It was a simple enough scenario. Shockwave was minding Cybertron again, Soundwave was being his imperturbable self, and Megatron was sulking over their latest defeat.
"I know a small country, few allies, large deposits of energy sludge," Starscream mused out loud, optics gleaming. "It wouldn't take much effort, it's quite distant from any of the Autobot outposts, and this planet's governing body doesn't seem to care much for that country." He let his wings spread slightly, showing all his eagerness for a raid in full Seeker display.
"'Screamer, you're putting it out there, must be a bad idea," Skywarp said, and Thundercracker could almost believe it was just their usual barb and snipe session. "Unless, you've managed to cut a deal with the squishies? Got a plot in there, just looking to try and make a name for yourself?" he continued meanly.
Thundercracker could feel Megatron's first flare of interest cooling, turning derisive, and the sneer that appeared made him push forward. "I think it's a good idea. Flight time for us, easy spoils, maybe salvage, since all their tech will be black market buys…." They had found some useful alloys so far by taking gear off the squishies.
Skywarp turned his face toward his bond-mate, wings flicking dismissively. "Then you've obviously been listening to 'Screamer too much."
The rest of the meeting dissolved after that, with Thrust eyeing Starscream and Skywarp speculatively. Thundercracker almost missed the implied threat to his security as he felt his entire spark sink that Skywarp would be that openly hostile in tone and fields to himself. They had lost Skywarp, possibly had not had him since landing on Earth, or maybe before.
And now Thundercracker had to trust Starscream to fix it, when Starscream hadn't had a working plan in half a vorn.
There had been a raid, but it was decided by Soundwave based on surveillance from Ratbat. They'd been able to tap maybe a quarter of the reserves before a patrol of Autobots and the Earth Defense Force had ousted them, leaving both Dragstrip and Astrotrain to recover from heavy damage.
Thundercracker could have cared less, and had performed abysmally in the battle, too distracted by the stinging dismissal from Skywarp. As 'punishment', Starscream had sentenced him to fly solo patrols that ranged far from the Decepticon Headquarters. The shrill chastisement from Starscream had served to preserve illusions, but on any other cycle, Thundercracker might have thanked him for the escape.
Only he couldn't. He couldn't even escape anything but Skywarp's physical presence this way, lost in misery and aching to just have what had been so right between them all over again. He wanted to be whole, to touch and be touched and not worry over being seen weak for it. If only...
Unbidden, he thought of his encounters with the Autobot femme. She had given so freely, left him feeling the way he once had when Skywarp and he....
Savagely, he cut that off, but not before all the longing he had for solace, for safety, flung its way out along resonances that had yet to fade fully.
Midnight was out driving, thinking about what Jazz had said, about what the team that had come back from chasing off the Decepticons had said, when something slammed into her. A longing for safety, for something different (for peace) poured through her sensors like it was her own need, and she pulled over on the deserted stretch of coastal highway, flicking her flashers on. She tried to follow the sensation - it cut off sharply, a wash of gunpowder and burnt concrete in the way it vanished, and then she knew.
How didn't matter, she decided. What did matter was that the only mech on the other side of the war that she knew had more than conquest on his mind was in pain. She hunted for the frequency they'd spoken on, reaching as gently as she could out across it. ::Thundercracker?::
Thundercracker had to bank and cut his left wing low as the contact disturbed him from his brooding and his flight. She heard him? That made his paranoia kick into overdrive, checking all his frequencies, trying to be certain he had not let anyone else hear him, or he'd be torn apart.
All his safety protocols were intact though. Had he been so careless as to hard-link the frequency for her? That made more sense. She had taken him by surprise, and made him drop too many guards.
He should be angry, should seek her out and crush her for the trickster of an enemy she had to be, snaring him like that. Yet... he wanted to believe in her, in the fact she had listened, that she had not been repulsed or jockeying him for her advantage. He really just wanted to be near her again, to capture that moment all over again, of being at ease with another being.
::Are you alone?:: he demanded on that channel after adding another layer of encryption, just to be safe.
::Yes,:: Midnight sent, feeling the added encryption on his words with a flicker of concern. What was wrong, that he hadn't meant to reach to her but that he still had? ::I was just out driving. Are you alright?::
//No. None of us are.// He didn't say it, instead setting his navigation sensors on finding her. ::I am joining you.:: There. He had asserted himself, doing this out of his own desire. He was not just giving into his weaknesses. He was scouting out the enemy, learning more... and the lie fell in his own processor. He needed something other than hate and revulsion and plotting to calm himself down enough to handle Starscream's ideas better.
::All right,:: Midnight sent, curious and interested, shifting out of park to go and find a way up off the coast and into the mountains. ::I'm all the way on the West Coast right now,:: she sent, adding her coordinates so that he could find her. ::I'm going to go up into the hills, get off the highway so that you don't frighten any of the humans coming in, but I'll be glad to see you.::
He sent a dismissive snort at the protective streak, but it made sense even for him. He didn't want another run in with the EDF this soon, let alone any other Autobots. All he wanted was... to forget. ::I'll be there soon.::
::I'm sure of that,:: Midnight sent, curious and wondering at what was wrong, what he needed, letting her location flick across the frequency between them as she moved, transforming into her root mode to climb instead of drive when she got more into the mountains, going up until she found a clearing large enough for both of them, and sending him her location again.
True to his word, he did not take long to arrive, bleeding off speed into the inertial traps, a second-nature trick even though Starscream was keeping him supplied and helping him mask that fact. He was not as elegant as Screamer was in the jet-to-mech transformation for landing, but he managed to make it look graceful at least. Not like the cone-head types, who always looked clumsy and half-trapped betweens forms even as their pedes settled.
"Sparkle," he said for greeting, but his optics were taking her in so earnestly, as if convincing himself she was real and not tricking him for her own benefit.
"Thundercracker," she said softly, looking him over with only her optics from pedes to helm, trying to see if she could tell what was wrong. He was always graceful in the air, and easy in his transformation. She couldn't see anything, not really, though his frame bore some minor damage yet.
"What's wrong?" she asked, her voice still quiet, turning her hands palm-up just a little out from her sides, trying to say with her posture and her voice that she was there for him if he would let her be.
"Why's something got to be wrong?" he blustered at her, but he moved. He came in close, not a predator, but trying not to be too overeager to feel that pure field brush over him. He couldn't recall any deactivation being laid at her designation as a kill, and he was positive any that he would have heard of would be false; she felt so... different, untainted by the war in many ways.
She shook her helm at him a little, reaching out just enough to lay her fingertips on the broad span of his chestplates. "I felt you, just for a microsecond... it was a pretty good clue that everything's not okay," she told him as she watched for his reaction to her touch.
He didn't want to show how much that touch affected him, but he was still half-starved for it, and so mixed up. He hesitated a moment before he just let his wings fall and pressed closer, until he had his hands settled on her waist and his chestplates firmly pressed to her touch.
"I... I've lost my mate." He shouldn't have said it. He knew that. But it had boiled up, like she was a truth-virus jacked into his medi-port.
Midnight couldn't help but smile a little as he moved closer to her, pressed into her hands and let his wings drop out of that mantled, aggressive posture, as he reached out to wrap his hands around her waist... but then he spoke, and it wiped the smile off her face instantly. Her optics snapped up, searching across his faceplates, shock and concern both rippling through her. If the 'Con teleporter had been killed, she'd know, someone would have been bragging, but how else could he lose his mate?
What had happened? "What?" was all she could get out, even as she shifted herself closer against his frame. His fields washed against hers, chaotic and pained and acid-washed, and she just shifted her hands enough to press her forearms against his chestplates as well as her touch, fingers cupping around his sides.
"He's lost. Completely. He's not mine, he's... " Thundercracker's vocalizer cracked and then static-burst. He dropped his helm to the top of hers, micro-shudders beginning to wrack his frame as he admitted fully, in the depths of his spark, just how broken everything was.
//Not deactivated,// Midnight realized, not sure if she was more relieved or... what. But then he was trembling, his helm down against hers, and all she could do was wrap her arms as close around him as she could manage, press herself against his frame and extend what she could of her shields to hold him more closely than any frame-grip ever could. ::I'm here,:: she thought at him, bare brush of her focus and her concern over the frequency that was always going to be 'his', for her.
He could not stop shaking. He could not let go of her, and he knew in a small part of his processor that he was the most vulnerable he had been in an Autobot's presence in a vorn of vorns. In his spark, he almost wished she'd take advantage of it, even if Starscream had promised they would fix all of this.
::I'm here, Thundercracker,:: Midnight told him again, just another light, gentle brush of her thoughts against that frequency. It was all she could say. She couldn't tell him things would get better, or that it wasn't as bad as he thought, or any of the rest of the things she could say to one of her own. All she could do was give him the comfort of her presence, the grip of her arms and hands and the wrap of her shields around him. ::I'm here.::
//Here.// She barely knew him, but...her fields were around him for comfort, open to harm from him. She was there and caring and this bliss of different against all his sensors. He felt lost all over, in different ways, at the idea of her kindness. Then he decided, true to all he had been taught through the harsh war, that he had to take advantage of it while it was there, and he just wrapped his arms around her, and let go, spiraling through the loss of his mate as he tried to defrag his system, protected by her.
She wanted to talk to him, to be able to help... but she was afraid that she would say something that the ways that they processed meant he would take badly, and so she remained quiet, merely keeping up a low, soft hum on his frequency and in her vocalizer, holding him in close. She could feel him trying to process, feel the chaos of a system defrag while the mech was conscious and involved, and she just braced herself harder against the rock below her pedes and waited.
As he worked his way through the chaos storm he'd had building in his systems for too long now, he leaned into that solid presence. He held her, helm pressed to hers, and not once did he flinch from her. Finally, as it passed, his grip changed from supporting himself to just holding her carefully close, petting at the places his digits has pressed so hard into her armor.
"Hate me," he said, half-begged her, wanting her to show him the disgust quickly for how weak he had been.
Midnight blinked in shock, her arms tightening on him as much as her fields did, then one of her hands slid from his side up his chestplates. She wanted to reach to the back of all of his neck cabling, but that seemed incredibly unwise when she had a nanosecond to think. She stopped her hand, spreading it over his shoulder, and she murmured, "No. Why would I?"
He reared back some, staring down at her... and her honest, blunt truth slammed all through him again, causing him to stumble back in shock. "I'm weak and pathetic and... unsuitable for survival."
Midnight stared back at him, pulled along with his stumbling -- not entirely accidentally, she didn't want to let go -- as she shook her helm again. "You're not weak for that losing your mate hurts you, Thundercracker," she said softly, looking up at him. "And you're not pathetic, either."
Slowly, the seeker pulled on her again, as he lowered himself to the ground, trying to process what she was saying to him. He was hurting, but he wasn't damaged. That meant weakness. It had to. And yet...
He opened his memories, back to those long ago days when everything wasn't built on survival by force. He remembered just how he had met Skywarp... flaring white-hot pain in his fields for the loss of that... because of normal social interaction. It hadn't been weak to let the teleporter seduce him, or weak for them to decide they suited each other, choosing to duo because Skywarp drove off every other suitor. Okay, so Thundercracker had threatened to dismember one suitor himself, but the other Seeker had been more interested in what Skywarp could do than in either of them personally. But none of that had been weak. At one time, it had been the underlying basis of Seeker society. Yes, strength mattered, because resources were in short supply, but the tight weave of social ties had been a very real, very important part of life, and having them torn had always precipitated a mass sharing of the pain.
"Why did we tear apart every facet of what life meant?" he whispered.
Midnight followed him to the ground, settling half-into his lap. Her left knee was down between his and she twisted her hip and knee and heel so that she could wrap her other leg around his side, feeling the torment lashing through him. She leaned back against the long, broad span of his thigh, her hands still on his chest, and waited, humming to him low and soft as he obviously thought long and hard.
Eventually his optics came open, the brilliant red clouded and dark as he looked at her, his voice a choked, thin whisper as he asked a question that... she didn't know how to answer. She shook her helm, shifting to get closer to him, fingers stroking gently on his upper frame. "I don't know," she whispered back, "I wish I did..."
He flushed his intakes, long shudder of air moving through his system, reminding him he still had flight, he was still whole in the physical sense. More... there was this new connection. He watched her, sitting with him, touching him, listening to him. She wasn't a flier, not even a flight support-class (not that many of those, if any, still existed). But she was crisp and clear on his sensors, a feeling of pure freedom in the way she didn't fit his notions of the slagging 'Bots or his own rust-bitten side of things. He even had Starscream back, as odd as it felt to even think that.
"It's got to end," he said. "Only... No one knows how to. This war is the only way our processors can move data now."
"That's not true," Midnight said, looking at his optics with every bit of focus she had. "You're thinking about more than the war. If you can, there's got to be a way to convince others to -- but you're right. It has to end, for all of us."
He let a small smile show on his faceplates. "You're young." It was that tone of 'and foolish' but with gentle amusement. Starscream was thinking differently...but Thundercracker would bet his last energon ration Starscream was still centered on winning what he wanted. "I... " He stopped himself, then steadied his resolve. "I want to share your time more, but things are happening. 'Warp... might realize what he did." He felt an ache and longing for just that. "I might not be able to get away like this so often. But when I do... may I call for you?"
He wasn't going to make this a formal courting. He really wasn't. But … her resonance was pulling him in, making him need her presence in ways he hadn't experienced since before the war.
"Yes," Midnight said instantly, her fingers still running over his chestplates lightly. She wasn't going to bother trying to argue with the 'you're young' -- she was, there was no sense in picking that argument. No way to win, and it wasn't important anyway. Not in comparison to the rest of what he'd said. That was worth every bit of her attention.
"I'd be glad to hear from you... even more glad to see you," she added with a smile that felt too... something... shy perhaps, for her own tastes. "When you get the chance."
He saw that smile, felt the way she radiated her real pleasure. She wasn't lies and deception. She was real, truth, and so achingly magnetic. He leaned in, brushing his lips lightly over her helm, before he relaxed back. "Good."
She kissed him back, quick light brush of her lips against his that matched the one he'd given her, and then she followed the relaxing line of his frame to tuck herself against his chest, one audial pressed to his canopy.
He let his optics dim, turning his sensors on high-gain so he could keep her safe, and then just sat there, holding her, letting all the tension fade out of his wings and wires. Skywarp still hurt, but he could see past it, calmed by her presence, by the way she helped him think. He could take the time now to just enjoy her closeness, before he had to return to base.
It was entirely too short a time, by her standards, when she heard a comm coming in on her public frequency. It was Jazz, not one of her daddies or her father, but it was Jazz. ::I'm here, Jazz, what is it?:: she asked without moving away from Thundercracker at all.
::Need you back home, bitlet,:: Jazz sent, ::got something Prowler could use your optics on.::
Midnight tensed a little, pressing herself against Thundercracker's chestplates as she held on. ::...how soon?::
::Make it quick, but don't go breakin' the speed limit laws, bitlet.::
::Might be a little longer than that,:: she sent, a touch of warning in her tone, ::but yeah. I'll be home soon.::
Thundercracker looked down at her, wings flexing inward to shield her as much as he could; how he hated the Terran form that did not give him near enough flex in that! Quietly, he hummed at her, stroking her lower back to calm her. "Midnight?" he queried, voice low over that secondary hum he continued for her.
"Mmmph," she muttered, keeping herself tucked into his chest even as she pressed into the stroke of his hand on her back, low and contented hum deep in her own vocalizer. "Apparently I'm needed back home for something, but I'm not going until you're... steady."
He wanted to protest he didn't need to be guarded by an Autobot or a femme or... but her words were too kind, and she was so warm against his plates. He locked the feel and presence of her in as a memory and archived it in deep encryption, before he rocked them up a little straighter. "I'm better. I know you'll be there." He meant that in his spark, believing in her. "You need to go, then you go. And I'll find you when I can."
She stayed close, nuzzling against his frame even though he straightened, then leaned back so that she could get an easy look at his optics, searching them at his words. She could see how much he meant them, that he really thought he would be okay -- because he could find her? Because he knew she'd come to him? -- if she left. She smiled at him, slow and pleased and relieved, and she nodded. "Okay. You're sure." She shifted her weight one more time, darting in to kiss him again, adding a long, light stroke of her fields against his before she pulled away, starting to get to her feet. "I'll be glad when you can."
He tingled with that last caress, with the promise...the future? When had the future last held any meaning for him? He let her get fully to her pedes, then rose up on his own, catching her hand carefully to pull her back. "So will I," he murmured before he pressed his helm to hers while letting his fields mingle in hers lazily, a promise between them of more meetings.
"Mmm," she purred at him, pushing close again, wrapping her free arm close around him as he tangled their fields together. "Good." She was so glad of that. She wanted him to come back to her, wanted to see him, be with him... "I have to go," she said softly, still tucked against him, but she finally started to shift away.
"For now." He let her go, not wanting to be the first to leave and just watching her. He memorized her lines, savoring the sensor reports of her frame and fields. "Primus guard you," he added, letting his spark truly believe that their creator still listened to such words.
"And you," Midnight said back, taking steps backwards until she was far enough away that she could make herself turn, make herself start to climb back down from the clearing she'd found for them.
He stayed until she was out of sight, then launched upwards, transforming as soon as he felt like he had adequate space around him. The thought of shadowing her crossed his processor, but he had to keep from being too conspicuous somehow. He was still tingling with awareness of her as he streaked out toward the ocean, and that was enough to keep her in his processor.
The ocean had just came into sight when he realized that he had spent that much time in her presence, touching her, fields entwined, and not once had the need to interface come up between them. It was enough to make him lose speed and altitude in shock, trying to determine when he had last just cuddled with another being and it not have been part of interfacing.
Midnight had her audials cranked high, which let her hear it as he transformed and headed back towards the ocean (and the Nemesis, and the bond-mate that had hurt him so badly -- her dental plates ground at that, her optics sparking hot) behind her.
She felt the wash of his shock and surprise and it was the hardest thing she'd done in months not to reach out and find out what was on his processors now, but she did have to go home.
She filed it for the next time they saw each other -- along with finding out what the hell Skywarp had done -- and kept going, transforming back into her alt to burn some rubber going home.
Starscream had a problem. He had been dogged by subtle attempts to oust him form the Command position for several solar revolutions now, and with the latest debacle in a command-level meeting, those attempts were growing less subtle.
He had to solve the problem of his degradation, and his trine's, before he was forced to defend himself. Because if he did, and failed to underplay his competence correctly, whomever had done this to them all would be alerted to the fact Starscream knew.
And that was what Starscream wanted to avoid, as revenge was more rewarding when it came swiftly and unseen.
The panic in Thundercracker's send was enough to trip instinct-level reactions. Skywarp had located the mech… with difficulty, as Thundercracker's signature seemed to be hazed out by some kind of interference… and begun the computations to reach Thundercracker. He was too much a 'Con not to have his weapons ready to unlock, but there was always that bare minimum pause between arrival and stability in the other place-time where they, like his shields, were a little less reliable.
That bare moment of time before the 'pop' of mass displacement had truly formed was all Starscream needed, slamming his latest device between the air vents, just below the canopy's join to the frame. Skywarp tried to thrash from the sudden weight and Starscream's presence, but the device was swiftly pushing tendrils of wires down, into the protected processors beneath that join.
The last thing Skywarp processed fully before his world went black from the remote hack, powered by his Air Commander, was Thundercracker's wordless apology across their often-silent spark-bond.
Starscream working normally meant small sounds, mutterings, and various other vocalizations that Thundercracker knew to painstakingly avoid replying to unless he wanted a lecture on life being more than just existence, or …worse… the exact nature of what Starscream was doing. All of these memories had come back to Thundercracker in the first part of getting Skywarp back to Starscream's base, and the initial deep scan had lived up to it.
Then Starscream stopped making noise at all, digits with micro fine tools deep inside Skywarp through medical access hatches that no one but a coded medic was supposed to be able to pop free. Thundercracker really didn't want to know why Starscream had acquired that skill, let alone how. The silence, though, was worrying, and Thundercracker didn't know how much longer he was going to be able to bite off the words that wanted to spill into the silence.
"Thundercracker," Starscream said, and it was a quiet, soft tone that Thundercracker wasn't certain he ever wanted to hear again. It meant bad things, he just knew it. "Initiate self-diagnostic to this code specification, please." Starscream sent a high-level security-encased data packet, that took Thundercracker a long moment to unlock. It was using ancient encryption, the kind their class had laid aside in order to join the Decepticons fully. He struggled to unlock it, then examined it, but it was in code-levels that surpassed his own ability, making him look at Starscream suspiciously.
"'Screamer, what are you…"
Starscream's optics flared bright and angrily. "Either do it, or what I am doing now to save your slagging spark-mate is going to be for nothing!"
Thundercracker tested that demand/command for its level of blackmail quota versus sheer manipulation, and found the press along the trine bond was one of … concern? That could be faked, but in light of everything else he thought he needed to actually trust, this once, in the sincerity.
Starscream felt Thundercracker initiate the code and diagnostic, and he relaxed some from the tension that had built the more he analyzed Skywarp's systems at the base-code level. Comparing it to the bits of broken code in himself had produced an algorithm that could not be ignored; the damage was deliberate and had likely infected all the Seekers, if not more than that.
He ran his own purge file one more time, noting that the damaged sectors were not improving, and that indicated a viral capacity at the nanite level. He could reroute away from them, but they were there, black sectors of purged data. He had to remain ever vigilant, and would have to bolster his trine's immunity to the attack as well.
Now, though, with three samples, as Thundercracker's diagnostics fed back to him along a back-door feed, Starscream could begin isolating two things: how to beat the virus completely, and who crafted it.
When he figured that part out…
His smile was nothing less than predatory.