Hardline hadn’t even been gone for a whole breem when the door to Forceps’ home clicked and admitted a familiar set of red wings.
Forceps set her journal down on the table, and watched her uninvited guest approach. “How long have you been lurking out there, waiting for Hack to leave?”
Starscream shrugged, in an artfully casual way, and tucked his wings in a little more neatly. “I do not lurk, thank you, doctor. Just a fortuitous coincidence.”
Her expression flattened. “Of course it was.”
“I find it very hurtful that you don’t believe me.” Not looking remotely upset, he fetched something out of his subspace. “But… I know the big lug doesn’t like me giving you these, so.” He dropped a small, surprisingly-heavy silver disc into her palm. “Convenient timing, really.”
She knew exactly what it was without having to devote many fractions of a second to studying it. “I don’t like you giving me these, particularly.”
Now the jet did look hurt, lips pulling into a little pout of displeasure. “Well any time you want me to stop researching a cure, just say so.”
“You know that’s not what I meant.” She smiled, sadly, and patted the seat beside her. “And I do appreciate everything you’ve done for me.”
Starscream settled primly on the edge of the couch. “There’s a ‘but’ coming.”
Forceps looked away. “You always get my hopes up that this time, it’ll be the final time we need to do it.”
But it never is. And I’m weary of the constant disappointment.
He remained silent for a few seconds. “It’s still improving, though?” he prompted. “The patches last longer each time?” He sounded… strangely deflated. As if wondering if she’d been lying, to save his feelings.
“Yes. Every time, it lasts a little longer. But it always wears off, eventually, and I can never predict when that’ll be. Then I have to trust that I’ll be able to get it to reinstall.” She glanced sidelong at him. “I can’t trust myself with someone else’s life while there’s too many variables for me to be able to predict anything with any accuracy. Until then, I can’t go back to work.”
He sat and digested her words, quietly. “And what’s the part you’re carefully leaving out, because apparently we’ve stopped being honest with each other?”
“When it wears off, and my tremor comes back, it…” She swallowed the rest of the sentence, and revised it a little; “It’s disappointing.”
It crushes me, all over again.
She drew a sigh of cool air through her core. “I’m not sure how many more times I want to go through this cycle, when there’s still no end in sight.”
“You never struck me as the sort to let slag like this beat you.” He nudged her a little with his wing. “It’s important we keep at it. Eventually it will be the last time.”
“Yes, doctor.” She glared at him, good-naturedly. “You’ll never get a job as a counsellor.”
Starscream tried very hard but couldn’t quite hide his smirk. “I want another full scan at some point, to see how this one takes.” He wagged a finger. “The more data we have, the more likely we’ll isolate the last few fragments of code that are causing the last of the problems.”
“You know they say it’s incurable for a reason.”
He blew a dismissive raspberry through pursed lips. “Don’t give me that. The fact nobody has bothered to put time and money into research doesn’t make it-”
“-it’s a rare disease! It stands to reason researchers would spend their limited budget on the things they can actually cure.”
Starscream elevated his voice and spoke over her; “If you had been a noble during the Golden Age, it wouldn’t be a rare, incurable disease. Some obsequious little sycophant would have crawled up to you, accepted your money, and found a cure. The fact altruism never had a big budget doesn’t make a thing impossible.”
They stared each other out for a second or two.
“And this is why I’m not a noble. Can’t stand that… self-serving… pitslag.” Her friend made an effort to look scandalised at her language; Forceps gave him a shove. “Not to mention, I’d be dead from something else. Quite possibly, at your hand.”
He wouldn’t look away. “It was war.”
“And I wouldn’t have blamed you.”
He quirked a brow.
She flapped a hand. “Well. You know what I mean.”
“I know you're trying to change the subject.”
“Perhaps. I can't say I particularly enjoy talking about my illness.”
“We'll never cure it if we pretend it doesn't exist, either.” He gave her a chastising finger-wag. “You can’t tell me you’re happy as a teacher, dealing with a gaggle of irresponsible youths that barely listen to a word you vocalise.”
Forceps remained silent for long enough that neither needed to hear her answer, but she spoke anyway; “Somebody has to teach them. They might be the ones that end up looking after us, when we get rusted and incapable.”
This time, Starscream's snort of horror was genuine.
She smiled, and elbowed him. “Besides. One of them is your niece, remember?”
“Like I said. Irresponsible youths. The idea of Footloose looking after me? Is frankly terrifying.” He offered a small glare. “I’m not sure what you hope to achieve by indulging her. She’s never going to have the brains to make it as a surgeon.”
“Maybe not – but she could be a pretty good paramedic, if she’s serious and she puts her mind to it. She’s enthusiastic, she’s fast, and she’s good at finding people.”
The silence stretched out a little too long for comfort.
Forceps corrected herself, quietly; “Most people. Sorry.”
Starscream made one of those uninterpretable little noises that could have meant anything, from frustration to sorrow to pain. “And what happens when she gets bored, and goes off to find something else to do?” he challenged, trying (but mostly failing) to divert attention from his friend’s faux pas. “Don’t forget I lived with her sire for far too many millennia; a mech with a shorter attention span would be hard to find. This is why we have to find you a cure.” He stabbed a finger in her direction, to emphasise the point. “So when Footloose decides she’s bored, and is going to be a cartographer instead, for… maybe a fraction of a vorn… you won’t feel like you’ve wasted quite so much of your life-”
“Scarlet?” She waited for him to go quiet. “I appreciate your determination, but I can’t be the science project you need to keep you from thinking about Skywarp.”
He stared at her for several more seconds, lips open but no words emerging, before folding his arms protectively across his chassis and directing his glare at the floor, instead. “I should appreciate having a little peace and quiet, at last. It was hard enough to do energon research in the first place, without someone eating all your supplies.”
She set her fingers against his shoulder, and felt his hand come up to cover them for the fleetingest instant before dropping back to his lap. In spite of his defensive manner, he felt strangely flat. No longer the terror of the skies – just a sad, lost mech, trying to figure out how to mourn the loss of the family he’d chosen.
“It’s quiet, without him,” he accepted, at length. He studied his palms. “I haven’t been as productive as I would have liked.”
“Have you spoken to Pan?”
“Thundercracker’s psychiatrist?” Another snort, and the flash of a little glare in her direction. “I don’t need to be diagnosed. I just need to know where he is.”
And that, Forceps recognised, silently, was the core of it.
Her disease was a puzzle, but it was something he could at least work at. Measure, improve, test and retest… even make some headway, even if it was only ever fractional.
Skywarp’s disappearance began and ended at the Rift. There was nothing to measure, nothing to quantify, nothing to tell them whether they were on the right track or even going the right way.
Just endless digging, with nothing to show for it.
Thundercracker had quietly moved into accepting the loss of their brother, apparently adopting his two deputies as surrogate trine, but Starscream lingered doggedly somewhere between denial and depression – not to mention, denial of his depression. (The idea he might be struggling to cope was apparently something he refused to even contemplate.)
It did seem particularly unkind that after somehow surviving an eternity on the frontlines of war, such a simple, avoidable mistake was what would finally break them.
“I just want to find him, Sepp. Finally get some closure. Try to move on. Is that really so much to ask?” He covered his face with both palms and blew out a sigh. “We should be able to grieve! Figure out how to let him go, and move on, and we can’t even do that. Not while there’s still that chance…”
“It’s been six vorns already,” Forceps reminded, gently. “There’s got to come a point-”
“I know! I know.” He sounded exasperated, but mostly at himself. “He’s buried himself so deep in the bedrock, we’ll be digging for an eternity. Pit – we could dig up half the planet, and still not be any the wiser as to where he went. The idea we’re going to find even a scrap of paint is a sparkling’s optimism.” He finally offered a tired smile, optics a dim maroon. “But the last time I stopped looking for someone, it might have changed the course of a war. And not for the better. So forgive me for not wanting to throw down my shovel just yet.”
“Well please don’t throw it in my direction when you do decide to stop. Even before I got ill, I wasn’t particularly spry when it came to dodging projectiles.”
He snorted a sour laugh and gave her a little thump. “I gave up on Skyfire, but I’m not giving up on Warp.” He puffed himself up, subtly, wings raised and jaw set in a look of steely determination. “Or you. So you better get used to it.”
She pursed her lips and glanced away, in an effort to hide the subtle embarrassed flush in her golden optics. “You just miss having a personal physician to put you back together after you blow up your lab, you winged nuisance.”
Thankfully he took it in the spirit it was intended. “You’re confusing me with Wheeljack.” He wafted a hand, airily. “That Autobot is insane. The only scientist I know who finds it entertaining to blow up his own lab, while he’s in it.”
“Really? The only scientist? Because that’s not how I heard it happened, when I last spoke to Thundercracker.”
Starscream’s optics visibly widened before his arms tightened back across his chassis, and his voice descended into a poisonous hiss; “Traitor.”
Forceps found a laugh, and leaned against him; she felt him lean back, subtly.
“This disease took away my life,” she said, softly. “Small consolation, maybe, but… Thank you for helping me try to get it back."