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It was getting close to the night cycle when Pulsar made it home to the huge building she shared with friends in Deixar’s suburbs. She was technically only halfway through her shift but District Superintendent Boxer was (for once) being remarkably reasonable and had given her… well, ‘flexible duties’, she guessed she could call them.

(“If it gets you back to a state where you’re actually functional, take all the half-days you need” was what he’d actually said, so he wasn’t being that generous, but she wasn’t about to quibble and have him change his mind.)

She made her way off the street and through the hidden door in the building’s glass front wall. Late evening sunlight chased her into the giant central atrium, stretching her shadow into a lanky giant with an untidy halo of stiff aerials. She glared tiredly at it, wishing she could feel as big as she looked right now.

The rest of the property was dark, the open doorways like miniature black holes, sucking away the light. Pulsar didn’t bother turning any of the lamps on, heading straight to the lift hidden away in a rear corner. She could probably have navigated around the property with her optics offline altogether, and honestly, skulking around in the dark suited her mood better.

She emerged on the top floor with her attention already glued to her datapad, trying to avoid looking at the badly disguised drop a few steps to her left. Living quarters this high wouldn’t have been her first choice, but then her room wasn’t really hers, anyway. (Or at least that was what she told herself. Just a temporary thing, until she felt she could cope on her own again. Couldn’t be getting under seeker heels for the rest of her life, after all. The only reason she had been invited to stay in the first place was because of a mech who had d-- wasn’t even around any more.)

She hesitated in her (temporary) doorway, and ran her thumb over the glyph alongside the controls, almost tenderly. Skywarp. He’d never even seen the place. His wingmates had only designed it in the vorns after his disappearance, to keep themselves distracted from their loss.

She suspected Panacea might say it was unhealthy to cling to the mech like this. Making provisions for a brother who was never coming home. It had been vorns since he’d disappeared, and all the evidence said he was dead. That they should grieve, accept it, and move on. Find something or someone else to fill the bottomless hole in all their lives. Somehow.

Not knowing gave them a tiny, troublesome ember of hope to cling to. While there was no verifiable, 100% conclusive proof of his death, while there was no body to lay to rest, they could still convince themselves that it’d be fine. Somehow, somewhere, eventually they’d find Skywarp, and suddenly things would settle back down to how they always used to be. Strong, safe, together. Whole.

--Then someone sent the puppet.

Some… faceless antagonist… sent a facsimile into their midst, to take advantage of their grief and desperation, knowing they’d be too relieved to finally have him back (oh Primus after all these vorns of not knowing, thank you for the miracle) to question it. A clever, quiet facsimile, gathering information about them for Primus only knew who or why--

Skywarp’s surviving wingmates were coping about as well as could have been expected – in the traditional Decepticon way of Bottle It All Up Inside and Pretend It’s Not That Big A Deal. After the screaming trauma of discovering and “dealing with” the treachery, barely twenty orns ago, both had battened down the hatches and refused to discuss or even acknowledge it. Show No Weakness.

Except stress kept on leaking out from around what should have been iron self-control. Starscream was getting louder with every passing orn. The smirking, self-assured former air commander had turned into a screaming ball of bad temper – everyone knew he was depressed, and the harder he tried to deny it, the more obvious he made it. Thundercracker went for the polar opposite; quiet, brooding and withdrawn. He let his deputies take over the day-to-day running of the station, while he sat in his office and only emerged to deal with the essentials.

It had a knock-on effect on everyone else close to them. Boxer managed to endure a few orns of lost-looking staff wandering aimlessly, getting in the way and just generally bringing down everyone’s morale, before threatening to relieve them all of duty if they refused to take the time off voluntarily. After a little scrambling around, they’d found… other… things… to do.

Pulsar had settled on studying, after a fashion. She found it strangely soothing, looking for patterns in bland, repetitive facts and figures. The quiet building would help her concentrate – and the dark wouldn’t report back to her superiors if she ended up just staring into space again.

Expecting her room to be empty, the large blue shape caught in the periphery of her vision made her jump. “Oh!” She stumbled backwards and caught herself on the doorframe, only just managing to keep her siren offline.

“What-?” Thundercracker looked like she’d startled him out of a trance. He spent a second staring blankly at her, bolt upright where he sat on the berth, wings stiff, before recognising her and letting himself relax. “Pulsar.”

“When did you-” Feeling stupid for her over-reaction, she gave a humourless little laugh, trying to release some of the tension. “Everyone thought you’d gone out to New Vos with Starscream.”

“Everybody conveniently didn’t hear our screaming match an orn ago, then?”

She didn’t reply; no point lying about it. Everyone had been politely trying to pretend they hadn’t heard. That or trying not to attract the unstable red jet’s ire, one of the two.

“I’m not sure exactly where he is. His beacon’s off. I guess it’s his way of telling me to give him some room. I’m not going looking for him unless he invites it.” The seeker glanced towards the window. “I’ve not been nullrayed in a while. I forgot how disorienting it was.”

She wasn’t sure what to say to that. “I’m sorry.”

“Right.” His gaze returned to her, flicking very briefly to the space behind her shoulder, as though looking for someone. “Did they send you to check up on me?”

“N-o…? Do you need checking up on?”

“So what are you-… Wait. Pit. I’m sorry.” He wiped his face with one hand and pushed himself halfway upright. “You even told me you were coming home early. Let me get out of your way-”

“You’re all right. Stay here.” Pulsar finally managed to get her alarm protocols to stand down. “I can study downstairs just as easy.” She’d have to go back to the ground floor to retrieve her pad, anyway – it had shot out of her hand when she’d grabbed for the doorframe, and skated off the edge of the walkway. Bravely peering over the rail at it, she could see the crack on its screen from all the way up on the top floor, and grimaced.

Thundercracker gave an odd little sort of cough of his fans. “Uh-”

She hesitated in the doorway and looked back at him.

“I know you’ve got plans, but.” He tried for an optimistic smile, but only managed a sort of dim, forlorn one. “Would you sit with me? Just a while?”

He looked… lost. No Skywarp, and now no Starscream, either. Just one lonely Seeker, all on his own. She realised she’d not seen him all orn, and wondered just how long he’d been sat up here, thinking about his missing brother?

She smiled back, sadly. “Sure. Why not. We could both use the company, right?”

Carefully, she settled on the berth and tucked her feet up, echoing his cross-legged pose like a much smaller mirror. He met her gaze for a few moments, looking ridiculously grateful (she couldn’t help the surge of guilt for not coming looking for him sooner), before finding some other inanimate spot to direct his attention onto.

He seemed happy to sit in silence, just taking comfort from having someone familiar nearby, but it made her feel twitchy. Bikes weren’t precisely known for their quiet, contemplative natures, and she exemplified the type. She hunted frantically for some words to fill the quiet. “How, uh. How are you holding up?”

He considered the question for a moment or two, as though weighing up whether to deflect her attention with a lie, or be honest with her. “Not so good. Very conscious of being alone, I guess.” He vented warm air in a subtle sigh. “I could do with having Starscream here, but I’m apparently responsible for the burr in his armour. I don’t know when he’s coming back from…” He wafted a hand. “Wherever it is he’s gone. Outer space, perhaps.”

“Have you asked him?”

The blue jet hitched a shoulder in a small shrug. “He’s not talking to me. He responds if I ping him, but only to tell me to go away. I guess I can take a little comfort from the fact he’s responding, at least. That way I know he hasn’t done a swan dive into a smelter or something.”

Pulsar hoped it was just a morbid attempt at humour, but who knew, these days? “He just doesn’t want anyone to see him vulnerable. Right? I’m sure he’ll be back.”

“Will he?” Thundercracker attempted a laugh. “I don’t know. He’s pretty torqued. You know what he’s like with grudges.”

Pulsar thought of Starscream’s ongoing one-sided feud with Skyfire, and kept her vocaliser offline.

“I did the worst thing anyone could possibly do,” he went on, and she finally noticed the tiny tremble of static in his words. “I made him doubt we were right. Being wrong is a bigger deal for Starscream than it is for most normal people.”

She resisted the urge to lean forwards and grab his hands. “But of-… of course you were right. Whoever it is, and whatever they’re trying to do by hurting you, of course you were right to stop them.”

“I-I mean…” Thundercracker’s vocaliser hitched, awkwardly, sounding like it was threatening to cut out altogether. The words came out staticky and discordant. “What if it was the wrong one, Pulse? What if we didn’t just dismantle a puppet?”

She just stared at him, for an instant – not quite able (or willing) to parse his words. “What makes you think that?” A momentary, paralysing horror wrapped chilly fingers around her spark. (Does he mean they killed him / don’t be ridiculous / he’s not dead / but what if he’s right / Primus) She couldn’t even begin to imagine how it might feel – the idea that you’d accidentally killed the one person you’d been searching for – the one person that had driven so much of your existence for so long?

He forced a smile – which looked more like a grimace of pain – and wouldn’t meet her optics. “We’ve not seen him for so long. Personalities change. Memories degrade. You invent the image you want to remember. And what if he’s changed, after all this time apart from us? It’s been fifteen vorns. Plenty of time for a mech to change. What if we just…” The words threatened to strangle off. “…didn’t recognise him?”

Discomfort settled like a layer of old glue around her shoulders. “No. No, you know him better than anyone. If you didn’t recognise him, then it wasn’t him. It wasn’t him.”

“Hard to convince yourself once you get to thinking it, isn’t it?” He met her gaze for the fleetingest moment. “We dismantled it, Pulse. Me and Star. We were so angry at the idea someone was using our loss to get at us that we didn’t look all that closely at it until it was too late, and there was plenty there that looked like-…” He swallowed the rest of the sentence. “I can’t get it out of my processors. I’m wasting orns reviewing my memory record, over and over, looking for the proof we hadn’t made a mistake, and the more I look, the harder it gets to be certain.” He sucked a long, trembling shot of cold air through his core; it made his fans hitch. “I thought it was all meant to get easier with time. Twenty orns since we took it apart, and it’s just getting more difficult.”

“Primus, TC.” She finally gave in and reached forwards, took his hands; he endured it just long enough that she could feel him trembling before slipping his fingers away from her grasp. “Twenty orns is nothing. Please don’t tell me someone’s leaning on you to get over this, like it’s just some stupid case we couldn’t solve-”

“I’m supposed to be your senior officer. Someone you can all look up to and take strength from, and I’m falling to pieces.” Thundercracker covered his face with one hand, pinching the bridge of his nose. “We can’t carry on like this.”

Pulsar knew him well enough to know the little gesture meant he had a headache coming on – one bad enough that even under normal circumstances, it’d destabilise his optics and force him off duty for another dozen orns while his systems reset. Who knew how long the combination would keep him away from work for this time?

“It’s ridiculous. We lived through a slagging war. We were on the front line for most of it! We knew better than most that not everyone gets out alive.” He threw his hands up. “Losing Warp in battle would have been… terrible, but tolerable. We’d have at least known he was gone.” His voice dwindled. “This was supposed to be our new beginning. A chance to make something of ourselves. Maybe Star was right. Maybe it is time to think about finding somewhere new. We discussed going back to Vos a few times, even before all this happened. Make a fresh start, away from bad memories. I’m sure they could use a few more helping hands out there.”

That ugly sensation of tension spread deeper into Pulsar’s chassis. The idea of being alone – of her friends leaving, of being vulnerable again, after the Triplechangers had so easily taken her hostage- If you’re leaving, what will happen to us? To me? More than that, though – they were thinking of leaving? Of going away, to somewhere grounders weren’t so much unwelcome as physically incapable of getting to. Would she ever see them again? She felt unpleasantly warm, all of a sudden.

For someone who never normally had problems talking, the ability to find adequate words had abandoned her – how could any of her fears possibly compare, how dare she even consider demanding they pander to what she wanted – but then her expression betrayed her anyway. The jet’s crimson gaze meandered away and found another interesting spot on the wall.

She hastily cooked up an excuse. “Sorry, I just-… it surprised me. I don’t know where we’d go. I mean, I could go back to dorms, that’s no big deal, but the sparklings-”

“We’re not going to kick you out.” He rested a big hand on her knee. “This is your home as much as mine. If we go, it’ll only be us going.” His pale face creased into a sad smile. “You don’t need us any more. We’ve taught you everything you need to keep yourselves safe.”

She lifted his large hand and folded it into both her smaller ones. “No-one ever said need and want have to be mutually exclusive.”

This time, he didn’t take his hand straight back. He’d got his shakes back under control, but his field felt horrible – stiff and tight, awkwardly strangled where he’d pulled it in close around him.

“I might not need you,” she said, quietly, studying his dark fingers – all the little chips and dents, a lifetime’s struggle etched all the way down into the substructure, which ultimately counted for nothing, right now. “Maybe I just want to be selfish. Maybe I want you to stay.” She could feel his optics on her, but couldn’t quite bring herself to look up. “Maybe I don’t want one of my best friends to run away and lose himself where we can’t find him.”

“…I’m not Skywarp, Pulse. I can’t be who you need me to be-”

“I never said I wanted you to be anyone except you. I might not be trine, and I can’t offer my wings to keep you aloft – Pit, I’m just some dirty grounder that shouldn’t even be allowed to talk to you… but you’re still my brother and I love you.” She found a smile; not quite the one she was hoping for, it pulled on only one side of her face, but at least it hadn’t turned into some hideous half-snarl of hurt. “If you need to go back to Vos, I… I accept it. Only you can know what you need to do. But please don’t go because you feel the need to punish yourself for something outside your control.”

She felt his other palm come up and cup one of her lights, and his fingers brush gently over her antennae. She leaned her helm into his touch, just a little; his tense field set her aerials ablaze with electric fireflies, uncomfortable enough that she had to concentrate on not jerking her head away.

“Thanks.” He sounded odd, almost hoarse.

You can’t just sit here and act like you don’t see it, Pulse. “Being polite”, what does that even mean? The technique hasn’t worked for the last few vorns and it sure as Pit isn’t fair.

She sighed all the stale, stuffy air out of her core, then stood and stepped carefully into the circle formed by his crossed legs, right up close to him. He looked… alarmed, maybe? Certainly confused. Until she wrapped her arms around him and rested her cheek against the top of his head.

“I’m sorry,” she managed. “I shouldn’t have kept my distance. I thought I was giving you space. I guess I was mostly being an idiot.”

After an instant of startled immobility, he returned the gesture, with stiff, shaky arms. His grip was tighter than she’d anticipated, almost rough, but she could feel his tightly wound defences immediately starting to relax. Static electricity prickled up the back of her helm, off the tips of her fingers.

“We’ll get through this.” She kept her voice low. “Just like you kept me alive in the desert. I promise to try and be as strong for you as you always have been for me. And I’m not going to stop searching for answers until you do.”

And she just held him, and hummed softly, and tried to pretend she couldn’t hear the soft static he was no longer bothering to hide.