After months of having his mind controlled by Bombshell, of being treated like one of those grotesquely empty earth vehicles he’d taken the form of and being driven around as if he were an object for someone else’s use--
After that, combining had felt almost like a relief.
Prowl should have hated it - forced against his will to join with them into one mind, strangers digging through his head with childlike eagerness, turning over memories one after another and giggling with glee over what they found. A mental violence and violation that should have repulsed him to the core of his spark. Some part of him did hate it.
But some part of him was simply thankful to be treated like a person again. To be heard. To be known.
And besides, it felt comfortingly familiar. A little bit like --
“Hey guys.” Hook’s voice -- strangely distinctive, familiar, immediately recognizable. “Check it out! He’s done this before!”
“Heh. Kinda. Not like us. But he’s had someone in his head. Here - look!”
And Prowl felt his memories roughly yanked, pulled in five directions at once, and--
“You trust me, don’t you?”
The needles extending from Tumbler’s fingertips were delicate. Prowl barely felt their touch, lingering at the back of his neck and scraping their way down across neck plating -- shk, shk, shk -- without slipping underneath or pushing through.
“You know the answer to that.” Prowl trusted Tumbler as much as he was capable of trusting anyone. Of course he did, or he wouldn’t be allowing that hand at his neck at all. Prowl still trusted him, after everything. After Tumbler had refused to come with him when the war had broken out. After Tumbler had gone and changed his name and his profession and left Prowl behind as if he hadn’t even missed him. As if what they’d had -- everything -- had never meant anything to him at all.
Tumbler’s needles reached the base of Prowl’s neck. He drew his fingertips together, all five needles making a faintly painful point, then dragged them rapidly up -- shkshkshkshkshk. Prowl shivered.
“Please,” Tumbler said. It came so easily to him - feeling, and asking, and giving and taking. “It’s the most intimacy that I know how to share.”
“And yet it’s what you do all day, with strangers,” Prowl said. “To strangers. That’s kind of sick.”
If Prowl could cause Tumbler pain, that meant that Tumbler must still care. And Tumbler’s voice grew hard and cold; he was still reassuringly easy to hurt. “Work is different,” he said. “I know you’re curious. You want to try it. I can read it on you. I know you, Prowl.”
And Tumbler did know him. He knew Prowl like no one else had ever known him. Like no one would ever have a chance to know him again.
It was foolish. Prowl knew how it would end. Another short-sighted indulgence with his ex. Easing the pain now, even though it would only make things hurt more later. It was more practical to stay cold and distant. Prowl could stand the cold and the loneliness as long as he didn’t remind himself of what he missed. As long as he let himself stay numb.
“All right,” Prowl said, and the needles slid in before Prowl quite finished speaking the words, and things went dark.
Chromedome cleared his vocalizer, a hiss of polite static.
“It’s all right,” he said when Prowl flinched. “You let me in here, remember?”
Prowl remembered. “I didn’t see you. Shouldn’t I see you, when you’re…”
“In your own head?” He heard the smile in Tumbler’s voice. “Not so much. I’m good at what I do.”
Tumbler could have gone through Prowl’s thoughts, if he’d chosen to. Could have ransacked Prowl’s mind without him even knowing. Could have, but hadn't.
In here, Tumbler’s needles weren’t extended. He took Prowl’s hand, threading their fingers together. Prowl stood there and let him.
“Show me,” Tumbler said, with that old warmth in his voice that Prowl hadn’t heard in years. “Show me what it’s like to be you.”
And Prowl tried. He let Tumbler in. Let Tumbler see all of him the way only a mnemosurgeon could. Let Tumbler feel the walls he built around himself, the tight control he maintained over himself. The cold. The fear.
Tumbler recoiled. “How do you--” He winced. “How do you live like this? How do you stand it?”
And Prowl could feel the fresh sting, even through the memory, and--
“What a loser.”
“Yeah. You can do better, Prowl.”
“We’re better. We understand you.”
“You were wasted on him. He just couldn’t handle you.”
And the memory was tossed aside again, rejection replaced by an overwhelming feeling of oneness. Of acceptance so deep, Prowl didn’t know how to parse it. Of six sparks pulsing together to one rhythm. Six sparks, and Prowl knew one was his, but he could no longer be sure which.
Things shifted when Prowl was given full control over himself. His will, and not just his mind, meshed with theirs. But Prowl didn’t pull away from the joining. If anything, as their minds shifted around his and opened wide to welcome him further in, the connection had grown deeper.
Their memories swirled around him -- memories that should have repulsed him, but Prowl saw them through their optics, colored with their feelings and their perspectives. Prowl's repulsion was shot through with an unwanted empathy, an unasked-for understanding.
Their minds welcomed him, hid nothing from him, eagerly pulling him in. They had joined with others before, and had craved this for a very long time. Prowl could feel the ache where their dead companion had once been, like a missing limb. An ache that his own presence eased. And they all pushed him to the fore -- even Hook gladly giving up the position he’d once held.
But it was a mistake to think that one mind led them. Prowl had assumed that, once. Before. When he’d been alone - before he'd known what it was like to not be alone. He’d assumed that the head controlled the body, that one mind, one spark, overpowered the rest and subjugated them to his will. The Constructicons caught onto that thread of thought and passed it around and laughed. And somewhere in their joined being, Prowl laughed with them.
It wasn’t until afterwards -- until Prowl forcibly separated his mind from theirs, a violent act that left him shaken -- that their memories truly disgusted him. The Constructicons were horrible. Decepticons. War criminals. His enemies. They had hurt Prowl’s friends. They had forcibly violated him and left their filthy fingerprints behind, in his mind and in his body and in the resonance of his spark.
And Prowl had welcomed them. Merged his spark with theirs. And maybe it had been by force at first, but by the end he’d enjoyed it.
Worse, Prowl had let them inside his mind. They knew… well, they knew everything. All of his plans. All of his secrets. His deepest fears. His many, embarrassing weaknesses. The places where he’d been hurt by betrayal and loss. They knew exactly how he had been hurt before. Exactly how to hurt him again.
They had seen more of him than anyone since Chromedome. And they knew far more of his secrets than Chromdeome ever had.
Prowl should have them killed.
Prowl would have to have them killed. Sooner, rather than later. His processor rattled through simulations, reporting all the ways that they could hurt him and his cause with the information they’d taken, every possible way that the situation could end badly. Merciless inarguable facts and calculations that led to only one possible conclusion. Prowl would have to have them killed.
But when they came in peace, and when he recognized that without wanting to by the way they looked at him even though some part of him ran the battle simulation protocol anyway… When they asked to join… When they still wanted him, and when Prowl still wanted...
Prowl should have had them killed. Instead, walls crumbling, he allowed them in.
With them that close, the urge to be closer grew overwhelming.
Prowl understood, now, why combiners tended to spend so much time in each others' company. He’d always been annoyed by it -- after being joined with someone else, shouldn’t they need some time apart? A little break? But now that the desire was his own, he understood it. It felt like wanting to clasp his own two hands together, like wanting to scratch his own back, like wanting to curl up with his arms around his own knees as he sank into recharge.
Inappropriate. Embarrassing. Weak. And wrong -- deeply wrong.
But Bee was hurt and maybe dying, and even Arcee’s attempts at comfort were starting to feel good. And Prowl had things he should be doing, but no one wanted to push him -- not after what had happened to his mind, an embarrassing, months-long violation that no one even wanted to talk about. It didn’t matter much, anyway. Ironhide would see that everything was taken care of.
They hadn’t even noticed when Prowl wasn’t himself. Hadn’t noticed he was gone. They could stand another night without him.
The night was more than halfway over when the Constructicons finally emerged from the Dinobots’ shelter. Mixmaster was drunk enough that he looked unconscious; Bonecrusher was carrying him in alt-mode, weaving back and forth along the dirt. Behind him, Scavenger, Hook, and Long Haul stumbled arm-in-arm, supporting each other as they slurred their way through an Autobot war song that the Dinobots must have taught them. Prowl’s optic twitched every time they got the words wrong.
They disappeared into an empty shelter - no one wanted to share with a bunch of drunken ex-Decepticon traitors. Not even the Dinobots had such low standards.
Prowl stood there in the dark for a very long time before finally pushing himself off the wall and following them.
The inside of the shelter was warm with the trapped heat of five engines purring in recharge. They were asleep inside, all five of them - a drunk and messy jumble of intertwined limbs. An easy closeness that Prowl could barely understand.
Prowl momentarily lost his nerve. He stood there and stared. Prowl preferred to recharge alone. It had been one of many points of contention between him and Chromedome. Prowl had always preferred to recharge alone. Why was he even here? How could he even consider--
Long Haul stirred, optics flickering red in the dark.
“Prowl,” he said, and there was nothing but warmth in his voice, like they’d been expecting him all night. Like Prowl had finally come home. “Guys, it’s Prowl.”
The rest of them shifted in the dark. Four pairs of red optics looked up at him - Mixmaster was still blackout drunk, apparently.
They rolled and shuffled, shifting positions. Long Haul held up an arm, a welcoming, affectionate gesture. Prowl realized that they’d intentionally made room for him, right in the middle.
Prowl stood there for a moment, staring. Disgust warred with something deeper, and then something in him broke and he crouched low and crawled into the pile.
Warmth, all around him. Long Haul’s arm tightened across his chest. Bonecrusher threw a leg over him. Scavenger pushed his face into the crook of his arm. Hook shoved his way half on top of him. Mixmaster’s unconscious body pressed against him, emitting a low and constant irritating drunken snore. Prowl shifted, using his abdomen as a pillow.
“We missed you.”
“Yeah. We didn’t think you’d come.”
“Shut up,” Prowl said. “All of you shut up.”
“Sure, if you say so.”
“We’re just glad you’re here.”
“Shut up, I said. And if you tell anyone about this--”
But the words held no bite, and Prowl’s body was gradually relaxing against his will. This was wrong -- he shouldn’t be here -- but he was so tired, and the rumble of five engines wasn’t exactly like the pulsing hum of five other sparks joined with his own, but it was better than nothing.
They shifted around him, trying for a closeness that was out of reach this way, but even trying was a comfort. Hook clumsily intertwined their fingers, and Prowl spread his hand to let him. Long Haul pulled him tight, a pleased rumble in his vocalizer. Mixmaster shifted under the weight of Prowl’s head and muttered something in his sleep, tired fingers absently seeking out Prowl’s helm and coming to rest there.
“It’s normal,” Long Haul said quietly. “Feeling like this afterwards. Wanting to be close. It’s normal to miss it.”
Prowl wanted to tell him to shut up again. But in some stupid way, his words actually helped. So Prowl said nothing, and pair by pair, the red optics around him dimmed and grew dark, until the shelter was lit by nothing but a faint and flickering blue.
Never again, Prowl told himself. He would never join with them again. Not like he had before. Not even like this. This was just an excusable temporary lack of will. An entirely understandable moment of weakness. Tomorrow, he wouldn’t crave this any more. Tomorrow, he would be strong again. Tomorrow…
Long Haul’s hand trailed sleepily across Prowl’s chest. Hook’s fingers tightened, still intertwined with Prowl's. Mixmaster’s engine rumbled pleasantly under his head. Bonecrusher’s leg hooked tighter around Prowl’s calf, dragging Prowl’s thigh up against his chassis. Scavenger nuzzled up against Prowl's throat.
Prowl squeezed Hook’s hand, and wrapped an arm around Scavenger, and pushed his face up against Long Haul. His optics flickered dark.
A moment of weakness, that was all. Never again. Prowl slipped into recharge, the soft purr of his engine merging with theirs into one resonant hum.