It’s not good for you. I researched it—inherited memories; it’s why you have all those nightmares.” Chromedome didn’t say anything, and Rewind frowned. “But you already knew that, didn’t you?”

Chromedome nodded solemnly, shame and guilt clear in his downturned head.

“I really am good at it,” Chromedome said quietly. “As if I were made for it. There’s nothing else I’m nearly as good at.”

“I’m sure there’s something you can do that won’t give you nightmares and screw with your psyche,” Rewind said.

After a moment of hesitation, Chromedome conceded, “Maybe.”

Rewind grabbed Chromedome’s servos and squeezed them in his significantly smaller ones. He tried valiantly to ignore the telltale black paint transfers. “I’ll help you find something,” he promised. “And I’ll make sure you don’t go back to something that hurts you so badly.” Remembering the way Prowl had so expectantly demanded Chromedome assist him, something in his chest tightened. He stood straighter, with resolve. “Even if Prowl asks,” he added firmly.

“Okay,” said Chromedome, sounding defeated.

“Promise me,” Rewind insisted. “Promise me you won’t do it again.”

Chromedome seemed to shrink in on himself. “I won’t do it again,” he said.

Rewind threw his arms around his friend, hugging him tightly. “It’ll be okay, Chromedome,” he said.

Chromedome clung onto him tightly. “I don’t know,” he murmured.

Rewind climbed into his lap so he could hold him properly. This close, he could feel the warm, steady thrum of Chromedome’s spark beneath his armor. “It will be,” he said, confident, as Chromedome’s arms wound around him. “I’ll make sure of it.”

He didn’t let go until Chromedome stopped shaking.

Chapter Text

"It is my belief no man ever understands quite his own artful dodges to escape from the grim shadow of self-knowledge."
— Marlow, Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad


Weeks passed, then months—and then, unbelievably, years. He and Chromedome grew as close as two sparks could without merging, their lives becoming undeniably wrapped up in one another’s. Rewind helped Chromedome cope with the lingering effects of his mnemosurgery addiction, and Chromedome threw himself into Rewind’s quest to find Dominus.

They weathered each other’s storms. On Chromedome’s bad days, wherein he would descend into a spiral of inexplicable despair, Rewind sat with him and made him laugh with everything from funny videos to stupid jokes. When Rewind experienced doubt or heart-wrenching loneliness, Chromedome offered silent comfort, holding him until he stopped weeping. Before long, Rewind stopped thinking of “I” and “me,” and started to think in terms of “we” and “us.”

Along with getting used to being one half of a pair again, he began to relearn living in an apartment, staying in one place and sharing a living space. He helped Chromedome pay for the rent and the energon, and his meager belongings began to emerge from his subspace to litter the rooms—datapads, dataslugs, network cables, wax, spare rags. Chromedome listened without objection to all Rewind’s stories, and Rewind got him to stop hiding away when he felt down. They clung onto each other at night.

Outside, the war raged on. Nobody liked to admit it outright, but the Decepticons were winning. Megatron’s assault across the planet was brutal and relentless. High on victory, he had become more and more savage, ruthlessly razing once-proud Cybertronian institutions to the ground with little fanfare. Soldiers were slaughtered in droves, and airstrikes became terrifyingly commonplace. Few city-states had the resources to fight off the might of the Decepticon army, and the territories that remained under the Autobot banner overflowed with desperate refugees. The last of the unaligned fled Cybertron, though many ships were shot down before they even breached the atmosphere. Off-planet, the Decepticons conquered world after world.

Battle footage became more and more gruesome, and Rewind actually purged his tanks when he watched a recording of what happened to Decepticons who abandoned their posts. The Autobots’ energon supplies continued to dwindle, and what good energon remained went directly to soldiers. Reports spread of citizens starving to death despite High Command’s efforts to keep it all under wraps. Even more insidious were the rumors that Autobots were switching sides at the prospect of a drop of fuel.

“I wish I could fight,” Rewind said once between jobs, shaking from the weak energon he had consumed days ago. It felt like it had been years, but that was probably because he had shut off his chronometer the previous week to conserve energy. His systems were a wreck; his body had never been able to fully process crude fuel, and Iacon’s rationing situation was particularly severe.

“I’m glad you can’t,” Chromedome had replied, holding him tighter. “I don’t know what I would do without you.”

All too aware of the Autobots’ low morale, High Command spammed all feeds with propaganda that matched the vigor of the Functionists’ before the war. In exchange for energon, Rewind was recruited to create videos to promote enlistment, which was the primary way he and Chromedome held onto the apartment and regularly received any fuel at all. Sometimes, he considered offering himself up as a field reporter—surely his size would be a great asset—but he couldn’t stomach the thought of either leaving Chromedome or forcing him into warzones. They needed each other.

Yet Rewind didn’t give up on Dominus Ambus—nothing could make him do that. But the search exhausted him in a way that it had never before. The way the war was going, there seemed little hope that Dominus could be anywhere safe. And those propaganda clips that were sent out on all Autobot frequencies—Dominus would recognize his handiwork and know he still functioned. Wasn’t he worried? Why hadn’t he contacted Rewind to check up on him? But he tried not to think about it too hard, determined not to mourn until he came across real evidence of his Conjunx Endura’s deactivation.

(But sometimes, Rewind would awaken from recharge in the middle of the night, bask in the grounding warmth of Chromedome’s frame curled around his own, and pray for Dominus to forgive him for his traitorous spark.)

*

“Sweetspark, I’m home!”

Seated on a barstool in the kitchen of the apartment, Rewind barely had time to save his place in the footage he was reviewing before Chromedome zoomed up to his side.

“You are such a dork,” Rewind teased.

“Yeah, but you love it,” said Chromedome smugly, leaning his chin on Rewind’s shoulder. He peered at the video frame being projected on the countertop. “What’s this? It doesn’t look like part of that Wreckers documentary you were working on last night.”

“‘Documentary’ is really stretching it,” Rewind said. It was more like a pin-up video, if anything. Rewind hadn’t thought that one could ever get tired of seeing Springer’s aft. “But I finished that one earlier. Finally. Now I’m trying to see if I have enough footage to cobble together a retrospective on the legacy of Hydrax Plateau.”

“Sounds kinda boring, honestly . . . Who’s going to be watching something like that in times like these?”

“I’m with you, but Blaster hasn’t gotten me a new assignment yet. The mechs at Hydrax promised to pay well, and we could use the Shanix.”

“Shanix! What good is Shanix nowadays,” Chromedome grumbled. “I heard that this is the lowest it’s ever traded. Ever.”

“It’s better than nothing.” Rewind leaned into him and reached up to lay his servo on Chromedome’s cheek. The metal was warm beneath his fingertips, thrumming with life. “Hey, speaking of, how did the interview go?”

“All right, I guess . . . They said they’d get back to me.”

Rewind spun around in his seat so he could look Chromedome in the visor. “Why don’t you sound more excited? That’s great news!”

Shrugging, Chromedome said, “It’s a stupid job, Rewind. They all are. They’re things anyone could do.”

“You mean Disposables and lower-caste bots,” Rewind said flatly. “That’s what you mean when you say anyone.”

“I—” Chromedome protested. “I’m sorry if it came out that way. What I meant is that the job is boring.”

“It pays a fair wage and doesn’t involve violating people’s brains,” Rewind shot back. “Let’s just see what happens, all right? If you really hate it, then you can always quit—” as you always do, went unspoken, “—but we don’t even know if you’ll get the position.”

“Okay.”

Rewind’s visor flashed in approval. “Good. Now, we should celebrate—how about you fill up half a cube for us and I’ll queue up a movie?”

“Yes, sir—as long as you’re not tricking me into watching that documentary on the syntax of ancient Cybertronian laws again.”

“Hey, I like that one!”

“You and Ultra Magnus alone, buddy.”

Rewind swatted him, and Chromedome ducked away, laughing.

*

Though Rewind had never thought of himself as a jealous bot, there was a possessiveness he couldn’t shake when it came to Chromedome. Even after Chromedome finally agreed not to see Prowl again, the horrible sinking feeling that clutched his insides whenever he thought about the two of them and the history they shared didn’t go away. (He would never admit it to anyone, but he had gotten his hands on old holovids from their Mechaforensics days and made himself watch them all, even as something between envy and fury unfurled in his his spark.)

It was completely unreasonable for him to be so bothered about something that had happened thousands of years ago, and who Chromedome used to interface with was his own business, but . . . But Prowl was such a aft. He hadn’t deserved Chromedome’s attention. He must have been taking advantage of his ex’s soft spot for him—after all, he was probably starved for interface.

Rewind sure knew how that felt. Though the pain in his spark was now a familiar ache, he missed Dominus desperately. The closeness they had shared . . . Nights spent talking philosophy and science after tender interfacing; months spent on eerily beautiful planets, meeting strange, fascinating creatures and bots of all kinds; the way Dominus kissed him, excited and distracted, when he came to a brilliant conclusion in the middle of a conversation.

Chromedome was nothing like Dominus Ambus. Sure, he towered over Rewind—so maybe he had a type—but where Dominus had been confident, wise, intellectual, and enthusiastically verbose, Chromedome was insecure, made terrible choices, and seemed to think the silent treatment was an acceptable response to an argument.

But here was the secret that Rewind kept buried deep in his spark, what he feared was the ugly root of his alarmingly fierce affection: Chromedome needed Rewind in a way that Dominus Ambus had never. Oh, with Dominus, Rewind had been treasured like no other Disposable that ever lived; he had been taken to amazing places and witnessed incredible sights. And he would never stop being grateful for it. But deep down, he was keenly aware that everything Dominus had done could have been accomplished without Rewind at his side.

Nobody would believe that Chromedome could go on without him.

And so Rewind told himself that if he sometimes held on for too long, or touched too much, or looked too closely when his friend was otherwise preoccupied—it was perfectly natural. If his sparkache was never going away, was it truly so wrong to indulge a little? He needed Chromedome, too.

Dominus Ambus would understand. He had to.

*

As the energon became more and more of a rare resource, the neighborhood bars closed one by one, a solemn echo of the early years of the war. Those that still had high-grade stores either kept them a secret or sold them for hundreds of Shanix. Some former drinking establishments became homeless shelters, and others energon kitchens where the less fortunate could fuel up on donations of what little energon there was to spare. Chromedome and Rewind stopped going out, and what friends they had made fell out of touch, although Brainstorm still stopped by their apartment on occasion. The last time he visited them there was to make what he called the announcement of the century.

“So what’s this about?”

Brainstorm practically vibrated with excitement. Rewind half-thought he would just take off out their apartment window. “I’m going off-planet!”

“You’re what?” Chromedome exclaimed. A bit of energon spilled out of his container. Rewind immediately stamped on his instinct to salvage it. Which had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that the precious drop of pink fuel had landed on the smooth white plating of Chromedome’s thigh. Definitely not.

“Kimia! I’ve been recruited as an experimental weapons developer. I’ll be working with scientist superstars like Perceptor.”

Chromedome said in a stage whisper to Rewind, “Brainstorm has a massive crush on Perceptor.”

Brainstorm interjected immediately: “Lies! Filthy stinking lies!”

Rewind snickered. “Is that so? Then I suppose you have no interest in all this footage I have of his lectures and presentations.”

Brainstorm’s wings twitched before drooping in shame. “I’ll trade you my next ten cubes for it,” he mumbled.

Rewind laughed. “I might actually take you up on that offer. But tell us more about this job. Have they recruited you for a specific project?”

“No, I guess High Command is so eager to turn the tide that they’re just hiring a bunch of us on and hoping we come up with something brilliant. And they know I’m the top Cybertronian weapons engineer, so of course I’ll come up with a hundred brilliant things. Just think of it—Brainstorm, the genius inventor who won the war!”

Rewind and Chromedome exchanged an exasperated look but humored Brainstorm, as usual.

“So when do you leave?” Chromedome asked.

“In a month,” Brainstorm said.

“But that’s so soon!”

“They’re really desperate for new staff,” Brainstorm explained. “They want me to get there as soon as possible.”

That got Rewind thinking. As Brainstorm bragged to Chromedome about how much they were paying him, Rewind considered if it was time to get back on the road. All the research he’d done in Iacon had led to dead ends, and lately, he had had the horrible thought that he was letting Dominus Ambus down by staying here, where things were comfortable. Dominus could be in trouble. He could need Rewind’s help.

“You think they have any use for a camerabot and a forensic scientist?” he blurted out.

Brainstorm and Chromedome both looked at him.

“What are you on about?” Chromedome said.

“I’m getting restless,” Rewind admitted. “And you hate your job. You hate all your jobs. Maybe it’s time to try something else. Somewhere else. And where better to start over than a space station where anything could happen?” The more he thought about, the better of an idea it seemed. “Besides, isn’t it time we contributed more to the war effort?”

“You contribute plenty,” Chromedome said.

“But I want to do more—more than just stupid propaganda videos for Blaster.”

Chromedome looked at him, and in that moment Rewind swore his friend could see through his chest plates, right down to his spark. “No,” he said, “you want to look for Dominus.”

“I—” Rewind stuttered, taken aback. “Maybe a little, yeah. But it does sound like a good opportunity. For us.”

Brainstorm looked between them. “If you’re really interested, I can put your names in.”

“Yes,” Rewind said.

“No,” Chromedome said simultaneously.

Rewind looked at Chromedome, trying to read his strange expression. “We’ll let you know,” he said slowly.

*

After Brainstorm left, Chromedome paced the kitchen, silent and clearly agitated. He didn’t say it outright—he never did—but Rewind could tell he was angry.

Feeling guilty, Rewind said, “We don’t have to go anywhere if you don’t want to,” though he wasn’t sure he really meant it.

“Now you’re just making me feel bad,” Chromedome said.

Annoyed, Rewind retorted, “That is not what I’m trying to do.”

“Listen, I . . .” Chromedome said. “I’m not trying to hold you back.”

“I didn’t say you were. But Chromedome, be honest with me. What’s keeping you here on Cybertron?”

“The fact that it’s our homeworld? The fact that it needs us?”

“No, that’s not it,” Rewind said immediately. “Tell me the truth.”

Chromedome shot him a venomous glare. He didn’t say anything for a while, only continuing to pace. Rewind waited, irritated but curious.

“Do you ever think this search is futile?” Chromedome asked. “Do you ever think about giving up on it?”

No,” Rewind said, shocked. “Of course not. It’s my Conjunx Endura, how could I give up on him?”

“And if you find out that he’s dead? What then?”

Rewind’s visor flared with anger. “Then I’ll know. And I’ll make my peace. But I can’t give up—not when he could still be out there. He could need my help!”

He cycled his vents and lowered his voice. He didn’t want to be mad at his friend. “What’s this really about, Chromedome? Where is this coming from?”

Chromedome sat down, burying his face in his hands. “In spite of everything that’s happening out there, this is the happiest I’ve been in years,” he said quietly. Rewind’s spark lurched, and he quashed down the urge to embrace his friend immediately. He wanted to hear this. “What if we leave Cybertron and it all goes to frag?” What if you find Dominus Ambus and leave me? Rewind heard unspoken. His spark gave another sympathetic twinge.

“Hey,” he said softly, moving over so that he could put his hand on Chromedome’s arm. “Didn’t I promise you I wasn’t going to leave?”

“Yeah, but . . .”

“Look at me,” Rewind said, tilting Chromedome’s chin toward him. “I’m not leaving you. No matter what happens, I’m not going to abandon you. You’re my best friend. You mean the world to me. Okay?”

Chromedome looked down and laced their fingers together. Almost inaudibly, he said, “Okay.”

*

And then it happened. After years of fruitless searching, Rewind finally found a clue. It could be nothing, but it could also be the key to everything.

He had stumbled upon it almost accidentally, years ago—an aside cloaked in a tiny footnote hidden in an obscure reference that led to an intelligence report. It had sparked an idea and led him to something completely divergent from what he had been poring through at the time. But buried beneath layers of security and carefully laid snares was an encrypted contract that was linked to Dominus Ambus’s serial number. He had idly been working on it for years on end, even as he searched other avenues for information. But he had finally cracked the esoteric code. Despite that, nearly every word in the brief document was censored—marked as CONFIDENTIAL, LEVEL 10 ACCESS—but there were two glyphs that hadn’t been edited out:

DIPLOMAT

CLINIC

At the discovery, Rewind’s spark nearly gave out in excitement. It wasn’t much to go on, but it was more than he had ever had. Every dead end that had come before suddenly fell away. None of that mattered anymore. This was a surefire sign—maybe even from Primus himself, Rewind thought wildly—that he was doing the right thing. He was going to find Dominus Ambus, wherever he was, whatever trouble he was in. He had kept his faith, and he was finally being rewarded.

He couldn’t wait to share the good news with Chromedome.

*

Thrilled, Rewind headed home hours earlier than usual and stopped by a convenience store on the way to spend some of his carefully reserved Shanix on a pack of energon goodies. High-grade was far out of his price range nowadays, but he wanted something to commemorate the occasion. Besides, they would be leaving for Kimia in less than two weeks, and they had been promised an increase in rations plus bonuses paid in Shanix.

Things really were looking up.

But he should have known better than to let his spark fill with such boundless optimism. As Dominus Ambus used to say, As Primus gives, Primus takes away. Because just as he reached Chromedome’s apartment, he spotted a sight that made fury uncoil in his internals. Chromedome stood on the threshold of the front door of their apartment, hands on his hip joints as he spoke with an agitated Prowl. After he overcame his shock, Rewind marched right up to them, making no secret of his presence. Unfortunately, he was only able to catch the tail end of their conversation:

“Give it some thought,” Prowl said, right before he locked gazes with Rewind, who was openly seething. The edge of his mouth tipped upward disdainfully in a sneer. “You have my frequency,” he added, his voice pitched unnecessarily loud as he reached out to run his thumb across Chromedome’s wrist. “Just ping me, as usual.”

“Oh, frag,” Chromedome muttered, eying Rewind with trepidation. He yanked his wrist back and held it protectively to himself.

Prowl walked right by Rewind without even acknowledging him, transforming nonchalantly and zooming off. It only infuriated Rewind further. He stomped up to Chromedome. From the way the other bot was backing up, he knew he was in trouble. Rewind grabbed his wrist and yanked him downward as hard as he could.

“You said you wouldn’t,” Rewind growled. “You promised.

“It’s not a big deal,” Chromedome said. “He just came by and dragged me to the body. It was a favor, I had no choice—”

Rewind shook his head, grateful that the visor and faceplate masked his hurt. “You always have a choice, Chromedome.”

Chromedome backed up further, arms crossed defensively. The door slid closed behind Rewind.

“It’s not that big of a deal,” Chromedome repeated.

“You broke your promise to me. That’s not a big deal?”

“It was just one reading,” Chromedome said, throwing his hands in the air.

Just another bot you violated, Rewind thought, only barely suppressing a shudder. Instead of voicing his thought, Rewind just looked at his friend. If Chromedome was treating his promises to Rewind so flippantly now, what said that he had ever adhered to them?

“It’s not the first time, is it,” he said flatly.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Chromedome said. But he couldn’t meet Rewind’s gaze, and that told Rewind plenty.

“You lied to me,” Rewind said. “I asked you, multiple times, if you were staying clean. And you lied to me. How many times? How many times did you look me in the optics and tell me that you were no longer taking jobs from Prowl?” Anger and disappointment surged within him and interfered with his vocalizer, which crackled with static. “Oh, and now you can’t bear to face the truth? Face me, you coward!”

Chromedome looked at him, defeat in every plate of his frame. And that was when Rewind saw it—a small red paint scuff on his helm. So faint it was almost like an optical illusion—or the remnant of a rushed buff job. And that was when an entirely different type of wrath enveloped him.

“Did you interface with him, too?” he demanded.

“What? Rewind—”

Did. You. Interface,” Rewind shouted, shaking with equal parts rage and sorrow. He could feel his visor start to malfunction and desperately activated subprograms so it wouldn’t show.

“Yes,” Chromedome said at last, his vocalizer turned down low.

“How could you?” Rewind said brokenly. His spark felt as if it had been trampled on by a rampaging Titan. “You promised you wouldn’t. You told me you weren’t. Is there anything you haven’t lied to me about?”

“Rewind, please . . . I'm sorry. I'm sorry, I screwed up.”

“Well, that’s the understatement of the millennium.” Rewind jabbed his finger into Chromedome’s chassis accusatorily. “How long, Chromedome? How long has this been going on? Did you ever stop seeing him?”

“I tried, for a while,” Chromedome said. “I really did.” Rewind covered his face with his hands.

“I feel so stupid,” he mumbled. “And here I thought . . . I thought maybe one day . . .”

“What?” Chromedome said urgently. “Maybe one day what, Rewind?”

“It's not important,” Rewind replied, dizzy with hurt. “Not anymore. I . . . I need to go. I don’t think I can be around you right now. Or ever. I don’t know. I need to go.”

“What? No, Rewind, please, let's talk it out. You always want to talk it out, please . . . We can work it out. I'm sorry.”

“You lied to me. For years. I asked you for two simple things. Not for my own good, but for yours. And I trusted you to keep the promises you made.”

“I didn’t mean to, I . . . You don’t understand what Prowl’s like when he wants something. He’s like a force of nature, and it’s just so easy to get caught up in it . . .”

“Don’t,” Rewind hissed. “Prowl is a fragging aft, but don’t think you can just pin the blame on him.”

“They were mistakes,” Chromedome said. “Everyone makes mistakes, right?”

“No, they weren’t,” Rewind said sadly. “You knew perfectly well what you were doing. Is that how you could spare all those extra cubes for me? You let me believe you were getting bonuses at work, and you never said a word. How am I supposed to ever trust you again? Were you ever going to tell me? Primus, I can't even look at you.”

“Rewind . . .” Chromedome said forlornly, reaching a hand out. Rewind turned away.

“No,” he said firmly. “No, I need some space.”

“No,” Chromedome said. “No, we'll work it out, please.”

Rewind tried to ignore the panic in Chromedome's voice, but it was nearly impossible. Mournfully, he said, “Why couldn’t you have just told me? I would’ve helped you, if you’d just said something.”

“I didn't want you to leave.”

Rewind shook his head. “I told you," he said. “It's lying that will push me away.”

“Don't leave,” Chromedome begged. “Please, Rewind, I’ll be better, I promise, I won’t lie to you again. Please just don't leave me.”

Rewind looked at Chromedome. He saw that he stood at the crossroads of two paths: one where he acquiesced and stayed, and one where he left and continued on.

He could stay and comfort Chromedome, assure him that everything would be okay. He could hold him at night, admire his paintjob during the day, and maybe someday, he would be in a place where he would gather up his courage to kiss him. His feelings would be reciprocated, and they would spend many happy centuries together. But doubt would always cloud his mind—if Chromedome had found it so easy to keep this under wraps, what else could he be hiding? Would any promises he made—any loyalty he pledged—mean anything at all?

Or he could leave and wash his hands of the entire affair. Get back to focusing on his quest to find Dominus Ambus, no more distractions. Maybe he would ask Blaster to put in a good word for him so that he could do some field reporting, or apply to train under some cryptologist so that he could acquire the skills necessary to decode the mysterious document. He could do some good in the world and continue on his quest without worrying about being lied to by his best friend. It might be lonely, but it would be safe.

Rewind walked out of the apartment and shut the door behind him. He didn't look back.

Chapter Text

"Life is the first gift, love is the second, and understanding the third.”
Gone to Soldiers, Marge Piercy


After years in the comfort of an apartment, it was difficult to fall asleep on the street. With the war effort going badly, there were many homeless bots down and out on their luck, resting on the sidewalks and begging for energon. Though Rewind had stayed in worse neighborhoods in the past—Polyhex’s Dead End sprung to mind—he still made an effort to seem as small and invisible as possible to avoid the attention of anyone looking for trouble. It was one thing his frame was good for.

He stayed at the library as often as he could, sometimes dozing off while still connected to the terminal and being kicked out by apologetic librarians at closing. He did his best to stay busy in order to keep Chromedome off his mind. But the thrill of having a clue about Dominus Ambus’s fate was muted by his sorrow for being separated from his friend. He threw himself into the task of decoding the document in an effort to distract himself from the urge to ping Chromedome and apologize.

His spark chamber felt hollow.

At night, his resolve weakened, frame straining for something warm to hold. But he would replay his memory file of the argument in his head and the razor-sharp pang of betrayal would resurge.

Chromedome had given his word, and he had broken it. And worse than that, he had lied to him about it—for years. If Rewind hadn’t found out . . . If he hadn’t happened to rush home that day . . . Who knew if Chromedome would have ever come clean?

And a tiny, dark part of Rewind hated that he had been so easily deceived—so eager to trust, so delighted to have a friend of his own. So happy to have someone at his side, to no longer be alone, that he had taken Chromedome’s word at face value. Chromedome, who had already lied to him before.

What else had Chromedome kept from him?

But Rewind couldn’t push away the feeling of regret. The desperate expression on Chromedome’s face as he pleaded for Rewind to stay haunted his waking moments as well as the hazy state when he was low on energy. Chromedome wasn’t well, that was for sure, and Rewind had wanted to help him, but where did he draw the line? If Chromedome didn’t want to be helped, why should Rewind subject himself to the relentless ebb and tide of affection and pain?

Because he’s saved you, too, his mind whispered.

Rewind’s moral affront buckled beneath the assault of that ugly truth. How many hours of his time had Chromedome dedicated to helping him in a quest that others so quickly dismissed as madness? How many times had he been bolstered by that generosity and reassured by his friend’s comfort? How many nights had he wept for his lost Conjunx Endura and clung onto Chromedome as a lifeline?

How many times had he been surprised by the guilty leap of what he had feared was a broken spark that could never love again?

Tucking himself away in alleyways away from the major streets, Rewind nibbled on the remainder of his energon candies for sustenance and tried to halt his wandering thoughts. From his mind he pushed away memories of the reverent way Chromedome often looked at him—as if he were something special, as if his existence truly made a difference in the world. He needed to accept how things had turned out and just move on.

He had to accept that after everything, he had only ended up alone again.

Alone and lonely.

*

But if nothing else, Rewind was a bot of conviction. He had set up his recharge slab, metaphorically speaking, and now he had to hook himself up to it. Loneliness was a small price to pay for standing his ground. He didn’t need a self-destructive force like Chromedome in his life—not even if sometimes that force made him laugh until he was wheezing or gave him his only comfort when hope eluded him.

There were twenty-three missed pings on his HUD, and eleven unopened messages. Even as his spark ached, Rewind told himself sternly not to give in. He debated blocking the frequency, but that was a drastic step he couldn’t bring himself to take.

Again, Chromedome pinged him—a simple request to open their private communication channel. Simple but dangerous.

Visor flickering and optics crackling with sparks he couldn’t tamp down, Rewind hugged his own frame and steadfastly ignored the alert.

*

After four days, Chromedome stopped trying to reach him.

Rewind couldn't decide whether to be relieved or disappointed.

*

Though he was ashamed by his own jealousy, Rewind couldn’t help himself. He attained the apartment building surveillance footage in an effort to deduce what Chromedome and Prowl had been talking about in the first place. He told himself that it was important that he know, so that he could set his curiosity aside. He needed to know, so he could move on in peace.

“Your skills are needed here,” Prowl said, his voice tinny in the recording.

“Look, you can’t talk me out of it,” Chromedome replied. “I’m leaving, and that’s that.”

“Reconsider,” said Prowl, so quietly that the recording barely caught it. “Please.” Chromedome’s shoulders slumped, but he shook his head and put his hands up.

“There’s nothing for me here,” he said. Rewind tried not to see the way Prowl’s stoic expression fell.

“What about me?”

Chromedome stared at him coldly. “What about you? You’ve made it clear that I’ve hurt you in some irreparable way, yet you can’t seem to let me go. You’re always going on about how well you know me—well, then you know I was never going to be content warming your recharge slab. I’m tired of being held at arm’s length. I’ve moved on, Prowl—and honestly . . . I can’t keep doing this. I promised Rewind. I want to keep that promise.”

Prowl did not respond for a moment, though Rewind could see his face twitching as he attempted to contain his temper.

“What do you see in him?” Prowl said at last. Rewind couldn’t tell if he was sad or angry or some pitiful hybrid of both—though Prowl’s next words made him decide that he didn’t care: “He’s a minibot who has seen better days.”

“He’s wonderful and kind,” Chromedome corrected. “He’s saved me, again and again. He is everything to me.”

“You’re a fool,” Prowl said.

“I don’t care what you think, Prowl,” Chromedome retorted. Rewind cheered inwardly, even if he doubted the veracity of his friend’s statement. Prowl looked less happy about it, his frown deepening.

“That’s a lie. You’re making a terrible decision and you know it.”

“No,” Chromedome said gently. “I’m finally making one that makes me happy.”

“But are you really going to be satisfied being number two?” Prowl said. “As you well know, Rewind’s Conjunx Endura was no slouch—Dominus Ambus’s work will be studied for millions of years to come.”

Former Conjunx Endura,” Chromedome said immediately. Rewind clamped down the urge to correct a recording. “And I’m well aware, thank you for that.”

“Look, you’re fooling yourself if you think he’ll ever return your misplaced feelings,” Prowl said crisply. “You deserve better than second place, Tumbler.”

“Yeah? Like what? You? Because you’ve always treated me so well. Get off the pedestal, Prowl. You’re just upset because once I leave the planet you’ll no longer have any sway over me.”

Prowl flinched, almost unnoticeably. “Arrogance doesn’t suit you,” he said. “We may have been close once, but all you are is an asset to me now.”

“Now who’s fooling themselves?”

Prowl let out a humorless laugh. “Don’t mistake convenience for sentiment,” he said, though Rewind thought his words sounded hollow.

And then in the video, Rewind saw himself stroll up to them, arms on his hip struts.

“Give it some thought,” was the last thing Prowl said before he marched off. “You have my frequency. Just ping me, as usual.”

Rewind shut the video feed when it started replaying his argument with Chromedome. He didn’t want to think about that. Not when his head was spinning with revelations . . . Prowl really was still sweet on Chromedome and jealous of Rewind. And Chromedome . . . had feelings for him. It was so obvious, in retrospect. He honestly didn’t know how to feel about that, after everything they had just been through.

That night, Rewind lay awake under the muggy Iacon sky for a long time.

*

The energon candies lasted him several more days, but eventually Rewind ran out of fuel. His meager Shanix savings had to go toward renting a recharge slab for a night at a hostel. No matter how skilled he was at tucking himself in corners unseen, the streets offered no recharge ports, and his systems had begun to act up. Though he didn’t like to think of himself as old, his backup systems been glitchy for the past century and didn’t cope well with the meager fuel it was being fed. Not for the first time, he wished that he had one of those fancy portable charging upgrades.

Ducking his head, Rewind made his way to the back of the energon kitchen line. The fuel he would receive would be crude, and it would probably make his systems seize up. But it would be free, and he needed the sustenance to stay online.

Bots of all shapes and sizes occupied the line, some wearing the Autobot brand and others completely badgeless. He spotted a few who had done of a poor job scrubbing off their Decepticon insignias, their frames battered and expressions nervous and frightened. He tamped down the urge to interview them and learn their stories; it was unlikely that any Decepticon defectors were going to consent to being filmed.

Distracted, Rewind stumbled when the bot in front of him bumped into him.

“Sorry, mate, didn’t see you there.”

The bot before him was tall and lanky, with blue and orange paint and bright optics above a faceplate that didn’t fit quite right. The positioning of the wheels on his back gave away his motorcycle alt mode. Likely merchant class, Rewind guessed, before chiding himself for his old-fashioned thinking. Even after millions of years, he still sometimes struggled against the old ways of classification, no matter how much he disavowed them.

“It’s fine,” he said.

That was when Rewind noticed the Autobot badge on his brightly colored chest was blacked out. The bot was in mourning. Rewind felt a pang of sympathy.

The bot followed his gaze to the badge. “Before you ask, my Conjunx Endura died in the raid on Altihex,” he explained.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Rewind said. He thought again about the possibility of Dominus Ambus dead on a battlefield, gray and mangled and surrounded by other corpses, his bright, beautiful spark put out. “Was he a soldier or a civilian?”

“Oh, he was military through and through. Born a warrior, lived as a warrior—often to my chagrin. He was a general of the 72nd Battalion.”

“Cybertron thanks him for his service and honors his ascension to the Allspark,” Rewind said formally, hand over his spark. “May he rest ’til all are one.”

“Thank you,” the bot said. “But there was more to him than combat. Oh, how he loved to paint. He was a master with colors. ‘Stormy,’ I used to say, ‘when this war is over, we’re going to open an art gallery so the world can admire you as much as I do.’ When I got the news, that was all I could think about—that he would never be recognized for his creative talent.”

He glanced at Rewind, looking abashed. “I’m sorry, I’m rambling . . . You don’t care about any of this.”

“No, no,” Rewind said. “I don’t mind. In fact, I understand. I’ve lost somebody, too.”

“You have my deepest sympathy,” the bot said. Rewind inclined his head in acknowledgment. “I’m Escrow, by the way.”

“Rewind, pleased to meet you.”

“How long were you and your sweetspark together?”

Rewind laughed a little, wondering if his age was really that obvious. He probably needed to save up for some new paint. “Oh, something like three million years.”

Escrow gave a low whistle. “That’s a long time. Still, that must have made it all the more difficult.”

“Yes,” Rewind said, pain tugging at his spark at the memories of those first few weeks without Dominus Ambus. At the time, they had never been apart from each other for more than a couple days. “How about you and . . .”

“Stormrider and I were old friends, but we danced around it for ages. We had so little time together before the war began. I didn’t have it in me to stop him from enlisting, but . . . Thinking back, my greatest regret is that we didn’t tell each other about our feelings sooner. All that time we could have had together . . .”

Immediately, Rewind thought of Chromedome and cursed his traitorous mind. “But you’ll always have the memories of the times you did share. And I’m sure there were great ones. You sound like you were a good pair.”

“The best,” Escrow said, but he looked sad.

“Your Conjunx Endura, you said his designation was ‘Stormrider,’ right?”

“Yes, of Protihex.”

Rewind smiled. “I just searched my archive and found a holovid of General Stormrider of Protihex giving a motivational speech before a battle.” He tapped his camera and the projector mounted to it. “Would you like to see?”

Escrow’s features crumpled, and when he spoke, his voice was riddled with static: “I would love to. Thank you. Thank you.”

*

The next day, Brainstorm found him as he was leaving the library for the night. He looked angrier than Rewind had ever seen him, wings flaring up behind him and optics narrowed to slits.

“Brainstorm? What are you doing here?”

“You fragger!” Brainstorm hissed as he grabbed him. “You fragging Pit-damned piece of slag.” Rewind struggled in his grasp.

“Hey, let go! What are you talking about?”

“You know very well what I'm talking about,” Brainstorm fumed. “Chromedome just told me he’s not coming to Kimia anymore. And when I asked about you, he said he didn’t know. He said you’d left.

Rewind’s spark clenched. “And?”

“Don’t play innocent. Not about this,” Brainstorm said. He shifted his grip to Rewind’s shoulders, optics flickering furiously as he shook him. “You promised me. You said you would stay!”

“Don’t get mad at me!” Rewind retorted. “He lied to my face! Again and again! I had to catch him in the act for him to finally admit he’d been injecting for Prowl behind my back.” He tried to wrench himself out of Brainstorm’s grasp. “He played me for a fool!”

“No,” Brainstorm said, almost to himself, as he let go and rubbed his helm. “No, you don’t understand. You don’t understand what you’ve done.” Then, to Rewind, he said, “How long ago did this happen? When was the last time you spoke to him?”

“What does it matter? It’s between Chromedome and me; it’s none of your business!”

“Chromedome is my business!” Brainstorm shouted. “Don’t you see? You were supposed to take care of him, how could you just . . . leave? You have to take it back; you have to tell him you’re sorry and that you won’t leave again. And then you have to keep your word.”

“You have no right to tell me what to do!” Rewind shot back. “What if I’m not sorry? Why should I go back to him? I already forgave him once, but he just went on his merry way being dishonest. I can’t let it go. I can’t accept that kind of behavior. I’m sorry he’s hurting, but you can’t go around lying to people who care about you and expect them to want to stick around.”

“Shut up! Just shut up!” Brainstorm said. “I don’t care about any of that. I don’t care. But he’s going to kill himself or worse, and you’re the only one who can do something about it.”

“What?” Rewind said. “What are you talking about? Why would you say that?”

But his own words brought him up short. Was it truly so ridiculous? After all, he had found Chromedome at a Relinquishment Clinic, patiently waiting in a room full of despondent Decepticons to be administered death. Too often, on his bad days, Chromedome had quietly confessed to Rewind that he wished he had never been constructed. Terror took hold in his spark.

“No,” Rewind whispered, words nearly inaudible over the static his voice box was emitting. “No, he wouldn’t.”

“He would,” Brainstorm said, and Rewind had never seen him look so worried. “He always does.”

“What do you mean?”

“Rewind,” Brainstorm said. “I need you to answer me something honestly.”

“I. . . Okay. What is it?”

Brainstorm said, quietly, “If the two of you can get past this . . . Do you think you and Chromedome have a future together?”

Rewind hesitated. “Maybe,” he answered.

“No,” Brainstorm said, shaking his head. “None of that wishy-washy slag. I'll ask it a different way: Do you think Chromedome could ever be your number one, the way that Dominus Ambus is? Is that a possibility?”

Rewind was immediately reminded of what Prowl had said to Chromedome in the footage he had dug up. He startled himself with how quickly and confidently he answered: “Yes. I think he could be.”

Brainstorm seemed simultaneously relieved and sullen at his words, somehow. “Okay. If that’s true, then there’s something you need to know about Chromedome.”

Rewind listened, rapt, as Brainstorm told him about Scattergun, Mach, and Pivot—Chromedome’s past Conjunx Endurae, all of whom he had erased from his memories. Because he had taken their deaths so hard that he couldn’t cope. He hadn’t been able to live with the pain and had elected to delete his memories rather than to accept his loss and move on with his life. The mere idea was horrifying—more horrifying than anything Rewind had ever thought about mnemosurgeons violating deceased bots—and awful to think about. But suddenly so much about his friend made sense . . . Chromedome’s annoying tendency of stopping his sentences mid-thought. The way he sometimes spoke vaguely of something he remembered and then stared abstractly into space, as if he were sifting through his memory banks and searching for something he couldn’t find. And most incriminating of all, his strange habit of touching the back of his neck when he was nervous or upset.

Rewind looked up at Brainstorm, helpless, and said: “What do we do?”

*

When they got to the apartment, it was empty, and Chromedome wasn’t answering either of their calls. By Rewind’s reluctant request, Brainstorm even tried reaching out to Prowl several times in succession, resulting in a chilling reprimand for interrupting an extremely important meeting with Optimus Prime himself.

Rewind collapsed in a chair in the central room as he tried to calm the anxious thoughts racing through his head. The past week had worn on him, leaving him lonely and not thinking straight. He had no idea what he would say to Chromedome when he next saw him, but he found himself gripped by a desperation to see him again, if only to say: Hello, I am here for you. I’m sorry you have lost so much, so many times. I’m sorry you hurt so deeply and don’t even know why. I still think your actions are inexcusable, but I want to give you the chance to redeem yourself. And maybe, if he was feeling truly brave: I’ve returned, because I now know for certain that I am no longer whole without you.

He’d gone about this all wrong—they weren’t meant to be apart. Chromedome needed him, and as much as Rewind liked to think of himself as an independent bot, he needed Chromedome as well. There was so much more to their story, and so much more they had to learn about each other, and so much room for the two of them to grow.

But that was when Brainstorm said, uncharacteristically hesitant, “Maybe he went to seek a more . . . permanent . . . solution.”

“No,” Rewind said. “No no no.”

“It’s where you met, isn’t it?” Brainstorm said.

Rewind couldn’t bear the thought. “It was,” he confirmed.

“We should check,” Brainstorm said. “I’m sorry to say it, but I wouldn’t be surprised.”

“Okay,” Rewind said quietly, as much as he wanted to deny even the tiniest inkling of possibility. He thought about the bot he had met in the energon kitchen line, who had spoken of his deceased Conjunx Endura with such high regard. Would Rewind too be sporting a blacked-out badge again? Was he doomed to lose everyone he cared for? “Brainstorm, what if he’s already gone . . . ? Or what if he doesn’t remember me?”

Brainstorm shot him an opaque look. “I don’t know,” he said. “Brace yourself for the worst, and hope for the best, I say.”

It wasn’t terrible advice. “Okay,” Rewind said again, willing his shaking fingers still. He stood up. “Okay. Let’s go rescue the most infuriating yet wonderful bot who ever lived.”

And as they raced to the dark place where he and Chromedome had first met, Rewind pleaded to whatever deity would hear him: Please let him be okay. Primus, I will give anything for him to be okay.

*

They found Chromedome sitting outside of the Relinquishment Clinic, staring mournfully down at his hands. Visor dim and desolate, he extended his mnemosurgery needles, then retracted them back into his fingers. SLIKT. Extend, retract. SLIKT.

Rewind watched him for a moment, taking in the defeated curve of his back and the despondent expression on his face. Brainstorm nudged him forward. Gathering up his nerves, Rewind approached his friend.

“Hey,” he said softly.

Chromedome looked up, and as if not trusting his own vision, he rebooted his visor. Then, he said: “Rewind?”

“Yeah,” Rewind said, taking a seat next to him. Just close enough to offer comfort but not enough to spook Chromedome. “It’s me, buddy.”

When Chromedome didn’t say anything, Rewind took one of his hands into his own smaller ones and examined the needles that protruded unnaturally from the fingertips. As much as he yearned to look away, he swallowed his revulsion and forced himself to face them. They were a part of Chromedome, too. What right did he have to call himself Chromedome’s friend if he didn’t accept this?

Rewind stroked the palm of Chromedome’s hand gently and looked up when Chromedome's vents let out a ragged sigh. His visor was powered down, and Rewind took the moment to press his cheek against the familiar servos, willing himself not to shudder at the graze of needles against his helm.

“Rewind,” Chromedome said, voice full of static and wonder. “You came back.”

And as something clenched in Rewind’s spark, he thought, How can I so deeply love someone so broken?

Chromedome withdrew his needles and clasped Rewind’s hand in his own shaking one. He gripped too hard, as if he were afraid Rewind would slip away.

“What are you doing out here?” Rewind asked, going for casual and failing miserably. Chromedome seemed to respond well to the lack of fuss, though.

“Would you rather I be inside?”

“Primus, no. But you have to admit that it is a bit strange for a bot to park himself outside of this morbid place.”

“I was going to go in. I was going to put myself on the list again.”

“What made you change your mind?” Rewind prompted gently.

“I remembered something you said to me once,” Chromedome said. “You said . . . ‘Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.’”

It was an adage Dominus Ambus had coined millennia ago. Rewind had repeated it to himself plenty of times throughout his life, when facing problems as diverse as being bullied by bigger bots, forcing his tender systems to process crude energon, or coping with overwhelming sadness when he realized Dominus wasn’t coming back.

“I dislike it on principle,” Chromedome continued. “The idea of suffering being a choice rubs at me in the wrong way. . . . I don’t choose my bad days. When I get low, there’s nobody who wants to be there less than I do.

“But then I thought of you, and the way you carry on despite everything you’ve lost. A Conjunx Endura, your friends, your home, your financial means, your entire way of life . . . And I couldn’t help but think that something in me is broken—the capacity to carry on in the face of hardship. But I just don’t have it in me. I keep turning it over in my head—how do you do it? How do you face the future with the past weighing you down?

“I’m so tired of being sad,” Chromedome said. “I’m tired of ruining things for myself and the people around me. I want to believe that I have it in me to be happy—and to be good—but sometimes I feel like after they constructed my frame, they placed a black hole where my spark was supposed to go.”

“Don’t say that,” Rewind said. “I believe in you. I believe you can make it, if you just take each day at a time.” He remembered another aphorism Dominus Ambus had coined: “‘The happiest bots don’t have to have the best of everything—they just make the most out of everything that comes their way.’ You’ve come my way, and I was remiss to give that up so easily.”

Chromedome clutched his hand, looking down as if he were speaking to it. “Why did you come back?”

“For so long, you’ve been alone and hurting,” Rewind said. “So have I. But against all odds, we managed to find each other. Amid this horrible war, we have this life together, this fragile, wonderful thing, and maybe it’s not perfect, but together we can at least try to make it better. I came back to convince you to try.”

“You left,” Chromedome said, his tone lingering between hurt and accusation. “You said you wouldn’t leave me.”

“I don’t think you have the moral ground to accuse me of breaking promises,” Rewind said sharply.

Chastised, Chromedome kneaded his helm and dimmed his visor. “I don’t want to argue with you.”

“We don’t have to argue,” Rewind said. “I keep telling you . . . We’re civil bots; we can talk things out. You can’t keep shutting down when the conversation goes somewhere you don’t like.”

Leaning his helm back against the wall he was propped against, Chromedome vented. After a long moment, he said quietly, “I’m sorry for breaking the promises I made to you.”

“And?” Rewind prompted.

“And I’m sorry for lying to you.”

“Look at me when you say it, for Primus’s sake,” Rewind demanded. Chromedome held his gaze and repeated his words.

Rewind’s own gaze lingered over Chromedome’s familiar face, committing the desperately honest, earnest lines to memory even as his camera continued rolling. He noted in particular the charred edges of Chromedome’s visor, incriminating evidence that he had been crying to the point of damaging his optics.

It was almost too easy to say “I forgive you.”

Chromedome hugged him. “Rewind, I . . . Thank you. You don’t know how much your friendship means to me.”

Rewind thought he might have some idea, given where they were at the moment, but he didn’t say anything. He simply wound his arms around his friend and leaned into the familiar embrace.

“Aren’t you going to make me promise again?” Chromedome asked curiously.

Rewind shook his head, resigned. “I don’t want you to feel trapped or like you have to hide anything from me. I’m going to trust that you’ll do the right thing from now on. And that if you feel otherwise inclined, you’ll talk to me about it. I want to help you, but I’m not a telepath; I can only help if you tell me what’s wrong. . . .”

Chromedome nodded, seemingly caught between relief and worry at the prospect of this unexpected freedom.

“But Chromedome, I hope you have enough sense to know . . .” Rewind added, low and dangerous. “Don’t ever lie to me again.”

“I won’t,” Chromedome said. Rewind wasn’t stupid enough to fully believe him, but he desperately hoped he would be proven wrong.

“Good.”

They sat in silence for a moment, simply basking in each other’s presence. Rewind marveled at the fact that only a few years ago, he hadn’t even known this beautiful, damaged bot, had no idea of the impact he would eventually have on him. Though he knew this fight had changed something between them, and that things were a long way from being truly okay, he also knew that he felt more whole—more alive—in this moment than he had over the past week.

“Can we go home now?” Chromedome asked softly.

Smiling, Rewind got to his feet. Home. “Of course,” he said, and helped Chromedome up.

*

Brainstorm picked them up early on the morning they were scheduled to depart for Kimia. Rewind laughed when he began bragging about all the top-secret meetings he had already been invited to and teased him about just wanting to be in the same room as Perceptor. Brainstorm shoved at him playfully, but his optics flickered with a newfound respect and—if Rewind was reading it correctly—gratitude.

“Since when are you two best buds?” Chromedome asked curiously.

Brainstorm and Rewind exchanged a glance, and Brainstorm shook his head discreetly.

“Since Rewind promised me some special footage of Cybertron’s number two scientist for a mere ten energon cubes,” Brainstorm said loftily, pulling a stack of cubes out of his subspace. Rewind laughed, taken aback. He certainly wasn’t going to turn down the fuel, though.

“I’ll get a data stick to you by the time we get to Kimia,” he said, holding his arms out for the cubes. Brainstorm beamed, and Rewind wondered, highly entertained, if he had planned to ask for it all along.

“Can you believe it?” Chromedome said, gazing up at his apartment building. “We’re really leaving.”

“I can’t wait for you to see space,” Rewind said. “I can’t believe you’ve never left the planet before!”

“Me neither,” Chromedome said as they began to walk toward the bus line that would take them to the shuttle. “Oh, hang on,” he said. “I’m getting a call from Prowl.”

Rewind tamped down the irritation that surged immediately. “Ignore him,” he said. Chromedome looked at him, hesitant.

“I think he wants to say goodbye,” he said. “And I think I would like to say goodbye to him. But if you don’t think I should, I won’t.”

Rewind vented softly. This was what he had asked for, right? Honesty, and a willingness to communicate. He wasn’t Chromedome’s master, and soon, Prowl wouldn’t be able to get his hands on Chromedome at all. There was little danger in letting Chromedome have some closure, he told himself firmly, even though there was a part of him that wanted to demand that Chromedome delete Prowl’s frequency from his commlink.

“It’s okay,” he said reluctantly. “Say goodbye.”

“Thanks, Rewind,” Chromedome said, his shoulders sagging in relief. He motioned for them to keep walking. “Go ahead; I’ll be right behind you.” With a sigh, Rewind did so, dragging Brainstorm with him.

“Hey,” Rewind said, quiet enough that Chromedome wouldn’t be able to hear. “Will you answer me something honestly? And not tell Chromedome that I asked . . .”

Brainstorm turned to him, his gaze curious. “Ask away.”

“Chromedome and Prowl,” Rewind said. “Do you think I should be worried about them?”

Brainstorm laughed, a little snidely. “Frag no. They’re just emotionally repressed idiots who never talked out their feelings two million years ago, so they take turns using each other to reassure themselves that it doesn’t matter.”

“But they’ve been interfacing,” Rewind said, frowning. Even just voicing it aloud annoyed him.

Waving a dismissive hand, Brainstorm said, “Desperate times. I’m no Froid—or that other guy, I can never remember his designation—but I’d bet a hundred Shanix that now that he’s part of High Command, Prowl doesn’t get many chances for personal connections. And Chromedome has always been desperate to feel wanted.”

“Wow,” Rewind said. “You’re . . . probably actually right.”

“I’m always right,” Brainstorm preened.

Rewind glanced behind them. Chromedome trailed a few meters behind them, looking engrossed in a commlink conversation. Rewind tried valiantly to dispel his envy. Once they got to Kimia, Prowl would no longer pose a problem, and mnemosurgery would no longer be as immediate of a problem—if nothing, at least Rewind would have some time to wrap his head around the implications of everything he had learned about Chromedome and his macabre history. Things between them would be easier then, he had to believe it. After a moment, he said, “Hey, Brainstorm?”

“What now?”

“Do you think Chromedome is going to be okay?”

Brainstorm looked at him, wings stiff and expression unfathomable.

“With you, he will be,” he said softly.


CODA:

In their years of friendship, there were two things that Chromedome never talked about. One: what exactly he had done as a mnemosurgeon. Two: what exactly had happened between him and Prowl.

So two nights before they were to leave for Kimia, Rewind sat him down and said: “Tell me everything.” Or I leave, was left unspoken. Rewind trusted that Chromedome understood.

Bowing his head solemnly, Chromedome began to tell his story:

“Back when I still called myself Tumbler, I was approached by a bot named Trepan . . .”


Chapter Text

"We laughed and laughed, together and separately, out loud and silently, we were determined to ignore whatever needed to be ignored, to build a new world from nothing if nothing in our world could be salvaged."
Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer


Things were better on Kimia.

Though energon was still being rationed, the station’s staff was valued enough that they received adequate fuel to feel decently well charged on a daily basis. The more daring, resourceful bots gave brewing their own synthetic fuels a try, resulting in some dangerous concoctions that could take someone from zero to overcharged in a sip.

Chromedome and Rewind shared a habsuite. The moment after they first arrived in the room, they rearranged the furniture so that the two berths could be pushed together.

There was a certain newfound peace between them, a natural affinity as a result of being a pair among strangers. The other bots teased them about being Conjunx Endura, to which Rewind always felt obliged to mumble that he was already bonded to someone else. Sometimes, he noticed out of the corner of his vision Chromedome dimming his visor at this. It always made Rewind feel like a heel, even though he was only telling the truth.

The more he thought about Chromedome having feelings for him, the more conflicted and uncomfortable he felt. He had meant what he’d said to Brainstorm—that he could see this friendship barreling into something new and fresh and significantly more exclusive—but he had been speaking in terms of millennia, in terms of millions of years. Once he had gotten closure about Dominus Ambus or hope had truly left him. And if he were reunited with Dominus, then it would be an entirely different story.

Things were made doubly awkward by the fact that Chromedome didn’t know that Rewind knew, and Rewind didn’t know whether or not to bring it up. Not only did the breach of privacy fill him with shame, but he also didn’t think Chromedome would cope well if he found out Rewind was aware of how he felt. It would also precipitate a conversation about Rewind’s own feelings, which he was decidedly not ready for.

Chromedome seemed happier, though. There was a certain levity to him—a renewed sense of confidence and vigor. Rewind wasn’t used to seeing it, but it pleased him. The likely cause was a job he enjoyed and excelled at in the neuroscience lab, where his knowledge and expertise were appreciated and celebrated by his peers.

Rewind also theorized that it was good for Chromedome to get off the planet. Even if he didn’t remember all of his experiences, he must have had far too many bad memories rooted on Cybertron. It couldn’t be good for a bot’s psyche. Some things were hardwired into sparks, far beyond fickle binary memory.

The fresh start also did Rewind well. Getting decent energon made an enormous difference in his productivity, and the work he was doing made him feel like he was actually contributing something worthy and honorable to the war effort. Between serving as a part-time research assistant in Mainframe’s lab and recording top-secret, Ethics Committee–approved presentation footage to encrypt and send to High Command, he was kept busy. And despite not being a scientist himself, he was generally treated with respect, for which he was grateful. Even though it was millions of years ago now, he still remembered being a data receptacle for haughty scientists who preferred Disposables like him to stay in alt mode at all times and remain silent unless spoken to.

With a steady income also came more freedom and time to do research on the Dominus Ambus document, as he had taken to calling it in his head. So far, he hadn’t come up with much, but faith continued to buoy his efforts.

“Hey, what’s on your mind?”

Rewind jumped. Lost in his research, he hadn’t heard Chromedome booting up beside him. He turned on his side to face his friend, tucking his work back into a folder in his processor.

“Still trying to crack this code. I’ve never seen anything this sophisticated. I can’t even get past the first glyph. And cross-referencing only gets me a bunch of gibberish.” Rewind shrugged. “I’ll figure it out. How was your nap?”

“Fine,” Chromedome said, throwing an arm around Rewind’s middle. Rewind scooted closer despite himself.

“No nightmares?”

“Nope,” Chromedome said. Rewind tucked himself against Chromedome’s warm chestplate. It always astonished him how perfectly they fit together, how right it felt to be in Chromedome’s easy embrace. The thought made his spark thump with excitement even as his processor ached with shame.

“Good,” Rewind said, relaxing against his friend.

Chromedome leaned his helm against the top of Rewind’s. “Don’t tell me you’re going to recharge now.”

“Nooo,” Rewind said. He couldn’t help but switch off his visual feed, though. Chromedome really was a wonderful surface to rest against.

After a moment of silence, Chromedome laughed. “You really are! Come on, you were the one who insisted on staying up to finish that holovid about the Primal Vanguard.”

“That was all Ironfist,” Rewind grumbled. “He was so excited; I could hardly deny him.”

“Even if it meant having to hear that stupid word repeated at least two hundred times? Just thinking it makes me want to bash my head against a wall.”

“What word?” Rewind asked innocently. “Surely you don’t mean . . . ‘glorious’?” Chromedome groaned and glared at him. Rewind laughed.

“Give the mech a break. He’s so earnest. Admit it, it’s kind of cute.”

“Ugh, not in the slightest,” Chromedome said. “You’re just a big softy.”

Rewind smacked him lightly on the arm. “Oh, shush.”

Chromedome’s visor flickered with mirth. “You’re pouting, aren’t you,” he teased. “I can tell even with the faceplate that you’re pouting.”

“Quiet, some of us are trying to recharge in peace,” Rewind said, snuggling in closer.

Chromedome laughed and hugged him closer.

A klik later, he said, “Are you seriously going to recharge now? Don’t forget that Crosshairs and Sureshot’s anniversary party is tonight.”

Rewind groaned. “Why is that even a thing? Who cares about some bots’ bonding anniversary from some thousand years ago?”

“You know how it is—any excuse to get overcharged these days,” Chromedome said.

“I’m too old for this,” Rewind grumbled.

“Didn’t you and Dominus Ambus celebrate yours?”

Rewind’s visor flickered in surprise. It wasn’t often that Chromedome brought up Dominus on his own.

“Not really,” Rewind answered. “After the first fifty thousand years, it started to seem a little silly.”

Chromedome shrugged. “I think it’s romantic. To celebrate it is to confirm your devotion to one another, no matter how much time passes by.”

Rewind studied a chip in the orange paint of Chromedome’s chestplate, resisting the urge to run his fingers over the tiny blemish. “Dominus Ambus wasn’t the most romantic of mechs,” he admitted. “Not like that, anyway. He was never one for frivolity.”

“But the way you talk about him . . . He must have treated you well.”

“Of course,” Rewind said. “But let’s not conflate romance with compassion.”

Chromedome hummed, sounding dissatisfied. “Isn’t love the greatest kindness?”

Rewind thought about the constant yearning in his spark, the way he ached down to his most delicate wiring for his sparkmate. He remembered the way Dominus Ambus used to look at him when they were together in the berth, and the way he always introduced Rewind as his Conjunx Endura, without a trace of shame or reserve. He thought about the way Chromedome gazed at him when he thought Rewind wasn’t paying attention, caught in some harrowing chasm between desire and desolation. And he thought about how much he wanted to look back, to touch—really touch—and give all of himself over, but for preexisting loyalties and promises made to someone he hadn’t seen in years.

“And yet the cruelest torture,” Rewind said softly.

*

When not on duty, bots on Kimia often gathered in what were called the Exit Rooms to relax and refuel in good company. Most of the staff was nice if a bit quirky, although the influx of newcomers was put under heavy scrutiny by those who had long been stationed there.

In the early days of the war, Kimia Facility had been set up as a place far from the frontlines where science and innovation could thrive, free of the restrictions imposed on Cybertron and its nearby colonies. But when the war showed no signs of abating, Kimia was converted into a weapons development facility. Innovation remained the goal, but the scientists were forced to focus their efforts on combat technologies or face losing their funding. Many brilliant Cybertronian minds abandoned their Autobot badges after that mandate, leaving for neutral colonies. The veteran scientists at Kimia still talked about what they called the Great Exodus, which had lost them veritable geniuses such as Tesla of Praxus and Ada Lambda.

It was easy to see why they would be wary that those who came to Kimia nowadays had more interest in destruction than true innovation. But for the most part, the bots who loitered in the Exit Rooms were friendly and happy to chat while refueling. After nearly a year of shy hesitation, Rewind often found himself there, since his time was much less structured than Chromedome’s. He was happy to chat with new bots and collect sound bites about the interesting lives many of them had led.

There were some topics that quickly became tiresome, though.

“So what’s it like being bonded to Chromedome? He’s rather . . . mysterious, isn’t he?” the new arrival named Swerve said, leaning forward as if Rewind were about to confide in him some epic secret.

Rewind huffed and tried not to look too exasperated. It wasn’t the bot’s fault that he hadn’t heard through the grapevine yet. “Chromedome and I are just friends. I already have a Conjunx Endura.”

“Oh yeah? Who?”

“His name is Dominus Ambus.”

Swerve’s jaw dropped. Rewind’s annoyance vanished immediately at the comical sight. The chatty mech had a fittingly massive mouth. “What?” he said innocently, trying not to laugh.

The Dominus Ambus? As in the Ascetic Cybertronian Dominus Ambus?”

“That’s the one,” Rewind said.

“Wow,” Swerve said. “I had no idea he was bonded to anyone.”

“Three million years and counting,” Rewind replied smugly.

Swerve grinned. “How did a little guy like you swing that?”

Swerve was relatively small, too, short and squat, so Rewind let it slide. “We used to work together,” he said. It was a sanitized version of the truth, but he had learned early on that he hated the looks people gave him when he mentioned spending hundreds of years as Dominus Ambus’s data drive. “I accompanied him on all his travels, and we became close. And at one point, we decided there was no denying the strength of our feelings for each other.”

“Wow,” Swerve said. “So where is he now?”

It was a fair question. A logical one, even. But Rewind hated it all the same.

“Honestly?” he said. “I don’t know. He went missing a while back, and I’ve been looking for him ever since.”

“Sorry to hear that,” Swerve said. Then he slapped Rewind’s shoulder jovially. “Cheer up, mech. You’ll find him. A guy like that can’t possibly stay missing for long.”

If only it were that easy. Swerve’s words were hollow comfort, but Rewind accepted them all the same. His story had been met with disdain too many times for him to dismiss even the most superficial consolation. “I hope so,” he said.

He started when Swerve suddenly began waving wildly at the door. “Oi! Chromedome!” Swerve yelled across the room. Rewind turned to look at Chromedome, who had just appeared at the door and was making his way over. The room suddenly seemed that much brighter.

“Hey,” Chromedome said, taking a seat next to Rewind and knocking their elbows together in greeting. “Uh . . . Swerve, right?”

“Yup, that’s me,” Swerve said. “Hey, did you know Rewind is the Conjunx Endura of Dominus Ambus?” he exclaimed.

Chromedome’s visor flickered, and Rewind felt his frame tense. He suddenly felt significantly less solicitous toward Swerve. “ . . . Yes?” he said. “What’s the big deal?”

“What’s the big deal? Only that Dominus Ambus was a legendary explorer and philosopher! His writings on Luna-1 were the basis of my Moon Quest, you know.”

Rewind thought sadly back to their search for Luna-1 and the cure for cybercrosis. Dominus Ambus had been so determined, so set on figuring out how to save their friends who were deteriorating due to the horrible disease. He had been so upset when, upon their return to Cybertron, they had discovered not only a civil war but that many of their oldest friends had been offlined by the disease while they had been off exploring the galaxy. Though every Cybertronian life came to an end at some point, cybercrosis was truly a terrible way to go. The reminder made Rewind’s spark hurt. He bet if he and Dominus hadn’t been so cruelly separated, they would have found a cure by now.

Chromedome looked at his downcast helm and silently wrapped a comforting arm around Rewind’s shoulders. Rewind leaned into the warm, familiar embrace, trying to put aside his sadness.

“Do I even want to know what a Moon Quest is?” Chromedome said.

“I haven’t told you about my Moon Quest yet?” Swerve exclaimed. “Oh, mech, you’re in for a treat . . .”

Though completely lacking in subtlety, the change in subject was a relief, and Rewind sent Chromedome a grateful glyph over their private frequency. Chromedome squeezed his shoulder in acknowledgment but didn’t let go even as Swerve talked their audials off.

It was moments like this that he loved Chromedome the most. When he showed with little gestures, wordlessly, how well he knew Rewind and how much he cared; when things were simple between them, because nothing mattered more than just being there for each other. Spark full, Rewind leaned into the crook of Chromedome’s arm.

Let the other bots talk and draw their own assumptions. There was nothing wrong with finding comfort in physical affection.

Even if he was bonded to someone else.

*

Now that Rewind and Chromedome were no longer attached at the hip joint, by the nature of their jobs, Rewind found much more time to reflect on what he had learned from Brainstorm, as well as from Chromedome himself.

It was clear now that Chromedome’s lurid past involved much more than just prodigious skill in mnemosurgery, and that the Institute conspiracy nuts were actually onto something. (Not that it seemed the establishment would let them live with that knowledge.) Just as Rewind had feared, mnemosurgery was irrevocably linked to brainwashing. Chromedome had tried to downplay that gruesome reveal, but Rewind wasn’t stupid. Chromedome’s “patients” had included political dissenters, Autobot turncoats, Decepticon prisoners, and even outspoken Neutrals—they were all fair game for the New Institute. They all were deemed in need of correction.

Chromedome had tried to defend his former role with what was obviously propaganda—it appeared that the Institute had done a fine job brainwashing their own employees as well, with virulent justification that chilled Rewind as it reminded him of the poison disseminated and popularized by political movements such as the Ratioists and Functionists. It was infuriating, and had felt a bit like arguing with an oblivious brick wall. Rewind had had to remind himself that Chromedome had left that abhorrent profession. That the real evil here was the Institute, not the mnemosurgeons it had seduced.

After all, it was impossible not to take into account the cerebral damage Chromedome had accrued over the millennia he had spent under the Institute’s employ. Rewind didn’t know if Chromedome had been unwell before he had begun working for Trepan, or if it had been the side effects of his career that had broken him, but either thought made Rewind incredibly sad. And Chromedome’s own mutilation of his brain module couldn’t have helped matters.

That particular dark secret he couldn’t even debate with Chromedome. Though Brainstorm had not gone into much depth, Rewind knew he hadn’t fabricated that awful truth. It just made too much sense, in a horrible way. By now, Rewind was used to Chromedome’s constant impulse to run away from his problems. As horrifying as it was to think about the extent to which that fear of confrontation had been taken, it also made a sobering amount of sense.

Still, it was a disquieting thought—the idea of hurting so much at the loss of something that erasing the memory node was preferable to learning to live with the pain. Rewind couldn’t imagine it. Loss had only made him cling harder to the past.

But everyone had different ways of coping. As much as Chromedome mindwiping himself made Rewind uneasy, Chromedome had never begrudged him his ongoing—and many would say, futile—search for Dominus Ambus.

Yet the longer he lingered on that thought, the more conflicted Rewind felt. If he had discovered these bleak truths years ago, before Chromedome had become so undeniably entwined with his own life and well being, he likely would have cut his losses and fled. But things were no longer so simple. This life they had built together . . . It was worth it. The look on Chromedome’s visor as he spilled his illicit secrets—as he trusted Rewind with such incriminating information—had made his spark ache with love and concern for his friend. It had made him wish he could shrink Chromedome down and tuck him inside his chest, beside his thrumming spark, to shield him from all the ugliness and temptation and hurt in the world.

Rewind’s moral compass trembled under the onslaught of his growing ardor.

Too often, he found himself yearning for Chromedome, both when they sat close among other bots and in their quiet moments alone together. Knowing his feelings were reciprocated, it was beyond tempting to just make a move and indulge his desire. But guilt held him back. It wouldn’t be fair to Dominus Ambus.

It wouldn’t be fair to Chromedome, either.

But . . . with time. He needed time.

*

It didn’t occur to Rewind until it was too late that, believing he didn’t have a chance with Rewind, Chromedome might wander elsewhere for attention.

He got his first hint of it one night in the Exit Rooms when he was working on a documentary idea with Slamdance. Chromedome had accompanied him there, although he had wandered off when Brainstorm waved him over to where he and his team of terrifyingly creative scientists were laughing at something on a data pad. Knowing that crowd, it was probably the unfortunate results of some unimaginably bizarre and horribly unethical weapon.

“Don’t look now, but I think you might need to crash here tonight . . .” Slamdance said.

Rewind shot him a confused look. “What?”

Slamdance nodded toward something across the lounge. “Your buddy and Atomizer are getting awfully close over there, don’t you think?”

Rewind followed his line of sight. Slamdance was right—Chromedome and Atomizer were leaning together over a datapad, arms pressed against each other and heads bent close together as they giggled at some video. There was a certain lack of tension in Chromedome’s frame that gave away how comfortable he felt. It wasn’t something Rewind was used to seeing in Chromedome around others, and it made him feel distinctively uneasy.

“What is that about?” Rewind exclaimed, standing up abruptly and smacking his hands on the table.

“Whoa,” Slamdance said, raising his hands placatingly. “No need to bite anyone’s head off. I was only kidding.”

“Well, it’s not funny,” Rewind grumbled, even more irritated now that he could see Atomizer’s all-too-comfortable hand on Chromedome’s thigh. Chromedome seemed content with it there, as he laughed at something Atomizer said and leaned closer. Rewind growled.

“Easy, mech. They’re probably just joking around.”

But Rewind knew better. Chromedome didn’t just joke around with any old mech. And Atomizer was good-looking, with broad shoulders and an eye-catching color scheme. Word was that he had been an interior decorator before the war, which explained his nice paint job. But he had worked as an assassin for a while, which meant he was capable and skilled. Also, apparently uproariously funny.

And as far as Rewind knew, he wasn’t bonded to any other bot. If Atomizer expressed interest in him, there was no logical reason for Chromedome to turn him down.

The thought bothered Rewind more than he liked to admit.

“You sure you two aren’t bonded, mate?” Slamdance said, tilting his head. Rewind vented, trying to expel his annoyance.

“I’m sure,” he said sulkily. “Can we get back on track?”

Though he tried to be discreet about it, Rewind kept his visual feed on Chromedome and Atomizer for the rest of the night, telling himself that he was just watching out for his friend.

There was a moment, later, when Atomizer put his hand on Chromedome’s hip joint and murmured something in his audials.

Tensing, Rewind stopped listening to what Slamdance was saying to stare openly at what was going on across the room. He braced himself for the sight of Chromedome and Atomizer leaving together.

But Chromedome shook his head and gently removed Atomizer’s hand from his frame. The slope in his shoulders was regretful. Shooting a strange, furtive look at Rewind, he said something to Atomizer that the other bot accepted with a nod and faintly disappointed shrug.

Immediately, Rewind felt a rush of relief, but he took a moment to chide his traitorous spark. It was unfair of him to be so possessive of Chromedome—his friend—but the thought of someone else’s servos on that frame filled him with dread and incredible sadness. Still, it was none of his business who Chromedome wanted to spend his time with.

Across the room, Atomizer and Chromedome turned their attention back to the data pad in Atomizer’s hands. There was a little more space between them now. Feeling better, Rewind returned to his conversation with Slamdance.

At the end of the night, when Slamdance bowed out and Rewind looked up, he realized that Chromedome had stayed in the room the entire time, even after everyone else had left. Clearly waiting for him.

“Hey,” Rewind said, approaching him. Chromedome put his data pad away and stood up. “You didn’t have to wait, you know.”

“I wanted to,” Chromedome said, wrapping an arm around Rewind. “How did the talk with Slamdance go? You seemed to get along well.”

“He’s really interested,” Rewind said, bouncing a little on his pedes in excitement as they walked down the mostly deserted hall. “He has a lot going on over the next two months, but he says after that he’s absolutely on board.”

“That’s great, Rewind,” Chromedome said, steering him into their habsuite. “And you’ll let me know if I can help with anything, right?”

Rewind beamed, briefly flush with a wave of affection for his friend. “I will. Thank you, Chromedome.”

*

Later that night, when they were hooked up to their recharge berths and getting ready for recharge, Rewind said: “So, Atomizer, huh?”

Chromedome seemed unperturbed. “What about him?”

“You two seemed pretty cozy in the Exit Rooms earlier.”

“Oh,” Chromedome said, turning on his side to face Rewind. “You saw?”

“Everyone saw,” Rewind said, trying not to sound bitter. “You didn’t leave with him, though. Why?”

Chromedome shrugged. “He just wanted to let off some steam. I told him I wasn’t looking for a short-term fling.”

“I see,” Rewind said carefully. “You want to talk about it?”

Chromedome shrugged, rolling back over to stare at the ceiling. “Nothing much to say. I just don’t feel like I’m in a place emotionally for something casual right now. Who would want to put up with this mess?”

Even though Rewind guessed that Chromedome wasn’t divulging the complete truth, his heart wrenched. He was overwhelmed by the urge to kiss his friend and whisper against his faceplate, “I would. I would give you anything you asked for, because I know you would never ask it of me.”

But instead he hugged Chromedome and said, “Don’t lose hope. You’ll find someone. And in the meantime . . . I’m here for you. Always.”

*

Though their days were busy, Rewind and Chromedome sometimes chatted via their private line. Chromedome usually pinged him during his breaks, and Rewind checked in every once in a while to share a joke he’d thought of or an interesting (and non-confidential) piece of footage that he’d come across.

But some days were worse than others. One day, nearly two years after they had first arrived at Kimia, Chromedome sent Rewind a distress glyph in the middle of his shift at the lab. Rewind immediately put his work aside and tapped into their frequency.

“Hey,” he said. “What’s wrong?”

Chromedome’s response buzzed with static: “I’m glitching out. I can’t stop thinking about my nightmare last night . . .”

“About Soundwave?”

“Yeah,” he said, sounding strained. “Can you come down here?”

“Of course,” Rewind said, already halfway out the door.

“Thanks, Rewind . . .”

“Hang tight, buddy. I am going to give you the biggest hug ever,” Rewind said, trying to lighten the mood. “Are you ready?”

As expected, Chromedome chuckled, sending him an amused glyph.

When Rewind arrived at the facility’s east lab wing, Chromedome was waiting outside of the security checkpoint, helm bowed. His mnemosurgery needles were extended, and he was examining them with a haunted look. When he heard Rewind’s footsteps, he retracted them with a guilty look.

Rewind held his arms open, and Chromedome barreled into his embrace.

“It’s okay,” Rewind said soothingly as Chromedome knelt on the ground and clung to him tightly. “It’s over now. It’s a rogue memory, not your own. Don’t let it get to you. Everything will be fine.”

Shaking, Chromedome pressed his faceplate against Rewind’s helm, engines rumbling in distress.

“I’m sorry,” he said forlornly. “You were probably busy with important stuff—I’m sorry I made you come all the way down here. I shouldn’t have said anything. I was just . . . I just freaked out.”

“Hush,” Rewind said. “How many times have I told you? Nothing is more important to me.”

“If you say so,” Chromedome said bleakly.

“Can you get out of your shift early?” Rewind asked, running his hand across Chromedome’s back plating in a comforting rhythm. “We can go fuel up in the Exit Rooms for a distraction, or go back to the habsuite until you feel better.”

Chromedome just nodded, visor flickering wearily. “I already clocked out. Can we go back to the habsuite? Is . . . Is it okay if we just stay in tonight?”

“Of course it is,” Rewind said, guiding Chromedome gently by the elbow. “Anything you want, buddy.”

*

The world was spinning around him, the white noise of celebrating bots crammed into a small lounge rendered as a loud buzz through the kaleidoscope filters of intoxication.

Rewind was very, very overcharged. He wasn’t sure what he’d been thinking when he agreed to take part in Tripwire’s ridiculous drinking contest. He should’ve known better after all these years working alongside the inventive bot. (Although he was rather proud that he hadn’t been the first to bow out.)

Stumbling over his own pedes, he tried to make his way to an empty seat that he could’ve sworn was much closer. A warm hand steadied him, and he looked up to see Chromedome’s concerned face.

“You okay?” his friend asked.

“Sure, but my pride isn't,” replied Rewind.

Chromedome chuckled, leading him to an empty table and helping him gently up onto the seat. Rewind was too out of it to protest. “You’re less than half the size of those bots,” he pointed out.

“So?” Rewind whined.

“So your fuel tanks had no chance,” said Chromedome.

“Gee, thanks for your faith in me,” Rewind grumbled as Chromedome laughed and rubbed his back soothingly, applying slight pressure to his back components and massaging his neck cables intermittently.

“What’re you doing?”

“Remedy for overcharge that I learned from . . . someone a while ago, I can’t remember who . . . Is it working?”

Rewind had to admit that it did make him feel less like he was going to purge. “Little bit,” he mumbled. Chromedome’s hand was nice and firm, comforting in its size and warmth. He wished it would slip lower and caress his hip panels and aft, leaving him trembling. Imagining it touching his interface panel made his vocalizer crack with wistful static.

Chromedome paused. “Rewind?”

“Mmm?”

“Primus, you’ve truly run your F.I.M. chip into the ground, haven't you?" Chromedome said, the disapproval clear in his voice. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you this Star Sabered.”

“I'm a responsible drinker,” Rewind said defensively as he shut down his visual feed. Chromedome’s agile fingers traveled upward, massaging his neck cables gently. At Rewind’s soft moan, he hesitated. Rewind’s visual feed flickered back on, and he flashed his visor encouragingly at Chromedome. “Don't stop,” he said muzzily. “Feels good.”

Seemingly convinced, Chromedome’s fingers continued their journey, applying just the right amount of pressure on Rewind’s neck. Between his touch and the overdose of high grade, Rewind could barely think. His muggy processor was definitely to blame for why he climbed into Chromedome’s lap.

“Rewind?”

“You're wonderful,” Rewind said dreamily, looping his arms around Chromedome's chassis and pressing his faceplate into the warm metal of his torso. It was nice. The familiar smell of oil, Kimia cleaner, and something else uniquely Chromedome made him feel safe.

“Uh . . .” Chromedome said, sounding worried. His hands shifted to brace Rewind in his lap. “Rewind, I don’t think . . .”

“Stop pushing me away,” Rewind mumbled. “I’m staying. I want to be with you.”

“Oh, Primus,” Chromedome said, his hand tightening on Rewind's back. “Rewind, you—you’re overcharged. You don't know what you're saying.”

“I'm not that overcharged,” Rewind said, even though the room was still wobbling on its axis.

Chromedome laughed gently. “That’s what all overcharged bots say. Let’s get you to a recharge slab, all right?”

Rewind pictured the two of them rolling onto a berth, hot metal rubbing against each other as interface panels snapped open eagerly and curious fingers began to explore. Chromedome would probably start out tentative with Rewind, always underestimating Rewind’s strength. Rewind would have to show him that there was no need to be gentle. In fact, it would be much more fun if Chromedome was a little rough and firm with him, pinning him to the recharge slab as they went at it fast and hard. He moaned softly at the thought.

Rewind rebooted his visual feed. Lost in his lewd fantasy, he had barely noticed that Chromedome had carried him out of the Exit Rooms and back to their habsuite. Chromedome was laying him down on their recharge slab. It was nice to be horizontal; his systems were grateful. But things could be easily improved . . .

“Chromedome, would you ever ’face me?”

“What?!” Chromedome exclaimed, practically tripping over himself. “Why would you ask that?”

Rewind shrugged, rolling over onto his side. “Just curious. Do you like my frame? I know it’s small, but I'm flexible, I promise.”

Chromedome made a choked-off noise. “Rewind, you don’t . . . You don’t know what you're saying. You're overcharged. Just . . . recharge, all right?”

“Come to bed, then,” Rewind pouted. “I don't like to recharge without you.”

“I . . .” Chromedome was clearly considering it, although there was a certain roughness in his voice that Rewind couldn’t pinpoint. “I'm not tired yet. I think I'll head back to the Exit Rooms.”

“Please? Just until I fall into recharge, at least. I like your arms around me.”

Chromedome shuddered. “Fine,” he muttered.

The moment Chromedome lay on the bed, Rewind threw his arms and legs around him. Chromedome hummed contently, wrapping an arm around Rewind in a familiar embrace. But he held himself tensely, as if anticipating an attack.

“What’s wrong?” Rewind said, rubbing Chromedome’s armor lightly. His fingers traced glyphs down his abdomen, reaching down to graze his interface panel.

Chromedome grabbed his hand and held it, firm. His panel remained stubbornly shut, even though Rewind swore he could see the plating trembling at the seams. “No,” Chromedome said quietly. “Not like this.”

“But why not?”

“You’re overcharged. You’re not in your right mind. I shouldn’t . . . Please don’t tempt me. I . . . I know you don’t want me, you’re just missing your Conjunx Endura.”

Something in Rewind’s processor told him something important was happening, something he should pay closer attention to, but he was distracted by the warm chestplate he was pressed up against. When Chromedome didn’t say anything more, the silence heavy with infinite potential, Rewind tilted his head to look up at him.

“You look sad,” he observed. He snuggled in tighter. “Don’t be sad, Chromedome. You know I love you, right?”

Chromedome made a soft noise, but Rewind was too tired to register it. He drifted off to recharge.

Chapter Text

“I fell in love with her courage, her sincerity, and her flaming self respect. And it’s these things I’d believe in, even if the whole world indulged in wild suspicions that she wasn’t all she should be. I love her and it is the beginning of everything.”
— F. Scott Fitzgerald


The regrettable downside of activating an F.I.M. chip was that taking on too much fuel interfered with normal memory processes. Chromedome had explained the science of it to Rewind once before, though he hadn’t understood it completely. Not to mention that Rewind’s F.I.M. chip was rather ancient—Dominus Ambus had paid steeply for him to be rewired with one at all. Thus his memory of the night of Tripwire’s party was fuzzy at best. When he awoke, tired and cranky from an incomplete defrag cycle, he apologized profusely to Chromedome for his having to put up with an overcharged data stick.

But Chromedome acted oddly aloof for the weeks to follow. Rewind had the strangest feeling that he was being avoided, except for the way he woke up with Chromedome’s long limbs hugging him like a vice.

“Are you mad at me?” Rewind asked one morning when he awoke to Chromedome quietly contemplating him. Just over his shoulder Rewind could see the infinite star-studded stretch of space beyond the little porthole of their habsuite.

“What are you talking about? Of course not,” Chromedome said, pulling away and stretching his long white arms.

“You’re acting weird. Are you sure there’s nothing you want to talk about?”

“Nope,” Chromedome said, affecting a cheerful tone. Rolling onto his side to watch his friend get ready for the day, Rewind harrumphed but didn’t pursue it further. He had learned the hard way over the years that Chromedome never talked about anything he didn’t want to talk about.

Later that week, Rewind was in the middle of telling Chromedome a funny story about his day when he realized that the other bot wasn’t paying the least bit of attention to what he was saying. It was unlike Chromedome, who usually seemed to listen so earnestly and intently to Rewind’s words that Rewind sometimes felt the urge to remind him that there wasn’t going to be an exam at the end of the conversation. “I just like hearing you talk,” Chromedome always said, almost shyly, when Rewind teased him about it.

Now Rewind nudged Chromedome’s knee with his foot, looking worriedly up at his friend. They were sitting in a quiet corner of the Exit Rooms, sharing a cube of energon across a small table. The lounge was mostly empty except for Ironfist and Skyfall having a heated argument on the other side of the room and Pointblank glaring daggers at them while trying to read a datapad. A muted newsfeed played on one of the screens in the middle of the room.

“Seriously, Chromedome,” Rewind said when Chromedome continued to gaze at the wall above Rewind’s head. “You going to tell me what’s up?”

“What?” Chromedome said. He shook his head as if clearing his head. “Sorry, I’m just really tired. What’d you say?”

Rewind stared suspiciously at him. He had slept like a newly sparked bot last night. It rarely happened, so Rewind always noticed. But when Rewind opened his mouth, he found himself reluctant to push the issue. Chromedome hated when he did that.

“You sure there’s nothing I can do?” he tried.

“I’m fine, Rewind. Just thinking about some stuff. Don’t worry.”

Rewind vented a sigh, ruthlessly suppressing the urge to ask exactly what kind of stuff was being pondered. Chromedome might have hated being pushed to talk about things he wasn’t ready to talk about, but Rewind hated not knowing what was going on behind that beloved yellow visor.

If Chromedome needed space, though, then Rewind would try to give it to him.

Even if his spark wanted nothing more than to be closer, closer, closer.

*

Chromedome was moodier than usual that month, vacillating between snapping at Rewind about silly things like the pointlessness of his alt mode and being especially reluctant to part in the morning. It wasn’t until one rare night of catching up with Brainstorm—who was rarely outside his lab now that he had gained renown (or perhaps infamy) for his particular breed of creativity—that Rewind began to understand a little more.

Once their first round of drinks had been drained and their frames were easing into a pleasant relaxed state, Rewind offered to fetch the next round, leaving Chromedome and Brainstorm to talk. If Chromedome wasn’t going to tell Rewind what was on his mind, then maybe he would talk to his old friend.

(Not just any old friend, Rewind chided himself. Thinking about it made him feel both intensely possessive and incredibly guilty, so he tended to avoid it. Besides, Brainstorm had moved onto other things, right?)

On the way to the high-grade dispenser—and the variety of cocktail mixers donated from bots’ private stashes to spice up the diluted formula—Rewind was pulled into a variety of different conversations, to his delight. No matter how much time he had to become accustomed to it, he continued to be thankful that the other bots at the facility seemed to appreciate him as not an outsider or a resource but rather one of them.

When Rewind made his return to the table they had claimed as theirs, he walked slowly, juggling three drinks and straining to hear what Chromedome and Brainstorm were discussing so intently. Maybe Chromedome didn’t want to tell him, but he still wanted to know. He frequently wished that his friend would be more vocal when things bothered him, instead of clamming up. If he didn’t know what was wrong, he couldn’t help, and there were only so many times he could tell Chromedome that he was there for him without sounding trite.

“I just don’t know,” Chromedome was saying at the moment, the tilt of his visor giving away his distress. “I don’t think he even remembers what he said. Maybe he didn’t mean it that way. Maybe he just meant it as a friend. I don’t want to assume . . .”

“Stop running away, Chromedome,” Brainstorm replied. He sounded weary. “Talk to him. Tell him how you feel. Or don’t, and stop dwelling. You’re driving me crazy with all this indecision.”

“I just don’t want to ruin it, you know? I can’t lose him,” said Chromedome.

There was a desperate edge to his words that made Rewind stop short for a moment before he announced his presence with a gaily, “Here we go . . . A Twice Shy for Chromedome and a Flame Fizzle for Brainstorm. And before you ask, Chromedome—yes, I got you a curly straw.”

“You know me so well,” Chromedome said in a much lighter tone, chuckling and bumping his shoulder gently. Rewind beamed up at him, and for a moment they shared a private, adoring look.

Brainstorm broke the moment, drawling, “What, I’m not special enough for a curly straw?”

“Well, you’re certainly no Chromedome,” Rewind said, watching as Chromedome’s visor flashed brightly, embarrassed but pleased.

“Oh, please—get a room, you two,” Brainstorm muttered, pointedly taking a long sip of his drink with his decidedly uncurly straw.

*

One of the most dynamic features of the Exit Rooms was the massive bulletin board where anyone on Kimia could post announcements, classified ads, or recruitment notices. The moment Rewind saw a call-to-arms for volunteers for a mission to a nearby planet, he knew he had to get on that shuttle. Though Kimia had satisfied his desire to get off Cybertron, he had now been here long enough to start feeling the itch to explore somewhere new again. He also couldn’t deny that he was still holding out hope that Dominus Ambus would turn up. His attempts at decoding the document were getting him nowhere, and he was beginning to lose his hard-won hope.

The mission was really no more than a glorified list of errands Perceptor needed to run on Ordiri XIV, but the sign-up sheet for volunteers was already filled with other bots with cabin fever. Rewind’s advantage was that he wouldn’t attract much attention on Ordiri XIV, which was technically a neutral trading planet but notoriously hostile toward Cybertronians.

“Let’s sign up,” Rewind said.

“Only if you promise not to spend the entire time searching for him,” Chromedome said snidely. Rewind looked at him, aghast.

“Sorry, what?”

Chromedome rubbed his helm. “Ignore me; I didn’t say that. The stress must be getting to me.” Rewind gave him a funny look but didn’t press further. Chromedome sighed. “Do you really want to go?”

“I think it’d be fun. And I’m aching to get out of here, even if it’s just for a couple days.”

“All right,” Chromedome said. “Let’s go to Ordiri.”

*

Rewind, Chromedome, Rad, and two reserved bots from Perceptor’s team were selected to go planetside. Rewind and Chromedome were given the responsibility of meeting various alien liaisons and vendors to trade meticulously labeled jars and boxes for mysterious containers of various sizes and weights. The task itself was simple enough, but it meant that they spent the entire day running to and from various meeting spots in the massive trading district. Despite his exhaustion, Rewind was happy to get a chance to stretch his legs,soak up unfamiliar sights, and see people other than the same old Cybertronians.

And if he noticed that Rewind spent half the time scanning the crowds distractedly, searching for that familiar facial insignia, Chromedome didn’t remark on it.

The second day they spent exploring the port city, visiting delicately carved statues of famous galactic traders and explorers, stopping by what was boasted as this solar system’s biggest history museum, and scaling behemoth skyscrapers filled with more retail kiosks than Rewind had ever seen packed into such a space. Their last destination for the day was a vista point in the hillier, more residential part of town. From there, one could admire the geometrically pleasing city grid and the supercritical carbon dioxide oceans just beyond it.

Under the planet’s single setting sun, old and scarlet, Chromedome’s plating turned a beautiful gold that made Rewind’s vents hitch. They stood side by side on the hilltop, gazing silently down at the alien landscape, unmarred by war as their own planet was. Rewind suddenly felt awash in gratitude to be here in this foreign place, at this point in his life, with someone who meant so much to him. He tugged Chromedome’s arm around his shoulder and leaned into him. Visor flickering with gentle affection, Chromedome squeezed his shoulder lightly, his nimble fingers sparking a thrill across Rewind’s thin plating and deep in his spark.

By the time they were making the hike back down the hillside and into the metropolitan part of the city, keeping an eye out for Dominus Ambus was hardly on Rewind’s mind.

Not long after they returned to the busy part of town, they noticed that the nighttime crowd was rowdier than they had been the previous night. People of all sizes and species were clearly milling in a single direction, chattering excitedly amongst themselves. From some tall canvassers wearing ornate headdresses, Rewind and Chromedome found out that there was some kind of seasonal festival taking place that night.

“You want to go see what the fuss is about? Could be interesting, and they don’t seem to hate us as much as Perceptor thought they would,” Chromedome said, carefully holding the flimsy flyer they had been handed up to his visor.

“Sure, why not? We don’t have to be back at the spaceport until tomorrow morning.” Rewind said. In his many years of traveling, he had grown to love taking part in alien festivities. Maybe they would even be serving some proper high-grade energon. It had been too long.

“Okay, wait here and I’ll get us tickets from that person,” Chromedome said, gesturing at the canvasser who had provided the flyer. “I don’t want to lose you in this crowd.”

“Wait, let me send you some Shanix!” Rewind shouted, but Chromedome had already disappeared in the crowd.

Don’t worry about it, Chromedome sent back at him through their short-range comms. My treat.

Waiting patiently for him to return, Rewind began sorting through the footage he had gathered over the past two days. Though he was occasionally jostled by the excited crowd, he ignored it easily, concentrating on categorizing the newly recorded video files.

“Out of my way,” a gruff voice boomed from behind him, followed by a heavy arm pushing him aside without a second glance. With a cry of surprise, Rewind stumbled to the ground. Despite the sharp pain in his left shoulder, he quickly scrambled to his feet.

Excuse you,” he said loudly.

The hulking bot turned around slowly with an expression somewhere between anger and exasperation, causing the crowd around him to scatter. Adorned with dirt-caked tank treads, each of his arms was bigger than Rewind’s entire frame. As he bared a chipped row of denta plates menacingly, his magenta visor flashed with irritation. He was clearly Cybertronian.

And there was a bright purple Decepticon badge on his abdomen.

Scrap.

“You wanna say that again, puny Autobot?”

“Excuse you,” Rewind repeated slowly, faking confidence even as panic bubbled within him. He began scanning anxiously for Chromedome in the crowd. Where was he? Rewind was taller than a majority of the organics on this planet, but there were plenty of nonorganic beings that still towered over him. “I think you owe me an apology.”

Chromedome, he sent hurriedly to their private channel. Chromedome, help! I think I’ve done something very, very stupid.

“Promised Commander Spade I’d stay out of trouble this time, since this is a neutral planet,” the Decepticon growled as he pulled a massive gun from the holster on his hip. Rewind eyed the gap between his legs and tried to calculate whether or not he would be able to slide between them fast enough. The tank continued to growl: “Was doing us both a favor by pretending I ain’t seen your badge. But I think he’ll forgive me for killing an uppity Autobot.”

Abruptly, Rewind’s world narrowed down to the barrel of the Decepticon’s weapon. He froze in terror. The shriek of the gun firing up was loud even in the crowded street.

And then with a loud shout, someone shoved him hard, knocking him several meters out of the way and into the startled crowd.

“No!” he screamed as he looked back just in time to see the tail end of the blast and Chromedome collapse to the ground, arm outstretched. In that moment, his future flashed before his vision: a solitary existence absent of Chromedome’s wry jokes and playful teasing; robbed of the joyous sound of his unrestrained laughter. Bereft of the way he watched documentaries that he didn’t care about because he knew Rewind loved them. The way he threw himself into the search for Dominus Ambus, as if it were he who had lost a Conjunx Endura. The way he was the first to speak up when other bots made fun of or spoke derogatorily about Rewind’s size but never made a big deal of it in their day-to-day friendship. The way the way he curled around Rewind on his good days and pulled Rewind’s smaller frame around his on the bad.

Later, Rewind would swear that his spark had stuttered to a stop for a moment.

“Cybertronian scum, you are under arrest!” a monotonic universal translator program boomed. Rewind barely paid attention to the colossal cyborg officers tackling the Decepticon and putting him in stasis cuffs as he raced to Chromedome’s side.

“Chromedome?” he asked fearfully. “Chromedome, please . . .” Rewind turned him over to press his hands desperately to where the orange chest plate lay over that precious spark.

It thrummed under his fingers, sluggish but beating, and Rewind cycled a vent of immense relief.

Chromedome made a soft, distressed noise, his dimmed visor flickering to life as he booted up.

“Hey,” he mumbled, sounding as if he had raced two hundred laps in his alt mode or fought a battle on low energon.

“Oh, Primus,” Rewind gasped, static coloring his voice. “I thought I’d lost you.” His spark was still pounding hard in his chest as he traced the warped parts of Chromedome’s plating.

“Are you okay?” asked Chromedome weakly, as if Rewind were the one who had been caught in the fire. This stupid bot. This stupid, self-sacrificing bot. Rewind hugged him, relieved beyond words that he was alive and conscious.

Chromedome winced, pulling away slightly. Rewind shifted away from the scratches with a soft “Oh!”

“Sorry,” he whispered. Chromedome squeezed his arm.

“It’s okay. I’m just glad you didn’t get hurt.”

Rewind laughed, slightly hysterically. “Me? You’re the one who threw yourself in front of Decepticon gunfire—what the frag was that?”

“I just . . . I saw you in danger and I didn’t need to think about what to do next,” Chromedome said. “I couldn’t bear it if you . . .”

“I know,” Rewind said tremulously. “Me too. Thank you. Are you okay? Should we find a medic?”

“I’m fine, just a little banged up,” Chromedome said, taking in the damage with a critical eye. “Think I’ve changed my mind about checking out that festival, though.”

“This is no time for jokes,” Rewind scolded.

“I’m fine, Rewind,” Chromedome repeated. “The shot was meant for someone your size, not mine, and I got out of the way just in time. It’s mostly superficial; nothing my repair system and a couple of days of rest can’t handle.”

Rewind cupped Chromedome’s helm gently, frowning but at the same time unable to disguise his relief. “You stupid bot, you scared the slag out of me. Don’t ever do that again.”

“Don’t go around incurring the wrath of Decepticons ten times your size,” Chromedome countered. Rewind shook his helm helplessly and helped his friend to his feet.

“You sure you’re okay?”

Nodding, Chromedome wrapped an arm around his shoulder. “I’ll be fine,” he said, but he leaned slightly against Rewind as they walked. Though wobbly on his feet, he managed to make it back to the room they were renting, only requesting that they pause once. “It’d be nice to lie down, though.”

“One recharge slab coming right up,” Rewind said with a watery smile.

*

Later that evening, Rewind lay thinking as Chromedome recharged and the loud hum of the air regulation machine in their rented room faded into white noise. His spark felt like it was still recovering from the earlier scare, dangerous words of love and promises threatening to burst out of him. He wanted to say something. He felt like he had to say something or his spark would explode.

But if he did, there would be no going back.

Could he do it? Guilt flooded him at the thought of the oaths he had sworn Dominus Ambus, how he had felt as if he had finally found his place—in the world, in life—once they became each other’s. All those millennia of wonderful memories, of being treasured by someone who could’ve easily had any bot, of being loved by a steadfast spark. Would choosing to be with Chromedome be throwing all that away?

Would it be accepting that Dominus was lost forever?

But all these years without him . . . All the cold years ahead.

Sighing softly, Chromedome stirred beside him. His yellow visor slowly flickered awake as he booted up.

“Good morning,” he said drowsily.

“It’s nighttime, silly,” replied Rewind, turning on his side to face his friend. “How are you feeling?”

Chromedome paused to run diagnostic scans. “Sore, but recovering,” he said at last. Rewind squeezed his arm affectionately.

“Good,” he said. “We’ll swing by the medical wing once we’re back at Kimia just to make sure. I don’t trust your judgment or the medics on this planet.”

Chromedome started to speak, but Rewind shook his head vehemently. “Don’t bother protesting. I’ll drag you there myself, even if it takes me an entire day. You know I will. And in the meantime, let me know if I can do anything to help, okay? You saved my life out there.”

“It was nothing,” Chromedome said. “But if you insist . . . You’re welcome to help fix my paint once the cuts have healed and dents have been hammered out. It’s going to take forever.”

“My humble savior,” Rewind said. “Concerned about his paint after having his head nearly blown off by a slagged off Decepticon.”

Chromedome laughed. “You like my paint.”

Rewind ducked his head, remembering the breathtaking sight of Chromedome under the benevolent crimson rays of the alien sun. He certainly did. “Maybe,” he said clumsily.

Chuckling, Chromedome pulled him into a loose and easy embrace.

Rewind hesitated. He was reluctant to ruin the good cheer and harmless flirting, but he also knew he would lose his courage if he put it off any longer. “I want to talk to you about something,” he blurted out at last.

“Of course. Anything. What is it?”

Rewind fidgeted, rubbing a streak of dust off of his thigh plating. “This is difficult to say,” he said. “And if you want to tell me to frag off and never speak of it again, I will respect it. But . . . Chromedome, sometimes I catch you looking at me, and I find myself wondering if it means something.”

“You’re very important to me,” said Chromedome. “You’re my best friend. No one else gets me like you do.”

“That’s not what I mean,” Rewind said.

Chromedome bowed his head, contemplating his knees. For an unbearably long time, he didn’t speak a word.

“I wasn’t going to tell you,” he said at last, words fuzzed by static. “I thought it wouldn’t be right, with Dominus Ambus and everything . . .”

“I appreciate it, truly,” Rewind said. Then, a pause. “How long?” he asked. Chromedome was quiet for a moment, staring across the room.

“Since the first night you recharged beside me,” he said finally, and Rewind stared at him in wonder. Haltingly, Chromedome tried to explain: “At the time, I wasn’t much more than a stranger to you. You owed me nothing. And yet you comforted me, night after night. Kind, beautiful, and strong, you saved my life—so many times over. How could I not fall for you?”

Spark thrumming in his chest, Rewind looked at his friend and saw in his expression the truth of his words. He also saw fear of rejection, writ plain as day to him despite the visor and faceplate. His hands trembled as he reached for Chromedome’s to pull him close.

“I feel the same way about you,” he said quietly. “I thought maybe if I never brought it up, it would pass and you eventually would move on. But when I saw you on the ground, I suddenly thought . . . feelings like this don’t just go away. Not when I feel like I’m falling for you more and more every day.”

“But . . . Dominus Ambus . . .” Chromedome said, visor warm against his.

“Forget about him,” Rewind said, throwing his arms around Chromedome’s shoulders and nuzzling into the crook of his neck. “I . . . Right here, right now, with you—this is where I want to be.”

Chromedome held him tight, and if Rewind’s audio sensors picked up the telltale crackle of crying optics, he didn’t mention it.

*

Rewind was happy.

It had been so long since he had experienced genuine, exuberant happiness, so long since he had felt weightless and like dancing down the hall. Even weeks after they returned from Ordiri XIV, every loaded glance or casual public display of affection from Chromedome made Rewind’s spark alight in his chest. He couldn’t stop beaming. He felt reborn—like a days-old spark, thrilled and awed at the smallest things.

“I’ve never felt anything like this before,” Chromedome said as they lay in each other’s arms, cooling off after an enthusiastic couple of rounds of interface. Rewind’s spark was still coming down from the rush. And even though the words weren’t true, Rewind relished the astonished, delighted look on his lover’s face anyway.

“You’re amazing,” he murmured into Chromedome’s neck, and any misgivings he had about his friend’s past he tucked away. If Chromedome truly believed it . . . then it counted, right?

What did the past matter, anyway? With their lives in jeopardy every day due to the brutal war their race was fighting—what was the point of life spent dwelling? How many years had he already lost to clinging to days gone by?

Chromedome was beautiful and sweet, devoted and expressive—and most important, here. Rewind could ask for nothing more.

*

“Hey,” Rewind said, peeking down the corridor. “Hold on, let’s go check this out.”

“Check what out? The only thing that way is the observatory.”

“Yeah, I want to go look at the stars,” Rewind declared, grabbing Chromedome’s servos.

“The stars? What for?” wondered Chromedome even as he let himself be dragged up to the stairs.

The observatory was a massive room at the top of the Kimia Facility, with a high, dome-shaped ceiling and walls so transparent they made one forget that they weren’t floating in space. The incredible view of the galaxy was second to none, and it was known as a favorite spot for amorous couples and stern scientists alike. Rewind visited frequently, peering out the reinforced glass and imagining—praying—that Dominus Ambus was somewhere out there, looking for him, too.

“Come on,” Rewind said, racing across the enormous but currently unoccupied room, his friend in tow. “It’s romantic,” he insisted, pulling Chromedome down to lie down beside him. As soon as Chromedome was horizontal, Rewind draped himself over his frame. Chromedome made a soft, satisfied noise and held Rewind loosely. For a lovely while, they simply enjoyed the breathtaking view and each other’s comforting presence.

“I’ve always loved stargazing,” Rewind confessed, “but whenever I used to do it with Dominus Ambus, he would insist on mapping out constellations and documenting them for everyone at home. But sometimes I just want to look, you know? It’s so beautiful. . . .”

“Yeah,” Chromedome said, but he wasn’t looking out at space.

Rewind glanced at him and then quickly looked back up at the sky, suddenly feeling shy. Chromedome radiated affection as he began running his agile fingers up and down Rewind’s back. Rewind shivered and soaked up the casual attention happily.

“Hey,” Chromedome said, nimble fingers tweaking one of Rewind’s sensitive neck cables. Rewind gasped and wiggled in Chromedome’s grasp in embarrassment at his sudden spike in arousal. “Let’s play a game. Let’s make our own constellations.”

“What do you mean?” Rewind said, suppressing his whine when Chromedome went back to leisurely stroking his plating. Chromedome didn’t answer immediately, simply staring up for a while. Then, he pointed up.

“See there? The stars to the left of that planet in the distance—together, they look like Brainstorm’s face when Perceptor compliments him at meetings.”

Rewind laughed in delight. “I see it,” he said, excited. “Okay, let me try . . . There, in the south quadrant I see a Matrix. Well, kind of. Maybe a mangled Matrix.”

“Wow, that got morbid quickly,” Chromedome said. Rewind shoved at him playfully without looking away from the sky.

“Oh, and that cluster over there—there’s definitely an uncanny likeness to Prowl being beaten over the head with a data pad.”

Chromedome gaped at him for a second before bursting out laughing, his entire torso shaking with the effort. “You are so full of slag,” he snickered. Rewind beamed cheekily at him. He loved making Chromedome laugh.

“What, you don’t see it?” he said innocently. Chromedome cuffed him by the shoulder and nudged him with his helm.

“You’re terrible,” he said.

“You love it,” Rewind replied without thinking. He clasped a hand over his faceplate.

But Chromedome just looked thoughtful. “I do,” he said softly, squeezing Rewind’s hip gently.

His spark singing, Rewind pressed his face into the crook of Chromedome’s neck. “If you don’t stop right now, I won’t be held accountable for my actions—which may or may not involve ’facing you right here.”

Chromedome’s visor flickered with obvious interest, and he shifted quickly, standing up with Rewind in his arms.

“As tempting as that sounds, I think Downshift might have a field day if he finds us fragging in the observatory. Good thing our habsuite is not so far away . . .”

“Mmm, how very convenient,” Rewind said. “But before we go . . . just one kiss?”

Chromedome beamed and shifted Rewind higher in his arms. “Anytime,” he murmured, and kissed him.

*

Being with Chromedome was different. Not bad—just different from anything he had ever known. Rewind felt as if he was embarking on his first relationship all over again.

Dominus Ambus had loved with a quiet, dignified ferocity, a steadfast stream of compassion and indulgence. He had always known what Rewind was going to say before he’d even activated his vocalizer; he had humored Rewind’s need for physical closeness; he had never run out of patience with Rewind and always had been happy to talk out any problems. They had made warm, sincere love once a week and told each other everything.

Chromedome couldn’t keep his hands off of Rewind, and Rewind wasn’t faring much better. They ’faced on every surface of their habsuite and the adjoining washracks; they furtively snuck exploratory hands under tables while in public and indulged in hot, hurried kisses in empty hallways. Chromedome loved him like he had been starving for Rewind for his entire function, and he was vocal about it, too, whispering (and on some delightful occasions shouting) endearments in the berth and promises of eternal devotion in the afterglow.

Rewind loved it. It was love like he had never before experienced, fervent and all-consuming, passionate and utterly overpowering. It was fierce and zealous and possessive all at once, but tender, too. It felt simultaneously like a thrilling whirlwind romance and a long overdue culmination of all their years of friendship. Chromedome was on his mind constantly—the look in his visor when he leaned in for a kiss, the feel of his agile fingers clinging onto Rewind’s smaller ones as he arched in pleasure, the sound of his vocalizer fritzing out when Rewind explored the transformation seams of his plating, the strength in his arms when he hiked Rewind’s legs up around his waist. Rewind created a program that counted down the clicks to when Chromedome’s shifts ended.

They had always been codependent, but they quickly became obsessed with each other. Slamdance teased Rewind constantly about the paint scuffs he was terrible at buffing out and the perpetual delighted glow about him. But Rewind didn’t mind the teasing: he shamelessly enjoyed the other bots knowing that he and Chromedome belonged to each other.

Surprisingly, he didn’t think about Dominus Ambus as frequently as he’d thought that he would. He had expected the weight of guilt to only get heavier, but, miraculously, the opposite occurred. An openly devoted and adoring Chromedome proved to be the perfect antidote for his mourning and the creeping despair. When Chromedome touched him as if his systems burned for him, Rewind leapt into the fire wholeheartedly, embracing the opportunity to lose himself in someone who was expressly there for him.

And a quiet part of him admitted that Chromedome was very effectively—whether he knew it or not—distracting him from his investigation of Dominus Ambus’s fate. For three months, he didn’t even open the mysterious document, much less pursue any real trails. There was a part of him that couldn’t reconcile loving Chromedome so fiercely and yet continuing the search. But a different, much more stubborn part of him bid its time, refusing to give up.

Maybe it wasn’t fair to Dominus.

But maybe it wasn’t fair that Rewind had been abandoned, either.

In all the difficult years since he had lost Dominus, this was the first time Rewind had ever thought of it that way: being abandoned. Discarded. Forgotten.

And finally, after so much time, he felt as if he could accept that. Because despite all the loneliness that had festered within him, he was no longer alone. After being abandoned, he had been found again. Things may have been different with Chromedome, but it was a good kind of a different. It felt like progress. It felt like moving forward. He thought often about how glad he was that he had given Chromedome a second chance, but the truth of the matter was that Chromedome had turned out to be his second chance.

There was something beautiful about that.

Chapter Text

"No evil dooms us hopelessly except the evil we love, and desire to continue in, and make no effort to escape from."
Daniel Deronda, George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)


As the decades passed, the novelty of their love faded, but the depth of their feelings only grew.

At times it felt as if nothing had changed—they had been inseparable long before romance had entered into the equation. They had long slept side-by-side; they had long reached a level of open physical affection beyond simple friendship. They had already seen each other at their worst.

But in other ways, it felt as if Rewind’s world had been wildly transformed. Gone were the suddenly tense moments and furtive longing looks, replaced by the much more welcome soppy exchanges and openly admiring gazes. Now, on Chromedome’s bad days, Rewind knew to rub his back plating and offer up tender kisses. And when Rewind was struck with pangs of sadness regarding Dominus Ambus, Chromedome would scoop him up in his arms and run his hands soothingly across the most sensitive spots in his frame until Rewind was so fired up that he could think of nothing but how lovely Chromedome looked splayed out before him.

Of course, as with all things, there were low points. Despite all their years together—all their hard-earned happy times—self-deprecating Chromedome still held him like he was afraid to let him go. No matter what Rewind did or said, he stubbornly held himself to the standards of Dominus Ambus—or at least his ideal of Dominus Ambus. Rewind knew, better than anyone in the galaxy, just how imperfect Dominus could be, but Chromedome’s insecurities were of an especially tenacious breed.

Rewind’s own guilt regarding Dominus came in cycles. He knew a part of him would always hold out for his first love. Too much of who he was had been shaped by Dominus to be able to let go that easily. But there were times when he was with Chromedome and simply bursting with so much love for him that he nearly forgot there had ever been anyone else.

But being utterly smitten with each other didn’t mean their deep-seated issues faded into obscurity. Even in the earlier, smoother years of their relationship, they fought, as they always had. Chromedome still tended to resort to the silent treatment, to Rewind’s infuriation. But Rewind found that he could never stay angry for long, and Chromedome seemed to feel the same. After all, there is only so much true antipathy one can harbor toward someone who knows them inside and out. In the end, it was always easier to fall back into one another, like two magnets inexorably determined to remain together.

After all they had been through, Rewind certainly wasn’t going to let go that easily. Once, he had believed that Dominus Ambus was it for him. His sparkmate, his one shot at love, his everything. But with Chromedome, he began to believe otherwise. Chromedome’s unabashed loyalty, his passionate devotion, his quiet acceptance and generosity—they sent Rewind’s spark leaping and mind racing.

He sometimes caught himself thinking in terms of a lifetime commitment.

Just stray, harmless thoughts.

But thoughts nonetheless.

*

Elsewhere in the galaxy, the war raged on. Cybertron was no more. It was being called the Great War, now—a fitting name for a galaxy-wide conflict that had destroyed their own planet and countless others, and showed no signs of slowing down, even after millions of years. The tide of the war had changed, with Autobot victories being celebrated more and more frequently as they began to adapt to what warfare required of them.

But in the grand scheme of things, the Decepticons were still winning. Their ruthless six-phase infiltration protocol swept across galaxies, encapsulating everything wrong with the Decepticon faction. Long gone were the days when Rewind felt any sympathy toward the enemy. Back then, bots had fought because they believed in something. Politics, philosophy, ethics—those had been conflicts that felt worthwhile. Now, it seemed that everyone was fighting because they had forgotten what it was like to not be in a perpetual state of war.

Made-to-order soldiers were hastily constructed as cannon fodder, and nobody in charge seemed to question the morality of it. Rewind hadn’t thought he would ever see anything that came close to Functionist slavery, but M.T.O.s came close. Three exams—a farce constructed to soothe High Command’s consciences—were all that stood between these veritable sparklings and a battlefield, where their hastily built frames were riddled with Decepticon bullets. Rewind was repulsed by the practice, but, as Chromedome often reminded him, war was war. The Decepticons gleefully took advantage of any ethical reservations the Autobots had, and the Autobots were in no position to take the higher moral ground.

Rewind understood that perfectly well, but it still didn’t sit right with him. He recognized that he was speaking from a privileged position, though, contributing to the war effort from a science facility far from anywhere war was being waged. But something about how warped the war had become weighed heavily on his mind.

Often he wondered what Dominus Ambus—renowned pacifist and peaceful activist who had valued all life, regardless of shape or size or origin—would have thought of it all.

*

After a long, seemingly endless shift organizing Kimia’s archive—an exhausting ongoing project that had already taken over seven years—Rewind was ready to return to the habsuite and collapse into recharge. He hoped Chromedome would be there, but he had been staying late at the lab recently. Rewind was glad he was feeling useful, but he secretly missed the days when Chromedome would try to sneak away early to surprise him, laid out on the recharge slab like a present.

He pinged Chromedome as he locked the door to his office—merely a small room adjoining Mainframe’s, but his own space nonetheless—and made his way down the mostly empty halls but received no response. He was too tired to let it bother him, fingers automatically entering in the keycode to their habsuite.

Then he looked up with bleary optics and gasped.

The room was dim, lit only by colorful fairy lights strung along the walls and draped across their sparse furniture, which had been pushed against the walls. In the newly cleared space in the middle of the room was a small fold-out table and two chairs, one more elevated than the other. Arranged artfully on the table was a lantern surrounded by an assortment of energon treats, with everything from little caesium-coated wafers to electric blue cocktails with fancy straws. And standing in the corner, head bowed shyly, was Chromedome, plating freshly waxed and gleaming.

“Chromedome . . . What is this?” Rewind asked. “What’s going on?”

“I know you said you’re not really one for anniversaries, but I wanted to do something special for you.”

Rewind couldn’t help his excitement as he lifted an energon treat up and examined it under the light.

“This is cobalt-tungsten-infused energon from Phantazein 6! Imported? How did you get it?”

Chromedome shrugged. “Atomizer owed me a favor.”

“And lapis-spiked energon with palladium shavings! My favorite energon cocktail. . .” he trailed off, gazing in wonder at Chromedome. “You remembered. I must’ve told you that story at least a century ago . . .”

Chromedome chuckled, seeming to relax a little. “I’ve told you,” he said. “I like listening to you talk.”

I love you, Rewind thought fiercely as he rushed over to hug Chromedome around his waist. The familiar thrum of his engines reverberated against the side of Rewind’s helm, as soothing as the steady glow of his own spark. You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me.

“You utter sap,” he said, reaching up to tug Chromedome lower and cup his handsome face in his hands. “You’re amazing. You spoil me. Thank you. But I feel awful—I didn’t prepare anything for you.”

Even with the faceplate, Rewind could hear Chromedome smiling at him. “You’re the best gift anyone could ever receive,” Chromedome said, kneeling so they were level. They gazed at each other fondly, and Rewind felt his spark swell with affection. I’m so lucky, he thought over and over again.

Laughing at his own sappiness, Rewind murmured, “You’re such a dork,” before throwing his arms around those fine, broad shoulders and pulling him into a kiss.

“You love it,” Chromedome said when parted, leading him to the table and taking the seat opposite of him.

Rewind beamed, reaching across the table to hold Chromedome’s servo in his own. “I do,” he said. “I know I don’t say it enough, but I love you, Chromedome. Thank you for everything. All of this . . . Our life together . . . It’s more than I could ever ask for.”

Chromedome squeezed his servo and then caressed the smaller digits gently. “I love you, too. You saved my life, Rewind. You gave me a purpose. Everything I am today I owe to you. Nothing I ever do will ever repay that debt.”

“No talk of debts,” Rewind said mock strictly, pressing an energon treat against Chromedome’s faceplate. “Now—open up! You have to try this. Once you go tourmaline energon crisp, you’ll never go back.”

*

Chromedome thrived in his position at Kimia. His instinct for insecurity was assuaged by being a valued member of the science cohort, in addition to being generally well liked. As a result, he tended to get lost in the work when he was part of a big project, often pulling late nights down at the lab or working at the terminal in their habsuite while Rewind tried to convince him to do something more interesting (and pay attention to him).

“Chrooomedooome, come on,” Rewind whined, feeling particularly needy one night. Chromedome had spoiled him, introducing him to the novel sensation of being the center of attention of a partner. Dominus Ambus had always been good to him, listening to what he had to say when nobody else thought his opinions were of value, but Rewind had never been the center of his world the way he was Chromedome’s. Dominus had had too many passions, too many interests, too much curiosity about the world around him for him to focus all of his attention on one thing—or person. And Rewind hadn’t ever minded, but now that he had seen another way relationships could be, a part of him always felt rejected and neglected when Chromedome opted to pay attention to someone or something else.

Standing on his tiptoes, Rewind wrapped his arms around Chromedome's waist as best as he could. “Let’s go look at the stars. C’mon, Domeeey, your work can wait.”

Chromedome looked up at last, spinning around in his stool at the terminal in their habsuite. “What did you just call me?” He was trying to look stern, but Rewind could hear him smiling behind his faceplate.

"What, Domey?” Rewind said in a sing-song voice. “Dooomey. Domeeey."

Chromedome whapped his shoulder playfully even as his legs curled around Rewind’s to pull him in closer. "Stop it, don't call me that," he said as he leaned down to wrap an arm around Rewind’s comparatively tiny waist.

Rewind laughed and slung his arms across Chromedome’s shoulders. "Aw, you don't like it, Domey?"

“No,” Chromedome scowled. “It sounds silly.”

“Like a neurospecialist mech named Chromedome isn’t silly,” Rewind teased. “A little on the nose, don’t you think?”

Chromedome ignored him, adding, “Besides, Chromedome is already a nickname!”

“Sure, but I like ‘Domey,’” Rewind declared, moving closer until their faceplates were nearly touching. He cupped the sides of Chromedome’s helm with his hands. “It’s cute,” he murmured, in that sly, sensuous voice that he knew always got Chromedome revved up. “Like a certain somebody I know . . .”

The air around them practically buzzed with interest and desire as Rewind’s nimble hands slipped between hip and pelvic plating to stroke the spot that usually turned Chromedome into mush.

“Rewind . . .” Chromedome said weakly, his mock annoyance having vanished without a trace.

“Domey . . .” Rewind whispered back. He burst out in undignified giggles at the put-upon look on Chromedome’s face. Cheerfully, he smacked his hands lightly against Chromedome’s shoulder plating and said flippantly, “Well, I’ve got places to be, people to see!” before pulling out of the embrace and dashing out the door.

“Rewind! You insatiable tease! Get back here!”

*

To Rewind’s displeasure, their bliss was interrupted by the timely arrival of his least favorite bot to what he had begun to think of as a safe space.

Prowl landed at Kimia with the expected fanfare, parking Ark-17 in the south dock. The arrival of an officer from Optimus Prime’s inner circle—especially Prowl, of all bots—shook things up at the facility. There was much less fooling around in the Exit Rooms, and everyone began to work overtime shifts.

The purpose of his visit was occluded by all kinds of wild rumors, and all meetings were held behind tightly closed doors with only Kimia’s finest. Even Brainstorm was keeping the details close to his chest, though his nondisclosure agreement didn’t seem to cover bragging about the supposedly immense value of his contribution. After some investigation, Rewind managed to suss out that it had something to do with Kup and some kind of Pretender technology. Anything beyond that was a mystery, but it was safe to say that anything commissioned by Prowl and executed by Kimia scientists would be dangerous, skirt the line of legality and/or morality, and be vital to the war effort.

Whatever it was, it really had to be a huge deal for Prowl to get personally involved and travel all this way to oversee the procedure. Rewind tried to stem his instinctual annoyance to little avail. It was funny—over the years, Prowl had faded into an abstract concept as he rose through the ranks of Autobot Command until he became Optimus Prime’s right-hand bot. Prowl the tactician, Prowl the commander, Prowl the brains behind the Autobot offensive—he was just another officer to Rewind, as relevant to his day-to-day life as Jazz or Ironhide. Virtually inoffensive. But seeing Prowl in person brought back that old sting of jealousy, exacerbated now that Rewind saw Chromedome as his in a way that had been beyond him before. And this Prowl, physically present in the halls of the facility, felt like Chromedome’s past lover. He felt like a threat.

The surge of possessiveness manifested itself in Rewind sticking closely to Chromedome’s side at all times, often leaving a hand on his knee or clinging onto his arm—whether or not Prowl was in their presence. A couple of weeks after Prowl’s arrival, Chromedome finally confronted him about it:

“You know I’m not going to just run away if you let go, right?”

“Uh-huh,” Rewind replied, not letting go.

Chromedome tugged gently on the firm grasp Rewind’s hand had on his fingers. “Rewind,” he said, sounding exasperated, “I’m just going to scratch this itchy spot underneath my hip plating.”

Rewind let go with a huff, though he remained close.

“What’s going on with you, anyway? You weren’t like this even when we first got together, and we couldn’t keep our servos off of each other then. But you’ve been acting weird since . . .” His visor flickered with surprise and then dismay, and he abruptly stopped walking. “Rewind, is this about Prowl?”

“Maybe,” Rewind admitted sulkily.

Chromedome dropped to his knees, heedless of the fact that they were in the middle of a frequented hallway. He gripped Rewind’s shoulders.

“You have nothing to worry about,” he said. “I swear, Rewind, you’re everything to me. Nobody else could possibly compare.” He tilted his helm and tugged Rewind closer. “Definitely not Prowl. Especially not Prowl.”

“I saw you two talking the other day,” Rewind said, looking away. He knew it was irrational, but he also couldn’t tamp down the tightness in his chest whenever he thought about Prowl hovering around Kimia, waiting for the perfect moment to sabotage this precious relationship. They had been so much together to get to this point. The thought of someone tearing that away terrified him.

“We were just catching up, making small talk. Just being polite. Don’t you trust me?” Chromedome said. Even without looking up, Rewind could hear the hurt in his words.

“Yes, but I don’t trust him,” said Rewind.

“I can deal with him,” Chromedome said. “Please don’t think you have anything to worry about.”

“I know, I just . . . You two have a history that goes really far back, and then extends to not-so-long ago. . . . And I know my processor is being stupid and difficult, but I just don’t want to lose you.”

“I understand,” Chromedome said. “But I want you to know that it’s you I love; it’s you I want to spend my life with. Not Prowl or anyone else. And you can hold my hand or climb in my lap or whatever makes you feel better about it, but please know that I am unequivocally yours, no matter what. Okay?”

“Okay,” Rewind said, hugging Chromedome. “I’m sorry, Chromedome.”

“Don’t be sorry,” Chromedome said gently. “You put up with so much from me. I can deal with a little possessiveness. In fact, I have to admit that it’s kind of nice to feel so treasured. . . .”

Rewind’s visor flickered as his spark clenched with something between sympathy and tenderness. Leaning up, he kissed Chromedome with a fierce determination to communicate that he was so, so treasured.

They were interrupted by a sternly clicking vocalizer. Breaking apart abruptly, their helms turned to where the sound had come from. And lo and behold, it was Prowl with an unwieldy stack of data pads, the placid expression on his face doing a terrible job of hiding his irritation.

“This is a public space in a professional facility,” he said primly. “Amorous activities should be reserved for private quarters. Which I hear you two share, so one would think that it would not be a difficult concept to grasp.”

“Hello to you, too, Prowl,” Rewind said, gripping Chromedome’s shoulder and shooting Prowl a glare. Prowl’s cool, detached mask slipped briefly as Chromedome laid a warm hand over Rewind’s, those sharp optics staring down their tangled servos as if they were an enemy.

“Oh, don’t bother with him,” Chromedome said lightly, getting to his feet and wrapping an arm around Rewind. “Let’s get out of here.” He didn’t even let Prowl get a word in before steering Rewind away.

As they walked the other way, Rewind felt Prowl’s glare on his back like a burning, accusatory brand.

*

Rewind had hoped that that would be it for their interactions. That Prowl would finish whatever super-secret project he was overseeing and leave Kimia and their lives forever.

So he was particularly disgruntled when, on what had thus far been a fairly decent day, the most annoying Autobot who ever existed walked into his office unannounced. Not for the first time, Rewind wished he had a lock on his door.

“What do you want?” Rewind said, too surprised to bother with phony pleasantries. Prowl’s expression was incredibly condescending as he looked around Rewind’s workspace, and it made him want to throw data pads. Preferably at a certain chevronned head.

“I have a . . . favor . . . to ask of you,” Prowl said, wearing an expression so sour it was as if the words physically pained him. “You and I have never seen eye to eye on things, so you know I would only come to you in a truly dire situation.”

Rewind glared. He was just so pompous and annoying. Eye to eye on what? How Chromedome should be treated? Who Chromedome should be with? The nerve of this bot! “Just get to it, Prowl,” he snapped.

“I need you to convince Chromedome to work with Perceptor on Kup,” said Prowl in his irritatingly authoritative voice. “I know he only refuses because of you, so it shouldn't be difficult.”

“What? Who do you think you are to march into my office and demand that of me? You know very well that I’ve asked Chromedome not to perform mnemosurgery because it's not good for him.”

Prowl replied, “I thought you might say that. Perhaps you could use a little incentive . . .”

“Excuse me?” Rewind blurted out. “Are you seriously attempting to bribe me? Have the Autobots truly gone so crooked?”

Prowl ignored him, simply holding up a dataslug. “On this drive, I've placed some top secret information—confidential reports on the whereabouts of a certain individual that I hear you've been searching for.”

“No . . .” Rewind said, shocked. Could it be true? Could it be so easy, after all this time?

“So think about it. What is this information worth to you? Is it worth talking some sense into Chromedome?” His optics narrowed, and his mouth quirked up in a smirk. “You and I both know that all he needs is a little nudge.”

Rewind swallowed his irritation and didn't say anything. Thoughts were racing through his processor so fast he was surprised he didn’t spontaneously combust on the spot. Everything in the world narrowed down to that dataslug in Prowl's hand. If only he could tackle the officer and take it from him. Prowl was big, but Rewind was nimble. . . .

Prowl seemed to read his intent before he even moved, tucking the dataslug back into his subspace cheekily. He leaned in close, self-satisfied smile more infuriating than ever.

“Call me once he's agreed. I’ve just pinged you my frequency. I’ll be waiting.”

Rewind didn’t say anything as Prowl sauntered toward the door to the corridor.

“Oh, and Rewind?” Prowl said, without turning around. Rewind glared hatefully at the shiny doorwings and the smug tone of his voice. “Don't take too long—I might change my mind.”

The moment the door shut behind him, Rewind collapsed into his chair and buried his face in his hands.

*

Later, that night, Rewind and Chromedome lay side by side on their recharge slabs, relaxing after a long day. Simply basking in each other’s company, Chromedome was studying something on a data pad while Rewind was flicking idly through old footage. But Rewind’s processor was too occupied with pondering Prowl’s proposal to truly be productive.

“I saw you talking to Prowl earlier,” Rewind said casually after a long stretch of silence. “What did he want?”

“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that,” replied Chromedome, putting his data pad aside and turning on his side to face Rewind. “I know you don’t like me injecting, but I’ve been clean for so long, and this is a one-time thing . . .”

“That’s not really how addiction works,” Rewind said before he could stop himself.

“I know, but this is important. And it requires really delicate work.”

“What exactly is he asking you to do?” Rewind asked, because damned if he was going to bow to Prowl’s whims without knowing exactly what he was betraying his steadfast morals to achieve.

“Basically he needs me to install specially encoded personality subroutines,” Chromedome said.

It was even more repulsive than Rewind had thought. He wasn’t stupid; “personality subroutines” meant brainwashing, and “specially encoded” meant under Prowl’s control. Prowl was seeking to control Kup. No wonder he had wanted to rehabilitate him and had come all this way to oversee the procedure. Kup was a legendary general and a much-valued Autobot hero, but for a high-ranking officer—especially one as valued by Optimus Prime as Prowl—to personally escort him was extremely unusual. But this made sense, as much as it disgusted Rewind.

“And how’s Prowl justifying that twisted little idea?”

“It’s pretty genius, actually,” Chromedome said, and Rewind let out an exasperated huff. Chromedome seemed incapable of realizing how openly admiring he always sounded when he spoke of Prowl. Rewind probably would have long overcome his jealousy if it weren’t for that infuriating quirk.

“I doubt that,” he muttered, but Chromedome didn’t seem to notice.

“Prowl has the strategic mind we need to win the war, but Optimus Prime doesn’t listen to him. So, who does Prime listen to?”

“Bots who aren’t pricks is my guess,” Rewind said. Chromedome ignored him.

“Kup, Rodimus, Grimlock, Springer . . . Those guys. So with these subroutines, Prowl will be able to communicate his strategies and plans through Kup. The rate of mission successes will go through the roof. People don’t listen to Prowl, but they’ll listen to charismatic war heroes like Kup.”

“People listen to bots like Kup because Kup isn’t a manipulative prick with no concept of social skills,” Rewind couldn’t help but pointing out.

“I don’t know, Rewind,” Chromedome said. “If you ask me, Prowl’s really turning a tragic situation into a victory. He says that without the cy-gar Perceptor and his team have created for him for him, Kup would go mad and become such a danger to himself and the bots around him that they would have no choice but to put him down. That would be a huge blow to Autobot morale.”

“So Prowl needs you to help him warp a celebrated Autobot veteran suffering from a fatal addiction into his personal mouthpiece,” Rewind said.

He could hear Chromedome frown behind his faceplate. “It sounds so ugly when you put it that way.”

Rewind shrugged. “I don’t see any reason to pretend it’s something it’s not,” he said.

Chromedome vented a sigh. “I know you don’t like it, but I’m the only one here who can do it,” he said. “If I weren’t, I’d have told him no, Rewind, I swear . . .”

Rewind had his doubts about that, but he had no choice but to stifle his instinctual retort. Trying to sound nonchalant, he said, “Well . . . I suppose if it’s that important, you’re the right bot for the job.”

Clearly surprised, Chromedome tilted his head inquisitively. “Honestly, I thought you would forbid me,” he said.

“Do you think so lowly of me?” Rewind answered, tucking his misgivings away. He hated lying to his friend, and he hated even more that Chromedome was right to doubt him. “I don’t like it, but I’m not your keeper, Chromedome. I just want the best for you, and for the Autobots. And if Kimia’s taught me something, it’s that some battles are best won with unconventional methods.”

“Are you sure?” Chromedome asked, gazing at him as if he would divine the truth. Rewind flickered his visor with what he hoped was a reassuring confidence that he did not feel.

“I’m sure,” he said, as if Chromedome had just asked if he was sure he didn’t want the remaining half of his energon ration.

They relaxed on the berth for a short while, lounging lazily as an old movie played on the wall and Chromedome’s nimble fingers found the sensitive seams in Rewind’s plating. Even as his friend’s familiar touch undid him, he worried that at any moment now Chromedome would uncover the deceit and the bargain he had made. But his fear was uncalled for, and Chromedome whispered sweet words into his frame as they shared their love.

Later, once Chromedome was in recharge, Rewind made his way back down to his office, carefully shutting the door behind him. For five pulses of his spark, he switched off his visor and focused on venting air from his nauseated internal mechanisms. Then, gathering up all his courage, he dialed the frequency he wished he had never been given.

“Prowl? It’s done.”

*

True to his word, Prowl stopped by Rewind’s office the next morning. But just before he handed over the dataslug, he hesitated for a moment, seeming to pry Rewind apart with his optics. Unnerved, Rewind stood taller but remained silent, meeting Prowl’s blistering gaze with a challenge. Then, Prowl said quietly but not without venom:

“When you learn the truth, I hope you remember that he’s always had a choice.”

*

Rewind waited until Chromedome left for his shift to withdraw the dataslug from his subspace. Turning it over in his hands, he felt along the smooth edges with his thumbs. It looked ordinary and innocuous, the white Autobot logo emblazoned on the black surface crisp and clear.

It unnerved him. Something about Prowl’s expression when he had handed the slim drive over didn’t sit well with Rewind. He thought he had spotted genuine sympathy along with a sparkle of triumph, which only made him more nervous.

But if Prowl had kept his end of the bargain, this drive contained what he had been searching for all these years. Centuries. He needed the closure. Embarking on this relationship with Chromedome left him feeling guilt in the pit of his fuel tank, numbed though it was compared to that of the days before they were officially together. If he could finally learn what had happened to his Conjunx Endura, perhaps he could begin the process of healing—and of letting go.

He plugged the dataslug into the port on his wrist. Prowl had assured him that it was keyed to his serial number and was programmed to erase itself in five hours. And if he tried to copy the information to his own processor, it would automatically erase itself ahead of time.

“I cannot stress enough that this is classified information,” Prowl had said, holding the dataslug over Rewind’s palm as if taunting him. “You will not speak a word of its contents to anyone. The fate of the war is at stake.” Prowl was clearly enjoying holding this over his head. It had made Rewind want to punch him in his smarmy face.

CONFIDENTIAL
LEVEL 10 ACCESS
PROJECT PACIFICUS, D.C.
PATIENT FILE: DOMINUS AMBUS
APPROVED, 5TH CYCLE 082

His spark lurched.

And then he began reading.

The glyphs swam before Rewind’s eyes, nearly too much to take in: Relinquishment Clinics, the New Institute, Diplomatic Corps, Special Ops, Decepticon Justice Division, spies, moles. History of activism, dissension, troublemaking. Educated, charismatic, revered, long spark-bonded. An entire page spent detailing the usefulness of a having a blank-slate point-one–percenter at the Autobots’ disposal. And then it got worse: prescription brainwashing, torture, and coercion dressed up in pretty words like “personality adjustment” and “rehabilitation” and “repurposing.”

And page after page, Chromedome’s familiar serial code signature authorizing the diagnosis and treatment plan.

Insides churning, Rewind ripped the dataslug out of his port and purged his tanks.

*

By the time Chromedome arrived home in their habsuite, Rewind was sitting on the edge of their shared berth, staring morosely at the barren wall.

“What’s wrong, Rewind?” Chromedome said, voice sweet with concern as he greeted Rewind with a kiss to his helm. “You’re so tense.”

“I had a long day,” Rewind responded dully.

Chromedome hugged him from behind. “I’m sorry to hear that,” he said. “How can I make it better?”

“I don’t know,” Rewind said honestly. He felt the urge to shove Chromedome away, uncomfortable with the simultaneous guilt and relief he felt at the touch—but his limbs refused to cooperate.

“What about a present?”

Rewind couldn’t help it; he glanced at Chromedome curiously as he withdrew something from his subspace. He placed a small box in Rewind’s palm.

“Go on, open it,” he said.

Slowly, Rewind did. Despite how conflicted he was feeling, he couldn’t suppress his awed gasp at the sight of the headcam.

“Is this what I think it is?”

Chromedome nodded. “I know you haven’t upgraded yours since before the war.”

“How long have you had this? Where did you even get it? It doesn’t look like any model I’ve ever seen.”

Rewind hadn’t upgraded his camera since Dominus Ambus had disappeared. It had been a gift from his Conjunx Endura, and he hadn’t been able to let it go, even when it became finicky with age and more costly to repair than replace.

“I know you try not to, but I’ve heard you complain about yours more and more over the past few years. Brainstorm has been helping me work on it.”

Rewind gave him a skeptical look.

Chromedome laughed. “He promised me he wasn’t going to install anything that would make your head explode. Look, this way you won’t run into those annoying software incompatibilities anymore.” Then softer, “I was waiting for the perfect moment to give it to you.”

Rewind didn’t know what to say. His processor was swimming with confusion as it tried to remind him that this was a bot who had irrevocably betrayed him.

“I originally had all this fanfare in mind for the proposal, but after the past few days, I just couldn’t wait anymore,” Chromedome said lovingly, pressing gentle kisses to the palm of Rewind’s hands. “I want to thank you again understanding. I know you don’t like me injecting, but I truly believe this was an important task. I promise it was a one-off. And I won’t forget that you trusted me. I won’t let you down.” Gently, he tugged Rewind into a sweet kiss, long and unrushed.

Rewind turned into the kiss, part of his spark utterly repulsed and the other yearning for this ounce of familiarity.

“You are so amazing; you’re everything I ever dreamed of,” Chromedome was murmuring. Rewind flicked his optics off, unable to bear the sight. He felt hollow inside.

“Chromedome . . .” he said, but the rest of his words snagged in his vocalizer, which released garbled static.

“I used to think about dying,” Chromedome whispered, splaying his right hand across his chest plate, beneath which his spark lay. “I used to dream about not having to exist anymore. Wish for it. There were weeks when I did nothing but come up with ways to kill myself. I did research. I kept lists. But you changed everything. You gave my life meaning; you gave me a reason to go on. ”

Rewind didn’t say anything.

“And now . . . Even on the bad days, I don't want to stop functioning. I want to stay with you. You’re my everything. Rewind, you’ve changed my life in the best of ways. I know I’m difficult. I know I’m not always good company. I know it sometimes seems like even my issues have issues. But against all odds, you’ve made me stronger, made me braver, made me better. I want to be with you until my spark stops beating, until we’re one with the Allspark. I want to be yours for eternity, and for you to be mine. Will you bond with me and take me as your Conjunx Endura?”

Rewind’s spark plummeted.

Of all the things in the world, he hadn’t expected that. He faintly recalled Chromedome telling him, not long after they’d met, about his philosophy about not hesitating to initiate the Conjunx Ritus as soon as he was certain he had found his sparkmate.

A day ago, Rewind would have likely accepted the bond proposal. Sure, there might have been lingering confusion and doubts about Dominus, but in his spark of sparks, he too had been thinking of forever. But now . . . It was inconceivable. Despite all they had shared—all the good things and the bad things and everything in between—now he knew that Chromedome had betrayed him in the worst way.

He wanted to scream. How could things go so awry? How could he have been so blind? How could Chromedome hide such a terrible secret and think that the truth would never come to light?

Eternity? What a joke.

Knowing immediately that something was wrong, Chromedome visibly deflated.

“You don’t have to give me an answer right now,” he said, although he sounded crushed. Sitting close on the berth, he reached over to entwine his fingers with Rewind’s smaller ones.

Immediately, Rewind pulled away, tanks churning at the thought of what those once-beloved hands were responsible for. Confused hurt flickered through Chromedome’s visor.

“Tell me,” Chromedome said. “What is it?”

There was no easy way to say it.

“I can’t complete your Conjunx Ritus,” Rewind said.

“I . . . Okay,” Chromedome’s voice faltered. “That’s okay, Rewind. I know you’re still devoted to Dominus Ambus, I just thought maybe . . . It’s okay,” he said, sounding like he was trying to reassure himself more than Rewind.

“It’s not that,” Rewind said. His vocalizer glitched again, filling the uncomfortable silence with a burst of ugly static.

“Then what?” Chromedome said at last. “I . . . I know I don’t deserve you, but we’ve been building something beautiful here, and I just thought . . .”

“I can’t bond with you because I know what happened to Dominus Ambus,” Rewind interrupted him, before he lost his nerve. Happened. It was more bearable framed like that, as if Dominus had been stolen away and operated on by anonymous executioners rather than the monster with whom he shared a recharge slab.

Chromedome stiffened, and the instantaneous shift from insecure concern to shocked horror told Rewind all he needed to know.

“What do you mean?” he said, clearly trying to exude calm. But Rewind knew him well enough to recognize the startled tremor in his voice.

“I know what you did to him,” Rewind said, shuddering anew at the memory of all the incriminating documents, and that damning signature. “The Diplomatic Corps wanted him, he turned them down repeatedly. He began to ponder and question the Autobot cause: its leaders, its methods, and what it strove to achieve. I remember this. What I didn’t know was that the Corps—actually a front for Spec Ops, which kept a close watch on his activities—abducted him and took him to the New Institute to punish and stop him. After his memory and personality were wiped clean, he was reprogrammed as a mole, to infiltrate the enemy’s most loyal, most horrible contingent. You oversaw the entire procedure as lead surgeon,” he said flatly. A conspiracy so astounding that Rewind might not have believed it, had he not had bytes and bytes of historical records and current newscasts in his storage that spoke volumes of how twisted and cruel Cybertronians could be. “You turned the best bot I ever knew into a weapon and a king of murderers and torturers.”

Chromedome didn’t speak for what felt like megacycles. When he did, it was shakily and not without fury: “Who told you?”

“Prowl,” Rewind said, trying to muster up defiance when he felt none. “But does it matter? Tell me I’m wrong.”

Chromedome said, “You don’t understand,” which was not the denial that part of Rewind still desperately wished for. “You don’t know what it was like to work there, what they asked of me, what they said of me when I hesitated. You don’t know what it feels like to invade bots’ circuitry and insinuate myself where I’m not wanted for such a complicated procedure.”

Suddenly, Rewind recalled Prowl’s words and immediately hated that they had stuck with him. “You had a choice,” he said coldly. “Unlike Dominus Ambus. Don’t play victim here. Not when I know the truth. All those times you held me as I cried, and I thought, How lucky I am to have Chromedome with me, how grateful I am to have someone I can count on.

“Was it funny to you to pretend to search for him? Was it very amusing to point me in the wrong direction under the guise of friendship and love? Did you enjoy it, watching me fall apart and knowing you held the key?”

“Of course not!” Chromedome cried, but Rewind barreled on, his vision blurring as his visor began to spit sparks.

“Was it hard to act like you cared?” he demanded, choking back a sob. “Was it difficult to hold me and kiss me and love me, all the while knowing that you had butchered my Conjunx Endura?”

“You don’t understand,” repeated Chromedome. Rewind pretended not to notice how he cringed at the title.

“I understand enough. You committed a horrible crime, and you won’t even take the blame for it! You let me believe that his fate was just as much of a mystery to you as it was to me. What kind of bot does that?” Rewind exclaimed.

“I’m sorry,” Chromedome said contritely. “I’m sorry. But I had to lie. It was confidential information. Would you have me spill state secrets without discretion?”

“I’m not asking for the designations of everyone you’ve ever brainwashed, but Dominus Ambus is my Conjunx Endura. And you knew very well that I would not rest until I had found him. But you never said a word, content to let me look like a fool for the rest of my life as I hunted for someone I would never find—not if you had anything to do with it.”

Chromedome flinched again, but Rewind could hardly muster up any sense of satisfaction.

“I never meant to hurt you,” said Chromedome.

“That’s what you always say, Chromedome. We said no more lies, but more and more always seem to turn up, each more terrible than the last. How many more lies are there to discover, I wonder? Is there any truth in you at all?”

“My love for you is true,” Chromedome said solemnly, and Rewind found that he could barely stand to look at him.

“Tell me that what I’ve learned is a lie,” he said, resisting the urge to cover the sparks of his weeping visor. He could feel his entire frame trembling. “Tell me. Please.”

Chromedome didn’t say anything, but the hunch of his shoulders told volumes.

“It was a long time ago, Rewind,” he said desperately. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, but it really was confidential. I swore an oath. Can’t we let bygones be bygones?”

“Not so long,” Rewind said between sobs. “Not for me.” He stood up and turned away from where Chromedome sat, still, on the recharge slab. It seemed that he was frozen in shock, but Rewind had no sympathy to spare as his own body shook. “I gave you so many chances, Chromedome. I’ve always wanted to believe in you. But no memory of the love we shared can sustain that hope now.”

“I’m sorry,” Chromedome said.

“You know I can never forgive you,” Rewind said, and the moment he said it he knew it to be true. At the thought, he only cried harder, his entire frame quivering with anguish. To think that he had believed that this bot was his second chance at love. He had been so stupid to have trusted, so blind to have hoped.

“I wish you had never found out,” Chromedome said quietly, reaching out for him before seeming to think better of it.

“Then you still don’t understand,” Rewind replied sadly, his vocalizer buzzing with static.

“You’re hurting, Rewind. Let me help,” Chromedome said pleadingly, and through the edges of his burning visor Rewind almost didn’t notice the mnemosurgery needles extending from those dangerous fingers. At once, Rewind saw Chromedome as his Institute patients must have—a butcher of things precious beyond all else: memories of a life, one’s sense of self.

He backed away and stumbled over his feet in his haste, processor dizzy and swimming with uncertain fear. “Hush, sweetspark, it’s going to be okay,” Chromedome was saying in a gentle, chillingly familiar tone. “Everything is going to be fine.”

Frightened, Rewind tried to scramble to his feet but instead only managed to prop himself up on his hands. Distressed sparks flew from his visor as he sobbed. With barely any effort, Chromedome held him down against the cold ground and sat on his thigh struts in a twisted parody of intimacy.

Rewind felt the needles skittering up his back, arranging themselves at the back of his neck. With live bots, it's best to go through the back of the neck, Chromedome had told him once. Visor flashing in horrified panic, Rewind flailed and restarted his static-filled vocalizer to shout for help—

Just before the world went black around him.

Chapter Text

"Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt."
Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut


Most days, Chromedome awoke before Rewind. Robbed of easy slumber by his persistent nightmares, he often suffered through a choppy recharge cycle. Rewind was accustomed to his chronometer rousing him and his onlining optics being met with the hazy, comforting sight of Chromedome gazing at him as they performed routine recalibration.

This morning, though, Rewind’s systems woke him earlier than usual. Still tired, he tried to reinitiate a brief recharge sequence. But his systems didn’t feel like being cooperative, and he ended up lying awake, sleepily watching Chromedome recharge and enjoying the loose embrace. It was incredible how just being near his companion made his spark swell with love and affection.

Before long, Chromedome’s systems came on, and his visor flickered to life. His gaze settled on Rewind immediately, something shy and oddly hesitant in it.

“Good morning,” Rewind said, leaning in for an inviting kiss. Chromedome’s visor flickered with an unreadable emotion that quickly faded into contentment.

“Morning,” Chromedome murmured, returning the kiss with an enthusiastic zeal that took Rewind by surprise. Not that he was complaining—he surged into the kiss, winding his limbs around the bigger bot. Chromedome’s embrace grew tighter, as if only he pressed their frames together hard enough, he would be able to climb right into Rewind’s plating. Rewind sighed in pleasure, eager fingers distractedly scrabbling for sensitive points on Chromedome’s back. Murmuring his approval, Chromedome arched into him, his right hand tugging Rewind’s head closer.

Instantly and utterly inexplicably, Rewind felt a violent rush of nausea rock his fuel tanks. With a gasp, he yanked himself away and curled in on his frame. Cradling his helm, he switched off his vision and audio sensors, concentrating on withstanding the protracted wave of dizziness.

By the time he reentered the living world, Chromedome was sitting up and calling his name, a panicked look upon his face.

“I’m fine,” Rewind reassured him. “Just felt really dizzy all of a sudden. Must be a calibration unit acting up. I really am getting old.”

Chromedome still looked disproportionately terrified. “Hey,” Rewind said gently. “I’m just kidding. You’re stuck with me for some time yet.”

“I just want you to be okay,” Chromedome said.

“Maybe I should stop by the medical wing before my shift just in case,” Rewind mused.

Frowning, Chromedome gripped his arm and asked, “Are you still feeling disoriented? Queasy?”

“No, not at all,” Rewind said. “It seems to have passed.”

Losing some of the tension in his struts, Chromedome said, “Then wait and see if it comes back.” As he spoke, he stroked a thumb up and down Rewind’s forearm. Comforted by the familiar, absentminded touch, Rewind leaned into him.

“But what if it’s something serious?”

“Now who’s jumping to conclusions? I’m sure it’s nothing—your systems probably just met their match last night.”

“Last night?” Rewind repeated, puzzled.

Chromedome paused momentarily and gave him a curious look. “You don’t remember?” he said. “I finally got my hands on the Nightmare Fuel that Atomizer’s been so eager to try, and when I told you I was going to his habsuite, you insisted on drinking it with me instead.”

“Oh god,” Rewind groaned. He did remember Atomizer trying to coerce Chromedome to go over so they could sample the Nightmare Fuel a couple of days ago. Rewind had left the Exit Rooms extremely irritated that night, and back in their recharge slabs he had been eager to stake his claim. “How much did I drink?”

“Clearly way too much,” Chromedome said, chuckling. “Although my memory is pretty fuzzy, too. I lost track around our fifth shot.”

“No wonder I felt like purging my tanks,” Rewind grumbled. “I told you, anything that can push a warworld into hyperspace can’t be good for internal mechanisms.”

Chromedome laughed. “It’s okay if you can’t hold your drink, you know,” he teased.

Rewind glared at him. “I’ll have you know that my tolerance is impressive for my size,” he said.

“Sure it is,” Chromedome said, pressing a kiss to his helm.

Rewind huffed and pushed Chromedome down onto surface of the recharge slab. “I’ll show you to judge a bot by their size,” he said, straddling Chromedome’s waist and holding his arms down.

“Oh yeah?” Chromedome said, his engines revving. He loved it when Rewind took control in the berth.

“Uh-huh,” Rewind said, dipping his head to nuzzle the sensitive spot on Chromedome’s left side, just a short distance from his Autobot badge.

The tentative way Chromedome touched him that morning reminded Rewind of the first time they had interfaced, when a tightly wound Chromedome had trembled with equal parts anticipation and hesitation, as if Rewind were a fragile illusion that he feared might shatter at any moment.

His behavior was odd, but Chromedome frequently got in strange moods that Rewind couldn’t always parse out, so he didn’t question it. Instead, he countered Chromedome’s trepidation with unfaltering confidence, teasing in all the ways that drove his lover crazy and kissing him through the intense overload.

Afterward, Chromedome cradled Rewind’s helm to his chestplate, which thrummed with warmth. The back of Rewind’s neck tickled, causing him to twitch and look up, visor dimmed in sleepy content. In contrast, Chromedome stared down at Rewind with an intensity that unnerved him.

“Is something wrong?” Rewind asked in concern.

“No,” Chromedome said, sounding like he was about to cry. “I’m just really happy.”

“Aww,” Rewind said, cupping Chromedome’s face gently and scooting up to press kisses all over his faceplate. “I am too, Domey.”

*

It was a day like any other. Chromedome left for work, and a couple of hours later, Rewind departed the habsuite as well. He spent most of the day working in his small office on a presentation that he and Mainframe had been tasked with putting together.

But when Rewind returned to their room after his shift was over, he was met with the unexpected sight of Chromedome and Prowl wrestling on the ground.

“How dare you,” Chromedome was snarling as he got the upper hand for a nanoklik. He decked Prowl with a strength that Rewind hadn’t known Chromedome possessed. With a grunt, Prowl twisted out from beneath Chromedome and elbowed his chin in the process. Undeterred, Chromedome pinned his arm to his side and hissed, “You think you can go behind my back and meddle in things that are none of your business? You think you have that right? Don’t forget what I can do to you if you step out of line again.”

“I just do what I need to in order to get the job done,” Prowl said curtly, shoving him away and examining the energon leaking from his face critically. He didn’t seem to be taking the fight too seriously, because Rewind had no doubts that he could take on the comparatively combat-rusty Chromedome without much effort. Then, Prowl looked up from frowning at his hand and shot Chromedome a shrewd, slightly smug look. “We’re rather alike in that regard, aren’t we, Tumbler?”

“Why you sanctimonious prick—” Chromedome growled, leaping for Prowl again.

“Stop!” Rewind cried, rushing forward to pull Chromedome away. At the sound of his voice, the cold fury on Chromedome’s face faded into something more familiar. Though Rewind’s strength was no match for the bigger bot’s, Chromedome’s surprise made him easy to restrain. “What is going on here? Why are you fighting?” Rewind demanded.

Prowl picked himself up off the ground, a dark scowl on his dented face. “This is childish behavior, even for you,” he said to Chromedome. “You think you can threaten me? You of all people should know better than to cross me.”

“Get out of here, Prowl,” Chromedome said, still shaking with inexplicable rage.

Ignoring him, Prowl scrutinized Rewind for a long moment. His searing gaze was entirely absent of the usual condescension, instead stained with something somber. Rewind glared back at him, unsettled but refusing to show it.

“I said, get out,” Chromedome growled when Prowl didn’t show any signs of moving. At the sound of his voice, Prowl’s optics flickered briefly, a veil of haughty indifference falling back over them.

“Well, I have a war to win,” Prowl said mildly, as if he hadn’t heard Chromedome at all. “Good day.”

“That was different,” Rewind said as the door closed behind Prowl. “You want to tell me why two you were fighting?”

Chromedome huffed, crossing his arms across his chest. “He threatened you," he said darkly. “He threatened us. I was too blinded by nostalgia to see it, but he’s nothing but a selfish, vindictive lowlife who wants to tear us apart. But I won't have it. He can't keep me from you.”

They were words that Rewind didn't realize he had been waiting for until he heard them. There was an ugly part of him that believed it fully, even though the more rational side of him knew that there had to have been something good in Prowl at some point, if he had loved Chromedome. Relief flooded him. Relief, and a smug sense of pleasure at Chromedome finally recognizing that Prowl was bad for them—and choosing Rewind over him.

“He doesn't matter,” Rewind said—honestly, now that he knew that Chromedome understood at last. “I love you, and you love me, and we're never going to be apart. Prowl is . . . inconsequential.”

Chromedome kissed him, fierce and possessive. Whenever Chromedome kissed him like this—like he was staking his claim, as if his love was so incandescent that it might scorch their plating—it felt as if a loose, missing component was clicking into place. As if Rewind had been starving all his life and Chromedome had given him his first sip of energon. As if their lives depended on the press of metal against metal. When Chromedome kissed him like this, Rewind knew they belonged together.

He caught Chromedome’s fingers in his own and dragged him over to the berth.

*

The next day, Rewind found an unexpected visitor in his office. Not for the first time, Rewind wished he had a lock on his door.

“What do you want?” Rewind said warily. He was too surprised to bother with phony pleasantries. Prowl looked up from where he was examining a data pad on Rewind’s cluttered desk.

It was clear that Prowl had been to the medical wing, but he must have snuck out. There were still-healing cracks in his faceplate, and upon closer inspection, Rewind noticed that his left doorwing was still undergoing self-repairs as well. Idly, he wondered what unforgiving surface Chromedome had smashed him against.

“Your face,” Rewind said, aghast. Prowl sighed from his vents, annoyed expression intensifying.

“I’m quite aware. Unfortunately, no time to sit around waiting for repairs to finish.”

Rewind crossed his arms and said snidely, “I don’t know, I think I prefer this look.”

“Anyway,” Prowl said, steadfastly ignoring his posturing, “I only came by to say something before I left.”

“We’re not friends, Prowl. You don’t need to say goodbye to me.”

“No, not that.” Something in that severe scowl faded, and when he next spoke, that peculiar shade of pity returned to those keen optics. “I know it may not mean much at this point, but I want you to know that I never intended for this to happen,” he said. “While there may be little affection between us, I harbor no ill will toward you. I simply underestimated the circumstances. You don’t deserve what happened.”

Rewind stared at him. “Prowl, what the frag are you talking about?”

Prowl vented another sigh, looking strangely vulnerable for the first time Rewind had ever witnessed. “It’s no matter,” he said. He hesitated for a moment, giving Rewind one of his signature scrutinizing looks. “Take care of him,” he said quietly, before transforming and backing out of the room.

Rewind stared after him, shaking his head. What a bizarre bot. He couldn’t believe Chromedome had once been in love with that guy.

Later, he told Chromedome about the strange conversation. An inscrutable expression crossed Chromedome’s visor.

“That’s Prowl for you,” he said. “Living up on his pedestal where he thinks he knows better than anyone else when the truth is that he’s the fool.”

“Yeah, well, I’m glad he’s leaving,” Rewind said, curling into Chromedome and reveling in the comforting, familiar hum of his engines.

Chromedome pressed his cheekplate against Rewind’s helm, fingers skating idly up and down his abdomen.

“Me too,” he said.

*

After Prowl left Kimia, things settled down. Without him around, Rewind felt much less on edge and even loosened his grip on Chromedome’s hand.

In contrast, Chromedome seemed to cling a little harder. He spent less time with other bots and made more excuses so the two of them could be alone together in the offshift. If Rewind was being completely honest with himself, he didn’t mind very much. He had become rather addicted to feeling wanted.

Not so good were the times when Chromedome fell into strange, insecure and bitter moods that even Rewind didn’t seem to be able to distract him from. But they learned to deal with those as well, and whenever Rewind felt like he was reaching the limits of his patience, Chromedome always offered a frantic apology in a timid, frightened voice.

Sometimes, Rewind had this dream—a recurring one that stood out because it wasn’t quite a nightmare, although it always left him physically uneasy for some indiscernible reason. In it, Chromedome initiated the Conjunx Ritus. He always said the same lovely things, about trust and purpose and forever. It was an undeniably sweet speech, and Rewind praised his processor for conjuring up words he would love to hear coming from Chromedome (bizarre rebellion from his fuel tank aside).

And even though the proposal wasn’t real, he considered it, briefly, every time he woke up with a whisper of “yes” on his vocalizer and a churning nausea throughout his systems.

But the more cautious, rational side of him knew that it was surely too soon to bring it up. They had only been together for a little over two centuries—just past what Cybertronians considered the honeymoon period.

It was just the war that had upended time on them. It was the war that left Rewind overly aware of his own mortality and made him think wild thoughts of what it would be like to take that grand leap. In his spark, he couldn’t imagine ever not being so deeply in love with Chromedome, couldn’t even conceive of anything tearing them apart, but . . . Neither of them were fighting on the front line. There was no need to rush into it.

They were together, and devoted, and bursting with love for each other—it was enough for now.

There would be time.

(The thought of Dominus Ambus hung in the back of his mind, accusing him of negligence and willful betrayal. And though in all the years to follow Rewind never came to understand it, the accusation was always laced with something like disappointed pity.)

*

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*

Time stumbled on, as it was wont to do. Centuries elapsed, and Rewind fell deeper and deeper in love with Chromedome. There was no more doubt in his mind, now, that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with him. Just the thought of being separated from Chromedome for any extended period of time sent anxiety rocketing through him.

Amid the war, they settled into a certain blissful domesticity. The other bots teased them for bickering like an old bonded couple, and some even looked at them with envy. To have found lasting love in the midst of war was unthinkable for many. On the more difficult days, Rewind tried to remind himself of how fortunate he was.

Still, he searched for Dominus Ambus. He had been looking for so long now that the investigation had simply become a part of his life. But despite all the time they had spent together, Dominus began to feel more and more like a distant memory. From time to time, Rewind went up to the observatory and tucked himself into a corner, going over old footage he had captured of his beloved companion. It was strange to watch what had begun to feel like a past life. To work on footage from before the war was one thing; to witness himself in those times felt more akin to time traveling. It made him feel caught between nostalgia and displacement.

It also felt more and more like betraying Chromedome.

*

“Primus,” Rewind panted, collapsing on Chromedome in the aftermath of an intense round of interface. His plating was still buzzing from the strut-shaking sensation of expelling built-up charge. “Primus, that was incredible.”

“I usually go by Chromedome.”

Rewind swatted at him lazily. “You’re lucky you’re so talented in the berth.”

Chromedome laughed, wrapping an arm around Rewind and kissing the top of his helm. The soft expression on his face, equal parts awed and adoring, made Rewind’s spark sing. He didn’t know how he had ever lived without the precious sight, without the exhilarated pleasure of being so certain of Chromedome’s love.

A comfortable silence settled between them as they lay there, warm and satisfied, Rewind’s helm tucked in the perfect nook of Chromedome’s neck. It was warm and familiar, and it gave Rewind the courage to make his next move.

“Can I tell you something?” he asked, suddenly nervous.

“Of course,” Chromedome said. “Anything. You know that, sweetspark.”

Propping his helm up with one hand, Rewind took Chromedome’s fingers in the other, drawing strength from the familiar touch. He spoke quietly: “One of my earliest memories is of choking on energon. It had a terrible stench and always burned going down. I’ll never forget the feeling, the horrible taste.”

He could practically taste it now, coarse and sulfuric, scorching his throat cables as he tried to consume a day’s portion in one go. It had taken nearly a thousand years for visor to stop flaring up at the scalding sensation and nearly five times that for him to stop dreading refueling.

“From the beginning, I was slower than the other bots in my batch. They called me a glitch, teased me. I only found out much later that it was the crude stuff they were feeding us. In those days, even before the Grand Cybertronian Taxonomy existed, we were still seen as lesser. A bot like me with an allergy that was such an impediment to productivity was seen as a waste of space. Work was difficult to find, so I studied hard and trained hard to prove my worth.

“The first time I had energon—real, filtered energon—was nearly one million years after I was forged. Dominus Ambus gave it to me. It was crisp, tangy, and unlike anything I had ever consumed before. He had to stop me from zipping around the room because I was so hopped up on it. I had never felt so full, so whole. My productivity increased by 37 percent.

“Dominus was not only my first friend but the first bot who was truly kind to me. Before him, I was so alone, so bitter, so sad. Back then, I didn’t know if I was even capable of love. Maybe my spark was just as defective as my frame. But Dominus showed me the truth.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Chromedome interrupted, hurt and anxiety sharpening his words. His fingers clenched Rewind’s almost painfully.

“Just listen,” Rewind said softly but firmly. “Please.” Chromedome loosened his grip and nodded, but Rewind could practically hear the insecurity swell within him.

“I loved him, Domey. He was my world. He gave me so many firsts. I thought I would die if I ever lost him.” He paused, waiting for the edges of his vision to stop burning. “But I didn’t. Life went on, and I went on, and then the most amazing thing happened. I met you.” He pressed Chromedome’s palm to his cheek, flickering his visor off briefly.

“Do you understand? Do you understand what it means for me to love you, after I was starved and poisoned, after Dominus Ambus gave me that sip of premium energon, after he left me to die? Do you understand that all the pain, all those years of loneliness, of knowing what it meant to have love and lost—I would do it all over again, because it led me to you?” His vocalizer buzzed with static. “What I’m trying to say is . . . Don’t ever doubt how much I love you, okay?”

“Okay,” Chromedome said, like it was a promise. When Rewind looked at him, he knew that Chromedome meant it.

After a moment, Chromedome added, “Thank you for sharing that with me.” He drew Rewind into his arms. Grateful, Rewind clung to him.

“Thank you for listening,” he said, trying not to sound as shaken as he felt, reliving those memories so vividly. He pushed away the lingering sense of homesickness. That had no place here, and if all went well tonight, no place in his spark. This was home now. This, here, with Chromedome.

With the most harrowing part of the ceremony over with, Rewind reached into his subspace and retrieved a sealed box. He shifted and placed it on Chromedome’s chestplate.

“What’s this?” Chromedome asked, sitting up and poking the package.

“A profferance,” Rewind said, trying his best to sound casual. “Open it.”

With those nimble fingers, Chromedome broke the seal and lifted the lid of the box. Immediately, he reeled back in surprise. Shooting a questioning glance at Rewind, he said, “Rewind . . . Is this . . .”

“Innermost energon. Mine,” Rewind confirmed as Chromedome held the vial up to the light, a look of wonder flickering across his visor. “I know you don’t have any, so I thought . . . Well, I wanted you to have mine.”

“I don’t know what to say,” Chromedome said.

“Well, that’s new,” Rewind teased. Chromedome elbowed him, but his visor was still fixated on the vial.

“What brought this on?” he asked softly.

“Oh, I don’t know . . .” Rewind said, spark pounding. He summoned up all of his courage. “I thought you deserved something truly from my spark for my proposal.”

Chromedome’s helm swiveled his way. “Proposal?” he repeated, and if he had sounded surprised before, he was stunned now. For a moment, Rewind was swept by a sudden and overwhelming doubt. Had he been wrong? Was it too early, still? He had been certain that Chromedome would recognize the ritual, that he would immediately say yes. He was certain of it. He had to be. He didn’t know what he would do if Chromedome didn’t say yes.

“Uh-huh,” Rewind said, a little less confidently. “Do . . . Do you want to be my Conjunx Endura?”

Chromedome grabbed him and kissed him with a fervor that made Rewind’s knee struts weak. “So much,” Chromedome gasped. Rewind could hear the elation in the deep thrumming of his plating.

But then Chromedome stiffened in Rewind’s arms, his every strut tensing with anxiety. “What about Dominus Ambus?”

Rewind had been expecting the question, but that didn’t make it easier to hear. Or answer.

“I don’t want you to think that you’re replacing him,” he said.

Chromedome was silent.

“Nobody will ever replace him,” Rewind said. “And I wouldn’t want anyone to. But that stage of my life is over now. Weren’t you listening just now? You’re the one I want to be with. You, the bot with the secret smiles and adorable laugh. You, the bot who never makes me feel lesser because of my size or alt mode. You, the bot who gives me the will to look to the future, instead of fixating on the past. You, the bot who makes waking up every morning worth it.”

“Rewind . . .” Chromedome said, voice quivering.

“I want to recharge next to you until my joints are dust,” Rewind said. “I want to be there for you on those bad days, and I want to turn to you when I feel lost. I want to be the one you tell about your day, the one you trust with your spark, your mind, your spark.” He paused and said a little more uncertainly, “But I also want you to know that I’m not going to stop looking for him. Can you accept that?

Chromedome clutched Rewind’s hand and said softly, “Of course I can. And I’ll do whatever I can to help. Haven’t I always?”

“Yes, and I’m so grateful for it,” Rewind said. He turned so he could cup his companion’s faceplate. “I know this is a little unorthodox, but would you . . . Could I make a request for the Act of Devotion?”

Chromedome nodded immediately but curiosity and wariness dueled in his response: “What is it?”

Rewind hesitated, even though he had given this much thought. “It would be a promise—a promise that if something happens to me . . . That you . . . Will you keep looking for him?”

An agonizingly long silence ensued. The innocuous hum of the recharge slab resonated in the quiet space as Rewind wondered if he had overstepped some invisible yet indelible bounds.

But at last, Chromedome said, “I will.” He sounded a bit like he was marching to his grave, but that didn’t surprise Rewind. He knew this was asking a lot. But it was what he had bargained with himself to finally let go of his loyalty to Dominus Ambus enough to give himself this.

“Thank you,” Rewind said, infusing every syllable with as much gratitude as he could muster. “I love you, Chromedome.”

“I love you, too . . . my Conjunx Endura.”

*

They said their oaths the next morning, with Brainstorm and Slamdance serving as their witnesses, and then sent their registration application to Autobot processing centers immediately afterward. Beaming, Rewind squeezed Chromedome’s hand in excitement.

News of their bonding spread quickly throughout Kimia. Their friends threw a spontaneous party for them that evening, attended by more than half of the staff. Exotic energon emerged from secret stockpiles and were shared with all. It had been a long time since anyone had become Conjunx Endurae on the station, and the excitement was contagious.

“It’s about time, mates!” Swerve cheered over the thumping bass of Animus’s music. High-grade sloshed out the sides of his tankard as he pounded Rewind on his back in what was probably supposed to be a congratulatory manner.

Slamdance gave Rewind a giant hug. “I’m so excited for you, buddy. You two are perfect for each other,” he said as they watched Chromedome splutter and laugh as he took high-grade shots with Nosecone.

At one point, Brainstorm took Rewind aside and quietly thanked him. “He looks so happy,” he added. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen him so happy.”

Atomizer gave a drunken toast, Mainframe a more sober one, and they danced throughout the night.

Rewind felt like he was floating on a cloud. The lightness in his spark every time he met Chromedome’s gaze was a delightful new sensation.

Mine, he couldn’t help thinking.

Later, exhausted and content, with their recharge slabs humming beneath them and sparks beating in tandem, Chromedome said into the darkness, against Rewind’s shoulder: “Today was the best day of my life.”

Bursting with delight, Rewind tucked himself closer to Chromedome’s warm frame, the familiar metal thrumming steadily underneath his cheekplate.

Feeling like the luckiest bot alive, he drifted off into recharge, curled up in the arms of his best friend, lover, sparkmate, savior—his Conjunx Endura.

Chapter Text

“Love is a temporary madness; it erupts like volcanoes and then subsides. And when it subsides you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of eternal passion. That is just being in love, which any fool can do. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. Those that truly love have roots that grow towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossoms have fallen from their branches, they find that they are one tree and not two."
Corelli's Mandolin, Louis de Bernières


As the walls of the slow cell close in, Rewind clings onto the hand. It's a reminder of everything Chromedome was to him. There’s a wretched irony in the fact that, in this final moment, the only remnant of his lover from which he can draw comfort is the part responsible for what he detests the most.

There have been good and bad times between them—too numerous of either to count, so much so that Rewind’s data drives are bursting with videos and soundbites, everything from mundane energon meals they took together to anniversary celebrations that Rewind carries close to his spark. There have been arguments so livid that Rewind wasn’t sure they would ever be able to recover. There have been times when Rewind wondered if he had chosen to travel the wrong path, if he should never have gotten involved with somebody with such a ghastly past and such toxic habits.

But Chromedome came along when Rewind didn’t think he would ever love again, and ultimately he’s glad for it.

(Suspicions linger, reticent but ever haunting, about a strange blank space in his memory banks that he discovered toward the end of the war, but in these last few moments, he can barely bring himself to care. Is Chromedome ultimately a good bot? What does it matter?

Dominus Ambus was good, but he left Rewind alone and desolate.

Chromedome loved him. Loves him. Stayed with him. Did all that he could to keep them together. That has to mean something. That means everything.)

So in the end, all he can think about is how this will break Chromedome, who is affected so deeply by loss. Who feels so strongly that he would rather not be than be in pain.

All he can think about is how it’s nearly inevitable that Chromedome will wipe his memories of Rewind entirely. To take those memories that Rewind holds so dear and obliterate them until Rewind’s name loses its meaning and all that they shared fades into blurry recollections and a habitual touch to the back of the neck.

It’s nearly inevitable that Chromedome will move on, on to someone new—someone who will fall in love with his passion and codependence and the insecurity buried beneath his wry swagger.

But it will never be the same.

A selfish part of him hopes to be the one who breaks the cycle. The one who is worth remembering. The one for whom Chromedome will brave the pain so that he can hold on to the good memories. Rewind feels bad for making this sacrifice despite being fully aware of Chromedome’s fear of confronting painful memories, but it’s not in him to stand by and do nothing when there are innocent lives at stake.

It’s this selfish part of him that composes his last message, that tries to find the words to convey to Chromedome the depth of his feelings. A last ditch effort to be the one who Chromedome loves too much to delete. Because he is going to his death deeply in love with his Conjunx Endura, and there’s a possessive, entitled part of him that hopes that when Chromedome’s time comes and his plating turns to gray, it will be with Rewind still in his heart.

In his spark, he knows he’s made the right decision. A fitting end to a long life—a life that has been filled with equal parts joy and sorrow. A fitting end to spite those who brought him online only to oppress him; a fitting end for someone who always stood up to those who derided his smaller stature. A fitting end for someone who has had the chance to love not just once, but twice—two long, fulfilling relationships, both severed much too soon yet still so much fuller than most bots ever got to experience.

He’s been lucky.

Clinging to the precious yet cursed arm, he feels Overlord looming over him. Rewind wills his quivering frame to still, refusing to face his last moments as a coward. Even facing the terror of Garrus-9, he will go down fighting, for as long as he is able. After all, who knows how long Overlord will have in this slow cell to tear him apart, piece by piece . . .

Then something outside catches Overlord’s eye. His mouth drops open in surprise—maybe even horror—and seconds later, the capsule is rocked by explosions that rupture its metal walls.

Domey, Rewind thinks in his last moments. Remember me.

And the world burns.


"I've always been terrified that you'd die before I did, because you and me apart strikes me as intensely wrong. So promise me something. Be brave. And be strong. And keep going without me."
— Rewind, The Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye #16