Skyfire’s hand brushes Starscream’s as Skyfire hands over the sample box. The contact sends a hot jolt through his systems. Starscream doesn’t notice, just bends over his rack of test tubes to pipette a measured dose of crystallizing agent into each. The samples are unprocessed energon. They’re supposed to be working on improved purification methods for their final project, but it’s slow going. Starscream’s brilliant. He’s also second only to Wheeljack in experiments that inexplicably explode.
“Pass me the hydrofluoric acid,” Starscream asks, for the third time.
Skyfire fumbles it over. Their fingers brush again.
Starscream snatches the vial. “I don’t know what’s gotten into you. Your head’s wandering around in space, and here I am, doing delicate experiments—”
Skyfire cycles his vents and inclines his head pointedly at the half of the lab that’s his.
Starscream waves his free hand. “All right, we’re doing delicate experiments. That’s even worse. You’re not paying attention.” He frowns. “Did I add one drop or two?”
“Right. Good, I don’t want it too stable.” Starscream gives the tube a shake. The fluid it contains is yellowish. When he doses it with impure energon, it bubbles and turns a virulent purple-black. Starscream scrunches his face up and scowls. “Hm. Scratch hydrofluoric acid off the list. Useless.”
Skyfire badly wants to kiss him.
He’s not sure when he first noticed his loud little lab partner that way. Well—that’s a half a lie. The circumstances are blurry. Skyfire had been on his way back from a pub crawl with the handful of academy students who don’t mind associating with a flightframe. He’d met Starscream going in the other direction. That moment’s preserved, a single snapshot bright against the engex blur: Starscream haloed under a streetlight, mid-stride, his wings two sharp white angles. He’d looked like an advertisement for the Vosian flight corps. Skyfire’d almost smacked into a building ogling him.
Not that Starscream’s small. He isn’t. It’s only that Skyfire’s huge, all out of proportion with the academy and everyone in it. Standing, the top of Starscream’s helm barely grazes his hip. In some ways, the academy deans hate Skyfire’s presence more than Starscream’s. Starscream’s only a cold-constructed seeker. Skyfire is a rare breed of forged transport. He pushes the upper bound of what’s possible before sheer size makes mechs… Strange. Skyfire interned in a titan, briefly. It was the oddest experience of his life.
The tube in Starscream’s hand explodes. Starscream shrieks. Goop splatters his cockpit.
Skyfire shoots to his feet. “Are you all right?”
“Of course I’m not! My paint’s ruined! Look at this. Just look at it!” Starscream drags his fingers through the mess. “Ugh, why is it sticky?”
Skyfire approaches with a solvent-soaked pad. “Here, let me—”
“You’re getting it all over the place!”
“It’s already all over the place.” The caustic goop takes some of Starscream’s surface nanites with it. Starscream reacts like he’s dying. Skyfire keeps him from wriggling. “The faster it comes off, the less damage there will be. Hold still.”
By the time he’s clean, Starscream’s settled down. He keeps up his low-level grumbling. The damage isn’t bad. Bright red paint smears the solvent pad, but the bare grey splotches on his chest will repopulate in an orn or three. Most of the mess stayed on his cockpit, which has no nanites to destroy. With nothing more to wipe away, Skyfire takes his time. The slight vibration of Starscream’s engines transmits through his cockpit glass. He’s warm. Skyfire cleans a stray droplet of solvent with his thumb before it leaves a mark.
Starscream… Looks at him.
Skyfire’s suddenly conscious of their position. They’re so close together—they always are, the lab’s cramped, but this is different—Skyfire’s hand above Starscream’s spark, Starscream trapped against the lab bench by Skyfire’s bulk. Skyfire could run that hand up, cup Starscream’s chin, and lean in. His touch could drift lower. Starscream looks as if he half wants him to, lips parted, optics bright. His complaints have gone silent.
Skyfire leans down.
Starscream ducks under Skyfire’s arm and away. “If you’re quite finished, I have ten more of these to get through in the next two joors. I don’t know how they expect us to produce good work on such short schedules. It’s like they want us to fail.”
The moment’s gone. Skyfire backs off.
He could’ve read the situation wrong, he admits. It’s his first assumption, even later that orn while he nurses cheap engex at the dive bar closest to the academy. The bar’s nicknamed Class by the students, just for the stupid joke. Skyfire keeps going back to that moment when their optics met. Electricity ran through his frame. He swears he saw the same on Starscream. Then a wall came down between them, and Skyfire wasn’t brave enough to push.
Wheeljack sprawls into the chair opposite. Two of his friends follow. Skyfire doesn’t really know either of them. One’s in materials science, the other in medical training. Wheeljack carries a cube so potent it fumes. “The bar’s no place to mope, Skyfire. You still twisted up about that partner of yours?”
Skyfire’s had more to drink than he should. What comes out his mouth is a mournful sort of plea. “He’s so pretty.”
Wheeljack’s friend chokes on his drink.
Wheeljack snorts. “We get it, Sky. That’s why you’ve been making a fool of yourself over him for… How long was it, now?”
Skyfire doesn’t want to contemplate. “Sometimes I think he’s interested. Then it just… Goes nowhere.”
Wheeljack’s friend makes a sympathetic noise. “It’s not your fault. That’s how Screamer is: frigid. His first decivorn on campus, everything with a spark and a working set of optics tried to get under his plating. I don’t think anybody did. You know how flightframes are—no offense. But especially the seekers they make in Vos. They trine up with their own kind and you can’t get them into the berth for anything.”
Wheeljack’s other friend sips engex and looks thoughtful. “You have wings, even if you’re a shuttle. That could tip the scales. If you seduce him, tell us if he lives up to his name.”
Wheeljack waves his cube. “Speaking of tipping the scales, how about the game last orn?”
They switch over to discussing sports. Skyfire’s relieved, even if he finds it incomparably boring.
He’s not a fan of Wheeljack’s friends. Skyfire never says anything about it. He can’t afford to alienate the few willing to put up with him, if he doesn’t want to hang out by himself for the rest of his academic career. It’s hard enough to deal with the professors who don’t think he belongs here. Even other flightframes, who don’t understand why he’s doing this. They’re happy hauling cargo, or flying the defense grid, and act as if it’s an attack on them that he isn’t. Skyfire doesn’t know how to explain to them the thrill of the unknown, of numbers and chemical formulas; everyone looks at him like he’s processor-damaged and says, but it’s not what you’re for.
At least Starscream understands, even if he’s prickly as a nest of Polyhexian scraplets.
Failed experiment upon failed experiment, and they’re both getting touchy. Skyfire’s ideas fail in less spectacular ways than Starscream’s, but it doesn’t make them any less failures. They snap at each other over stupid things, like who used the last of the mercury sulfide, or who left half an energon cube sitting around and attracted glitchmice. Every argument adds to Skyfire’s frustration. He’s not the angry type, but he’s nearing the end of his chain. If the academy would give them adequate support, or funding, or anything—
Starscream’s latest disaster explodes on the lab bench. He yelps. This time the mess spatters nothing but the wall.
“I told you that wouldn’t work,” Skyfire says.
“I did the math!”
“You did the math for processing it in a high-pressure crucible, which we do not have.”
“Because the faculty won’t let me use it! It had a twenty-six percent chance of working at normal pressurization.”
Skyfire waves his hand at the gently steaming mess. “And what were the percentages in the crucible? Fifty-five? Face it, they didn’t want to risk you ruining it.”
“Just because I understand the need to take risks for the sake of progress—”
“Taking risks doesn’t mean destroying lab equipment!”
“Oh, and we should all be like you, safe and steady Skyfire, who always triple checks and gets his requests denied anyway.” Starscream jabs him in the cockpit. “Get it through your thick helm: the only way to get anything done around here has nothing to do with asking permission.”
The worst thing is, Starscream’s attractive when he’s angry, and he’s angry a lot of the time. In the middle of a screaming row his optics gleam, his wings flare wide, and his lip pulls into a sneer worthy of the primes of old. One disdainful flash of white teeth and Skyfire’s running hot. He blames that for the fact that he loses most of their arguments. This time, he’s too annoyed to back down. They’ve been crammed into this lab together for what seems like forever, and something’s at its breaking point.
Skyfire points, again, at the ruined experiment. “How many times can you not ask permission before they kick you out? You know they’re looking for an excuse.”
“I’m too good for them to dare. When I shove my results in their faces, they’ll eat the cost of anything I break and like it. They always do.”
“That’s not the point! You can’t keep doing this. It reflects badly on—”
“On all flightframes? Why, Skyfire, I didn’t know I was responsible for you.” Starscream crowds his space. Skyfire’s dizzily aware of the heat of him, of the look in his optics—not just anger, not anymore. Sparking tension builds between them, near palpable. “Stop playing the meek little—oops, big—flightframe. It doesn’t matter what you do. They’ll never respect you. A pair of wings and an empty helm is all they’ll ever see, unless you make them see you.”
“That’s all you want? To be seen?”
“I suppose you want to hide away.”
“I don’t want to hide, I just…”
Skyfire kind of does, for the most part. He wants to be left to his experiments, not play politics; not be the accidental vanguard of anti-functionist sentiment. In some ways he thinks Starscream’s the same, but Starscream wears it like a badge. They don’t want him here, but slag them all, no one can make him leave.
Starscream sneers his most arch sneer. “That’s why you get pushed around. If you’d stand up straight and stare them down without trying to be small—”
Sentiment overcomes him. Skyfire’s hand rises. He touches Starscream’s face. “I see you, Starscream.”
Starscream jerks back. His wingtips twitch, like he’s not sure what to make of it. Any minute now, the wall will come between them.
This time, Skyfire won’t let it.
Then they’re kissing. Skyfire crashes down on Starscream. He pins him to a clean part of the workbench. Starscream’s mouth is hot. His fans buzz. Starscream grips Skyfire’s chassis and hauls himself into the kiss, sloppy, hungry, and desperate; Starscream must’ve been craving this almost as long as Skyfire. If only they’d both given in sooner, they could’ve been doing this all along.
Skyfire gets a handful of Starscream’s wing. Starscream arches against him. No one can touch a flightframe like another flightframe. Starscream does the same, fingers curled into the gaps at Skyfire’s shoulder. He teases bare wires. Skyfire’s groan is a low rumble against Starscream’s neck. “I’ve wanted this for so long.”
If Starscream answers, it’s lost in a wash of static. Skyfire bites his neck cables. Starscream vibrates with suppressed charge. It crackles on his plating and dances on his wings. Apparently, it’s been a while since Starscream last overloaded. Skyfire’s barely done anything yet, and Starscream’s fans whir like they’re ready to fail. It’s an ego boost, to be honest.
Actual penetration probably won’t happen, thanks to their size difference. At least not without patient work. Still, the image of Starscream near split on Skyfire’s spike dances in his head. He imagines Starscream lowering himself, inch by inch, as lubricant pearls from his straining valve. His lip, bitten in concentration. All the sounds he’d make, the little gasps and moans; Skyfire’s hands on his hips, not forcing him down but supporting him, drawing it out, fighting Starscream’s impatience to make him go slow until he’s fully seated and Starscream’s plating bulges with Skyfire’s thickness.
Skyfire keeps one hand on Starscream’s wing. The other trails across Starscream’s ventral plating, onto a white thigh. Starscream gets to his knees on the lab bench to reach Skyfire properly; Starscream kisses him again. He hooks an arm over Skyfire’s shoulder to tease his ailerons. Skyfire’s knees almost buckle. He catches himself, gasping. No one’s done that in ages. He kisses Starscream’s cockpit in thanks.
Starscream fragging him would be just as good. The positioning’s always awkward, but on hands and knees his array would be waist-height to Starscream. All Starscream would have to do is grab Skyfire by the hips and thrust inside. If he’s lucky, Starscream will use his wings as handholds. That can be difficult to talk people into—especially other flightframes—but Skyfire’s wings are thick and sturdy, built for atmospheric reentry. They can stand up to a lot of punishment.
Skyfire mouths his way down Starscream’s front. When he reaches Starscream’s hip joint, Starscream slips off the lab bench.
Starscream grins, all teeth, helm level with Skyfire’s straining interface panel. “So that’s what you wanted. I’m just the right height.”
Skyfire’s array throbs with arousal at the insinuation. His panel snaps open. He couldn’t stop it if he’d tried. The lab air is cold on his overheated valve, lubricant slick on his plating; his spike pressurizes in Starscream’s face. Starscream looks at it in mounting incredulity. He’s so close Skyfire feels the hot brush of Starscream’s fan exhaust on his spike tip.
“On anyone else, I’d say you were overcompensating. But I suppose you’re just—proportional.”
“Please,” Skyfire groans. He isn’t sure what he’s begging for. Something. Anything.
The moment Starscream’s mouth touches the underside of Skyfire’s spike is a benediction. Skyfire braces himself on the lab bench. He spreads his legs wider. Starscream’s in no hurry. He’s teasing, almost exploratory. Skyfire’s valve swallows two fingers easily. The sight of Starscream’s dark lips and tongue dragging wetly up the side of his spike almost undoes him.
Then, on the downstroke, Starscream gets all the way to Skyfire’s node and sucks.
Skyfire overloads hard. His optics flare bright as his valve clenches on Starscream’s fingers, lubricant gushing over his hand and spattering his plating. Skyfire’s knees wobble. He sinks, slowly. Starscream’s fingers slip from him as he does. Skyfire rests his face on Starscream’s chest, careless of the mess there. His processor’s still spinning. “That was amazing.”
“You do seem to enjoy getting fluids all over me.”
Starscream stands. He wets a solvent pad, wipes the lubricant and transfluid from his plating and comes back to Skyfire. He hands the pad over. Skyfire takes it. In fairness, the stuff’s kind of disgusting when it cools. Starscream’s fastidious—if he wants to keep tidy, Skyfire doesn’t mind. It’s the work of two kliks to clean himself up.
“Come here, Starscream. Let me kiss you again. I want to… Starscream?”
But Starscream’s gone.
Starscream’s not in the lab. He’s not in the hall. He’s not anywhere. Post-overload bliss congeals into abject humiliation. Hurt wars with confusion. Has he done something wrong?
Skyfire waits. Starscream doesn’t come back.