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The Wages of Compassion

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“You can save me,” Vortex rasped. He looked up at First Aid; the Autobot was gorgeous as ever. Even on this mess of a battlefield, with his shoulders slumped and his hands hidden in the remains of Vortex’s chest. Vortex’s lips twisted in the cruellest of smiles. “But you won’t.”

First Aid remained silent, focused on his work. A ragged hole sat where Vortex’s primary fuel line should have been, and his throat burned. There was another hole in his chest, blunt-edged and hung with droplets of metal that had been molten only a short while before. His spark was exposed; it felt odd, a weak flutter of energy in the cold Earth rain. His joints were full of mud, his rotors broken.

His laughter was hoarse. “Enjoying watching me die?”

“Of course I’m not,” First Aid said, and the words emerged harsh and broken. He wiped the rain from his visor, and re-engaged his vocal processors. “But I can’t save you. I’ll make you as comfortable as I can, it’s… it’s all I can do.”

“Sure it is,” Vortex groaned. He heaved his body from the muck only to have the hydraulics cut out halfway. The crash shuddered through him, and little gouts of lubricant sprung from freshly severed lines. He didn’t have long, and he knew First Aid would never save him, but if he could break the medic before his spark guttered out, then his death might have some meaning. “You know there’s a way,” he persisted. “You just don’t want to. Spark to spark with a Decepticon’s too much even for you.”

“It’s not that!” First Aid cried, and he’d never looked as desirable as he did in that moment; filthy with energon and dark with soot, streaked all over with the fluids of dying mechs. His hands, oh his hands were beautiful, wracked by the slightest of tremors as he dipped them again into Vortex’s open chest to clamp yet another ruptured hose. He swallowed, his engine stuttering and his optics giving an odd little flicker. “I’d save you if I could. I’d do the same for anyone, faction doesn't matter.”

Vortex wanted to seize him, hold him, pin him to the floor and tease open his every panel. Show the medic exactly how tantalising he was.

And he would have, if approaching death hadn’t stripped the strength from his limbs. All he had left were words, spat out as his spark waned and his final few drops of energon burned up faster than ethanol in a furnace.

“Liar,” he snarled, and First Aid winced. “You’re just waiting for me to die. So much for Autobot compassion. I hope you’ll remember this for the rest of your life: you just stood by when you could have done something. Another Cybertronian is lost for eternity and it’s all your fault. Well, waiting’s all you need to do. Two breems and counting…”

Half a joor had passed since Vortex had been shot out of the sky, and half a breem since First Aid had stumbled upon him looking for Autobot casualties in the wake of the battle. The medic had been unable to pass him by.

Vortex knew he was dying. He’d known since he rolled with the momentum of the crash, and a jagged shard of shrapnel had pierced his shoulder. It had ripped sidelong through his spark and ruptured his primary fuel pump, finally coming to rest jammed in his broken transformation cog. His personality component was compromised, only another half joor until irretrievable data loss. First Aid’s presence was one last, long glimpse of worldly pleasure before oblivion, or the Pit. Vortex’s twisted smile softened; it couldn’t be as bad as the Detention Centre.

“All right,” First Aid said, and Vortex’s visor flickered as his optics recalibrated. His audials must have begun malfunctioning.

But the medic was shuddering, his vents working hard. “'I'm sorry,” he said. “You don’t deserve to die like this, and I can save you, I…” He choked on his words, fingers fumbling at his hip. “I’m just scared, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be. I know what to do. I’ve just… I’ve never done anything like this before.” He paused, fixing Vortex with as stern a gaze as Vortex could ever imagine him giving. “You’re right,” he continued, his voice strained, but determined. “A bond is the only thing that has a chance of saving you. But you do realise that if I do this, it’s permanent?” His interface hatch swung open. “I have to give you the chance to change your mind.”

Permanently bonded to the medic? But that would involve a hardline interface. For a moment Vortex thought he might already have died and gone inexplicably to the Matrix. Then the countdown to deactivation again made itself known.

“I want to live?” Vortex hazarded, thinking only of the chance to be connected to First Aid. “Not changing my mind.” His voice rasped worse than ever. The air in his vents was caustic, humid; each cooling intake stung. But it didn’t matter, none of it mattered – not the tight ball of agony that was his spark, nor the countdown to his permanent deactivation; not even the crackling blackness of energy starvation as it threatened to overwhelm his vision. Nothing mattered except the medic.

First Aid nodded. He unrolled his cable and hooked them up, as the seam down the centre of his chest began to split. Vortex bit back a moan; how long he’d wanted the medic, and now here he was pressing his connector into Vortex’s port, so defiant in his determination to do the right thing, giving himself to save his enemy.

“I’m going to raise your head,” First Aid commented, an astrosecond before he did. Another connecter slotted home, this time in the medical port at the back of Vortex’s neck. “Your spark’s too weak for unaided direct contact, I’ll need access to your CPU. Lower your firewalls please.”

Vortex complied, a small part of him wondering whether the medic really was there. Perhaps he was hallucinating, and this was the last ditch attempt of his dying mind to give him something nice before he went.

But no, the brush of those fingertips over his interface panel was nothing if not real. Then a gentle shudder as First Aid initiated an energy transfer, and a tickle as the medic slipped past Vortex’s inactive defences.

Deactivate combiner protocols,’ First Aid instructed, and his voice was no longer a weak verbal stutter against the background of Earth’s breezes, but a strong and reassuring presence in Vortex’s own CPU. ‘It’s only temporary,’ he added. ‘This shouldn’t affect your gestalt bond.’

Vortex did as he was told. His vision flickered, fighting the growing dark to take in as much of First Aid’s frame as he possibly could. So tempting and touchable, and so very close. He tried to raise his arm, and got as far as resting the back of his hand against First Aid’s knee.

To his surprise, First Aid took the hand, briefly, and squeezed. ‘You’ll be all right,’ he said, and Vortex got the impression that was an automatic response independent of the tingling, rippling presence spreading through his circuits. First Aid spoke again, ‘Initiating spark subroutine alpha fifteen point three nine eight.’

Vortex’s spark flared, and he screamed. Purple light speared up, staining the Autobot’s chest and gleaming back from his visor. The energy transfer hummed, and he felt it would have invigorated him were it not for First Aid controlling the flow; everything went to his spark, and nothing at all to his frame.

Ten astroseconds to contact,’ First Aid informed him, and Vortex could only watch, rapt, as the Protectobot’s armour parted to reveal the fierce blue glare of his spark. Then First Aid’s hands were inside him again, stroking the outer casing of Vortex’s own spark, dancing over controls Vortex had little idea about and had never thought to test.

Almost there…’ First Aid’s voice wavered, his ventilation froze. His visor dimmed as the blue light grew, and there was nothing in the universe that could have distracted Vortex from the sight of the medic opening up to him so completely.

Then First Aid leaned down, and Vortex gasped at the press of the medic’s spark against his own. It was a struggle at first, like the push of two magnets, then the force fragmented, and Vortex would have squirmed if he could. His spark was dissolving, the core rising up, the corona splitting and swelling, little tendrils breaking off and merging with the other. It was the single strangest thing he had ever experienced.

Almost...’ First Aid whispered, and Vortex couldn’t tell whether he spoke aloud or via the hardline connection. It was as though his entire consciousness was balled up and repositioned, placed within his spark. Everything else dimmed to nothing, but the heat and the pressure in his chest were inescapable. Hyperaware, he saw every flicker and tendril of plasma as though it was right there in front of his face. He felt every line of code as it formed, written in the writhing mesh of their sparks and fed back through his frame where it slithered into his personality component to form a whole new set of base protocols.

It changed him. Deeper than the loyalty programming, deeper even than the gestalt bond, it took his core needs and desires, and established new exceptions, new boundaries. And it did the same to First Aid; the knowledge came through loud and clear, amplified by the interface but carried by the developing spark bond.

It took over a breem, and at some point during that time the countdown to permanent deactivation ceased.

* * *

I shouldn’t have done this. First Aid tried to ignore the thought, holding it back from the connection by sheer effort of will. But it was tenacious. This was the worst idea in the long history of bad ideas and it’s going to come back and bite me on the aft, so help me Primus.

He shivered, drained and queasy and wanting nothing more than to lean his weight on the injured Decepticon and go into recharge with their sparks still merged and the hardline connection pulsing with little trills of residual energy.

He couldn’t. Time to wake up, disconnect, close everything off carefully and safely. And then what? Abandon Vortex to the cruelty of Decepticon repairs? Flee back to Hot Spot and the safety of his own gestalt? Admit what he’d done?

If First Aid left him here, Vortex could still die. Human scavengers were sure to arrive, wading through the debris for any useful tech. An abandoned rotary would be easy pickings, particularly one in Vortex’s state. And even if the humans never found him, there was no guarantee anyone would come to help. First Aid had never heard of Decepticon compassion, although the phrase ‘if you can’t get back to base on your own, you don’t deserve to get back at all’ was too familiar by far.

Slowly, he eased himself upright. He winced as their sparks disengaged, the pain of parting leaving him raw and tender. Vortex hissed, his tail rotors clattering against his arm.

“Sorry,” First Aid said.

Vortex murmured a reply, but First Aid couldn’t make it out. The Decepticon’s vocal processors laboured worse than before; they’d have to be replaced, along with a good portion of his internal workings, one leg, his rotors and most of his abdominal armour.

“Almost done,” First Aid said.

As soon as his spark had settled, he closed his own chest plates, and spared a moment to construct a field dressing for Vortex out of a strip of tarp and some adhesive from his emergency kit. It didn’t have to be strong, just to keep the weather out.

He didn’t disconnect them, though. Instead, he accessed Vortex’s communications hardware. There was no response. He tried again, urging the software to come online despite the damage to the equipment, but nothing happened. He couldn’t transmit, he couldn’t receive; he couldn’t even access Vortex’s database of comm frequencies.

You can re-engage your combiner protocols,’ First Aid spoke through the connection.

“Mmhmm?” Vortex looked up at him, exhaustion written in the slump of his head and the unfocused look of his optics. But he complied, and First Aid forced himself to remain within the connection as the gestalt bond unfurled, revealing the shadowy presence of four other personalities.

Taking as slow and steady a vent as he could, First Aid identified the gestalt leader. ‘Emergency pickup required,’ he sent, and stated the coordinates. The response was non-verbal; a wave of aggression carrying a snarl of confusion. First Aid repeated the message, and the confusion ebbed away, but the aggression remained along with a sharp and territorial determination.

First Aid pulled back, seating his consciousness again entirely within his own body, and tugged his connectors from Vortex’s ports.

“Leaving so soon?” Vortex whispered. His visor flickered as his optics struggled to reboot. First Aid shook off the knowledge – he didn’t want that kind of insight – and tried to isolate himself from the new bond.

“Your team’s coming to get you,” First Aid said. He gathered up his things, and got shakily to his feet. No time to run, not now; he could hear the approaching roar of a large airframe. Blast Off, and he can’t have been far. Were the others with him?

First Aid didn’t want to find out, but the terrain was open; if he fled he’d never reach safety in time. So he fell back to a nearby hill, hunkered down, and covered himself in the detritus of war.

Blast Off shot out of the sky. He transformed midair, landing crouched a half dozen mechanometers from Vortex. The impact of his feet sent mud flying. “Disgusting,” he sneered, then stood, shook one foot, and walked over to the heliformer. “You’re an idiot.” He nudged his team mate with his toe; Vortex laughed, but it was a weak sound.

“Give a mech a ride?” Vortex asked.

Blast Off lifted him easily and slung him over one shoulder. First Aid clenched his fists and fought to keep quiet. Blast Off was too rough; he needed to be careful, there was no telling what damage he could do throwing Vortex around like that. But then Blast Off engaged his root mode thrusters, transformed around Vortex, and shot up into the sky, so clean and smooth and quick that First Aid almost missed it.

He waited another hundred astroseconds, then ran off to find his team.

* * *

To say that Onslaught was displeased would have been an understatement. Vortex lay on the repair berth and followed his commander with his optics. The accusations came first, then the threats, closely followed by a wrenching pain as Onslaught tore off Vortex’s remaining tail rotors and threw them at Swindle.

Of course Swindle was there, standing by the repair bay door looking like he was pricing up Vortex for scrap. Hateful little traitor. If only they could swap one grounder for another – get rid of Swindle and convert First Aid from an arm to a leg. Now, that’d be a good plan.

“Are you listening to me?” Onslaught roared. But the answer didn’t matter. First Aid had accessed their gestalt bond, had been privy to their statuses and statistics and frag knew how much else. It was wrong, and Onslaught appeared determined to show Vortex exactly how wrong.

“Course he’s not,” Swindle muttered. “Crazy glitch. I keep tellin’ you, you should get him reprogrammed.”

“I can hear you,” Vortex snarled, but it also didn’t matter. Onslaught had reached the end of his rage cycle and was entering acceptance. And that meant it was just the right time for a suggestion. “You could think of it as an opportunity,” Vortex said. He flexed the fingers of his left hand; he could still feel the press of the medic’s palm against his own.

“What?” Onslaught glared, and Swindle huffed.

“I’ll always be able to find him,” Vortex said, and carried on before Swindle could say that what was true for the ‘con was also true for the ‘bot. “Defensor’s never gonna sneak up on us. We can seriously frag around with their team. And when we get him over here, having our own medic’s gonna come in really useful. I mean slag.” He sniffed and glanced around at medbay. Or what passed for medbay in Combaticon HQ. The hangar-sized room looked empty; there were five berths, a frame for alt mode repairs, and a few dozen med-drones. Spare parts racks lined one wall, but it looked more like a warehouse than a medical centre. “They’ve got Hook on the Nemesis, and the rest of the Constructicons, and Dirge, and what’ve we got?”

Swindle snorted. “He’ll never work for us.”

“Don’t be so sure,” Vortex said, and flashed Swindle the kind of grin that always made the yellow mech scowl and turn away.

As for Onslaught, he’d gone quiet. His silent phase was always a little disconcerting; Vortex never knew whether he’d come out of it with both cannons blazing or with that light in his optics that spoke of a very good time to come.

After a full quarter of a breem, Onslaught spoke. “He’s your responsibility,” he said, and immediately held up his hand to silence Swindle’s objection. “You take him, you break him in and you keep him.”

“Break him, more like,” Swindle muttered.

If he’s any trouble,” Onslaught continued, “you’ll dismantle him for parts. Understood?”

Vortex grinned. Good times indeed. “Perfectly,” he replied.

* * *

By the end of the second day, First Aid began to wonder if the consequences of his mistake might not be as bad as he’d anticipated.

After Blast Off had taken Vortex away, First Aid had gone straight to Hot Spot and turned himself in. He’d been fully prepared for court martial, for punishment. He'd aided the enemy, he'd made contact with Onslaught, he hadn't even thought to take Vortex prisoner; he couldn't begin to count the laws he had broken. But Hot Spot had just taken him back to Protectobot HQ, and had given him the rest of the day off.

Blades hadn’t been quite so sanguine when he found out, and neither had Streetwise, but the two of them had argued it out with their commander while Groove made First Aid stay in the rec room and watch the Discovery Channel until his optics blurred and he fell into recharge with his head in his team mate’s lap.

The following morning, First Aid learnt that there was to be no punishment. There would have been, Prowl explained to him by comm from the Ark, if he and Vortex had fraternised. As they weren’t lovers, and as Vortex could technically have been counted a prisoner of war at the time, taking such a drastic measure to keep him alive could only be seen as an act of compassion; admirable to a certain extent, if extremely unwise.

First Aid couldn’t help but think that a few rules were being bent for him, if not broken. It felt wrong, even if it was Prowl doing the bending. But he was grateful for it. As Blades said, only half in jest, the bond itself would be punishment enough.

It was a constant presence, similar to the gestalt bond but distinct from it. Every so often, it emitted a fragment of a thought, a hint of sensation. All natural, of course; the software was working as it should, and First Aid knew it would only get more frequent as the bond matured.

Nevertheless, he could ignore it for now. Vortex hadn’t tried to use it, and that’s what mattered. If the Combaticon was going to attempt to gain any advantage through it, First Aid assumed he would already have tried.

Perhaps he just wanted to forget all about it. First Aid certainly did.

* * *

“Admit it,” Blast Off demanded. “You planned it all.”

Vortex groaned and retched, head lolling over the edge of the repair berth. Today was hardly the best of days for his favourite team mate to start accusing him of something he wasn’t guilty of, but fervently wished that he was. The repair bots weren’t helping. Skittering around in his chest, they prodded and poked, and filled him full of vile, medical grade energon and bitter-tasting chemicals.

“I knew it,” Blast Off huffed, having apparently taken Vortex’s nauseous silence as assent.

“Didn’t,” Vortex managed. Frag, his vocaliser was sore. And not in a good way. His tanks gurgled, their contents reacting with whatever the drones had made him swallow in a particularly horrific attempt to bring his energy levels up. Oh well, if he was going to be sick, why not aim it at Blast Off’s feet? Serve him right for being such an aft.

“I don’t believe you,” Blast Off said, and stepped back out of range. Fragger. The shuttleformer huffed again and glanced around. “I trust you’ll make him available to all of us?”

Now that was a lovely thought. Vortex snickered, then groaned as the vibrations rippled through his overfull reservoir, competing for his attention with the new simmer of charge in his interface circuits. If he had the focus to access his new bond, he’d certainly be repeating Blast Off’s words to First Aid. But he hardly had the focus to find the thing, let alone figure out how it worked.

“As a medic,” Blast Off snapped, then added, “You’re disgusting.”

Vortex moaned. “Stop making me laugh.”

* * *

First Aid dreamed he was being spiked.

His valve ached, and his circuits crawled. He needed to be filled, needed the thrill of connection, the hot friction of a good hard frag to bring him to overload. Legs spread and back arched, he clung to his partner’s shoulders and urged him to go faster.

He awoke with his covers open and his valve sensors firing at random, not to mention a measure of amusement at the profanity of his subconscious. He groaned and checked his chronometer. Sadly, there was no time to deal with his aching valve; there was barely enough time to get himself through the washracks and into medbay before Streetwise was due for his tune up.

The dream stayed with him through the day, as did the ache, and the lingering desire to invite someone to bend him over one of his own repair tables. But with the new bond, he didn’t feel comfortable mentioning it.

Not for the first time, he wished he had a regular partner. His mystery mech hadn’t been anyone specific – a helm similar to Fireflight’s, arms similar to Blades’, but no rotors or wings or tires to link it to anyone he’d interfaced with in the past – just a generic imaginary lover thrown up by his subconscious.

Still, it put a smile on his face, and helped distract him from the niggling, constant presence of the spark bond.

He didn’t link the two until that evening.

He rode the freeway behind Hot Spot, tarmac warm beneath his tires and the day’s heat radiating to caress his undercarriage. Lulled by the steady rhythm of their engines and the rolling miles, his mind wandered. His dream lover, Streetwise’s repairs, the gentle stroke of Groove’s hand on his back as he’d gone into recharge the previous night; images flowed freely through his processors. Onslaught’s anger at his presence in the Combaticon gestalt bond, Vortex’s amused disappointment that he was leaving. No, he couldn’t go there. It was enough that he’d saved the monster’s life, he mustn’t find it in himself to feel sympathy or regret.

Still, he should have taken Vortex captive, should have had him brought to the Ark for… for what? Therapy, First Aid supposed. Constructive reprogramming; the deletion of all those cruel, hateful impulses. It was drastic, and First Aid wasn’t certain it was moral, but what else could they do with a war criminal like Vortex?

As though prompted by the thought, the bond became active; a brief moment of pain and nausea and frustrated arousal. First Aid slowed, dizzy.

//You OK back there?// Hot Spot said, nothing but fond concern in his tone.

//Yes,// First Aid replied, accelerating again to catch up. //Yes, I’ll be fine. Just…// He couldn’t finish. Just what? Vortex was in severe discomfort, probably undergoing repairs, and suffering from the effects of a bond that hadn’t been physically consummated.

With a sudden clarity, his own unusually high drive to interface made complete and horrible sense.

This time First Aid rolled to a halt. Oh scrap.

* * *