By the third day, Grit had given them nicknames: Skyguy, the blue one with the smarmy face whose condescending tone floated across the plaza, even when Grit was too far away to decipher his words; Wingnut, who wore a perpetual sneer and lofted her wings so high during confrontations that they seemed in danger of crossing; Dingbat, a burly flier who accidentally-on-purpose left scratches and nicks on bots with his sharp claws when he was 'escorting' them away from 'their' table; and the one on the end.
Grit called the one on the end Eye Candy, thinking it a fitting name for a bot who seemed to have no purpose or ambition besides polishing his already finely polished chassis. Once in a while one of the bots, usually Skyguy or Wingnut, would summon him to their side and slide an arm around his waist.
Grit was no prude; his youth had been filled with stolen kisses, and far more. But the odd thing was that they never did anything after calling Eye Candy over, it never escalated into kissing or a playful, inappropriate squeeze. They would just pull him close and go on talking while Eye Candy either smirked or (more often) continued carefully rubbing a polishing cloth over his gleaming wings.
If Eye Candy cared that his friends were treating him like a living ornament he gave no indication. And he always sat at the end of the table. Grit began to wonder if he was a real member of the clique.
"What's that jet's deal?" he asked the bot tending the neighboring stall.
She stopped stirring her warmed energon to give him a stiff look. "Who?"
"That bot, the one hanging off the blue guy like he wants to give him a lapdance."
"In our city-state," she said, "mecha take care of themselves because they have standards, not because they're deviants."
Only then did she direct her gaze to the bot in question.
"Oh, that lot. They're medical students. You can see the symbol on their wings." Then, apparently feeling she had been too informative towards The Enemy, she added loftily, "The glory of Vos will ride on their wings, Decepticon."
Grit bit his glossa and busied himself with rearranging his pamphlets. Across the plaza the future glory of Vos admired his reflection in his arm plating.
As far as Grit could tell, there was nothing special about the table Skyguy's clique had staked out as their own personal property. It wasn't any nearer to the park than any of the others and while it had a nice view of the drop-off (which Grit preferred to stay well away from), so did many other tables. Nevertheless, the clique protected their claim as though it was made of solid crystal instead of weathered, pitted metal.
Today they were squabbling with another posse of medical students, despite the fact that there were many unoccupied tables that either group could have settled at. The leader of the other clique, an orange Seeker, was snipping back and forth with Skyguy; meanwhile Dingbat was trying to wrestle a chair out of the hands of a yellow Seeker who was staring daggers at him. Eye Candy was the only member of either group who seemed unaffected, standing back from the action as he (of course) polished his chassis.
It was all so stupid and meaningless that Grit wished he had a recorder; this was a great example of the grasping and selfish behavior of the upper castes. Not that he'd had great luck selling the Decepticon cause to the Vosian lower castes, he had to admit.
In this case, the upper caste were both the winners and the losers. The orange Seeker's group opened up a bag of flavored energon balls and started hurling them with deadly accuracy. Skyguy's gang had no chance against this barrage of artillery. The orange Seeker and his cronies whooped in triumph, jumping on the table and jeering at their enemies as they fled.
The defeated Seekers gathered around a lamp post, shaken and humiliated. Eye Candy was frantically scraping energon off his top-coat and Skyguy's head was as low as his wings as he wiped jellied energon out of his eye.
He lifted his head and met Grit's optics from halfway across the plaza. Grit let his gaze drift, but it was too late. With a curt gesture, Skyguy was leading his entire gang over to his stall, his wings hiking up with every step.
"Hello stranger," Skyguy said, a smile on his face and malice in his eyes.
"Hello," Grit said. After years in construction he couldn't help the gruffness of his voice but he did his best to make his tone polite. "Fair flying."
"Fair flying," Skyguy returned the traditional Vosian greeting. He stared at Grit's shoulder wheels in exaggerated shock. "Except, oh dear, I don't think filthy groundpounders like you can fly."
Grit had heard a lot worse, both before and after joining the Decepticon cause. And he wasn't here to pick fights with stupid younglings.
"Nope, sure can't," he said blandly.
"Dirt-kisser," Skyguy spat, annoyed by his lack of reaction. "Moronic pavement-fragger." Wingnut and Dingbat nudged each other and snickered, while Eye Candy merely frowned at a stain on his arm.
"You want a brochure?" Grit asked as though he hadn't heard him. "'Fraid I don't have any food to sell ya."
The mention of food did not go over well with the energon-splattered medical students. Even Eye Candy stopped cleaning himself long enough to glare at him.
Wingnut did lean close to study brochure. "'The Decepticon Cause and You' . . . He's one of those caste rebels!"
"If that's what you want to call people who believe in freedom, then sure," Grit said.
"Freedom to steal from your betters," Dingbat growled.
With a swing of his fist he knocked over the brochure stand, then kicked over the folding table for good measure. Grit instinctively leaped backwards as the equipment clattered against the paving stones and brochures fluttered to the ground.
"Now what's all this?" A maroon jet who had been buying lunch at a nearby stall began striding over with a tip-tap of narrow pedes.
"Nice one, moron," Skyguy growled at Dingbat as he darted away.
Or started to. The maroon Seeker crossed his arms, wings flaring to clearly display the medical symbol on them—a more ornate version than the students wore. "Anyone who runs is getting a black mark," he said in a stern voice.
Whatever 'a black mark' was, it brought the students in line. Skyguy's wings drooped as he shuffled back to his friends. They all began speaking at once.
"It was an accident, professor!"
"Flashlift did it, not me!"
"This groundpounder came here to make trouble—"
Dingbat must have been truly dim to make the last remark; the professor drew himself up, visibly offended.
"Detention!" the professor roared. "All of you! For a week! You are medics, not dockworkers, and you will comport yourselves accordingly!"
"Yes, sir," they chorused miserably. Skyguy spared a murderous look for Dingbat.
"Now pick up this bot's belongings. How dare you leave a visitor with such a crass impression of our glorious city."
"But he's—" Skyguy stopped, knowing he was on thin ice, but too outraged to keep silence. "I mean, look at these!" He grabbed up a handful of brochures. "'Decepticonism: Beyond Your Function'! 'Change Your Alt Mode, Change Your Future'! 'The Case for a Casteless Society'! He's . . . he's sowing dissent!"
"The only dissent I am hearing is from you, Lifeflight, and I must say it doesn't impress me very much. Medics treat all manner of bots—ones they agree with and ones they don't. Leave the politics to the Winglord and his court; it is not our business to have opinions. Besides, this mech is from far away. Other city-states have, ahem, social problems that Vos does not. Now get to work."
"Thanks," Grit said, letting the professor pull him off to the side as Eye Candy and Dingbat lifted the table onto its legs and the other two students scrambled for brochures. "It's not that big of a deal, though. I can always print more. Name's Grit, by the way."
"Airwave, professor of anatomy. And it's the principle of the thing. We expect our students to act well-mannered and courteous at all times, to all bots. Especially foreigners."
Grit had been neither well-mannered nor courteous at that age, but he didn't think he'd been such a brat as Skyguy either. "That's a good philosophy."
"So you're with the Decepticons." Airwave's smile, though a little patronizing, seemed meant to be genuinely kind. "Have you had many takers of your little brochures?"
"Mm, that's what I thought. I'm sure your, ah, perspective has a lot of validity in—Praxus?"
"Yeah, I'm from Praxus."
"As I thought. But now you're here. And Vosians love Vos."
Grit couldn't help but bristle. "Yeah, well, I love Praxus."
"Of course, of course. I didn't mean to imply otherwise." The professor seemed momentarily flustered, then thoughtful. "Vosians love Vos as it is, I should have said. Now, you will certainly hear complaints . But that, too, is because it's an activity Vosians enjoy. Not a cry for change."
Grit remained silent. He wanted to say Airwave was wrong. That the lower castes living in dark canyons at the base of the shining buildings hungered for change and freedom. But the laborers he'd hoped to reach had called him a lot worse things than 'groundpounder', just for having a table set up with a few pamphlets. And previous Decepticon operatives who'd been to Vos had reported the same thing. Vosians would complain about their city right up to the point where you agreed with them, and then it was 'how dare you.'
"Well, you might be right," he said finally. "But I'm here so I might as well try."
"Of course," Airwave said. "And I wish you luck." He patted Grit's shoulder—a gesture too familiar for the construction vehicle's taste, but he didn't say anything—and looked over at his students. Having finished setting up the table and brochures, they were now awkwardly waiting for approval. Airwave beamed. "Ah, this is more like it. Do you have something to tell our visitor?"
"Sorry," the students chorused half-heartedly.
"Good, good." Airwave gave them a satisfied smile before turning back towards Grit. "Don't judge them too harshly. They'll make fine medics one day."
"I'm sure they will."
"The glory of Vos will ride on their wings."
There didn't seem to be anything he could say about that. So he didn't.
The orange Seeker and his gang enjoyed their mastery of the table the next day. They sat on it. They stood on it. They strutted around it.
They had finally settled down and spread their books and datapads across it when Eye Candy arrived.
He hung back at the edge of the plaza, eyes fixed on the table where Orangey and his three friends were studying.
One of the members of Orangey's clique, a slim silver and blue jet, stepped away from the table to stand in line at a food stall. That seemed to be what Eye Candy had been waiting for. He straightened, angled his wings upward, and marched across the plaza.
The purple Seeker at the table noticed his approach and nudged Orangey and Yellow, pointing. With tensely hiked wings, Orangey watched Eye Candy's approach. But Eye Candy seemed more conciliatory than combative. He leaned down to say something, letting his hand rest on the table; Orangey swatted it away. Eye Candy took a step back, and this time held his hands behind his back in a coquettish pose as he leaned in, his body language flirtatious. Orangey's wings lowered and his smile grew. He shoved one of his friends aside and patted the space beside him. But Eye Candy shook his head and, also smiling, settled at the end of the bench.
I guess he made some new friends, Grit thought as he watched the purple bot next to Eye Candy wrap a casual arm around his shoulder which soon slid down to his waist. Bet there's gonna be fireworks when his old friends see this.
As it turned out, the fireworks were ignited sooner than that. When the fourth member of Orangey's crew returned with tray of flavored drinks he took one look at the red jet cuddling up to his clique and threw a cup of iced energon in Eye Candy's face.
Eye Candy leapt up, both fury and energon in his eyes, and leapt at him. They rolled around on the pavement, shouting and punching. The other three jets gleefully leapt to their feet to cheer on the violence.
Maybe Vosians aren't so different after all. Grit had gotten into plenty of brawls when he was a hot-headed kid.
Neither Eye Candy nor Silver-Blue had the durability of a young Praxian construction-bot, but they flailed at each other determinedly. Grit's bet was on Eye Candy who, though slender, was slightly larger and bulkier than his even skinnier opponent.
Orangey and his cohorts, Yellow and Purple, whispered together as Eye Candy managed to pin down Silver-Blue by sitting on his chest. Both of the combatants were panting as the red jet gave Silver-Blue a final, awkward shove to his shoulders to assert his victory. Eye Candy stood, shaky but triumphant.
And Orangey and the other two piled on him, swinging.
Eye Candy shrieked, arms raised in front of his face as he was knocked off his feet. Wings scraping the pavement, he scooted back with his legs, trying to put distance between himself and his assailants. He was too slow. The yellow Seeker grabbed him by his neck well and hauled him to his feet, only to shove him back down again.
Grit frowned. Three on one. Not a fair fight.
He looked around for a teacher, an enforcer, anyone. A black and green jet was doing loops of the park but she didn't deviate course. A green Seeker did nothing more than glance towards the racket while he ate his dinner.
"Hey." Grit leaned over towards his neighbor, the warmed energon seller. "Isn't anyone gonna stop that?"
"Are you fragging with me?"
Her optics darted towards the fight, then away from it. "It's just childish play."
"Play?" Grit watched Purple hook his arms under Eye Candy's elbows from behind, holding him for his friends to wail on. Silver-Blue sat on his heels off to the side, smirking. "Is the glory of Vos gonna ride on that newspark once his wings are ripped off?"
"They wouldn't—" She took a quick in-vent. "He'll be fine. It's just their way. It's best not to interfere with the higher castes. It leads to trouble."
Eye Candy let out a wail as Orangey dug his claws into his chest and raked down.
Grit decided. He was always in trouble anyway.
"Hey, you!" He stalked towards the group. As one, the Seekers' heads swiveled towards him. Orangey sneered and flared his wings, but Grit didn't give him a chance to speak. "Yeah, you!" He glared at Eye Candy. "Where were you, ya brat? Professor Airwave told you to haul my gear for your detention, yeah? Were you gonna do that or were you too busy mouthing off again? Do I need to call him up and get him involved again?"
At the mention of Airwave, the purple Seeker loosened his hold on Eye Candy's arms and at the suggestion that Grit would get him involved again, he let go completely, cringing away. Eye Candy fell to his knees, but immediately pushed himself up with his hands, wiping the energon out of his optics as he stood.
"I'll . . . I'll carry the stuff."
"Good." Grit turned his back on the other Seekers, who exchanged uncertain glances before drifting away. Back, of course, to their table.
Eye Candy followed Grit, who pretended not to notice him wiping not only energon but also tears from his eyes. "You didn't have to do that," the youngster muttered.
"How else was I gonna get someone to carry my junk?" Grit bought a cube of warmed energon from the bot next door. She actually gave him a smile as she handed him the drink, which was a first.
"Here. Drink this and clean yourself up."
"I know to clean myself up. I'm a medic. Almost."
"Terrific." Grit said.
As Eye Candy wiped the grime and energon off his frame, Grit was glad to see most of his damage was cosmetic—dents and shallow cuts, and a lot of paint gouged off. Maybe the med students purposely went for the non-vitals or maybe they just really sucked at fighting.
Eye Candy did not seem to share his relief; he frowned down at his chassis as he rubbed disinfectant into the deep scratches. Grit had an uncomfortable notion that he was trying not to cry again.
"Where are your buddies? Skyg— The sky blue guy and all them?"
"In detention," Eye Candy mumbled.
"But you snuck out?"
"No. I don't have it anymore."
Eye Candy stopped rubbing the dirt off his sleek red leg long enough to give an elegant shrug. "I just don't," he said vaguely.
"Huh." Grit looked across the plaza. Orangey and his gang were all watching. And waiting. Grit started tapping the brochures into neat piles and putting elastic bands around them. It was a little early to close up shop, but he hadn't been attracting any recruits anyway. "Well, once you're done cleaning yourself off you can help me fold up the table."
"And maybe steer clear of that orange guy from now on."
"You think?!" Eye Candy threw down the rag he'd been cleaning himself with. "Stupid Lunarwing! RRRGH, I hate him!"
"That the orange one?"
"Of course not, that's Sunstroke. And I had him eating out of my servo. Until Lunarwing came along."
"The blue guy who threw energon in your face?"
"Yeah. Thinks he's so special."
"He was the only one to fight you fair, though. One on one."
Eye Candy glowered at him. "You don't know anything. You're just a stupid grounder."
Grit didn't say anything, just finished packing the brochures away. Eye Candy huffed out a vent and tipped the table over, fumbling to close the legs. It was clear he'd never had to do such a thing in his life.
"I'm sorry," he said in a tremulous voice. "I'm grateful, really, and you're not stupid, probably. It's just . . . Lunarwing made a fool out of me and everyone's going to see this—" He touched the gouged paint. "—and know."
"Sunstorm was the one who scratched you up."
"Because of Lunarwing! They chose him over me!" Eye Candy clenched his fists. Then he sighed, wings drooping as he went back to fiddling half-heartedly with the table. Grit reached past him to fold down the legs.
"Come on, kid."
"Do I really have to carry things?"