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Ghosts of Cybertron

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When he had a spare moment, Rodimus would put in some time in the medbay: patching lines, replacing armor plating or minor gears, nothing much more elaborate than field repair, but he'd been good at it as Hot Rod and saw no reason to let his skills get rusty. Thus it was that day.

The noise when he entered the medbay might lead one to believe that a large number of Autobots were injured, perhaps in the aftermath of a skirmish gone wrong, but the repair berths near the door were surprisingly empty. Rodimus made his way to the back of the room, following the commotion. To his surprise, he found three medics and only one patient, a squalling Red Alert.

"What happened?" he asked quietly when First Aid had a moment to spare.

The senior medic gave him a dry look. "Exorcism injury."

"Ah." Rodimus roused himself with a sigh. "I'll be right back." He walked out of the medbay, down the hall and into one of the rooms where his Iacon headquarters kept its processing units with a very calm, deliberate step.

"Starscream!" he shouted.

The ghostly Decepticon was slow to respond, but that was just how he was. Starscream emerged halfway from a processing block, scowling. "What?"

Rodimus put his hands on his hips. "How many times do I have to tell you to stay out of our communication systems? There's nothing in there you don't already know, and I need my Security Director halfway functional, thank-you-very-much!"

Starscream scoffed and rolled his optics. "It's his fault for trying to drag me out!" Rodimus's only answer was a stern glare. "Oh, fine," Starscream huffed. "I'll try not to break him."

"Thank you," Rodimus said, and as Starscream faded, muttered, "...jerk."

"Killjoy," he heard the reply echo through the walls.

"Lunatic dead guy."

"Good little Autobot."

The Prime had to smile at that as he exited the room.

*

"I can stay here all night," Starscream pointed out, voice rising in that way that meant he was thinking of charging up his null-rays. Or would be, if he still had null-rays. "And all day. And all the next day. I can out-wait you a thousand times over, and I don't have to stop to recharge!"

Skyfire idly considered the large flask in his hand, tilting it this way and that so that it caught the light. There were definite flecks of a metallic silvery element in there - evidence that the moon in the Tyron system might be worth its weight in platinum. He made a quick notation on the datapad, then tapped the stylus thoughtfully against it as he considered which tests to run next.

"Centrifuge," said Starscream from just over his shoulder, close enough that his vents would have been blowing hot air over Skyfire's back, if Starscream had vents these days. "And bake some of it up in the specimens oven, that ought to give you an idea of the ratios. What were you doing all the way out in the Tyron system, anyway? It's all boring lumps of nothing, if I recall correctly. It's probably just trace elements, nothing worth your time."

Skyfire placed the flask back in the rack and picked up the next near-identical one in the row.

"Primus! Are you actually going to stare at them one after the other? Why don't you start doing something?"

Skyfire thought he could see a faint red tinge in this sample. He noted down the possibility of water creating rust deposits, and moved onto the next flask.

"I can't believe how childish you're being about this."

An alarm beeped twice from Skyfire's console. Absently skimming through the datapad as he stood up, he returned the rack of samples to storage, then headed for the door.

"SKYFIRE!" Starscream had lost all pretence of control; his voice rose in a screech of indignation. "How dare you ignore me! I won't let you ignore me! You'll see, I'll--"

The door hissed shut, bringing with it silence, at least for a few moments before Starscream shot through the wall into the corridor.

"--until you wish you'd never been created with audio circuits!"

"Good evening, Blurr," Skyfire said politely to the startled blue bot who'd just come around the corner.

"HiSkyfire!" Blurr eyed Starscream warily. "Um, didyouknow that Starscream'sfollowingyou? He looksprettymad."

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Skyfire replied blandly.

"I hate you so much, you stupid great lug of a shuttle, I'm going to make you wish you'd never been defrosted--!"

"Um," said Blurr, speechless for once.

"See you later," Skyfire told him pleasantly, and headed to the rec room for a quiet cube of energon.

"SKY. FIRE. GET. BACK. HERE!"

*

To the right honorable Emperor of the Decepticons, Ruler of Charr and associated outlying suburbs, insert more ego-stroking stuff here, Dear Galvatron,

I did receive your last missive regarding one Starscream, fugitive from Decepticon justice. In fact I received the last four missives regarding the same subject, and I confess myself a bit curious. How, precisely, did you intend to punish him again? He is an ex-Seeker. Granted, it hasn't slowed him down much, but aside from ritually stuffing him in some artifact or other (which you've made clear you have no patience for), there's not much you can do. In any case, even if I was of a mind to box him up and ship him over (thus violating the terms of his surrender and losing the trust of the ex-Con community here on Cybertron), I couldn't do it. Yes, I can keep him from possessing people, but that's the only control the Matrix gives me over Cybertron's restless dead.

In other news, thank you for the information regarding slaver activity in the Targenian system. We'll be systematically kicking their afts over the next few weeks; I suggest you stay away from the area...

Rodimus leaned back from his console with a sigh; correspondence with his rival could be interesting but on the whole the day had been filled with too much paperwork and not enough really accomplished. He hated days like this - made him restless, made him think too much.

He felt Starscream's presence before he spoke, so he didn't jump at the offended shriek. "You know I hate it when you contact him!"

"Deal with it," Rodimus muttered, not moving from his seat. "He's the leader of the Decepticons. I have to deal with him."

"He killed me!"

"Yeah, well, you killed him first," Rodimus pointed out, finally finding the shimmer of a ghostly silver wing above him. "What's wrong with you anyway?"

Starscream materialized just enough to give him a furious scowl. "Absolutely nothing, Prime, not that you care." He flickered out again in a whirl of angry red sparkles, and Rodimus hunched over his desk to rub the bridge of his nose - which fortuitously let him avoid the globe pegged at his head.

"Hey!" he yelled as the globe shattered, surging to his feet - but Starscream was gone.

*

It was... difficult, to say the least, to carry on a conversation with Skyfire while a disembodied Seeker was shrieking insults at him, but Silverbolt did the best he could. If Skyfire could ignore the ghostly form that occasionally hovered in front of his optics in a desperate attempt to get his attention, then surely he could as well - and it wasn't like Silverbolt particularly wanted to acknowledge the ex-Decepticon's presence at the best of times.

And he had to admit that watching Starscream utterly lose it over such a little thing was really quite satisfying.

The others weren't doing so well. Slingshot wasn't even trying, far more inclined to snicker at some of Starscream's better efforts than to take Skyfire's side, while Skydive was regarding the pair of them with the weary look that said he felt the whole thing was beneath him. Fireflight and Air Raid were making a fine attempt at playing the "pretend there isn't a furious transparent Seeker shouting over the top of our conversation" game, but Air Raid couldn't help snapping back occasionally and Fireflight kept taking offence at some of the nastier things Starscream had to say about Skyfire.

Silverbolt thought he was getting a headache, but he was pretty sure that it couldn't be as bad as the one Skyfire was probably dealing with right now, so he kept up his end of the conversation as well as he could.

He was starting to wonder if Fireflight hadn't been onto something with that 'Ghostbusters' movie he'd dug up.

Abruptly, Starscream shot up through the ceiling. Silverbolt paused mid-sentence, waited, then shot Skyfire a look half hopeful, half weary.

"Has he actually gone?"

"I think so." Skyfire leaned sideways in his chair and covered his optics with a hand. Silverbolt didn't like to think too closely about why Skyfire could tell when Starscream was around even if he wasn't visible, but at least it meant they knew for definite that he wasn't listening in. "I wonder if I actually could take my audio capacitors offline...?"

"I don't think that would be a very good--"

Skyfire sat up suddenly, expression going neutral again, just as a blurr of red and silver spun back into the room - and flung a chair at the shuttle's head.

"Skyfire!" Silverbolt yelped.

The chair bounced harmlessly off an invisible barrier a few spans from Skyfire's back. He didn't even look around.

"Silverbolt?"

"Er..." Silverbolt tried to remember what they'd been talking about. "... so... when were you planning to... -- Look out!"

This time it was two chairs and a datapad. Again, they failed to connect with Skyfire's seemingly unprotected head. This time Starscream came with them, howling up to hover in Skyfire's face like an angel of vengeance.

"A personal shield, Skyfire? Are you insane?! You'll drain your power core too fast to replenish it! Even someone your size can't sustain those levels of energy output!"

Skyfire appeared to be contemplating the scenery outside the the window - and through Starscream, not that he was giving any indication that he was aware of this - but now that Silverbolt looked, his optics were rather pale...

"Is he right?" asked Silverbolt, abruptly concerned. "Skyfire, you're not doing anything stupid, are you?"

Skyfire shot him a faintly betrayed look, while Starscream whirled to snarl, "You stay out of it!"

Skyfire got to his feet.

"I think I'll get back to the lab," he said, to no-one in particularly, and headed for the door.

The chair he'd been sitting on bounced off his invisible shield just before he reached it, ricocheting off a wall and nearly taking Springer's head off.

"Hey! Watch it!"

"Or you'll do what?"

Springer shot Starscream a disgusted look. "I'll think of something. Are you done with your tantrum?"

Starscream shrieked.

"Tantrum? TANTRUM? I haven't even STARTED yet!"

*

From under the table, sometime later, Silverbolt sent a rather snappy comm to Skyfire: If he weren't already dead, I'd kill him myself.

The reply didn't make him feel much better:

I don't think he'd stay dead even then.

Chapter Text

"Out."

"But-"

"Out."

Starscream actually went so far as to lower himself so that his optic level was below Rodimus's. "Please, Prime? I promise I won't do anything."

"You've done enough," Rodimus snapped.

"It's not my fault Skyfire installed that personal shield-"

"It's your fault he had to use it when you threw half the rec room at him!" Rodimus loomed over him, incandescent with rage. "You swore to me that if I took you in you wouldn't hurt anyone. Those were our terms and if you can't adhere to them, then I can't protect you."

Starscream shrank back to the wall, even sinking into it in misery. "You wouldn't give me to Galvatron, would you?"

The Prime gave him a frosty smile. "No, Starscream. I'd just give you to Optimus for a few hours. He hasn't lectured anybody in a long time."

"You wouldn't!" the ghost whispered.

"Try me."

Without a word, Starscream sank back into the wall and disappeared from view. Satisfied, Rodimus re-entered the medbay, acknowledging First Aid's quiet greeting with a grim nod.

Skyfire lay near motionless on his berth, an energon drip hooked into his near-dry systems. He averted his gaze when the Prime approached, and didn't seem to notice when he knelt by the spacejet's side.

"Skyfire, this has to change," Rodimus murmured to him.

"Don't, Prime," Skyfire muttered. "Don't ask me to."

"Please. I know I have no right, but - please." Rodimus gripped his hand. "I'm not asking you to kiss and make up. Just acknowledge him every once in a while."

Skyfire darkened his optics and turned his head to one side. "He won't be satisfied. He never is."

"I think he'll surprise you." Rodimus offered a smile. "He'll never not be a pain in the aft, Skyfire, but - wasn't he like that before he was a Decepticon, too?"

Skyfire sighed deeply, toyed with the tube in his chest. "I'll think about it," he said at last, and Rodimus's tensed-up shoulders relaxed a fraction.

*

"Silverbolt--"

"Get off me!"

"C'mon, 'Bolt, quit it already, it's not like you can do anything to him--"

"I said, get off me!"

It was the tone more than anything that did it, because Silverbolt never spoke to them like that, not even when Air Raid took on five Decepticons in one go or Slingshot got into another stupid fight with one of his (numerous) rivals or Fireflight himself got distracted and forgot his mission and had to be rescued from yet another unlikely corner of the globe (and he hadn't even done that at all recently, he'd been getting better, really!), and it was scary. At least, that was why Fireflight let go. Maybe Air Raid had a different reason. Skydive hung on for a few more seconds, but by then Starscream was already putting in his two microchips.

"Yes, what are you going to do, 'Bolt?" he asked sweetly, sitting in midair up near the ceiling of the hangar. "Shout at me? Fly through me? I have to tell you, it doesn't have much effect..."

"Oh, shut up!" shouted Silverbolt, shaking Skydive off and striding across the hangar floor, wings twitching in fury. Fireflight exchanged a worried look with the others and scuttled after him. "He didn't want me to get involved so I wasn't going to but now you've almost killed him--"

"It's not my fault he was stupid enough to try to run a gestalt-shield on his personal systems!" retorted Starscream. "He pulls that sort of idiotic stunt all by himself!"

"He's got a point," remarked Slingshot from his post as lookout on the door.

"Shut up, Slingshot," snapped Silverbolt, still moving towards Starscream, who showed no inclination to move away. "You're deliberately baiting him," he went on to Starscream, "you're deliberately trying to get him to make a mistake and get hurt--"

"I am not!" And the weird thing, Fireflight thought, as he caught up to Silverbolt and tentatively tried to grab an arm, was that Starscream actually sounded like he meant it that time. "I just... don't like being ignored."

Silverbolt yanked his arm free of Fireflight's grasp, turned to glare at him - Fireflight shrank back - and then snapped his head around to fix Starscream with an expression of such loathing that the ghostly Seeker looked taken aback. For all of about half a nano-klik, admittedly, but Fireflight was impressed all the same. Then the usual sneer was back.

"Oh, please," he said. "What, you're going to stare at me until I beg for mercy?"

He drifted down towards the deck, raking his optics over Silverbolt in an assessing, predatory way that made Fireflight kind of want to hit him - and if the way Air Raid was glowering and Slingshot had taken a half-step away from the door were any indication, he wasn't the only one.

"I have no idea what he sees in you," Starscream went on, voice scratchy with contempt. "What do you even talk about - the weather?"

The scary thing, they would agree later, was that Silverbolt did not respond. He didn't growl, or hurl back a retort, or shout something like "THAT'S IT, I'VE HAD ENOUGH!" the way people were supposed to when they suddenly snapped. He just went stock-still, optics flaring -

- and then about ten thousand volts crackled and leapt through Starscream's translucent form, making him shriek with surprised pain as he lit up like an Earth Christmas tree.

"Well," said Silverbolt, voice oddly flat. "Look at that. Apparently electricity can still affect your spark."

It was at that point that the other four Aerialbots piled onto Silverbolt and pinned him to the deck, but Fireflight thought, secretly, that even getting the fright of his life was worth seeing the look of shock on Starscream's face.

*

General consensus among the Autobots - and most of the Decepticons, although Blitzwing was still of the opinion that Starscream should just kidnap and ravish Skyfire and be done with it - was that Starscream deserved it, and if his comeuppance had come from an unexpected quarter, well, no one could fault Silverbolt under the circumstances.

Except perhaps Fireflight, who seemed unsure what to think of his gestalt leader now; and except Starscream, because of course nothing was ever his fault, as he petulantly told Perceptor.

Because he wasn't really making a nuisance of himself beyond the sulky chatter - which was an improvement over the norm - Perceptor listened indulgently as he repaired various microchips before offering his own opinion. "Certainly, I cannot approve of Silverbolt's reaction," he said. "It was rather childish of him, even if I do understand his motives."

"What motives?" Starscream snorted. "He's just afraid I'll take his boyfriend."

"That," Perceptor pointed out wryly, "doesn't seem to be in the realm of possibility."

"Skyfire's just being stubborn!" In his rage, Starscream lifted up a rack of drying beakers; at a pointed look from Perceptor, the ghost reluctantly set them down again. "If he would just talk to me." Then, in a tone Perceptor was probably not meant to hear, "It's been so long, and he's so close, and I miss him."

Perceptor sighed, leaned against the counter. "I cannot pretend to understand your feelings, since I do not share your circumstances," he said slowly, and Starscream shut up to listen. "But I have worked with Skyfire since he joined the Autobots, and I know he felt your loss deeply. If the events that drove you apart still weigh so heavily upon him, it can only be because he misses you too."

Starscream was silent for a long time. At length he faded into the wall, his colors dark as when he first died. Perceptor set his work aside and left the lab for someplace not so silent.

*

Dear Cyclonus,

Enclosed is your order - my latest and greatest acquisition, as requested. If this doesn't distract Galvatron, we may have to resort to dressing Roddy up in that slave-Leia getup and sending him over.

Just kidding (mostly),
Sideswipe

*

He probably should've expected to find Starscream lurking in his lab when he returned to it, but Skyfire almost turned and walked back out nonetheless. He just had no energy to deal with Starscream right now - in addition to his collapse (which was annoying as well as uncomfortable: he'd been sure he'd compensated adequately for the drain, and the fact that he apparently hadn't meant that he'd missed something crucial in the basic calculations) he'd spent most of his downtime reassuring Silverbolt, who in typical fashion had not been able to stay angry for long enough to avoid the inevitable guilt.

"What do you want?" he asked bluntly.

"Oh, so you're deigning to acknowledge my presence now?" The words were not nearly as acerbic as they were pretending to be, however, and Starscream seemed unusually subdued. "Are you... recovered?"

"For the most part." Skyfire decided there was no help for it, and crossed the lab to his workbench, careful not to look in Starscream's direction. "Apparently my adaptations to the shield generator were insufficient to counteract the systems drain."

A snort of disdain. "I could have told you that." -- but the rebuke was almost tentative, if such a word could ever be applied to Starscream. "Did you account for the reverse electron flow on the secondary capacitor loop?"

"Of course I--" Skyfire paused, considered the suggestion more carefully, remembering that Starscream had been in the middle of a tirade from the other side of the lab when he'd been working on that part. "Perhaps I didn't. I was... distracted at the time."

Another mech might have taken the opportunity to apologise. Starscream said nothing, which in itself spoke volumes. Skyfire pulled the wrecked generator out of subspace - it had overloaded when his systems abruptly terminated the connection in self-defence - and reached for his tools.

He was aware of Starscream hovering just behind his left shoulder, the same way he used to back before the war, when he wanted to see what Skyfire was doing but couldn't quite overcome his pride enough to ask to be shown.

"I've worked on the Stunticons' forcefields," Starscream commented in a neutral tone. "Not quite the same principle, and they were built around the technology, but..."

Rodimus was, perhaps, right - there was more of the Starscream he remembered from the old days here. Just as difficult, as proud, and as confrontational, perhaps, but lacking that obsessive sadism that had so repelled Skyfire when they had first met after the ice. Starscream had always had a streak of cruelty, of course, and doubtless always would, but his position as second-in-command of the Decepticons seemed to have turned it into the single most powerful driving force behind his actions.

"You take a look, then," said Skyfire, the words coming hard to him, but a relief at the same time. "See if you can tell me what went wrong."

*

"Hah! You call that a formation strike? I could fly more gracefully with a wing off!"

"Yeah, right, cow thrusters! Aerialbots, get him!"

Skyfire, fresh from an all-night lab session, emerged into the open air and found Silverbolt on the ground watching as his Aerialbots chased a laughing, flickering Starscream around in circles above. The lasers the Autobots fired could not harm the dead Seeker, of course, but they lit him up briefly, in flashes that left glowing trails behind. As Skyfire watched, Starscream spun in the grip of one of those flashes, simulating a downed enemy, before regaining his flightpath below Slingshot and attacking him with invective and ghost-tickles from below.

Without taking his attention from the spectacle, Silverbolt said, "I don't know what you said to him, but he's certainly returned to his old cheerful self."

"We didn't really say anything," Skyfire admitted. "Starscream's not the heartfelt confession type."

That earned him a smile. "No, he's more the 'tantrum, sulk, pretend nothing happened' type." Silverbolt tilted his head to look at Skyfire at last, a strange smile dancing at the edge of his mouth. "I'm... glad, anyway. I know it weighed on you."

Skyfire nodded, preferring to let his hand on Silverbolt's wing speak for him - commiseration, connection, mute apology - as overhead the Aerialbots shrieked and wheeled after their quarry.

"They are getting better," Silverbolt mused.

Skyfire laughed. "Don't worry. I won't tell Starscream you said that."

"Thank you. He's insufferable enough as it is."

"Yes, I know." Skyfire shook his head as Air Raid yelped in mock fury, transformed mid-turn, and set Starscream's form alight with lasers.

"I'm ten times prettier than you!" he declared, and Silverbolt and Skyfire broke down laughing.

*

Third letter to Rodimus in as many hours and still no response. Galvatron huffed at the screen - didn't the Prime know he was supposed to keep an optic on his mailbox at all times? He was Galvatron! His missives ought to be replied to promptly, with lots of flattery!

...oh, never mind. Galvatron muttered uncomplimentary things about his rival and slumped back, the Dis's command chair taking his weight with nary a creak. The problem with the Autobots these days, he found himself thinking, was that they didn't get in Galvatron's way as often as they used to. Maybe he ought to go conquer something, just to get their attention.

"My lord."

The salutation was given in the low tones Cyclonus used when he was sure he'd done something wrong - and, smart as his second was, he was usually right. "What is it?" Galvatron growled, not looking up.

"I've brought you something," Cyclonus answered, quickly coming forward to kneel just behind him. Galvatron waited just long enough to make him squirm before turning to look.

Cyclonus, his dark formal cloak draped over his shoulders, bore in his hands the largest, scariest sex toy Galvatron had ever seen. The thing looked like a small cannon having enthusiastic sex with an instrument of torture. ...which, of course, gave Galvatron ideas.

"Come here," he ordered, and didn't wait for Cyclonus to obey before yanking the spacejet up by a wing and kissing him senseless.

Chapter Text

Cybertron was in a state of controlled panic. In theory, the response to the discovery that their Prime had been kidnapped by the Decepticons should have been nice and straightforward: go forth, cannons blazing, and get him back by any means necessary.

The fact that said Decepticons had left a polite note promising to return him (mostly) undamaged within 30 joors had rather derailed things.

Ultra Magnus scanned over the offending datapad for the hundredth time, sighed, and pressed a hand to his optics. He was tempted to call up Cyclonus on their private frequency and demand to know what in the Pit Galvatron thought he was playing at - but given the phrasing of the note, and some reports he'd had from Red Alert on Sideswipe's latest contraband acquisitions, he would, to be honest, rather not know what he might be interrupting.

And then there was the other problem.

"Starscream," he said, with as much patience as he could manage - how did Rodimus put up with the ex-Seeker? "Get out of Air Raid at once."

"Not on your spark," crowed Starscream from where he was busily filling cubes of high-grade energon in the corner of the rec room. "Do you have any idea how annoying it is having the Matrix stopping me from possessing people? I'm going to have fun for a bit. Besides," and here he smirked in a way that was so purely Starscream that it was quite unsettling to see it on Air Raid's face, "he said I could."

"It's true," piped up Fireflight from where he was watching Starscream's growing pile of cubes with wide-opticked fascination. "Air Raid did say he could."

"I see." Ah, there it was, the beginning of the mother of all processor-aches. "And did you clear this with Silverbolt?"

"Oh, please." Starscream seemed to decide he had enough energon for now (fifteen cubes? Could Air Raid's tanks even hold that much?) and sprawled into a chair. He took a sip of high-grade and threw back his head with an expression close to rapture. "What goody-two-thrusters doesn't know won't hurt him."

*

Air Raid's tanks could not, in fact, hold that much. Not that Starscream got any of the fallout - he had vacated his host's body long before the first surges hit, leaving Air Raid to deal with the aftermath of Drinking Too Much Too Quickly on his own. First Aid's righteous wrath could be heard all the way to Charr. (Rodimus was in fact ready to pick up and head back to Cybertron, worried over his people; the fact that he was shackled to a wall made that difficult, and in any case he soon forgot his own name, much less how to worry about people who were a whole planet away.)

Silverbolt came to visit his wingmate after most of the ugly part had gone down; a pain in the aft he may be sometimes, but the leader of the Aerialbots gave excellent wingrubbings. "Why'd you let him?" he asked, stroking his palms outward along the leading edge.

Air Raid took a moment to moan before answering. "Curious."

"About?"

"Him. His memories. What makes him tick."

Silverbolt blinked. "You read his mind?"

"Yeah... no. Sorta. More like he used my memory banks as temporary storage. I didn't get to keep any of his memories, but..." Air Raid hummed, turned his head to one side and smiled. "Maybe I picked up a few things."

"I see." Silverbolt fell silent then, and applied his whole self to the effort of wingrubbing.

*

Starscream was taking a break from possessing people (he'd tried to possess Blurr, with rather disastrous results) when Silverbolt found him. "Come to lecture me again?" the ex-Seeker sneered, trailing his fingers idly through the wall.

"I already know you won't listen." Silverbolt stood before him, arms crossed. "I do think you've got a lot of convincing to do before I let you in one of my people again, though."

"Air Raid agreed to it!" Starscream protested, still wary of the big flier.

"And you took advantage of it and left Air Raid in a sorry state."

"If you were insubstantial," Starscream sniffed, "you'd take whatever chance you could to experience being overcharged again."

Silverbolt smiled - hard, thin, rather Megatron-like to Starscream's way of thinking. "That's exactly the issue here, isn't it?"

"What?"

"Before I let you ride around in an Aerialbot again, I want to know what they'd be getting out of it - and what you are."

Starscream lit up with his whole self. "Are you offering-?"

"Hurry up before I change my mind."

Starscream hesitated only a moment before diving into Silverbolt.

It was an ill fit - most of Silverbolt's right side was beyond him, and his processor had several locks Starscream couldn't pass - but he could have flown well enough, and that was enough for him. "Learn what you need to," he said through Silverbolt's mouth.

"You too," Silverbolt answered the same way, and suddenly Starscream was bombarded with images of exactly what his host and Skyfire had been up to last night.

The screams, again, reached all the way to Charr, but at least this time nobody paid much attention.

*

It was when Skyfire realised he'd got through an entire day without interruption that he began to get worried. Not only had Starscream failed to materialise (literally), but Silverbolt hadn't dropped by for a chat, and the rest of the Aerialbots had also been conspicuously absent (even Fireflight, who was usually in and out of Skyfire's lab whenever he wasn't on duty). He cleaned up his bench, put away his tools, and went jet-hunting.

A long trail of complaints/amusement, a still-wobbly Air Raid, Ultra Magnus's locked office door (from behind which Skyfire could swear he heard the faint strains of Vivaldi and the occasional whimper), and some third-hand sightings later, he finally tracked Silverbolt down to a small rec room away from the usual haunts of off-duty Autobots. The silver jet was sitting hunched over in a chair, nursing a cube of energon, with an uncharacteristic scowl on his face.

"Silverbolt?" Skyfire tried not to let his worry into his voice. "Are you okay? And do you know where--"

Silverbolt looked up at him, and Skyfire simultaneously realised that Silverbolt's energy pattern had been overlaid with another, just as familiar one - and that the usually blue optics were a scalding red.

"Oh," said Skyfire. Then, angrily, "Starscream, get out!"

"He started it," muttered Starscream sullenly through Silverbolt's mouth, sinking deeper into the chair. "Sneaky bastard. Plays dirty. No wonder you like him - he's good at it." A wince, caused, apparently, by some stray uncomfortable thought. "... among other things."

Skyfire decided he didn't want to think too closely about that (or about the fact that his current and ex-lovers were sharing a body, which had to come pretty high on the list of Awkward Romantic Situations) and cautiously took a seat.

"I hope you're not planning to leave him with the hangover the way you did with Air Raid."

"Oh, we've agreed certain ground rules," said Silverbolt, eyes flashing back to blue and voice falling into his usual tones. "No overcharging, no flying over 10,000 feet, no pretending to be me..."

"... no overshare," finished Starscream pointedly.

It was disconcerting to see Silverbolt's optics change colour in a nanoklik, and to hear Starscream's voice coming from Silverbolt's vocaliser. Skyfire considered asking them to separate, but he was, he had to admit, deeply curious as to what had prompted Silverbolt into allowing this - and he wasn't going to do anything that might sabotage what looked like the beginnings of some sort of truce.

"So, you've just been... talking?"

"Something like that." Starscream glared at a point in space, apparently the only means he had of expressing his irritation with his current host. "I need more high-grade."

"I thought Silverbolt said--"

"Oh, give him some credit, he's not a complete lightweight."

Skyfire couldn't keep the amusement off his face. Starscream seemed to realise he'd just inadvertently complimented Silverbolt, threw Skyfire a withering look, and downed the rest of his cube in a quick, practised swallow that had Skyfire, despite himself, suddenly and keenly aware of Silverbolt's mouth. He looked away quickly, confused beyond words by the superimposition of Starscream's mannerisms on Silverbolt's body. Confused and, to his embarrassment, more than a little... intrigued.

"Hmmm."

And that was not a reassuring sound, not from Starscream, not - Skyfire darted a quick glance at his face - when his optics were narrowed and that tiny smirk was playing about his - Silverbolt's - lips. Starscream confined himself, however, to reaching for another cube (somehow he'd got a whole supply of what looked like non-regulation high-grade, Primus knew how, unless Silverbolt had been secretly stockpiling the stuff - which Skyfire, yesterday, would have said was unlikely, but he was starting to wonder if he actually knew his partner as well as he'd thought) and offering it to Skyfire.

"We've been having a lovely chat," Starscream said sweetly, "about all sorts of things. Why don't you join us?"

And the alarming thing, Skyfire thought as he took the cube and wondered just how badly this was going to come back to bite him, was that he couldn't actually tell whether that invitation had come from Starscream or Silverbolt.

*

Fireflight thought it was Slingshot at first - the mech was never so ready to go as when he'd just went, and the arms and chest pressed against his wings (oh great Primus, his wings) were fairly humming with post-coital signals. Fireflight sighed and leaned back against his visitor, who took his weight with a solidity and ease that Slingshot had never managed. Somewhat apprehensive, Fireflight looked back.

"Knock it off, Starscream," he said with no real conviction after his spark had started beating again.

Starscream, still in Silverbolt's body, gave him his best 'on my best behavior' smile, which of course only worried Fireflight further. "You can't tell me you don't enjoy this."

"Is Silverbolt enjoying this?" Fireflight asked pointedly.

"Oh, he's long since worn out, poor thing." Starscream affected a sympathetic pout, which looked positively obscene with Silverbolt's lips. "I'm just having a little fun before he wakes up and kicks me out."

Worn out doing what, was the salient question, but Fireflight wasn't inclined to ask: in the first place, he wasn't sure he wanted to know, and in the second place, Starscream was every bit as good at wingrubbings as his host. And if his hands occasionally strayed, all the better.

*

"New ground rule," said Silverbolt, staring thoughtfully at the ceiling.

"What?"

Starscream didn't sound like he particularly cared; he was floating on the other side of Silverbolt's quarters, the barest outlines of him visible against the wall, his whole body expressing languid satisfaction.

"No running around interfacing with half the base in my body." A pause. "Especially not my entire gestalt."

"You are no fun at all."

"That wasn't what you said last night."

"Very funny."

*

Cyclonus,

It's been 30 joors and fifteen breems. Where is my Prime?

Yrs in some trepidation,
Ultra Magnus


My dear Ultra Magnus -

We are having technical difficulties. Please stand by.

- Cyclonus


Cyclonus,

Technical difficulties? Of what sort? Is Rodimus in danger?

Yrs in more trepidation,
Ultra Magnus


My dear Ultra Magnus,

No danger, at least not unless he laughs himself into a seizure, which does, I admit, seem a possibility under the circumstances. I am at present more concerned about Lord Galvatron, who does not appreciate the... humour... of the situation the way the Prime does.

- Cyclonus


Cyclonus,

Am I going to need the extra-strength firewall for this one?

Yrs in considerable alarm,
Ultra Magnus


My dear U.M. -

Yes.

- C

Chapter Text

When Rodimus returned - somewhat the worse for wear, needing medical attention and grinning like fury - Starscream lost the ability to amuse himself by possessing people, so he was reduced again to simply bugging them for attention. Consensus around the base, though, was that the ex-Seeker was easier to tolerate now that he'd worked things out (sort of) with Skyfire and Silverbolt.

Not by much, though. "I still can't believe you," he was telling Rodimus, with an injured tone. "You went off on a dalliance with my killer-"

"I was kidnapped!" Rodimus protested, all wide-opticked innocence.

"Oh, I'm sure you put up so much resistance, Prime!"

"I did so," Rodimus huffed. "It's a matter of principle. Anyway, it wasn't as if I was idle while I was there."

"I don't need to hear details!" Starscream shrieked.

"Oh, fine, spoilsport. Just mark Targen on your star charts as a pacified system. Galvatron and I cleaned it out of slavers." At Starscream's dumbstruck look, Rodimus grinned. "What, you think we just shagged all that time?"

"To be frank, yes!"

"Not all of us are insatiable as you," Rodimus sniped, and ducked an insubstantial swipe.

"Anyway," Starscream went on, "I've got some news for you, as it happens."

Rodimus shot him a suspicious look.

"Does this involve what I've been hearing about you and Skyfire, Silverbolt, Tracks, any of the Aerialbots, or - and I have to ask what you were thinking here - Wheelie?"

"That never happened!"

"Sure, whatever you say."

"I mean it! I have standards!"

"Low ones." Rodimus leaned aside easily as a datapad shot past his head. "Now, now, what have I said about poltergeist activity on the base?"

"Fine. See if I tell you anything important."

Starscream began to sink through the floor. Just as his chin reached the decking, he smiled in a way that Rodimus was not entirely comfortable with.

"... like who else is haunting your base."

"What?"

But Starscream had vanished.

*

After a thorough search of the base, Rodimus came to the conclusion that Starscream was blowing smoke. He went to bed (somewhat early for him - he'd had an eventful day) content in the knowledge that things were still safe as houses for himself and his people, with no bothersome ghosts (only a slightly irritating one) to menace them.

An hour later, Red Alert was banging on his door, wailing about angry spirits and poltergeist activity and needing an old priest and a young priest. Rodimus, who was the closest thing Cybertron had to a priest, rolled out of bed and opened the door before he had fully awakened, listening to Red Alert rant until he'd spent himself. Then he yelled, "Starscream!"

The Seeker appeared almost immediately. "What!?"

"You know what!" Red Alert burst out. "Stop shaking the furniture in the common room!"

"I'm not doing anything!" Starscream shot up to the ceiling in indignation. "How dare you accuse me!"

"Oh, and I suppose if I go back there right now it will be all quiet-" Red Alert paused, a strange look on his face. "Red Alert here," he said to the air to one side, and Starscream and Rodimus respectfully drew back to let him listen to his caller over comm. "...I see. Yes. I will inform him." Red Alert turned back to him, optics pale. "A chair was just flung at Bluestreak. He's injured."

"It's not me!" Starscream protested, "I'd have to be in the room to do it, I like Bluestreak-" but Red Alert and Rodimus were already racing to the common room.

By the time they reached it, the furniture had settled down and the mechs present were cautiously starting to pick things up and get the room back to its normal state. It was still easily apparent to Rodimus that someone had done a number on the place, though - datapads had been flung all over, furniture overturned, odds and ends smashed or rolled into far corners. Even without Starscream's protestations of innocence, it was far more devastation than the ex-Seeker had ever carried out.

"Report?" Rodimus asked of the room at large.

He got back a confused babble - apparently it had started with little things, small objects moving by themselves, then built up over the last couple of joors to the crescendo that had resulted in Bluestreak taking a chair to the head and the rest of the room's occupants building themselves a sort of siege fort out of couches (this had been the Twins' idea). A few minutes of questioning established that no-one had seen anything apart from the flying objects, and that Starscream had definitely not been anywhere in the vicinity.

"I'm really okay," Bluestreak was protesting as First Aid explored the dent on the back of his helmet with gentle fingers and a sour expression. "I mean, I guess I'm a bit shaky, but it's not any worse than that time I hit my head on the bunk after Hot Rod - I mean, Rodimus - I mean, well, he was Hot Rod then - anyway, you remember, that funny little radio-controlled thing that started talking to me in the middle of the night..."

Rodimus was torn between maintaining his image as Prime, and acknowledging that the prank had been rather a good one - Sideswipe was grinning at him. In the end he contented himself with telling Bluestreak to take some time off duty, and wondered what, exactly, he was supposed to do next.

That part of the question was at least partly answered when Starscream popped out of the wall, followed by Skyfire and Perceptor (using the more conventional means of entering the room) carrying a number of complicated-looking scientific instruments. Silverbolt trailed in after Skyfire, looking like he'd been asleep and didn't particularly want to be awake.

"Starscream--" began Rodimus.

"He was with us all evening," Skyfire put in quickly. Rodimus shot a glance at Silverbolt, who had the grace to look embarrassed. "It wasn't him who--"

"Yeah, yeah, I know." Rodimus fixed the ghostly Seeker with a pointed glare. "But you've got some idea of what's going on, haven't you?"

Starscream hovered over Perceptor's scanning implements, apparently absorbed in watching him set them up.

"Me? What gives you that idea?"

"Because you said that someone else was haunting our base."

Starscream spared him a glance that was almost flirtatious in its pretended innocence.

"Did I say that?"

Rodimus sighed. The crack about standards had obviously been one step too far for Starscream's pride.

"Oh, alright," he muttered. "I'm sorry I implied that you'd taken advantage of my absence to shag half the base, okay? ... even if you did..."

Out of the corner of his optics, he saw Silverbolt clap a hand over his optics and edge behind Skyfire, the air around him practically burning with humiliation. Starscream abandoned all pretence of examining Perceptor's instruments and came to hover in front of Rodimus, high enough to force the Prime to look up at him, his smirk a parsec wide.

"And are you going to tell me how utterly indispensable, blindingly intelligent, and ravishingly beautiful I am?"

"Pushing it," murmured Skyfire, without looking up from his readouts.

"No," responded Rodimus with his own sweet smile. "But I'll consider not approving Chip Chase's request to let the paranormal investigation unit in here with those vacuum-cleaner things of theirs."

"You wouldn't."

"I'd hold the door for them and everything."

Starscream sank towards the floor, face all twisted up with indignation, but he seemed to have abandoned his game of pretending ignorance for the time being.

"It's only a theory," he said.

Rodimus folded his arms and leaned back.

"I'm listening."

Starscream cast a quick glance around at their audience - half the base seemed to have congregated by this time, and all except for the two scientists were watching him and Rodimus eagerly.

"You're not going to like it."

"Try me."

Starscream threw up his hands and drifted backward towards Skyfire - Rodimus suspected he didn't know he was doing it - as if seeking support.

"Well, don't say I didn't warn you." He paused for dramatic effect. "My best guess is that it's that medic of yours."

There was a confused pause, as most of the assembled mechs turned to stare at First Aid. For his part, First Aid fixed Starscream with a sour glare.

"Not him," Starscream huffed impatiently. "The other one. The dead one."

The silence that followed Starscream's proclamation was approximately as weighty as a very weighty thing. Most of the assembled - Rodimus included - had known Ratchet personally and mourned his loss nearly as deeply as that of Optimus Prime himself. With the Cybertronians' penchant toward cults of personality, there had been talk of erecting a temple in his honor where the faithful could come and be guided in his competent, yet cranky, footsteps.

"But-" Typically, the near-reverent silence was broken by Bluestreak. "But Ratchet is - was - he was a good person! He always fixed us, why would he wanna hurt anybody? Why would he throw a chair at me? - well, sometimes he used to throw things at me, but that was only when I did something stupid, and I haven't done anything stupid lately, have I, Rodimus?"

"Not lately," the Prime told him kindly.

"If it's any consolation," Starscream added, "I doubt he meant to. Being in this state can be... disorienting." His voice had calmed a bit, regaining the lower, more thoughtful tones he employed when he'd unbent enough to speak of his past. "I myself would likely still be trapped in that mausoleum if not for Rodimus Prime."

"And aren't we all grateful for that," someone (possibly Springer) muttered.

Starscream graced the assembled with a righteous glare. "Would you condemn one of your own to such a fate, oh noble Autobots?" he demanded. "Forever trapped in the nothing-world between life and death, condemned to wander and haunt those he once cared for?"

It was always uncomfortable when Starscream of all people had a point, ethically speaking. "So what do we do?" Bluestreak wanted to know.

Starscream opened his mouth to speak, then deflated and dimmed. "That I don't know."

*

"Are you sure you don't mind helping us?" Rodimus murmured into the dark.

Though he couldn't feel the ghost, he could feel his amusement. "Don't you want to help your poor dead medic?"

"Of course." Rodimus propped himself up on one elbow, peering into a spot on the ceiling. "But you don't owe him anything."

"Perhaps I do," Starscream answered in a low tone, and Rodimus remembered with a small shudder the role Starscream had played in the assault on Autobot City.

Whether the ex-Seeker was maudlin or merely contemplative about it, it passed quickly, and Starscream appeared before him, sitting comfortably in midair with his legs crossed. "But if you feel so strongly, Rodimus, you know how to entice me to do anything your spark desires," he smirked.

Rodimus laughed. "You're amazing, Starscream. I don't know what I'd do without you."

Starscream drifted closer, optics bright. "And?"

"And you're beautiful. And brilliant." Rodimus tilted his head in invitation. "And, hmm. Am I missing anything?"

"You'll get to them all eventually," Starscream purred, and descended onto the Prime.

Chapter Text

"So, anyone else feel like we oughta be breakin' out the black velvet and candles?" inquired Jazz with a grin that showed no nervousness at all, though he was surely feeling it. "I wonder if they do ouija boards in our size?"

Starscream - who paid about as much attention to Earth culture as one generally did to something nasty one had just stepped in - glared at him, suspicious he was being mocked. Skyfire sighed, wishing Rodimus would hurry up and get here: everyone was edgy about what they were trying to do, and some of those present had shorter tempers than others.

"There is no mysticism involved, Jazz," said Perceptor, without looking up from the voltage meter he was tinkering with. "It is a simple matter of detecting displaced spark energy, based on the readings we've taken from Starscream, and attempting to guide it into a more coherent pattern."

"Which doesn't explain why we've got fragging ghosts hanging around the place." Sunstreaker scowled at the walls, as if expecting more spirits to pop out at any moment. He and his brother had insisted on being present. "Little fraggers got at my high-grade, I swear."

Silverbolt - who didn't technically need to be there, but had developed an inexplicable tendency to be where Starscream was (and Skyfire had no idea what to think about that, or about the way the two of them occasionally looked at him simultaneously and then exchanged unreadable glances) - seemed suddenly uncomfortable. Starscream snickered. Sunstreaker turned narrowed optics on them both, opening his mouth to demand an explanation - but at that moment Rodimus made his entrance.

He looked distinctly unnerved.

"I think you'd better come and look at this," he said, apparently to Skyfire and Perceptor, although his optics flickered to the others in the room.

"Now?" demanded Starscream. "We just got everyone here! We're ready to start!"

"Yeah, but, um." Rodimus rubbed the back of his helm helplessly. "Seriously, just come and see."

So they all traipsed out after Rodimus, Skyfire shooting a worried look at their equipment - technically there was no reason not to leave it unattended, but some of it was rather delicate and most of the base was frantically curious about what they were up to - and followed him up from the lab, through the common area corridors, and into the Prime's office.

Skyfire could not, immediately, see what all the fuss was about - but then, he had hardly ever been in Rodimus's rooms, private or official.

Starscream, on the other hand, took one look and shot a surprised glance at the Prime.

"When did you tidy up?"

"That's just it. I didn't."

"So Ultra Magnus finally snapped?" suggested Jazz, peering around Sideswipe, who had stopped in the doorway in surprise.

"He's on Earth," replied Rodimus, "taking a much-needed vacation. And anyway, he wouldn't move things without asking me."

"Well, that's a new one." Sideswipe threw a grin at his brother. "Never occurred to me to prank someone by tidying up for them."

"That's just it." Rodimus had moved into the room and now gestured vaguely at the neat shelves and the desk noticeably lacking its usual piles of paperwork. "No-one's been in here. I've checked and double-checked. The door's not been opened since I last went out."

There was a thoughtful silence.

Then Starscream gave a snort of laughter.

"Someone," he said, tilting his head up and apparently addressing the ceiling, "hasn't got the hang of this whole poltergeist thing."

Rodimus blinked.

"Why would Ratchet tidy up my desk?"

"Oh, I don't think it's him." Starscream floated thoughtfully over to the shelves, considered the neatly alphabetised datapads. "Your ex-second-in-command, now... this seems like more his style."

There was silence.

"Prowl?" This from Jazz, who looked like he didn't know whether to grin or freak out. "You're tellin' me we've got Prowl, too?"

Starscream shrugged. "I don't know, but the energy signature doesn't feel the same here as it did in the rec room. Besides, if one of them's going to show up, why not the others?"

As if on cue, a muffled explosion shook the building. All present exchanged startled, slowly comprehending glances - it had been a while since that particular sound, with those particular connotations, had been heard in Autobot headquarters.

"No way," said Sideswipe, beginning to grin.

"Quickly!" Perceptor declared, and turned toward the source of the sound with his ghost-detecting equipment clutched to his chest. "We must get to the source before the ghost activity subsides!" He took off at a run, Skyfire and Silverbolt in hot pursuit, the Twins trailing after. Rodimus and Jazz were left behind with Starscream, blinking in shock.

"Is it my imagination, gentlemechs," Jazz said slowly, "or have we stumbled into one hell of a Twilight Zone?"

"What, you take me in stride, but Ratchet and Prowl are something to get excited about?" Starscream scoffed. "Prowl can't even get poltergeist activity right!"

Rodimus peeked over his desk. "But I like Prowl's poltergeist activity," he murmured. "He even found my Slinky."

Jazz splorfled; Starscream stamped a foot in the air like an impatient horse. "Why are you two wasting time!?" he demanded. "Let's go!" He flew, not bothering with the door or indeed even the hallway in favor of a more direct approach to the site of the explosion; Rodimus and Jazz exchanged amused looks.

"Your Slinky, huh?" Jazz grinned.

"It's been missing for weeks." Rodimus shrugged one shoulder ruefully.

"Well, leave it to Prowl to find it in the most sarcastic way possible. C'mon." Jazz took his leader's elbow, guiding him out.

*

"We can't hold it, Perceptor! It's too powerful!"

"Give me more, Skyfire! More, I say!"

"I can't change the laws of physics!"

"What are you two tin cans doing?" Starscream demanded, hardly flinching as a beaker floated through him.

Perceptor and Skyfire barely looked up from their rig on the floor, hooking up sparking wires and connections with speed and accuracy if not that much grace. "You needn't be so smug," Perceptor snapped harriedly. "You may have donated your time and advice, but Skyfire and I are doing the real work. Our ghost is in this room," he went on, studiously avoiding saying Wheeljack, "but if we cannot tag him before he moves on..."

"I don't think that will be a concern," Starscream pointed out dryly, watching the beakers and test tubes dance on the tables. "Our ghost is perfectly happy where he is - and currently attempting to replicate his earlier explosive feat, if I'm not mistaken." Those definitely looked like Chemicals That Should Not Mix in those two beakers that were getting closer and ever closer together. "I suggest you hurry and anchor him to this plane before he blows you both into the Matrix."

"We are hurrying!" Skyfire snapped. "Perceptor, that cable-"

"Here." Perceptor handed it over and Skyfire made the final connection just as Rodimus and Jazz arrived on the scene. The jury-rigged ghost-catcher yelped into life like a particularly cowardly hellhound, sprayed sparks, and suddenly flashed with a blinding light.

When it faded, an insubstantial Wheeljack stood at the table, suspicious beakers in both hands. "Oh, hey guys," he greeted, and made to pour one into the other.

"Wait-!" Perceptor cried, echoed by the others-

Boom.

*

"But I don't feel dead."

"And what, exactly, did you expect 'dead' to feel like?" demanded Starscream.

Wheeljack paused to give that due consideration.

"I gotta say, explosions weren't part of it."

"And whose fault was that?" Skyfire's voice was mild, however, and he was smiling. "You certainly know how to make a comeback."

Wheeljack laughed, rubbing the back of his head in embarrassment (how did that work? It felt solid to him, but he'd walked through a wall earlier...), and cast a sheepish, apologetic glance around the medbay. Fortunately, no-one had been seriously hurt in the blast - Perceptor had been knocked temporarily offline and First Aid was in the process of booting him up again, while Skyfire had had the presence of mind to step in front of the others in the room, and his tougher, space-worthy plating had weathered the heat and shockwave without too much damage.

Though the shrapnel had left him pocked with little black marks that made him, as Starscream had pointed out, look like he'd contracted some horrible human ailment.

"Sorry, guys," Wheeljack said for the fifth or sixth time. "I dunno what I thought I was doing, I just had this weird idea in my head that I was in the middle of something and I had to finish it off..."

"Clinging onto patterns in life seems to be a way of maintaining coherency," Starscream put in, arms folded as he floated near the ceiling. "We return to the places familiar to us, engage in the routines that were our habits."

"So, hang on..." began Rodimus Prime (and man, that was weird - Hot Rod? Little Hot Rod? Prime? Wheeljack remembered the first day he'd showed up on Earth, all bright and eager to please and totally incapable of sitting still for five minutes together...), "what, exactly, were you doing hanging around the Decepticon Crypt when I found you, Starscream?"

Starscream spun around to glare daggers at him, while the others present sniggered or hid faint smiles. Wheeljack was finding that part almost as weird as the idea that he was dead - that Starscream of all mechs could be an apparently accepted member of the Autobots, that they were conversing relatively civilly, that Starscream was, by all appearances, actually trying to help him. He guessed being dead changed your perspective somewhat, although he hadn't noticed it in himself yet - but then, Starscream, for whatever reason, seemed to have been hanging around as a ghost for a lot longer than the rest of them.

Speaking of which...

"So who else is in the Cheerful Casper Club?"

"Prowl for certain," Rodimus answered, trying not to notice the disbelieving looks Wheeljack was trying not to give him. Yeah, yeah, Hot Rod's the Prime, get it out of your noncorporeal system. "Probably Ratchet too. And I have a feeling you three won't be the last to show up."

"It would be rather disconcerting if this phenomenon extended to all of Cybertron's dead." Typically, Perceptor had been successfully rebooted and came up babbling. "At present it seems confined to the recently departed, but..."

"Nine million years' war generates a lot of dead guys," Jazz pointed out dryly.

Rodimus groaned. "One problem at a time, okay, guys? We can deal with the takeover of the planet by the restless dead if and when it happens."

"But Perceptor raises an excellent point," Starscream said, passing through Rodimus's shoulder without seeming to notice. "Why us? Why now? What is the common thread between Wheeljack, Ratchet, Prowl and myself?"

The others exchanged glances, then Silverbolt spoke up. "You're all dangerous to be around?"

"Flattery will get you nowhere." Starscream graced his ex-lover's current flame with a wicked, lascivious grin.

"It has to be the battle at Autobot City," Wheeljack volunteered as Starscream and Silverbolt settled comfortably into a glare-and-smirk contest. "We all died then."

"No good," Rodimus said heavily. "Starscream survived that battle. He died on Cybertron several hours later."

"Since when does Starscream follow the rules?" Wheeljack answered, and the Prime had to admit he had a point.

Chapter Text

To the great and magnificent Emperor of the Decepticons, o Mighty One, Master of all he surveys, this is getting silly. Dear Galvatron,

Do me a favor and let me know if any more ghosts pop up around where you are? We're kind of up to our audials in them over here.

For once, it's not Starscream's fault. ...I think.

Yours,
Rodimus

"It can't be that bad," Scourge mused, playing through the holographic datascreen with his claws. "He sounds cheerful enough."

"That doesn't mean anything," Cyclonus argued, pacing. "One ghost is bad enough. I don't want to contemplate there being more."

"But that 'one ghost' is Starscream. The rest can't be as- trouble on wings. You know."

Cyclonus didn't want to admit his Triad-brother had a point. "Just send your agents," he grumped. "I want to know who's coming back from the dead and why."

Scourge allowed himself an indulgent smile where the other couldn't see. "Yes, Cyclonus."

*

My dear Ultra Magnus,

Would you care to enlighten me as to the cause of your leader's rather cryptic request that we delve into the world of the supernatural? His missive has largely undone the distraction work of the past week, and Galvatron is... not happy.

- Cyclonus


Greetings, you have reached Ultra Magnus. I am sorry, but I am not at present in my office. Rest assured that as soon as I return I shall respond to your message as promptly as I may.

Yrs faithfully,
Ultra Magnus


My dear Ultra Magnus,

Further to my last communication, Galvatron has shot three Sweeps, two Stunticons, a passing comet, and the energon dispenser, because they 'looked like they might be possessed'. I would deeply appreciate a response.

- Cyclonus.


Greetings, you have reached Ultra Magnus. I am sorry, but I am not at present in my office. Rest assured that as soon as I return I shall respond to your message as promptly as I may.

Yrs faithfully,
Ultra Magnus


Where ARE you?

- C


Greetings, you have reached Ultra Magnus......


*

"We'vegotghostactivity! Intherecroom!" Blurr sped into the lab brandishing the portable detector he'd been assigned (it had seemed more efficient than setting them up all over the base, and Blurr was never averse to an opportunity to show off his speed). "Butit'skindof... weirdactivity, um, youreally oughttocomeandsee..."

The rec room was relatively quiet, most of the base being in recharge. Arcee, Moonracer, and Bluestreak were sitting around one table, their conversation punctuated by occasional surprised pauses as they watched what was going on around them, and Kup was stretched out in a chair looking half-asleep; apart from them, the only person present was Air Raid, who was... apparently having an argument with thin air.

It took a few seconds for the new arrivals - Wheeljack, who was rather pleased with the fact that he no longer needed recharge, Skyfire, who wished he didn't, and Perceptor, who had always been distressingly perky in the middle of all-nighters - to really register what was going on around them. When they did, Skyfire acknowledged that Blurr had been right - it was "weird" poltergeist activity.

All over the room, objects kept moving by themselves. Not, however, with any violence - discarded datapads arranged themselves into neat piles, aligned squarely - chairs and tables shuffled sheepishly into tidiness - bits of furniture were tweaked and arranged more efficiently.

Which would, in itself, have been fairly strange - except that, as soon as the invisible presence had finished with one part of the room and, apparently, moved on, the objects would slowly, sneakily, creep out of their positions and back into disorder. Even as Skyfire watched, one datapad shot out of its neat pile and clattered to the floor.

"It's been going on for about half a joor," Arcee supplied, seeing them enter. Most of the base knew, by now, that the science team were trying to track down the ghosts. "Air Raid's getting really annoyed."

"It keeps knocking it down!" wailed the Aerialbot in question.

Skyfire crossed the room to his side, absently laying a hand on his shoulder in reassurance. Air Raid was quite clearly in the middle of one of his favourite hobbies - building card houses with Smokescreen's poker decks - but despite the fact that he had become rather good at it over the years, creating architectural masterpieces that might not have looked out of place on Grapple's drawing board, he was surrounded by a chaos of fallen cards scattered all over the table.

"Every time I get above two stories, it knocks them over!" Air Raid complained, craning his head to look up at Skyfire with the hopeful, expectant look that all the Aerialbots wore when they expected the shuttle to magically solve their problems. "And then sometimes it starts trying to sort them back into their boxes. I don't think it likes me."

"The tidying would indicate Prowl," Perceptor said thoughtfully, running his detector over the walls, and Skyfire left Air Raid's side to begin setting up the ghost-catcher apparatus. "But I cannot fathom why he would then undo his own work."

"He's really, really bored?" suggested Springer, who had never entirely got along with the tactician.

"Where's Starscream?" Skyfire wondered aloud.

"With Fireflight and Skydive," came Air Raid's immediate, absent-minded response.

Skyfire decided that he was going to assume that they were practising aerial manouevres, and asked Air Raid to contact his gestalt-mates and get the ex-Seeker up here to help out. He quickly put together the device, double-checking the extra protocols they had set up to temporarily freeze the ghost in place (in the hopes of avoiding another Wheeljack Incident). Wheeljack himself was hovering over Perceptor's shoulder arguing with him about the readings on his detector.

"I'm just sayin', it doesn't look right somehow..."

Starscream chose that moment to rise through the floor, shooting a displeased look at Skyfire.

"What do you want?" He came to rest in the middle of the room with a scowl and a flick of his wings. "I thought you could at least manage this part without me..."

"There's something odd--" began Skyfire, just as Perceptor and Wheeljack said, in unison, "There's something wrong with these readings."

Starscream drifted towards them, all off-hand unconcern; his path took him past Air Raid, whose newest attempt at a card house chose that moment to come crashing down. Starscream froze, then spun around, optics wide and an expression on his face that Skyfire had never seen, and rather enjoyed - a strange tug of war between abject horror and startled delight.

"Skywarp?!"

Air Raid's cards shot in all directions, as if someone had slammed their fists down on the table in triumph. Skyfire exchanged surprised glances with Perceptor.

"Skywarp? Here? Are you sure, Starscream?"

"Of course I'm sure! I'd know his spark signature anywhere..." Starscream's optics were flickering, scanning the air frantically for a glimpse of his long-lost wingmate. "Besides, who else do you know who'd play silly tricks with Prowl? -- apart from your Twins?"

"Prowl's here too?"

"I assume so. Skywarp's not known for his tidiness."

A chair fell over with a bang. Starscream laughed - not snickered, not smirked, actually laughed out loud.

"Or his grace and dexterity."

Some minor object flew through the air and passed through Starscream without incident. Skyfire cast a nervous look at the rattling datapads elsewhere in the room, then a resigned one at his fellow-scientists.

"Starscream," he began, "could you try not to start up another poltergeist attack--"

... A few minutes later, sheltering behind a hastily overturned table as furniture and objects flew back and forth overhead, Skyfire reflected that he probably should have seen this coming.

*

The good thing about having ghost-Prowl around was that things tended to neaten up after a poltergeist tantrum pretty quickly. Even after Skyfire and Perceptor had worked their magic, Prowl still was wandering around, stacking datapads in neat piles and nudging furniture back to their proper places. The fact that Jazz was insisting on 'helping' didn't seem to faze him much.

Of course, it may just have been an excuse to avoid his fellow manifested. "What do you mean I can't possess people?" Skywarp groaned. "That's no fun!"

"Blame the Prime," Starscream shrugged, jerking a wingtip back at Rodimus, "it's his Matrix doing it."

"Lame," Skywarp groaned, rolling his eyes at Rodimus - which quickly turned into an impressive doubletake. "Wh- you're not Optimus Prime!"

"Thanks, I hadn't noticed," Rodimus answered flatly.

"How the frag long have I been dead again?" Skywarp demanded, then shook his head. "Never mind. I still wanna try possessing someone!" With that - and ignoring Starscream's cry of warning - he took a running dive straight at Air Raid.

And promptly reeled off him as if hit in the face with a frying pan, sending him sprawling into the floor and out of sight. "Idiot," Starscream sighed, but there was a laugh behind it.

Skywarp popped back up above the floor again, fixing Rodimus with a hangdog look. "Come on, please? Just this once?"

"Not a chance, you card-house-wrecker!" Air Raid shrilled.

Rodimus shrugged and grinned crookedly. "You heard the mech."

*

"Prime."

Rodimus actually jumped, despite being used to random ghosts popping up. Of all of them, Prowl was the most ghostlike, never making himself visible if it wasn't necessary and never announcing his presence like Starscream would. "Prowl," Rodimus greeted with a sigh. "How are you doing?"

The translucent Datsun shrugged quietly. "As well as may be. I've been doing much research over what's been happening while I've been... indisposed."

Indisposed is one way of putting it. "Most of it wasn't my fault," Rodimus offered with a smile, though his spark quailed at the thought of an intimate of Optimus Prime critiquing his work.

"Indeed." Prowl's voice was dry as always, but Rodimus thought he detected a flicker of amusement. "I think I have a theory of why we - the ghosts, I mean - are appearing, incidentally."

Rodimus brightened. "Really? Tell me."

"Unicron."

Chapter Text

Cyclonus,

In regards to your recent problem - if indeed it is unchanged - let Galvatron know that the few ghosts we have been graced with seem to be limited to those that died in the time from the Autobot City attack to the destruction of Unicron, and they have been so far confined to appearing on Cybertron. I hope this helps.

Yrs in getting back to work,
Ultra Magnus

My dear Ultra Magnus,

FINALLY.

-Cyclonus

*

"This is way too much like hard work," grumbled Skywarp as they paused to disentangle themselves and consider the situation.

"You're telling me," replied Starscream, pulling a hand out of Skywarp's ghostly cockpit and examining it as if he expected to find it covered in something slimy. "It's easier with someone living."

"How long did it take you to start experimenting?" Skywarp sniggered, as Starscream, with great concentration, attempted to run his fingertips up Skywarp's wing. As with the previous attempts at touch, his hand passed through it - not without an interesting tingling sensation - and Starscream made a noise of irritation. "And are we talking minutes or seconds?"

"Shut up."

Starscream swatted at him - which passed just as ineffectually through his head, and man, that was slaggin' weird - without much actual venom. In fact, ever since Skywarp had found himself something approaching alive again, Starscream had been all round a lot more mellow than he had been since, oh, right at the start, when they'd joined the Decepticons together. And apparently he'd sort-of-maybe-kind-of defected to the Autobots now, how bizarre was that? Not the Skywarp really felt much desire to go shooting off back to the Decepticons after Starscream had brought him up to speed on the changes that had taken place in his absence. Being stuck on Earth for a couple of decades had been bad enough (and Skywarp had kind of liked Earth, at that) - he didn't like the sound of Charr one bit.

"It doesn't make sense that we can't touch each other," Starscream was saying, though not really to Skywarp - he had his talking-to-himself-about-science face on as he absently waggled his fingers through Skywarp's wing. "As far as I can tell we are essentially incoherent energy made coherent, so we should be able to interact..."

Skywarp twitched away from his wingmate. "Hey, that tickles, stop it!"

"Well, I suppose that's something..."

Skywarp drifted towards the ceiling, out of reach of Starscream's grabby hands, and finally voiced something he'd been trying not to think about too hard.

"So, uh, any sign of TC yet?"

Starscream shrugged, glancing around as if expecting to see their wingmate hovering nearby - it was something Skywarp had been doing all day, so he recognised the split-second disappointment.

"I'm sure he'll turn up when he's good and ready, as usual," replied Starscream. He didn't sound worried, and Starscream wasn't the best at hiding his emotions (to say the least), so Skywarp relaxed a fraction. "Along with the rest of the Autobots."

"Kind of weird," Skywarp mused, turning himself upside-down and hanging there, a trick he couldn't have managed before, "hoping they'll come back, after we went to all the trouble of taking them down."

Starscream rose up to join him just below the ceiling of the empty hangar, though he remained the right way up.

"Things have changed."

"Yeah, I noticed."

There was silence, a rarity between the two of them, and Skywarp contemplated Starscream's feet, which were about level with his head, and decided not to add that Starscream himself had changed just as much. Instead, he asked the other question that had been on his mind.

"So is the war over?"

Starscream hummed thoughtfully.

"Technically, no," he said. "Galvatron--" and his face twisted into a sneer at the name, "-- has made no alliance with Prime, and there have been some conflicts over the past few years, but for the most part the Decepticons seem... content to remain away on Charr."

There was more than a hint of disgust in his voice. Skywarp frowned, and spun right way up.

"That sucks. I mean, I dunno, I was kinda bored of the war and all, but what happened to Decepticon pride?"

"It died with Megatron," replied Starscream bitterly, and maybe Skywarp was imagining it, but there was perhaps the tiniest hint of regret in his voice.

*

Once he got used to the idea, Wheeljack decided he didn't mind being a ghost. He could still work with his experiments, even if it took a little more concentration to pick up a beaker. The new Prime didn't expect him to scramble out to battle with the other Autobots unless he felt like it, so that was a plus. And Perceptor didn't seem to have a problem with it at all.

"You're very distracting," the scientist told him mock-huffily as Wheeljack stimulated the receptors in his shoulders. "I have to get this rig repaired before the next instance of poltergeist activity."

"You'll make mistakes if you're tense," Wheeljack soothed. "You know you'd feel guilty if the next poor sucker only came back halfway." He nuzzled his facemask across the back of Perceptor's helm - which was a weird sensation, feeling the inside as well as the outside.

Not unpleasant though. Never unpleasant.

"It doesn't work like that," Perceptor grumbled, but the flashes of electricity in his head told Wheeljack that he was beginning to respond. "The spark energy is already there; it only needs to be coalesced, so that the subject may interact on the physical plane."

"I love it when you talk like that," Wheeljack purred.

Perceptor paused. "The basic principle," he said, voice mellowing, "is not fundamentally different than that of a simple magnet, which forces charged particles to align within the magnetic field. The energy produced by our rig acts to align the diffuse spark energy."

"Mmm..." Wheeljack stroked over the scientist's back, pleased when he shivered. "Go on."

"The alignment of spark energy produces an effect that we have been referring to as 'manifesting,' observable when ghost beings are visible. The process of manifesting does not fundamentally change the spark energy, only gives it a coherence that it does not come by naturally." Perceptor paused deliberately, offlining his optics as Wheeljack whimpered and pulsed against him. "Of course," the scientist sighed, "the memories and personality of the subject are coalesced in a readable format, resulting in the appearance of a ghost..."

The rest of his lecture is lost to history, but he did get several good overloads out of it.

*

"So here you are."

Starscream jumped. "Prime! Were you looking for me?"

Rodimus lifted an opticridge. The ex-Seeker hung upside down from a mass of cables in the processor room's ceiling, a sheepish expression on his face. "Not so you'd notice," he drawled. "Listen, I'm taking a trip off-planet tomorrow and I want you to go with me."

Starscream floated gracefully down. "Why, Rodimus, I'm so flattered. What's the occasion? Our anniversary, perhaps?"

"Only if you think Unicron's head is a great place for a honeymoon."

"Cool!" Skywarp poked his head out of the overhead cables, looking distinctly smug. "Can I come?"

"Oaf," Starscream sniped without any real heat. Rodimus laughed.

"Yeah, you can come. Be at the hangar tomorrow at 0900." Rodimus flipped the two ghosts a wave and sauntered off, congratulating himself on his cleverness. If Starscream and Skywarp were both with him, they couldn't possess people and shag everybody they could catch while he was gone.

*

Seeing as they needed one of the scientists along anyway, it seemed like a sensible conservation of effort to have Skyfire fly them to Unicron, although after the third time Skywarp 'fell' out of the shuttle (apparently if he concentrated too hard on sitting still he actually stopped moving relative to Skyfire's trajectory, which resulted in him disappearing out of the back wall of the cargo bay with a yelp), Skyfire sent a private request to Rodimus to never, ever be asked to transport non-corporeal passengers again.

Then again, that might also have had something to do with the way Starscream was lounging about oh-so-innocently near a bank of controls, one hand drifting through the panel occasionally to do who-knew-what to the circuits below.

For the most part, though, the two Seekers were behaving themselves, so Rodimus spent the trip catching up with Ultra Magnus (whose holiday seemed to have given him a chance to become resigned to the current weirdness) and trying not to feel uneasy about the prospect of poking around in Unicron's databanks. Given what the colossal being had proven itself capable of, he really had no desire to get anywhere near the apparently deactivated (but still disturbingly lifelike) head that orbited in place of Cybertron's lost moons. Still, Prowl's theory had been given the green light by three out of four of the science team (and Rodimus was pretty sure Starscream was only disagreeing to be contentious - he'd never liked Prowl much) and it seemed the next step in piecing together the ghost puzzle was to go over Unicron's memory logs for the time surrounding the battle of Autobot City - and hopefully gain some insight into what effect the planet-eater had on the sparks of the dead.

It had not, unfortunately, occurred to him that their theory might have been considered by any others, with the result that he was really quite shocked to find Unicron's head already occupied.

*

First Aid was not surprised to find Streetwise in the medbay - his gestalt-mates often stopped by to see him, after all. He was surprised to find him in the middle of, apparently, totally reorganising every tool First Aid possessed, and muttering to himself in a distinctly un-Streetwise manner.

"Hey... Streets?" he began cautiously. "What are you doing, exactly?"

Streetwise turned to scowl at him, expression all wrong and optics strangely dim, and First Aid began to have a worrying premonition about what was going on.

"I am trying," he growled, in a voice that was quite definitely not his own, "to put this damn place back in order. What have you been doing in here, Aid?"

First Aid opened his mouth, shut it, opened it again, and finally managed a meek, "Hi, Ratchet."

*

"I'm telling you," Kup was saying, "I'd know that voice anywhere!"

"Butwhywould Ironhide possess Grimlock ofallpeople?"

Blurr darted back and forth with the 'ghost detector', which had not emitted so much as a beep since Skywarp and Prowl had manifested, and was maintaining an obstinate silence even in the face of Grimlock producing complete sentences in a distinctly southern accent. The enormous mech was now trying to acquire a cube of energon - his throat being "real parched", apparently - and having some difficulty with operating his own hands. The sheer number and variety of curse words coming out of the usually taciturn Dinobot's mouth had drawn a gaping, admiring crowd.

"More important, why the hell is Ironhide going around possessing people in the first place?" demanded Springer, who had tried three times already to contact Perceptor for some explanations and been cut off every time - the third time with what sounded suspiciously like giggling. "That's a Decepticon sort of trick, isn't it?"

"Maybehedidn'tmeanto?" Blurr finally gave up on the detector. "Fromwhat Starscreamwassaying, Iguess maybehe'sjust confused?"

"And Rodimus isn't here with the Matrix to stop this whole possession nonsense," remarked Kup, quite obviously fighting to keep a grin off his face as his old friend came out with a few more choice comments about Dinobot dexterity and the diminutive size of energon dispensers. "I guess we should just count ourselves lucky he took those two troublemakers with him."

A commotion outside resolved itself into a rather scorched and battered Silverbolt staggering in.

"Where's Perceptor? We've got a problem here."

"Join the club," muttered Springer, before remembering that he was supposed to be doing the responsibility thing. "What sort of problem, exactly?"

From somewhere out in the corridor, there was a muffled burst of gunfire and a yelp that could only be Fireflight. Silverbolt raised his optics heavenwards as if for patience.

"Well," he said, "either Slingshot's finally snapped - which I do admit is a possibility - or our third ex-Seeker has decided to put in an appearance. And he's really not happy."

*

"Galvatron!" exclaimed Rodimus, for a moment too stunned to do anything else.

"Galvatron!" snarled Starscream, murder and vengeance in his optics as he puffed up like an alleycat.

"That's Galvatron?" Skywarp peered over his wingmate's shoulder even though he could technically have just looked through him. "Why does he look like the lovechild of Octane and one of those nerf gun things?"

There was an awkward silence, broken, not surprisingly, by Galvatron's roar of fury and a barrage of laser bolts. Rodimus ducked, briefly debated letting him get it out of his system (it wasn't like he could hurt the ghosts, after all, and the only other targets, Skyfire and Ultra Magnus, had already dived for cover behind a pillar), before deciding that there was too much risk of something vital getting hit and wrecking their mission or, just to add spice, blowing up and killing them all.

Time to do the hero thing, he thought with a sigh, before launching himself through the gunfire. I wonder if Optimus ever had days like this?

*

Here, at least, was familiar territory: the heroic Autobots, led by their stalwart leader, fighting valiantly against the villainous Decepticons. Ultra Magnus found himself content in a way: not the same sort as when one is on vacation, but content nonetheless, sure of himself and his place in the great circle of life.

...Admittedly, the two ghostly Seekers heckling from the sidelines were new, but they could be ignored. Magnus applied himself to firing from behind cover, his missiles bowling Scourge over in midair.

"Rodimus!" Skyfire's shout came from behind him, toward the core of Unicron's processor. "We've got to finish this quickly! The energy flying around is waking Him up!"

No one needed to ask who Him was. Magnus risked a look behind him and saw lights coming to life on some of Unicron's panels. "He's right," he told Rodimus, "we must stop them quickly."

Rodimus narrowed his optics. "No, Magnus, we have to stop them now." He leaned out from behind the pillar they were using as cover and shouted, "Galvatron, stop! I surrender."

"What?" Magnus demanded.

"What!?" Starscream shrieked.

Galvatron fired his cannon, missing the Prime completely but demolishing a bank of circuit boards, which sent a flurry of electrical activity from the place where they'd been. "Don't try to fool me, Autobot!"

"Would I do that?" When the only answer was another cannon shot, Rodimus sighed and gave his fellows an apologetic look. "Watch, see?" he said, stepping out from behind cover, and knelt with his hands behind his head. "Look, I'm totally pacified."

Groaning to himself, Magnus reluctantly copied his leader, glaring at Skyfire to do the same. In the rafters, Skywarp's raucous laughter nearly drowned out Starscream's incoherent shrieks of rage.

Cyclonus looked up, noticing the other Seeker for the first time. "Is that-?"

"Best not to think about it too hard," Scourge advised him.

Ignoring his trine-brothers, Galvatron advanced, cannon still upraised and humming with charge. "You think I would be merciful, Prime?" he sneered. "Tell me why I shouldn't blast you into oblivion right now."

Rodimus tilted his head, his grin a challenge. "Why shouldn't you? That's what your master wanted you to do, after all."

The expression on Galvatron's face then fluctuated between rage, bafflement and dawning horror for a moment. Quickly snapping back to rage (which was his comfort zone, Magnus thought), he hauled Rodimus up by his spoiler and cast him into Cyclonus's hands. "Keep - him - pliant," he ordered in a growl.

"As you command," Cyclonus acknowledged, expressionless even as he sought the places under Rodimus's spoiler that made him squirm helplessly.

"And the rest of you - stay where you are!" Galvatron commanded, including the ex-Seekers with a glare. "If you move-"

"If we move, what?" Starscream demanded, floating down to hover over his killer. "If you touch my Prime-"

"Your Prime-!?"

They might have come to blows - or something - but a near-subsonic rumble vibrated the room, the groan of a god who wasn't quite dead yet.

"It can't be," Scourge whispered. "He's waking up?"

"And that would be why Rodimus surrendered," Skyfire muttered dryly.

He would have said more but for Skywarp's panicked cry. "Starscream, help!" The assembled looked up to witness Skywarp slowly sinking into the wall, thrashing in helpless panic. "It - it's sucking me in! Help!"

Chapter Text

It was probably the fastest any of them had seen Starscream move - he almost seemed to have borrowed his trapped wingmate's teleportation for an instant. Not that it did either of them much good. Starscream couldn't get a hold on his fellow ghost, whose hands were now all that were visible, and after a few shocked seconds it became apparent to the onlookers that Starscream was also being dragged into the wall by whatever force had seized Skywarp.

Just before he vanished completely from view, his horrified optics met Skyfire's and they shared a moment of sudden, awful comprehension

"Kill it!" shrieked Starscream, and was gone.

Skyfire lunged for the nearest console, even as Rodimus shook free of Cyclonus's suddenly slack grip and darted towards the passage in the wall through which the ghosts had disappeared. Galvatron leapt into pursuit with a snarl, and Skyfire's shout was too late - they had both vanished into the darkness before he could stop them.

"Primus dammit, I need the Matrix here if we're going to stop this!"

"I'll bring him back," promised Ultra Magnus. "Come on, Cyclonus!"

Skyfire didn't have time to wonder about the unexpected camaraderie between the two second-in-commands; he was too busy yanking the covers off the bank of consoles in front of him. A great mess of wires, sparking merrily, greeted his dismayed optics. This was going to take far too long - systems engineering was Starscream's area of expertise, not his! - and they didn't have that kind of time...

He became conscious of a hovering presence at his shoulder, and turned to find Scourge had edged up close to him as if for protection. The Unicronian-built mech had more to fear than most of them from his erstwhile master's reawakening, Skyfire realised.

... which gave him an idea. Scourge might have a more instinctive understanding of Unicron's systems...

"Help me," he snapped, grabbing a handful of wires and shoving them into Scourge's unresisting hands.

*

It would have been nearly impossible to track the two ghosts through the maze of Unicron's internals if they hadn't been making such a racket. Between Skywarp's panicked yelling and Starscream's furious screeching, it wasn't hard for Rodimus to keep running in the same general direction.

The fact that he had Galvatron on his tail was slightly more worrying, since he wasn't entirely sure if the Decepticon leader had absorbed the magnitude of the situation, which in turn might mean that he was going to start shooting again as soon as he caught up. Rodimus chose to take the fact that he wasn't firing at present as a good sign.

A sharp turn brought him unexpectedly out into a cavernous chamber somewhere deep in the back of Unicron's massive cranium. Tiny lights were flickering and beginning to run in sluggish streams up the walls. And Starscream and Skywarp had just tumbled out of the ceiling and were making a concerted effort to fire their non-existent thrusters in tandem. It seemed to be slowing them down somewhat, but they were still drifting on an arrow-straight diagonal to some unknown goal.

"Prime!" shrieked Starscream, catching sight of him. "Use your Pit-damned Matrix before it's too late!"

"If I open it here, we're all slagged," shouted Rodimus, sprinting across the room to intercept the Seekers' flight path. "Why is this happening?!"

"It's gonna eat us!" wailed Skywarp, losing concentration and accelerating slightly because of it. "Oh slaaaaaaaaaag....!"

"Stop panicking!" snapped Starscream in a tone that brooked no argument, and Skywarp's fall slowed once more. "Don't you see, Rodimus? This is it - this is why we're still here, why we've all been manifesting on Cybertron - it explains everything!"

Rodimus risked a glance over his shoulder. Galvatron was standing in the entrance to the room, cannon poised, but he didn't seem inclined to start another firefight. He looked as uncomprehending as Rodimus felt.

"What does it explain?"

"Prowl was right!" - and that wasn't something one was likely to hear from Starscream very often - "It was Unicron - it was Unicron all along! He doesn't just consume matter - he devours energy, as well!"

*

"What does that mean?"

"It means," Skyfire snapped, thrusting his arm up to the elbow joint into another mess of wires, "that when Unicron devours his victims, he absorbs their spark energy as well as their physical bodies."

A wave of horror/disgust made him falter for a second, but he forced himself to concentrate, find the series of breakers, and pull them out with an impressive crackle-spark of electricity. Scourge, however, stopped what he was doing as the implications hit him.

"You mean – the sparks never return to Vector Sigma?"

"Exactly," Skyfire replied grimly, twisting two wires together with little regard for the leaping voltage that scorched his hands and set his circuits buzzing unpleasantly. "And now Unicron is attempting to reclaim his own."

*

"That doesn't make sense!" Rodimus had set himself squarely in the path of the two ghosts, now hovering barely above his head, as if he could somehow catch them. "Skywarp died on Earth! You were dead before Unicron entered Cybertron's orbit!"

He tried very, very hard not to look at Galvatron as he said that last, but Galvatron undid his care by snorting contemptuously. It was a sign of how truly frightened Starscream was that he barely even seemed to notice Galvatron's presence. His optics, bright with horror, were fixed on Rodimus with a pleading the Prime had never seen from him.

"A being like the Unmaker cannot pass through space without bending it in its wake!" Starscream twisted futilely; he had somehow managed to get a grip on Skywarp, and the two were clinging to each other like sparklings. "Unicron's flight path would have taken him past Earth on his way to Cybertron, and even though he could not consume the bodies of the fallen, he would have drawn their sparks to him as he passed!"

"But they had too far to go," Rodimus finished for him, finally beginning to understand. "They wouldn't have been able to reach Unicron before he was destroyed. Even you wouldn't - you'd have been fighting the pull of Vector Sigma, you'd have fallen back to Cybertron as soon as Unicron went offline..."

*

"... and once interrupted, perhaps a spark's return journey cannot be easily resumed."

Skyfire hovered near the ceiling - it was hard, much harder for him than it was for the Seekers or the Aerialbots, with their lighter bodies and more agile thrusters - trying to find an access port to the parts of the neural network he was sure ran through this portion of the chamber.

"So their sparks drifted, pulled back by the only anchor they had left - the Matrix of Leadership - and as they came into proximity of it, they began to return to coherent--"

Something whipped out of a wall and slammed into him with enough force to knock him back to the floor. Skyfire tried to roll with the blow, but whatever had hit him tangled itself up in his wings and brought him down into a pained, yelping heap. Three shots from a laser blaster, and the pressure diminished - he pushed himself up on his elbows just in time to see a sinuous, metallic appendage whip back into the shadows.

"Don't shoot!" he shouted to Scourge, who was already bringing his blaster up once more. "You're only feeding energy into the systems!"

"Then what are we supposed to do?"

Skyfire clambered to his feet and backed up to the main bank of consoles, abandoning the neural network for now.

"You might want to pray, if you believe in that sort of thing."

*

"Rodimus!" Ultra Magnus's shout came just as Rodimus felt the shivery sensation of Starscream's wing passing through his shoulder. "Skyfire needs you and the Matrix back up in the control room!"

Two pairs of optics fixed on Rodimus as their owners began to slip past and into the next wall.

"Don't leave us!" wailed Skywarp.

Starscream said nothing, but he didn't have to. Rodimus hesitated, torn - and an idea came to him, not one of his own, spoken in a quiet voice from the bright thing he carried next to his spark. Quickly, he pulled open his chest plates, putting a hand to the Matrix, which pulsed an affirmative beneath his fingertips.

"Get inside."

"What?!"

"Quickly, both of you!" Rodimus gave the mental command, and the Matrix split open fractionally - not enough to unleash its energies, which would explode against Unicron's like matter meeting antimatter, but enough that the piercing white glow of the artefact shone onto and through Starscream's startled face. "Get inside!"

"Can we do that?" Skywarp demanded, even as Starscream stretched out his hand.

Afterwards, none of them would be quite sure if it was an optical illusion - or wishful thinking - or, in Rodimus's case, part of the weird hallucinations he usually got when messing about with the repository of all Autobot wisdom.

But for a second, as the glittering sphere fountained light under Starscream's touch, they were sure that Optimus Prime stepped out of the brilliance, took Starscream's hand, and pulled the two Seekers with him into a nowhere-place that vanished with the glare as the Matrix snapped closed.

*

Kup, Slag and Snarl had just about given up trying to convince Ironhide that he was both a) dead and b) possessing Grimlock - neither concepts seem to penetrate the old warrior's awareness. "It's no good, slaggit. He's still not fully in this plane," Kup grumbled, and then had to spend the next few minutes attempting to explain to his Dinobot comrades that 'plane' wasn't referring to an Aerialbot and no, he wouldn't expect to find Ironhide in Silverbolt either. "Why you Kup bring up planes, then," Snarl grumbled, and Kup thought very seriously about thumping his head on the desk - until Ironhide-in-Grimlock dropped his half-full cube of energon.

"Awww, wingnuts," the ghost said resignedly as the others turned to look. "The Unmaker's back."

Kup was on his feet in an instant. "What did you say?"

Ironhide was silent, optic band dim, for just a few moments. Then the shadow of a Nissan-build mech rose up from Grimlock's body as if pulled on a string. The Dinobot, free again, staggered and nearly fell.

"Grimlock!" Kup caught his arm, more to catch his attention than to keep him upright. "What happened? What did Ironhide mean, Unicron's back?"

Grimlock shook his head, befuddled. "What? What you mean, Kup?"

"Ironhide's ghost was possessing you," Kup said desperately, then Slag's cry made him turn. Prowl, ever-calm Prowl, was flailing desperately as he floated up through the floor, optics bright with panic.

"Send your best up to Unicron's head!" the ghost burst out when he spotted Kup. "Something's gone terribly wrong - space itself is bending -"

"Grimlock," Kup ordered, but Grimlock was already heading for the shuttle bay, Snarl and Slag in hot pursuit. Kup turned back just in time to see Prowl disappear through the ceiling - on the most direct route, he was certain, for Unicron's head.

"Sentinel Prime on a tricycle," he breathed.

Then the old warrior was in motion, shouting for the security workers to sound the alarms.

*

"Sentinel motherslagging Prime on a half-smelted tricycle," Rodimus growled, engine roaring as he drove back through the un-hallowed halls toward the control room. "With a bunny rabbit in the basket on the front, Pit-dammit..."

"He gets creative when he's mad, doesn't he?" Cyclonus commented idly, belying the speed at which he had to fly to keep up with the Prime.

Being in truck mode, Magnus couldn't make a face at his counterpart, though he wanted to. "This is just one of the ways he entertains himself." The next minute he had to slam on his brakes. "Rodimus!" he yelled. "Warn me before you stop suddenly!"

"Um." Rodimus rocked on his wheels. "The hall splits here."

Magnus transformed and peeked around his leader's massive trailer. Sure enough, Rodimus's headlights illuminated three distinct pathways ahead. "Well, which way?" he demanded.

"I don't know! I was just following Starscream and Skywarp's voices!" Rodimus groaned. "Oh, this is not happening. We are not lost. We do not have time to be lost."

"Stand aside, weaklings!" Galvatron sped past, a hot purple blur, knocking Magnus aside; he righted himself with a grunt of indignation, but the Decepticon leader ignored him. "It's this way," he declared, pointing dramatically off to the left with his cannon. Then he activated his thrusters and flew out, and Rodimus hurried to catch up, Cyclonus right on his bumper.

"How do you know?" Magnus heard Rodimus call.

"I know!" the reply floated back.

"Utter, utter madness," Magnus lamented, and transformed to follow.

*

When Galvatron roared into the control room looking like triumphant death, Scourge was very, very happy to see him.

"Mighty One!" he cried, or tried to: it's hard to talk with Unicron's tentacles wrapped around half your face, and Scourge had a lot of face. Galvatron turned to him, and he wriggled hopefully. Surely his triad-brother and leader would save him from the horrible and humiliating fate of being trussed up head to toe by Unicron's tentacles.

Galvatron stood over him, optics glowing in amusement. "You have a talent for getting into odd ways, Scourge."

"Mmph," Scourge agreed.

Rodimus rumbled past them and transformed hurriedly, and Magnus herded him to where Skyfire was elbow-deep in Unicron's brains. Still chuckling, Galvatron followed, leaving Scourge to wriggle and squeak in pleading distress.

"I can't shut it down," Skyfire was saying as Rodimus reached his side. "These systems are nowhere near Cybertronian, and I'm hardly qualified - if Starscream was here, or Perceptor..."

"Let me." Rodimus shouldered him aside - then paused, scowled at himself, and offered Skyfire a sheepish smile. "Sorry. Starscream doesn't channel just his knowledge well."

To his credit, Skyfire only went cross-opticked for a moment. "I'll be your assistant, then," he said kindly.

"I'll keep those tentacles off you," Magnus said, stepping in to guard their backs.

Galvatron snorted. "You? Alone? Don't make me laugh." He stepped up beside the city commander, lifting his cannon. "I'll destroy them myself!"

"No shooting!" Skyfire rapped out. "It only makes him stronger!"

Galvatron hesitated a moment. "I don't need my cannon," he growled, finally. "Scourge! Cyclonus!"

Scourge, having been cut free by Cyclonus, hurried to his leader's side; Cyclonus did the same. "Barehanded fighting, is it?" the spacejet smiled. "I've not done that in a while."

"Don't worry, I'll watch your wings," Scourge teased.

Out of the darkness, pincered tentacles snaked out to snatch their lives and freedom. Magnus and the rogue Triad set themselves to meet the assault as Rodimus and Skyfire got to work.

*

"Is that the last of them?" Rodimus asked, more nervously than he really wanted to admit - the sight of half a dozen cables snaking into his chest was making him feel a bit peculiar. "Starscream seems to think so. At least, I think he thinks so. It's hard to tell when he's in there."

Behind him, there was a yelp, a great shout of indignation, and the sound of tearing metal. Several metres of severed tentacle went sailing over their heads to collide with a clang with the far wall.

"Yes," Skyfire said after a brief moment in which they both turned to contemplate the battle surrounding them, "that should do it. If you channel the Matrix's energy now, it should set up an interference pattern so that Unicron falls back into dormancy. Without the big explosion."

Rodimus fidgeted nervously with a clamp that was chafing his spark casing.

"Should?"

A shriek, and Scourge flew past them, backwards, and clearly not under his own power. Unlike the preceding debris, however, he rebounded off the wall and shot back into the fray with a snarl.

Skyfire gestured helplessly.

"Frankly, I don't see that we have much choice at this stage. They're barely keeping those things at bay, and Unicron is still powering up, even without the laser fire."

"Alright, then," Rodimus sighed. "You'd better get Magnus and the others out of here--"

A lightning-fast, slithering appendage sliced out of nowhere, slipping through some gap in their ring of defenders. Skyfire caught it one-handed, grimacing as it whipped around to try and pin his arm to his side.

"I don't think so," he said, so calmly that it took Rodimus a moment to realise he was being disobeyed. "Even if," Skyfire went on, talking over the top of his leader's protest, "we were willing to save ourselves and leave you to your fate, it isn't practical. You can't hold this lot off by yourself while you're working with the Matrix."

As if to illustrate his point, the pincers on the end of the tentacle he was grappling with snapped viciously close to one wing. Skyfire winced.

"And anyway, there isn't time. I've just picked up Sky Lynx on approach. You need to do this now before they get close enough to be at risk."

"I think Starscream's bad habits are rubbing off on you," Rodimus complained without much heat, as he closed a fist around one of the cables attached to the Matrix, and readied himself. "You never used to order me around."

However Skyfire might have responded, it was lost in a roar of outrage: Galvatron had been seized, arms pinned to his sides, and Cyclonus, attempting to reach him, had just taken a crushing blow to the side of the head.

"Here goes nothing," muttered Rodimus, mostly to himself.

He opened the Matrix.

Chapter Text

"That," said Skywarp into the silence, "was really, really weird."

There was a general murmur of agreement, even from those who hadn't been inside the Matrix. Most of the room's occupants were sprawled like stunned goldfish amid a mess of now inactive tentacles. Except Starscream, who was standing over an unconscious Prime, hands on his hips, and swearing softly to himself.

"Those last two should have been the other way around," he snapped at Skyfire, who was slowly disentangling himself from a tentacle that had wound itself around his wings. "Now you've done Primus-knows-what to the energy flow in the Matrix..."

"I'm so very sorry," Skyfire replied with uncharacteristic sarcasm. He pointedly tossed the limp tentacle away from him and sat up. "I was a little distracted at the time." A pause, then in a gentler tone. "Is he alright?"

"How should I know?" Starscream knelt by Rodimus's side, stretched out a hand towards his still-open chest, where the Matrix pulsed dimly, all its blaze gone out of it. "I think he's just offline. Maybe if I--"

Starscream's hand collided with Rodimus's chest armour with a clang; he yelped as electricity jumped from one of the cables to crackle up his arm. Skyfire let out a soft exclamation. Starscream froze, staring at his own hands as though he had never seen them before. And Skywarp realised, belatedly, that Starscream was looking a lot more... substantial... than he had been a few hours previously.

In fact, come to think of it, Skywarp himself couldn't help noticing that he ached all over, and that something with sharp edges was digging into one of his wings. Cautiously, he knocked on the floor beneath him with a fist. It made a satisfyingly solid thump.

"Hey, Starscream--!"

"I know." The brief, unguarded wonder on Starscream's face melted into a frown as he looked thoughtfully down at the still-unconscious Rodimus. "The question is, did Unicron do this, or did Prime?"

"Does it matter?" Skywarp got rather unsteadily to his feet, patting himself down as if expecting to find some bits had retained their ghostly form. "How do I look?"

"Like a moron," Starscream muttered automatically, still examining Rodimus. Skyfire edged up to look over his shoulder, one hand coming to rest lightly, curiously, on Starscream's wing. Starscream shivered and twitched it aside. "Help me get the wires out..."

Skywarp watched them unclip the cables from the Matrix. Had he really been in that thing? Everything was a bit fuzzy and surreal up until the moment he'd felt himself kicked back out into reality and the blinding flare of the Matrix's power. He was vaguely aware of the others stirring, of Ultra Magnus giving Cyclonus a hand up, and of Scourge eyeing the walls nervously.

The walls remained reassuringly dark. Only the console Rodimus had been hooked up to retained any lights.

From somewhere down one of the corridors that led to this chamber, however, he could hear the thunderous approach of several heavy, enthusiastic feet. At high speed. Accompanied by Grimlock's unmistakeable roar of challenge.

"Hey, the cavalry's here!" Skywarp informed everyone cheerfully, and then teleported himself hastily out of the way.

*

Sorry for dumping them on you back there.

It was my idea. .... How are you feeling?

Foggy. ...But stronger, I think. I mean, inside. I'm pretty sure I'm going to be feeling like slag warmed over when I wake up.

Most likely.

You're a real cheer factory. ...so, is Unicron dead for good this time?

You may as well ask whether the vacuum of space can be filled. Unicron is an elemental being - nothing on this plane can truly destroy him.

...

However, I believe he has been dealt a severe blow today. You weakened him tremendously - he will not be active again for a very long time.

That's good, then. ...Thanks, Optimus.

Thank you, Rodimus Prime.

Consciousness hit him like a shot between the optics, and he groaned and covered his face with an arm to shield himself. Diagnostic warnings told him everything he already knew: fused circuitry, blown heat sinks, charred wiring and metal fractures, and he felt like slag warmed over. "Ask for me tomorrow and you will find me a grave mechanism," he groaned out.

"If you're coherent enough to quote Shakespeare, you're not dying."

That disapproving tone... "You can't spare a little sympathy, Magnus?" He uncovered his optics just enough to offer a shaky grin to his second. "I just defeated a god for the second time."

Magnus sighed and shook his head slowly. "I'll get First Aid to patch you up for the trip home," he said. Then, just as he turned away, he added, "You did well." If it wouldn't have hurt so much, Rodimus's jaw would have dropped.

"Hmm, I suppose he's right - as much as it pains me to admit it. You did do well."

"Thanks, Starscream." Rodimus turned toward the voice and blinked. "You're looking... solid."

"When the light faded," Starscream explained with a shrug, "Skywarp and I were like this."

Rodimus frowned. "Unicron, or the Matrix?"

"I have no idea," Starscream said airily. "I plan to let Perceptor-" he smirked- "examine me thoroughly to find out."

Rodimus laughed, though it ached all through his torso. "Pervert."

"You're one to talk." Starscream stuck his glossa out at the Prime. "Besides, I didn't hear you complaining when I-"

"Finish that sentence at your peril!"

Starscream laughed at him and Rodimus sulked, but it was a content sulk. Starscream allowed himself to be shooed away when First Aid arrived, tools already in hand to fix the Prime's Matrix-injuries, and Rodimus lay back and relaxed, shuttering his optics as First Aid deftly patched his inner workings.

Not a bad day, overall.

*

"Magnus."

Bringing up the rear as he was, Magnus could pause without anyone noticing. "Cyclonus? I thought you three had left before Rodimus woke up."

Cyclonus snorted. "We just didn't want him to do anything embarrassing, like thanking us."

"I'm sure he'll write you a nice note instead."

The spacejet tilted his head and smirked in amusement, sensor-horns humming this close to Magnus's face. "But Galvatron bade me leave you a message for your leader."

Magnus nodded. "I'm ready."

In the darkness, Cyclonus's smile was bright and hard as a diamond. "Tell him that Galvatron hasn't forgotten he surrendered." With that, Cyclonus stepped back and melted into the darkness, leaving Magnus alone with his sense of foreboding.

"Your boss just wants to get him into bed," he muttered, and half expected a ghostly laugh to float back to him.

*

They had just reached the gaping hole where Sky Lynx had docked, tired and battered and, in Starscream's case at least, rather preoccupied with metaphysical questions, when there was a polite, throat-clearing noise (not that any of them had a need to clear their throats, but it was a habit some of the Earth-bound bots had picked up) from the shadows. Starscream, to his own eternal embarrassment, reacted by jumping protectively in front of Rodimus.

Oh, Primus, it was like a disease, hang around with Autobots too much and you started acting like a total moron.

Fortunately, most of the group had spun around to face the unexpected sound, and therefore missed Starscream's moment of madness. Except Rodimus himself, of course, and judging by the smirk on his damned face, he wasn't going to be letting Starscream forget it any time soon.

"I do hope you weren't planning on leaving without us."

Prowl stepped out of the shadows. Starscream saw immediately that he too had regained physical form. What was more puzzling was his presence here in Unicron's shell. Instinctively, he looked behind Prowl, and was unsurprised when Wheeljack, Ratchet, and Ironhide emerged one by one, each as solid as the day they'd come off the production line, and were tailed by a couple of minibots Starscream had never been able to remember the names of.

None of them really surprised him. The Unicron hypothesis had been amply proven by the day's events, and he'd been expecting the rest of them to show up sometime.

It was the winged shadow skulking at the back that brought him up short.

Skywarp showed no such hesitation: with a shriek of glee, forgetting even to teleport in his excitement, he flung himself across the distance and tackled their wingmate to the ground.

"THUNDERCRACKER! Oh man you won't believe what we've been through today, it was totally freaky, ask Screamer, we almost got eaten and then we went on this trippy cruise through the Matrix and I saw Optimus freakin' Prime doing the hula, and--"

"You're on my aileron," Thundercracker complained without much heat, and making no attempt to dislodge his chattering wingmate. His optics wandered to Starscream, who was not, in any way, shape, or form, fighting back a grin. "Hey, Screamer."

"Don't call me that," Starscream retorted automatically, crossing to stand over the two of them with careful nonchalance. He was vaguely aware that the Autobots were in the midst of their own madcap reunions, but he had no time for his erstwhile allies right now. "And where have you been, exactly? How have you managed to skip the non-corporeal stage and arrive fully formed? That's cheating!"

Thundercracker stared at him for a long moment.

"I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about," he said at last. Then he smiled, unexpectedly and without restraint. "So at least something's the way it should be."

Chapter Text

"Another successful trip comes to an end, courtesy of Sky Lynx - you ingrates may now disembark." Sky Lynx settled on the tarmac and opened his hatches, allowing his passengers to file out from his insides. "And I expect a full refurbishing on my schedule by tomorrow, Prime!"

"You'll have it and a wash-and-wax. Top priority," Rodimus promised, all wide optics and earnestness. "You've earned it."

"Hmph." Sky Lynx tossed his head. "Next time, Starscream and his goons may fly themselves."

Rodimus rubbed the back of his helm sheepishly. "I'm really sorry about that, Lynx." Though, really - what had any of them expected? The Seekers had bodies again, they hadn't seen Thundercracker in a long time - of course they were going to want to get busy. In Sky Lynx's passenger compartment. In Sky Lynx's very cramped passenger compartment with several other mechs riding along.

"...I'll talk to them," Rodimus offered weakly.

Sky Lynx sighed. "As if I expect you to keep a leash on Starscream's interface drive. Go on, off to medbay with you before pieces start falling off."

"Yes, First Aid," Rodimus teased, and ducked a retaliatory swat from the spacefarer's tail. He waited until Sky Lynx had turned away in mock-disgust before grabbing his chest and wincing in pain. "Right," he muttered, "get fixed, then horse around, Hot Rod."

*

He'd managed to hide the wince behind a grin by the time he got to the medbay; First Aid was waiting patiently for him, rebuilding materials all ready on his worktable. "Have a seat, Prime," he invited, waving to the nearest medical berth. "You know the drill."

"Yeah, I know," Rodimus said, obeying his chief medic's orders with a sigh of relief. "Ah, Primus... can I just recharge here for about a week?"

"No, you can't," First Aid said tartly. "I have other patients, you know." Deft and gentle, he hooked Rodimus up to the diagnostic board and mused over its readouts. "...I might have you on bed rest for a day or so," he amended. "This circuit damage doesn't look pretty."

"Lemme see." A red hand reached in out of nowhere and nudged First Aid aside; the medic squeaked. Ratchet bent over the diagnostic screen, jaw set in a frown. Remembering the lessons he learned the hard way at Autobot City when Ratchet was CMO, Rodimus held very, very still as the white mech pored over his data.

"What do you think?" First Aid ventured.

Ratchet frowned a moment more, seeming not to hear. "Looks like you detonated somethin' in there," he muttered.

"That's not a bad metaphor," Rodimus offered with a grin. Huffing at young mechs' foolishness just as he'd always done, Ratchet turned to go.

"Um..." First Aid hedged.

Ratchet waved a hand at him, not bothering to look back. "What? You're CMO now, and I'm taking a well-earned slagging retirement."

"Yes sir! I'll do my best!" First Aid twittered; Rodimus reflected sourly that usually people were supposed to at least ask him for permission to retire. Then again, he thought, do you really have the cast-iron manifolds to say no to Ratchet?

As Ratchet shut the door firmly behind him, Rodimus decided that he didn't. Within him, the Matrix purred against his wires, as if in wry commiseration.

*

"You didn't have to hit me," Skywarp was whining - for the third or fourth time - as they meandered down the corridor.

"It was barely a tap," replied Skyfire, ignoring Starscream's snickering and the way Thundercracker was apparently trying to dissociate himself from the lot of them. "Maybe next time you'll think twice about carrying on in someone's cargo hold. It's not much fun for your host, you know."

"What about that time we--"

"Shut up, Starscream."

"Wait." Skywarp looked from one of them to the other. "You two are speaking again?"

"It was that or go slowly mad," Skyfire said drily.

"Oh, yes, we're speaking." Starscream's good mood was undeflatable; he leered at Skyfire. "We've had some fascinating... conversations..."

"On second thought," Skyfire sighed, putting on a burst of speed as he neared his destination, "The going mad part seems to be pretty much inevitable."

"You only miss your sanity for the first couple of vorns," muttered Thundercracker.

Skyfire risked a glance over his shoulder; two of his three stalkers were currently wrestling each other into the nearest wall, with cheerful curses and clangs, while Starscream was still at his heels, entirely too pleased with himself for Skyfire's peace of mind.

"Is there a reason you're following me, incidentally?"

"Following you?" Starscream widened his optics innocently. "Why, we simply happen to be going to the same place."

They had reached the door to the Aerialbots' hangar, but Skyfire stopped before entering, throwing a suspicious glance at Starscream.

"What are you up to?"

"Me? Absolutely nothing." Starscream ducked under Skyfire's arm and pushed open the door. "We flyers have to stick together, you know..."

The chatter of the young gestalt team enfolded them as they stepped into the hangar. Skyfire made a beeline for Silverbolt, while the rest of the Aerialbots, as one, stopped what they were doing to stare at the three ex-Seekers.

"Is it me," said Air Raid after a moment, "or is Starscream not as transparent as he used to be?"

"Is it me," murmured Fireflight, wide-opticked, "or are there more of them now?"

"Is it me," growled Slingshot, "or is that the fragger who stole my body a few hours back?"

"Wait, I can explain--" began Thundercracker, but by then he'd been knocked over by a fast-moving, enraged Slingshot, Skywarp had leapt to his defence with a jubilant war cry, and a very odd five-way battle (Air Raid had jumped in shouting something about card houses, and Fireflight appeared to be going along for the ride) had been joined in the doorway. With a lot of flailing.

Skyfire covered his optics briefly, then looked up to find Silverbolt doing the same. He shot the smaller mech a wry smile.

"I take it your day was about as interesting as mine."

"Did yours include getting shot at?"

"Oddly enough, yes. Also, tentacles."

Silverbolt sighed, leaning closer automatically when Skyfire laid a hand on his back.

"How many years do we have to have been enlisted before we qualify for a holiday, again?"

Another pair of hands appeared on Silverbolt's waist; the jet jumped, and craned his head around to find Starscream smirking at him.

"Did you miss me?"

"Like a hole in the--" Silverbolt stopped, optics widening. "You're not a ghost any more!"

"Well done," Starscream purred, wrapping himself around the stunned Silverbolt in a way that was only just decent for a public place, and not coincidentally brushing up against Skyfire's wing as he did so. "You always did pick the smart ones, Skyfire."

Over by the door, the battle seemed to have devolved into a chaotic pile of wings and limbs, the latter mostly engaged in tickling the former. Skydive was standing over them, apparently trying to decide whether he should play the sensible one, with Silverbolt distracted, or just jump right in.

"Get off," Silverbolt tried, though he rather lacked conviction, which, given what Starscream's hands were doing to his wings, was hardly surprising. "I ought to go and... see to those idiots."

"I think they can play nicely together without you for a bit." Starscream took a step backwards, tugging Silverbolt with him. "There are other things you need to... see to."

"You conduct electricity even better now," Silverbolt warned, but seemed not to be averse to the abduction, though he shot Skyfire a questioning look.

"I think," said Skyfire, following them towards the Aerialbots' quarters, "that he's going to have his way whether we like it or not."

"Oh," purred Starscream, "I do appreciate mechanisms who understand me."

*

"Ratchet!" The squeal of joy was accompanied by a cacaphonic clatter and a roar of indignation. Spectators quickly gathered to the mess hall, where - wonder of wonders - little Bluestreak had put a newly-resurrected Ratchet flat on his back. "RatchetRatchetRatchet," he babbled, "you're back, you're really back this time, I mean you were back before but you were all ghosty and out of it and so I don't think that counts, but you're here and you're real and-"

"-going to rebuild you into a go-kart if you don't get off me," Ratchet growled, but even he was grinning, and once they'd both gotten to their feet again he even pulled Bluestreak into a rough hug. "You little fragger, you're as energetic as always."

"I didn't get near so enthusiastic a greeting when I came back," Wheeljack pointed out from the energon dispenser, though his voice held more amusement than pouting. He claimed a table for them, three energon cubes in an arm.

"You were still ghosty when you came back," Bluestreak said reasonably, accepting the cube the engineer offered him and sitting along with Ratchet. "I couldn't tackle you without going headfirst into your worktable. Besides, you can't tell me you guys didn't tackle each other when you met up in Unicron's head, right? Though that's probably last on the list of places you'd want to-"

"Bluestreak!" Ratchet interrupted, mildly scandalized.

Wheeljack shrugged at him, chuckling. "It's the Twins' influence. Anyway," he added, optics sparkling with mischief, "we would've done it on the way back to Cybertron, but the Seekers' example convinced us to wait until we disembarked. Skyfire took exception to their shenanigans."

"They never," Bluestreak gasped gleefully. "What did Skyfire do?"

"Well, he-" Wheeljack lifted his head. "Oh, hey, Perceptor."

"Perce?" Ratchet turned around in his chair. "Hey."

Perceptor stood in the entryway, looking so lost in his own base. "It isn't fair," he said faintly. "I'd only just gotten used to the idea of you being deactivated."

Ratchet offered a sheepish grin. "Sorry."

Perceptor's lost look melted into fond irritation. "Don't you sorry me, you cranky old rustmonger," he said, and pounced.

For the second time that day Ratchet was flat on his back with a resounding clang. Bluestreak squeaked and jumped back, then blinked. "I didn't get a kiss," he pouted.

Wheeljack laughed outright. "S'cuse me, Blue, we've got some reacquainting to do. C'mon, you two, before Skyfire comes in." He pulled his fellow techies upright and slung his arms around their waists. "Come on, I'll show you my new invention. It's got lots of medical applications."

"Really?" Ratchet lit up.

Perceptor frowned. "Wheeljack, is this the one with the vibration function?"

"Perce, when you get a load of this, vibration'll seem like nothing."

Bluestreak watched them go, a goofy grin on his face, then downed the rest of his energon - and the rest of Wheeljack and Ratchet's - and went to find his twins. Today seemed like a good day for celebrating life.

*

Prowl entered the medbay, blinked at what he saw, then visibly regained his composure and took a seat near the Prime's medical berth. "I have the latest satellite imagery on Unicron."

"All quiet?" Rodimus asked hopefully. "No, wait. You wouldn't have bothered to come here if it was all quiet. Slag." He let his head fall back on the berth with a thump. "Okay, hit me."

Wordlessly, Prowl handed over a datapad; Rodimus clicked it on and blinked at the image. "Uh, Prowl, that looks pretty dormant to me."

"Indeed," Prowl nodded. "Don't look for lights, Prime, look for shape." At Rodimus's blank look, Prowl sighed and gestured him to advance to the next slide.

"...Huh." Puzzled, Rodimus clicked through the images, each showing a different, closer view of Unicron's head. "You're right - that does look different."

"The damage pattern does not match any known weaponry, either Autobot or Decepticon," Prowl reported blandly. "Could it have happened when you activated the Matrix?"

"Not with all the failsafes Skyfire put on me," Rodimus answered, peering at a detail of the damage. "Hey, Prowl? Do these holes seem weird to you?"

"Weird as in they are not supposed to be there?" Prowl obediently tilted his head to look. "The shapes are rough," he said. "I would say shrapnel damage, but they're not big enough."

"They look..." Rodimus searched for the right word. "Chewed."

Prowl looked alarmed; with a sigh, Rodimus handed the datapad back. "I'm back on duty in six hours," he said. "After that I'm probably going to be doing diplomatic stuff with the Decepticons. Do you think you can figure it out by the time I get back? Drag Jazz in if you have to."

"Yes, Prime," Prowl nodded firmly. "Rest well. ...Do you need any assistance? With..." He glanced pointedly at Ironhide, who'd spent the whole time passed out cold draped half across Rodimus's chest.

Rodimus grinned. "It's fine. He just wanted to be close to Optimus, but I guess coming back from the dead was tiring for him. Just get Red Alert to erase the footage before the Lambos get ahold of it."

"Yes, Prime." Prowl saluted and turned away sharply, giving Rodimus an excellent view of his doorwings quivering with suppressed laughter as he marched out.

Chapter Text

"What I want to know," Scourge grouched as they watched the shuttle entering atmosphere on the tiny, uninhabited planet that had been designated the meeting place, "is why we had to sneak off without telling Galvatron. I'd feel a lot happier about this if he were here."

"I anticipate no treachery," replied Cyclonus, who, though tense and ready for anything, was somewhat less jittery than his companion. "Ultra Magnus was the one who contacted me, and he would not be party to it."

A tiny, niggling thought pointed out that Ultra Magnus might not be feeling entirely charitable towards the Decepticons after recent events, but he quashed it. The bright flaring of friction heat on intangible shields died away, revealing Skyfire on approach to their position. There was something about his flight that struck Cyclonus as odd - a number of tiny tells that only a flyer would recognise. In human terms, it was the equivalent of someone walking in wet clothes - stiff and awkward, trying to minimise the pull of damp fabric on skin.

His landing, too, lacked finesse - he seemed in a hurry to get on the ground. Cyclonus waved Scourge back, approached the shuttle cautiously, pausing when Skyfire's cargo hatch sprang open and disgorged two harried-looking Seekers.

"Thank Primus!" Skywarp looked more grateful to see Cyclonus than anyone had ever been in all his existence. "Hurry up and take them, would you?"

"Please," echoed Skyfire, wings twitching as he shifted on his landing wheels. "While I still have functional internal wiring."

"Take what?" Cyclonus remained at a safe distance, aware of Scourge sidling up to guard his back. "Ultra Magnus said that you were to deliver something of the Decepticons' back to us, and specified these co-ordinates, nothing more."

"Wow." Skywarp's expression had morphed into horrified pity. "What did you do to offend him recently?"

"Apart from kidnapping the Prime and awakening Unicron, you mean?" Thundercracker murmured, surveying Scourge and Cyclonus with a wary, curious look in his optics. Skywarp shrugged.

"Oh, come on, that worked out okay..."

There was a metallic crunching noise from behind them, and Skyfire gave an undignified yelp.

"That's it," growled the shuttle with what even Cyclonus knew was uncharacteristic bad temper, "I've had enough."

Thundercracker and Skywarp were unceremoniously dumped off the cargo ramp as Skyfire initiated his transformation with the same wincing care with which he had been flying. Three oddly-shaped forms tumbled out of his hold in the process, and, once fully bipedal, Skyfire took several pointed steps back from them.

Cyclonus surveyed the small bots warily. The black, purple and yellow looked familiar, striking some fuzzy chord in his databanks.

"And these are?"

"Insecticons," Skyfire said with distaste. "And they are all yours."

"We don't take kindly to being abducted abducted," snapped one of the three, transforming with a quick flick of insectoid wings. "Consider yourself lucky that we were not truly hungry hungry."

"You could've warned us you were gonna do that, Skyfire," Skywarp complained, staggering back onto his feet. "I think my afterburner's bashed in."

"Watch it, or you can fly yourself home," Skyfire snapped, folding his arms across his cockpit protectively. "I swear, if I have play taxi one more time, I'm going to put in a request to be reformatted into a minibot."

"Oh, Starscream'll love that."

"Where is Starscream?" asked Cyclonus - the argument that looked like it was about to unfold between the normally unflappable shuttle and the Seeker would doubtless be amusing, but he was uncomfortably aware that they had left Galvatron unsupervised on Charr, and wanted to get back. "I was under the impression that he would be here - hence our agreement to keep Galvatron in the dark."

There was a chorus of sniggering from the Insecticons.

"He's in the medbay getting a cerebro shell pulled out of him," Thundercracker supplied. "After which, I think Silverbolt's going to feed him his own wings. Slowly."

"I need a holiday," Skyfire remarked to no-one in particular.

Skywarp gave him a sympathetic pat, resentment apparently forgotten.

"Very well." Cyclonus gestured to Scourge, who seemed oddly reluctant to approach the Insecticons. "You may tell Ultra Magnus that his delivery has been received. I presume that is all we have to discuss?"

"So it would appear." With obvious reluctance, Skyfire transformed back into his alt-mode. "Come on, you two, I want to go home."

Thundercracker went readily enough into the open hatch, but Skywarp hung back, eyeing Scourge thoughtfully.

"I gotta say," he said, "I don't think much of what you've done with it."

Scourge met his gaze blankly.

"With what?"

"The body." Skywarp grinned. "It looked better on TC."

With that, he disappeared into Skyfire's cargo bay. The door snapped shut so fast it almost clipped his heels, and Skyfire blasted off without more than a perfunctory farewell.

Cyclonus was left facing a furiously sputtering Scourge, three pairs of calculating insectoid optics, and the beginnings of the mother of all processor aches.

*

My dear Ultra Magnus,

I write to thank you kindly for your thoughtful gift. I do not know how we could have thought that life without malfunctioning electrical systems and holes in the walls was a complete one. Galvatron is particularly thrilled with the bitemarks on his throne: Scourge was fortunate enough to be nearby when he made that discovery, and will be in the repair bay for some time.

I trust you are happy now?

- Cyclonus


Cyclonus,

Oh, yes.

Yrs in revenge,
Ultra Magnus