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Welcome! Everything is Fine.

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Welcome!

Everything is fine.

It’s quiet here. There’s a gentle trickling sound of oil being drizzled over rocks in one of those little desktop sculptures designed to help bots with overactive processors vent at the proper intervals, but the source isn’t immediately obvious. In the center of the room, there’s a long couch, and in the center of the couch, there’s a mech. He stares at the wall opposite him. He reads the sign. He smiles.

The walls are pale, attractive shades of blue and pink, gently raising and lowering their intensity in pulses of light. It feels very familiar. He’s not actually sure where he is, but it has the soothing, reminiscent quality of massage parlors, or particularly expensive hospitals.

Probably the latter.

The door on one of the far walls opens, and a docbot peers out from inside. “Starscream?” he says, smiling. “Come on in.”

“Oh,” Starscream says, and smiles. “Right.” He stares vacantly around the room, then follows the other mech through the door. Older frame, sort of attractive. Not exactly a seeker, but definitely a jet form. Slim. He can get behind that.

“Please, take a seat,” the jet says, motioning towards the chair across from his own desk. After a moment of deliberation, Starscream sits, and the jet sits as well. “It’s nice to finally meet you, Starscream,” he says, “I’m Pharma.”

“Hm? Right,” Starscream says, “of course. Nice to meet you too. I have some... questions? I have many questions.”

“I thought you might.”

“Where...am I?” he says. “How did I get here? Who are you?”

“I’m Pharma,” Pharma says, “remember? We just met.”

Starscream stares at him.

“Just kidding,” Pharma says, “can you imagine? No, I understand you completely. Let’s start at the beginning. You, Starscream of Vos, are dead. You have moved on to the next stage of your existence.”

“Thank you,” Starscream says carefully, “I now have more questions. How did I die? I don’t remember.”

Pharma shifts in his chair. Starscream notices that his chair looks significantly more comfortable than the chair Starscream is sitting in, and also that he still--somehow--looks very uncomfortable. “Well, ah, right,” he says, shuttering his facial vents, “in the case of embarrassing or traumatic deaths, we… erase the memory, to ensure an easier passage from one to the other. That said, if you really want to know--”

“I do.”

“--Then I guess there’s no harm in telling you.” The jet shrugs and, out of apparently nowhere, produces a slim datapad. Starscream cranes his neck instinctively to see what’s written on the other side, but Pharma’s hold is too angular, and he can’t get a good look. Pharma slips a tiny pair of lenses out of his subspace and opens them with a flick, setting them on his aquiline nose.

“Well according to this,” he says, “on the day you died, you were overcharged on the job while you were building some kind of... extremely volatile secret project, I mean your FIM chip was absolutely corroding with engex, you knocked into several walls on your way out of the laboratory--”

Starscream’s mouth twitches.

“Earlier that day, you had a tantrum at work and threw your things around the station until your boss sent you to your rooms to cool off. While you were bringing your invention back down to show him, your boss I mean, after several doses of nightmarefuel, you tripped and fell on one of your own post-tantrum datapads in the middle of the bridge and shot yourself in the spark, straight up through the… vitals. Funnily enough, your boss was actually the first one to--”

“Okay!” Starscream says, with a forced smile that is making his cheek pistons creak. “That’s enough!”

“On the post-tantrum datapad were all your embarrassing spike pics, which you’d been planning on sending him before you lost your nerve. If it helps, he found them.”

“It doesn’t,” Starscream says, “thanks.”

Pharma peers down through his specs. “So did everyone else on the ship.”

Starscream’s claws crack several holes in the arms of the chair.

Pharma puts down the ‘pad, spreading his beautifully articulated hands. “But never mind that,” he says. “It’s all behind you now! You have so much to look forward to!”

The blue lights fizzle and glimmer; the oil sculpture drips its soothing regular drip. Starscream looks from Pharma’s charming square smile to his medic’s paint, and says, “Do I.”

“Ah, an atheist? Don’t worry, we’re not too concerned with what you believed, around here. We’re much more interested in what you did. And you, Starscream, a devoted philanthropic scientist who roamed the galaxies helping war-torn organic species recover from endless cycles of poverty and violence--well, your actions speak for themselves!”

“Right,” Starscream says, “that’s me. Those are… my actions, alright, and of course they--so this is, um…” he pauses, and purses his lips in a way at least one other mech has told him they found attractive. “There’s no tactful way to put this, is there. Am I…” he wiggles his fingers uncertainly, then points upwards, raising an eyebrow.

Pharma laughs, and waves a hand as though he’s brushing a speck of debris off his desk. “Well, the dichotomy of the afterlife isn’t really analogous to any single religion dreamt of in your philosophies. Most major religions are...about 5% right, on average.” He taps his ‘pad. “The Primalists are a little right, the Solists, sort of right... the Circle of Light, the Clavis Aurea--I mean, everyone got a little bit of it right. Except for Waspinator.”

Who?”

Pharma leans back and raps a fist against the wall behind him. The tasteful paneling buzzes to life with the image of an insectoid beastformer, caught in a moment of supreme bug-eyed terror. Pharma grins. “Waspinator,” he says. “One hundred percent right, down to the color of the bolts. Once during an overnight stay in an illegal blitz parlor, Waspinator took three doses of Unicron’s Finest and went into a dissociative fugue. His dealer, a bot by the name of Swindle, prodded him and said ‘hey, what do you think happens when we die?’, and Waspinator just went off. Started rattling things off left and right!”

Starscream squints at the portrait. Underneath the picture, the caption ‘Waspinator: closest guess’ blazes in square orange letters. “Wow,” he says, because it seems like the right sort of thing to say. Pharma’s eyes have the familiar, fanatic blaze of a white-knighter typing out a defense for a minibot he doesn’t know on robot twitter. Is there robot twitter in the afterlife? Where is his comm link? He could’ve sworn he had it in his subspace--oh, right. He’s dead.

That’s going to take some getting used to.

“But generally speaking, there’s a... good place and a bad place,” Starscream prods, like a tongue poking a broken mouthplate. “Right?”

“Oh yes,” Pharma says. “There is.” He smiles, and his aura radiates pure comfort. Acceptance. It washes over Starscream like an oil bath he’s not supposed to be taking. “You’re in the good place, Starscream. You made it.”

Somewhere in the walls, a chronometer lets out a perfect, ringing chime. “Okay,” Pharma says, and claps his hands together. “Let’s take a walk!”

 

 

 

The neighborhood looks a little like an Ioconian suburb, or at least the way those look in vids from the Novan Era, which is the closest Starscream has ever been to an Ioconian suburb. One of those old sweetsie plots where the beautiful jet falls in love with the brooding loner outcast. Lots of mosaic and carved masonry. Everything glows a little pink at the edges, where shadows would otherwise be. In places the sunlight doesn’t even seem to touch it, the whole thing is lit from within itself like an expensive crystal sculpture. In the gazebo a couple of boatformers are canoodling.

“This is Neighborhood number 322^7,” Pharma says, “or, the Cosy Cosign as we like to call it. Some are bigger, some are smaller, some are more sunny and some are less. Really, it’s about what will make you, the experiencer, happiest.”

Nothing here is more than a story high. The total effect is cheery and relentlessly quaint and so open under the clean clear sky that Stascream cannot stop looking up every couple seconds, waiting for something to drop out of it. It’s claustrophobically open here. He can feel the walls refusing to close in around him. He continues smiling.

“There aren’t, ah, more urban options are there?”

“Oh sure,” Pharma says, “we’ve got skyscrapers and colonial compounds and all kinds of things, but of course you wouldn’t be interested in that. It’s all in your file. We keep track of everything, right down to the number of iron shavings you put in your morning fuel.”

Starscream is half convinced that the shop windows are winking at him. Even the luxury here seems to have a cheeky self-effacing boldness. There’s wax and polish shops, several restaurants, a little boutique that appears to sell nothing but artisanal coolant, and a bar. Starscream relaxes like Pavlovitron’s turbofox just at the sight of the place.

“You mind if we swing in there?” Starscream says. “I could really use a drink. I mean a celebratory drink! Of course.”

“Before noon? You kidder. Here, let me show you the frozen yogurt shop.”

Starscream lingers in agonized longing, thrusters sinking into the decorative gravel. “The what now?”

“Yogurt. It’s some kind of organic fuel. I’m not sure what it’s for, there just always seems to be a shop in these neighborhoods. It’s kind of a universal constant. Don’t actually put it in your intake, it’ll gunk up your tanks.”

Starscream catches up to him as he comes to a stop in front of a cute little shop with some kind of a buffet line inside, the courtyard outside full of brightly colored parasols and picnic tables.

“We keep track of everything ,” Pharma says again. He regards the shop front with an intense expression of pleasure, that same flare of white-knight zealotry from the office earlier. “Every time you saw a credit chip on the sidewalk and you wondered, ‘would anyone know if I just took this?’ We knew. Every time you were alone with someone else’s diary, every time you took one stick of candy instead of two, every time you drank ore-3 engex mined by freetrade non-indentured workers even through it’s three times as expensive as the standard stuff and doesn’t taste as good? We knew.”

Starscream gives the wide flat sky another fleeting automatic scan.

“Everything you did in your life has a positive or negative score marker,” Pharma tells him. “You see, Starscream, this place is made for people like you.”

“People like… me,” Starscream repeats. There’s a pale green minibot poking curiously at a bowl of rainbow goop, which could be ‘frozen yogurt’, or possibly some kind of rust-based bioweapon hidden under innocuous--no, that’s ridiculous. Bioweapons. Nobody messes around with bioweapons when a gun would do just as well.

“The good people,” Pharma says, oblivious to Starscream’s ogling, “not just good people. The best people. See, it’s a perfectly balanced system. Every single action, positive or negative, has a perfect mathematical value assigned to it. While you’re living your life, there’s a tally running every time you take an action, a positive or negative score. At the end of your life, we add it all up. But to end up in a neighborhood like this...well, that takes only the highest scorers of all.”

“Right,” Starscream says, “the highest scorers. Like me.”

Pharma smiles. “I say best, ” he says, “but just looking at your record, I feel like I should really be saying perfect.

“Haha,” says Starscream.

“And a person as perfect as you is going to have a perfectly perfect sparkmate,” Pharma goes on. “Of course.”

Starscream does a full sensor reboot, just to be on the safe side. “What,” he says, “like a conjunx?”

“Oh, some are amica, some are conjunx. The details don’t matter. What matters is--” Pharma takes his arm and guides him away from the shop, firmly, with a brisk relentless step, “--someone in this neighborhood is meant just for you! Yes, one of these mechs is your destined spark companion, your other half, your ideal match. And you’ll spend eternity together, in absolute domestic bliss!”

Domestic, huh. Right.

The garden Pharma leads him through looks like it took several millennia to cultivate, with expensive calcium stalagmites in placid orderly rows. The topiaries alone look like they took some gardener with a dripper-can the better part of an entire career to shape. That one’s shaped like Luna 2 in a crescent wane, and he doesn’t even dare get started on the gem-grade crystals. Is that bonzai a zirconium?  How did they afford that?

Oh. Afterlife. That’s… still not quite sinking in.

“Eternity, right, fantastic,” he says. “The thing is, I don’t feel dead, Pharma.”

“Gracious no, you wouldn’t,” Pharma says. A polyhedix crystal gives a beautiful chime as he flicks it on his way past. “It wouldn’t be a very good place if you could feel your spark corroding in your corpse while you tried to have brunch, now would it?”

Starscream touches his chest before he can stop himself. “No,” he says, slowly, “I suppose not.”

“All that rusting and decomposing,” Pharma says, clicking his tongue. “Not to mention by now you’ve been disassembled for spare parts by your ship’s doctor. You were a cold construct after all. What you see here is more of a spark experience than a physical reality. The fact of the matter is, you don’t have a physical reality anymore.”

Starscream tries to imagine the ship’s doctor who would have stripped his gears and kibble for scrap, but no matter how hard he cards through his memory, he really doesn’t have anything on the place where he died. Was it on the expedition with Skyfire? Or--no, Skyfire offlined in that arctic hellhole in the Orion Spur, under some paltry tons of frozen water crystals. And anyway, Skyfire would never have let the vultures scrap him for parts. Probably. So who was he with?

The last thing he remembers--he strains his processor so hard he thinks he can actually hear it whirring. He was still at the bar after closing, Thundercracker’s place. Slam poetry night. Thundercracker told them he’d dock their pay if they didn’t come (nevermind that he didn’t pay them anything) and then hid behind the bar cleaning stemware while Skywarp got belligerently intoxicated and tried to smash a glass on a constructicon’s face. He tried to flip a table over, as if it wasn’t (like everything in Thundercracker’s place) literally nailed to the floor.

But there’s no way Starscream sent Thundercracker pictures of his spike. Or had even wanted to. And there’s no way a drunk, stupid Skywarp could get Starscream killed, anyway.

What is he missing?

“It’s alright,” Pharma says, “it is going to be strange for a while. But in no time, you’ll feel right at home with the rest of your neighbors! Why, you’ll be feeling cosy as a screw in a socket once you get a load of your new house!”

“A house?”

Pharma walks on ahead, crooking a finger over his shoulder at Starscream. The glitter of crystals gives way to a smooth winding path down a hill, at the bottom of which sits a little house. It certainly is a little house. Pharma sweeps his hand over it with almost palpable satisfaction. “Welcome to your new home!”

It’s--it’s flat. To the ground. It catches the light like a gem stone of some kind, which is reasonable, because it appears to be ninety percent windows. Each flat glass pane looks out onto the lawn, with a clear view both ways. Even at this distance, he can clearly make out the interior furniture.

“Oh,” he says, and carefully resets his vocalizer. “An open floor plan.”

“It’s perfect, isn’t it? You see, in the Good Place, everyone has homes that match their true essence.”

It really is at the bottom of the hill. Starscream worries for a moment that he’s going to trip and tumble the rest of the way down before he can even transform. Pharma just trots right along, like gravity doesn’t exist.

“And that’s why I have a place without a tower, or a landing pad,” Starscream says. “As opposed to someone else, who might actually be able to fly in and out of their home.”

“Exactly!” Pharma says. “I knew you would understand.”

At the door, Pharma lets them in without a key or a code or anything remotely resembling security measures.

Just past the picket white fence, the neighboring place has an absolutely beautiful set of towers, an absolute embarrassment of towers, and a floorplan that looks gothic to a degree that verges on labyrinthine. It takes Starscream several long seconds to stop staring at it and follow Pharma into the little glass house.

The plush, snuggly berth has no walls around it; in effect, the entire house is also the berthroom. Starscream stares at its luscious padding as Pharma gives him the little tour--here’s the washrack, here’s the fuel dispenser, here’s the enormous collection of portraits of crying mimes--

“Oh!” Pharma says, “And here’s the footage from your Organic Rights trip to the Orion system, where you fed seventeen different warring cities as you single handedly arranged peace talks. You got a ton of points for that one. Look! There you are, nursing an infant with a tiny bottle! Wow, that’s an awful lot of dirt. You can’t even see the paint underneath!”

Those sort of look like Starscream’s hands. It’s first person perspective, like archive footage from one of those old fashioned memory sticks.

“Really,” Pharma says, “just remarkable. It takes a humble mech to walk around in that state of bedragglement. Did that organic just throw up on you? Wow. You really are the picture of modesty.”

“Yeah, well,” Starscream says, glancing at the door. Pharma is between him and the only escape. Of course, the walls are all made of glass. Maybe a little blaster fire-- “Once we knew that their...fluids weren’t toxic to our kind, it was just a matter of doing the right thing. What’s a little dirt?” He roots through his processors, finds the most brilliant (yet sensually humble) grin he knows, and plasters it, big and fake, across his face. “Dirt washes off. Actions...actions are forever.”

Pharma claps his hands together, giddy, and Starscream takes a moment to be proud of his showmanship (which is returning to him at last, thank Primus) before it all comes crashing down on him again, A.K.A. Pharma opens his damn mouth. “Oh, it’s so thrilling to hear you say that,” he says, absolutely gushing, “I never believed I would hear such a perfect person say such perfectly perfect words! You know, you truly belong here, Starscream. And I’ve got the very last detail, to make sure you know just how deserved this all is.”

Starscream’s wings give a twitch. “Well of course you do,” he says. He gives the video footage another quick glance. “What… ah, what is it?”

Pharma lifts a finger and, like choreography, there’s a knock at the door. Starscream twists around to see a massive blue bot hesitantly stepping over the threshold, ducking just a little bit to get through. He looks combat class, built to crush canons in his huge grey hands.

“Starscream, meet your sparkmate!” Pharma says, with a grand gesture known best to used-parts salesmen. “This is Ultra Magnus, duly appointed enforcer of the Tyrest Accords.”

“Hello Starscream,” says Ultra Magnus, Duly Appointed Enforcer of the Tyrest Accords. “It is an honor to meet you. I--”

“Wonderful, wonderful!” Pharma says. “I just love getting to see new residents coming together! This is really what makes the job worth it, watching two warm little sparks getting all comfy cosy in their new life. I wouldn’t miss this for the world!” His eyes burn, huge and bright, as he looks from one to the other, back and forth. Expectantly. His hands clamp together, fingers interlacing. Are they supposed to… do something? He’s definitely expecting them to--oh. Right.

“--Ah,” Starscream says, bracing himself. “Well! That’s just delightful. Bring it on in, big guy!”

He opens up his arms, trying to look winning and eager. The chances of getting a blade in the back in the next several seconds are much higher than he would like, but, look, sometimes you’ve just got to take that risk. And anyway, Ultra Magnus is large , sure, but Starscream has dealt with larger. Not usually after literally welcoming them in with open arms… but not never like that, either.

Ultra Magnus only stiffens. “Oh, no,” he says. “I’m not much of a--” his mouth forms the word like he’s spitting out a biohazard, “-- hugger .”

“Oh,” Starscream says, with a mixture of relief and also immediate waspish irritation.

Given that he’s such a big guy, for a second Ultra Magnus looks awfully small as he shifts from pede to pede. “Then again,” he says, and looks at anything but the two mechs actually in the room with him. “I suppose if there was ever an appropriate time--”

Primus, he just eats up the floor with those big steps. Starscream has half a second to flinch and half a second to force himself to un-flinch before Ultra Magnus has him swept up in his arms, pulling him firm and tight against his chassis. The palms press flat against Starscream’s back. Huh. No knife. That’s good.

It takes a moment of firm, warm pressure, and then Magnus lets him go. Starscream reels a little bit, as his pedes touch the ground again. He can’t remember the last time someone touched him like that. He can’t remember the last time someone touched him without a reason , either underhanded or vicious.

“Sorry,” Magnus says, hands stiff at his sides again, clenching and unclenching. “Perhaps that was incorrectly executed. I still have much to learn about the protocols of… interpersonal bonding.”

The thoughts are running through Starscream’s processor so fast that they feel more like trajectories of shapes than thoughts. He needs an ally here. He can’t trust Pharma, obviously , but this one--he’s physically capable, inexperienced, and he oozes insecurity like oil from a wound. If Ultra Magnus wants a sparkmate, why not give him one?

Only a fool would pass up resource like this when it was so earnestly offered, spark on a platter.

“Don’t worry,” Starscream says, and flashes his warmest smile. “We’ll have plenty of time to get it absolutely perfect.”

“Technically, you have plenty of forever to get it perfect,” Pharma interjects helpfully. “Oh, I’m so glad you two managed to hug each other. I was worried this big guy wouldn’t quite have the hang of it. You’re already bringing the best out of him, Starscream.” He winks.

Magnus frowns. “I’m not sure you could classify physical touch as the ‘best’ of--”

“You know, I would just love to stay and chat,” Pharma cuts him off, and Starscream catches a glimpse of real irritation flitting across Magnus’ face (this guy is so easy to read, is he lucky or what? ), “but I actually have a couple other residents I need to make sure feel welcome and secure in their new homes. I like being really ‘hands-on’, you know? Is that what you say? Mortals are hilarious, you all just say the best things. Well, I just can’t wait to get my hands on--do you get it? Get my hands on-- you get it, okay, you get it--a few of your neighbors. Take it sleazy, gentlemechs.”

He turns to go, and Starscream releases a vent of air--but just as he’s loosening the pistons in his hands, Pharma is swirling back around. “Oh, I can’t believe I almost forgot,” he says, and claps, “there’s an event tonight--a sort of ‘welcome to the neighborhood’ thing--hosted by your neighbors. Everyone’s invited, of course. Oh! I could bring them around, introduce them to you two?” He raises an eyebrow.

Starscream glances over at Magnus, who has a face of surprisingly stalwart panic, and then back at Pharma, who looks like a kid halfway through a joke, waiting for it to land. “Oh, right,” he says, diplomatically, “um, or maybe we could meet them at the party? At the same time as everyone else. So that the two of...us? Could get to know each other first?” He waggles a finger, indicating himself and his ‘sparkmate’.

“Of course! You’re so right--I’ll see you both this evening, then? Let you two lovebirds get acquainted?” Pharma winks. Starscream can literally hear the elbow-nudging in his voice. “Wear something special! Paint jobs! Whatever you do to look sparkly! I’m looking forward to--”

As he speaks, he’s been sliding back out through the door, and at that moment, it shuts in front of him. Through the glass, Starscream can see his mouth moving, but--with relief--cannot hear him. After another moment, his shape disappears.

Starscream purses his lips. “Does that guy creep you out, too?”

“He’s very...earnest,” Ultra Magnus says, and sniffs disapprovingly. “I suppose he’s just excited. He told me this was his first neighborhood.”

Starscream shoots the nearest glass wall an acerbic look. “No kidding,” he mutters.

“I offered to make a thorough inspection of his work,” Ultra Magnus goes on, “just in case anything here is not up to code. I am, in fact, a seasoned appreciator of minutia. The front door to your house, for example, is skewed three degrees to the left of a perfect ninety degree angle. I’m sure you could feel that something was not right as soon as you walked inside.”

“Oh,” Starscream says, “I definitely could.”

“I am certain that I could be of service, if he would allow me. Prior to my appointment as Enforcer of the Tyrest Accords, I was engaged as an orator for the defense. My ability to parse, interpret, and recall detailed legal prescriptions is second to none.”

“Oh, you don’t have to impress me ,” Starscream says, and is subsequently both amazed and delighted to see Ultra Magnus flush hot across every biolight on his plating.

“Of course not,” the big bot says, like someone who definitely was doing that.

A lawyer, huh. Starscream flicks back through his memory files of various courtroom proceedings, of which there are several, looking for a trace of the bot before him. He expects that Maggy got an upgrade when he switched jobs; he’s never seen a lawyer that bulky before. Switching jobs is a kind of caution flag in and of itself--people don’t just switch jobs anymore. Either it happened back before the government went Functionist majority, or he was somebody pretty important, to be allowed that kind of mobility.

Anyway, Starscream can’t remember ever seeing anyone who resembled Ultra Magnus on any of his visits to the old reprobate pulpit, so they’re probably fine.

Ultra Magnus resets his vocalizer with a burst of static. Starscream hastily closes out his irritating but also highly sensual memories of being arrested by that Pax guy in the alley behind the Little Nyon syk lab.

“I’ve never been a mech of great sentiment,” Ultra Magnus says, folding his hands behind his back in what some part of Starscream’s processor recognizes as parade rest. “I’ve spent my life in pursuit of law and order, even when it was difficult for me, on a personal level. But more than that, I have believed in justice. And you and I--”

Sweet Solus, is he getting choked up?

“--I’m just very grateful,” Ultra Magnus says, after a moment, looking past Starscream entirely, “to have finally met you. I look forward to the commencement of our relationship and the pursuit of our mutual satisfaction.”

“Mutual satisfaction, huh,” Starscream murmurs. “Well, why wait? We might as well… commence now.”

Ultra Magnus startles, optics resetting like he forgot Starscream was there. “Now?” he says. “Shouldn’t we get to know each other first?”

“Uh,” Starscream says, “I thought we were done? I mean, we’ll spend... you know, all of eternity or something getting the minutia down, but is there really anything else?”

“There’s plenty more groundwork that needs to be discussed before we can move forward,” he says, “to start with, I don’t know the first thing about you.

“Me? Oh. Me.” Starscream purses his lips and stares at the video screen in his house, which is still playing footage of someone who might be him, now bandaging the open wounds of an organic adult female.

There’s a lot that he can say about himself, actually--in fact, back on Cybertron, talking about himself was Starscream’s favorite pastime. But that was back when the things he was saying about himself were about who he pushed out of the way so he could get tickets to one of Libretto’s concerts, or how he had martinis with Blurr before he was even famous, or what paint scheme looked best when spattered with energon. How long that bender lasted. Why Skywarp once found him unconscious in a bath empty of oil but full to the brim of engex bottles.

Basically, the Starscream Oeuvre™, none of it easily consumable for someone who “believes in justice”, his own words, or who appears to have a perma-frown, or thinks his sparkmate belongs in the good place, period. Starscream looks up at him and decides to go for broke. “I’m not very interesting,” he lies, “but if you have any questions--oh, or you could tell me something about yourself, and then I can also say… that. But for me.”

“Just give me the basics,” Ultra Magnus says, and furrows his brows like he’s trying to go for a casual expression, except he forgot which direction his forehead was supposed to go in. “Where were you forged? What did you do for a living?”

Where were you forged? That’s a loaded question. Starscream’s halfway to opening the ‘oh, actually, I wasn’t, I’m a cold construct and I’m a little insulted you phrased it like that’ can of worms before he remembers there was a second half, and swerves so hard he almost gives himself whiplash. “I was a scientist,” he says, “professionally. I was in…”

He purses his lips. Somehow, he doesn’t think telling a defense lawyer who ended up in the good place about his botched experiments with military-grade explosives. The mental image of half-melted mannequins engulfed in the blue-green flame of ammonia poisoning fills his processor.

“...Development and testing,” he says, and nods. “I can honestly say that.”

“Were you worried that you couldn’t?”

“What? Oh, no, I--uh, well, that’s all the time we have for me. Where were you forged?”

“Ambustus Minor,” Magnus answers promptly.

“Swanky.” He doesn’t think they’d let even a purebred flight frame settle down in Ambustus Minor, let alone a tin-plated knockoff. Is there any engex in this house? Primus there has to be something.

“I lived there for some time, but after earning my Juris Doctorate I became aware of a lack of capable public defenders in the--what are you searching for?”

Starscream jumps, knocking his helm against the underside of the sink. “...Cleaning… fluids,” he says, from inside of the cabinet. “Just… household solvents and such. Never can have a house too clean!”

Ultra Magnus brightens immediately. “I completely agree,” he says. “Dedicated though he may be, Pharma is clearly incapable of correctly attending to the details of his design work. Why don’t I help you wipe down your new residence. We can even adjust the tightness of any screws we encounter to regulation compliance.”

For a moment, Starscream contemplates uncapping the jug of anti-corrosive his hand just touched and pouring the whole thing down his intake. Too bad he’s only 90% sure he can’t be killed a second time.

“You know what, that sounds like so much fun,” he says. “I’m so glad you suggested it.”

 

 

 

If the outside of the mansion was breathtaking, the interior of the mansion is resplendent. The whole interior of the great hall is comprised of huge vaulting columns of marble, veined with sparkling strains of blue and white opal, glowing with some interior light like the rarest ores of volucite, mined only from the farthest reaches of the galaxy. Every detail is in dripping diamonds and deep ocean black pearls, and far above them, at the apex of the ceiling, a series of gorgeous murals and paintings of creation that seem to shift slightly in the crystalline light. Starscream takes a moment away from being furiously envious, just so he can let slackjawed horniness have a turn at the wheel.

In one hand, he tugs awkwardly at the hem of his cape. Yes, he’d gone for a cape. Red, with gold lining. It’s not as though anyone’s going to accuse him of vanity, right? It’s the good place. Everyone thinks he belongs there. Anyway, it’s not as though he completely reframed for one evening. Some of these mechs definitely did.

He snatches--er, he lifts , elegantly lifts--a flute of pale pink bubbly off some skinny bot’s passing plate. Is that guy a resident of the neighborhood? Why would he be working at the party if he lived here? Maybe he’s from the bad place, Starscream reasons, and the real hell is serving entitled rich people for all eternity. He’s certainly never enjoyed it.

“Well, this is diverting,” Ultra Magnus says, and Starscream tries not to visibly jump as he manifests from the shadows. He’s got two flutes, one in each hand--belatedly, Starscream realizes one of them is supposed to be for him, and feels a little bad about grabbing one himself. But then, he does have two hands. “Are you enjoying yourself?”

Ultra Magnus looks good, Starscream decides. He’s always had a soft spot in his chassis somewhere for big bots, and under the sparkling blue light, especially after a solid polish, those highlights really pop. Unfortunately, he’s still a goody-two-shoes lawyer and a nerd to boot. The two things cancel out.

“I mean, I’m never going to say no to a gig with free engex and those little crunchy... what are those, the rust wrappers on the soft cubes--you know the ones.” Starscream peers up at one of the light fixtures and wonders if the owner of the house would notice a few dozen pearls missing. It’s almost two hundred feet up. If he could just get up there, surely the guy wouldn’t notice? He’d better get a read on the homeowner first, although if precedence with other residents is anything to go by, the guy would probably good-naturedly assume there was a glitch in the system before doing anything so untoward as pointing fingers. Primus forbid any blame be thrown around.

“Interesting music,” he adds after a moment. “I think it’s Ponte.” It’s instrumental, just a string quartet, but Starscream remembers seeing a performance of it once. The piece is from the first act, and he hadn’t managed to get ragingly sloshed until after the first intermission. Something like… ‘In all the world, there could ne’er be / a more contented mech than me.’ He’d missed the rest. The slapstick had been funny.

“Oh,” Ultra Magnus says, “do you like opera?”

Starscream eyes the second glass of engex in Ultra Magnus’ hand, the one he hasn’t touched. He might be able to just kind of...reach over...and… "It’s okay, I guess,” he says diplomatically, fingers just brushing the stem.

Ultra Magnus grunts. He doesn’t seem to have noticed Starscream’s sly little hand yet. “Personally, I find theater to be a frivolous waste of time, energy, and financial resources that could be better focused elsewhere,” he says.

Now with two fists full of bubbly, and a fellow commiserator in his presence, Starscream feels his mood shift palpably. “Oh, what a relief, ” he says, and leans in conspiratorially in a way that both assures his interest and shows off a great view of his neck-to-chassis cabling under the loops of his cape, “I can’t stand live performances of any kind, they’re so gaudy and loud--I would’ve said before, only I didn’t want to offend you, in case you did enjoy it.” He sweeps his gaze up and delivers the Killing Blow--a subtle bite of the lip with direct eye contact.

Ultra Magnus looks back down at him. For a second, Starscream experiences a moment of terror, that his seduction skills are too good and he’s going to have to interface with the guy totally sober (well. Almost totally sober), which he is not prepared for--but then he sees the solid downward turn of his mouth. Oops. “I would prefer,” he says stiffly, “if you would simply be honest in your feelings from the beginning. Please believe that I will respect your opinions, so long as they are not harmful to others, and do not be afraid to share openly with me.”

Starscream clicks his tongue. “Right,” he says, trying to save some kind of flirtatious face and losing ground miserably, “of course. I’ll. Work on it.”

“Your effort is noted and appreciated,” Ultra Magnus says. He straightens to his full height, chassis bulging out with a swell of barely disguised pride, and turns to inspect one of the pillars. Starscream checks to make sure he’s not watching, then empties one of the glasses straight into his fuel intake in a single gulp.

“So,” he says, trying to fill the space, “when are we going to meet the hosts of this whole shindig? I’d like to make friendly with whoever’s pad this is.” ‘So it’s less likely to get pinned on me when a bunch of their gold stuff goes missing, ’ he makes the conscious decision not to say out loud.

“Oh, and we’d just love to make friendly with you!” says a voice behind him, and Starscream whirls around so fast that his cape doesn’t even get the air to flare out behind him, instead hitting Ultra Magnus in the leg with an undignified whump. A not-insignificant portion of his engex sloshes out of its glass.

He looks up at the mech in question. And up. And...up.

If Starscream thought Ultra Magnus was big, it’s nothing compared to rich-and-handsome here, who’s smiling down at him with an infuriatingly magnanimous look in his eyes. His paint scheme is so...it doesn’t feel right to call it gaudy. It’s… extra. His legs are a different color than his chassis. He’s got an eagle painted across his front.

An eagle.

“First of all, I want to say thank you for coming,” the mech says, spreading his arms wide, “and welcome to our home! My name is Thunderclash, and this is my sparkmate, Hot Rod.” He gestures to the mech next to him, a slim red racer of a slightly more tolerable size, with one of those flat-all-over faces that you usually only see in magazines about beauty standards in exotic locales. Totally blank, save the eyes. “Oh, Hot Rod is a Camien Monk, who studied under the Cityspeakers in the mountains of a distant planet, and took their traditional oath of silence until the day that Solus reawakens,” he says, “which, of course, may not happen for another million years! Or, maybe, tomorrow. Sometime between tomorrow and a million years. Or forever.” He gives a bubbly little laugh. Hot Rod blinks slowly and nods.

Starscream glances up at Ultra Magnus, who seems frozen by the sight of a mech taller than him. Their shoulders are actually around the same size--maybe Thunderwhatsit is wearing extensions on his legs? It’s the only way a bot gets that big.

Anyway, he’s getting no assistance from his own corner. Time to go it alone.

“I’m sure I speak for both of us when I say how... thrilled we are to finally meet our neighbors,” Starscream starts, but Thunderclash gives a trill and throws a very friendly, very unwelcome hand on his shoulder.

“Oh, you’re the one who’s living in that adorable little house,” he says, “you know I was just saying--wasn’t I, Hot Rod?--I was just saying how quaint and sweet that little house looked, and how much I wanted to get to know the residents who lived there so I could visit. It looks so homey,” he adds, “you must feel very... snug in there.”

Starscream’s smile is frozen. He’s clinging to it for dear life. “Yes,” he says, trying not to visibly grind his denta, “it’s very snug. Although, you know, if you want to come visit us in our house, I guess we’ll just have to come visit you! In this giant house, with the launch pads all over the place!”

“Oh, well, you’re welcome to those,” Thunderclash says, “it’s not like either of us need them! Honestly, I’m not entirely sure why they’re there, except that this house is so beautifully extravagant that I suppose Pharma just assumed we needed them!” He lets loose another one of those high, trilling laughs that makes Starscream’s plating stand on edge. “But you know, I was so busy complimenting your adorable house--”

“And tiny,” Starscream interjects, “don’t forget tiny.”

“Your adorably tiny house,” Thunderclash barrels on, apparently unaware of Starscream’s increasingly grating tone, “that I didn’t even ask your name! How rude of me, and we’re going to be such good friends. I don’t want to get off on the wrong pede at all.” He smiles, and abruptly, the wash of condescending words halts in its tracks. Starscream stares back.

The engex is making itself known now, glittering at the edge of his swimming vision. He’s supposed to be doing something here. What is he supposed to be doing here? He glances at Hot Rod for help, and then gives him an appraising look. He's pretty, with those gold lines curling around his eyes and over his cheeks. Pity he's a monk.

Not that that's going to stop Starscream from giving it a shot. It just makes his odds of success less likely.

“Ultra Magnus, duly appointed enforcer of the Tyrest Accords,” Ultra Magnus says at his side, and Starscream startles as the two huge mechs reach forward to shake hands right in front of him. “And this is Starscream.”

Not his sparkmate, Starscream notes. Interesting distinction. What, is he embarrassed or something? Embarrassed of--who, of Starscream? For what? Did he say something wrong? Well, screw him for trying, he guesses, while Magnus’ whole mouth locked up.

Wait, maybe it was the very prolonged stare Starscream was giving Thunderclash's squeeze. Oh well.

“It’s wonderful to meet you both,” Thunderclash says, reaching forward to clasp Magnus’ hand with both of his, which is literally 100% unnecessary and he does not need to be doing it, “and we’re so excited to spend our eternity together, with each other and with you.

Did he say that to just Ultra Magnus? Starscream narrows his eyes. He definitely did. And Ultra Magnus doesn’t even seem grossed out by how much hand contact they’re making! When he full-on freaked out about one hug?

Luckily, there’s another glass in Starscream’s other hand. He stares Hot Rod directly in the eye and drains it in one go. Not a twitch on that lipless face.

“I would love to stay and get to know both of you for the rest of the evening, but part of our due diligence as hosts is to make sure we talk to everyone,” Thundercrash is saying. “It’s hard to say goodbye, but everyone here is so gifted and generous. Please, make conversation! I’m sure you’ll see the best in everyone else, just like we do.”

“Please, don’t let us keep you,” Ultra Magnus replies, and Starscream almost sighs in relief. “Protocol must be followed at all cost.”

“I love that. ‘Protocol must be followed’. You certainly have a way with words, Magnus, if I might be so bold as to call you Magnus. I shall include it in my own vocabulary starting tonight,” Thunderclash says, smiling. With no small twinge of betrayal, Starscream watches a collection of biolights flare along Ultra Magnus’ arms as Thunderclash and Hot Rod sweep past them. Feeling displaced, he slides his own hand through the loop of his sparkmate’s arm.

“Who was that guy?” he asks, sneering at their host’s retreating back as he slips out of hearing range. Ultra Magnus gives him a strange look, and his hand an even stranger one.

“He’s our host, ” Ultra Magnus says, “he just came up and introduced himself. Are you well?”

Starscream waves an empty glass. “That’s not what I meant, ” he says, “I just mean--you were acting like you knew him, I mean, I figured he was your pal from like, being alive or whatever.”

Ultra Magnus gives him a disapproving look. At least, it seems disapproving. Then again, everything about this guy’s face seems disapproving. He’s got...resting...disapproval face. “You were just expressing your interest in, and I quote, ‘making friendly’ with our neighbors,” he says, “I thought it would be best to be friendly, so as not to disappoint your expectations.”

Oh. Well. That’s just about the nerdiest way any guy has ever told Starscream he wanted to impress him, but nerdy or not, he still said it. “You remember what you said earlier?” Starscream asks. “About you respecting my opinions or whatever. You know that goes both ways, right? You don’t have to impress me. Besides,” He says, dragging his optics down over Ultra Magnus’ chassis meaningfully, “there’s no way you’re going to disappoint.” Primus, this bot is legitimately huge. His fuel tank churns nervously.

“It’s not as though it was difficult,” Ultra Magnus says, staring back at the party, apparently unaware of that expertly crafted and delivered piece of flirtation--which, rude, Starscream’s been perfecting the ‘Sexy Seeker Once-Over™’ for over a century-- “Thunderclash seems very apt at otherwise recreational pursuits. Erudite, gracious, and welcoming. He seems a perfectly suited neighbor for you.”

“For me? ” He could spit. He could spit. “You might get on with that condescending spawn-of-a-glitch, but I--” he stops, coughs. “I mean, that spawn-of-a- glitch, ” he says again. “Glitch. Of a glitch.

Ultra Magnus stares down at him. Starscream stares back up.

“Why can’t I say glitch?" He asks after an uncomfortable pause.

“If you’re trying to curse," Ultra Magnus says, forming the word like it personally offends him and letting it dribble out of his mouth like so many machtinis on one of Starscream’s bad vacations. “You can’t here. It upsets most of the residents, so there’s a filter that’ll stop you from doing it.”

Starscream has a sneaking suspicion Ultra Magnus might be one of those residents.

“What? That’s bullslag.” He frowns. “Wait, how do you even know about this? I mean, not to brag, but I used to curse a lot back on Cybertron, I mean, I was kind of a bad boy in comparison to--whatever, it’s not important, the point that you’re making me belabor is, why didn’t anybody tell me? How do you even know about this?”

“Obviously, I asked Rung about it,” he says, puffing his stupid chassis out again. Silently, Starscream wonders if Ultra Magnus thinks Starscream’s dumb enough to have forgotten what it looks like, or if he’s just insecure enough that he thinks he has to remind him every five fragging seconds --wait, he can’t even curse internally? He can’t even do that? --that he’s ridiculously huge. He probably turns into one of those monster trucks or something. “I was curious about the neighborhood, and asked for his expertise on anything I could think of. Language filters came up naturally, in a discussion about the Babel Fish that translates all our different languages here in the afterlife.”

“I was wondering why some bot from Ambustus Minor could make out my --wait a klik, what are you talking about? What’s a Rung?”

There’s a gentle chime, like someone engaging his comm link. “Hello. How can I help you?” asks the skinny little bot who definitely walked past him and far away into the room, like, fifteen minutes ago, but who is nonetheless just here, now, apparently, smiling placidly at him. Starscream fumbles the empty glasses in his hands.

What is that," he manages, and fully drops both glasses. Instead of shattering on the floor, they hover in midair, then reappear on the tray in the bot’s hand.

In front of his eyes, they refill with pale engex, the kind he used to stare winsomely at when forged bots above his status knocked them together at tables he didn’t dare approach. The tray spins towards him. Hand shaking, he takes one.

“I’m Rung,” says Rung with an easy, modest little smile, “I’m the informational assistant for your neighborhood. How can I help you?”

Starscream eyes the bot’s kibble, or rather lack thereof. He opens up his vents for a steadying intake of air and stills his fingers against the glass. Not much you could hide in a frame as stripped down as that one. He knocks back his engex.

“You’re a search engine?” he asks. He swears there’s a spark behind that blue plate glass. It must be for the aesthetic, but it still strikes him as offputting to rig out what basically amounts to a drone with a spark.

“Much more than that,” Rung gently corrects him. He reaches out and taps the rim of Starscream’s glass, and the half-empty drink refills again with pale glittering liquid. “My essence is the foundation on which this neighborhood was built.”

Starscream looks down at the floor and gives it a testing prod with the tip of his pede. Rung doesn’t seem to register it; Rung stands there politely waiting for whatever he’s waiting for.

“Well,” Starscream says, and casts a sidelong glance in Ultra Magnus’s direction, “it is of course a pleasure to meet you. My sparkmate and I were just having a discussion about the speech parameters here. I don’t suppose there’s any way for me to re engage the cursing? Only for really important things, of course. Seeker’s honor!” He holds up two fingers.

“I’m afraid not,” Rung says. “As a matter of fact, the fabric of this reality is tightly interwoven with--”

Starscream lifts his glass and tunes him out.

“Wow, that’s so interesting,” Starscream says, in the breathless sort of way that you get when you just finished swallowing an entire glass without venting and now you have to pretend it didn’t knock the wind out of you, “while you talk about how interesting that thing you were talking about is, would you mind--?”

He gestures with his stemware. “Of course,” Rung says, smiling, and the glass is full again.

Ultra Magnus frowns at him, brows furrowed. “You’re going to regret that in the morning,” he says, like a teacher reminding a student who he can visibly see cheating that cheating will result in a zero on the test.

“Rung,” Starscream says, not bothering to look at Ultra Magnus, “do hangovers exist in the good place?”

“Great question! They do not,” Rung says, smiling as Starscream throws the rest of his glass back. “Hangovers are a result of corrosion of the FIM chip in the brain module. As no permanent physical damage can be sustained in the good place, the FIM chip will remain in perfect condition, and there will be no pain to accompany it.”

“Cool,” Starscream says, as his glass refills, “it’s almost like, after spending a life doing nothing but constant good deeds, some of us deserve to do, like, stuff, without worrying about, you know, consequences.

“You’ve had quite a few of those already,” Magnus says, “Rung, I’m sure you have someone else to attend to.”

“Don’t worry! I can attend to all of the residents of the neighborhood simultaneously, as part of the good place’s central matrix. I am not a resident or a living being, and therefore do not follow the same rules of physics as a being with a physical body.” He smiles. “Is there anything else I can do for you two?”

“Yeah, can I get a big plate of those curvy pink crescent thingies that Thunderclash is having?” Starscream says. “Actually, can I have... his? The ones he’s having?”

“I can do better than that,” Rung says. There’s a soft chime, and the plate in his hand is full of those nasty, crunchy little snacks. “You can have your own! There’s no shortage. I can create any object in the multiverse.”

“Well aren’t you talented,” Starscream says, scowling down at his plate. On second glance, they look like some kind of invertebrate mechanimal straight out of the Nyon canals. He can’t actually eat things off the plate and hold his drink, and he only wanted the snacks because that would mean Thunderclash wouldn’t have any. So, okay, maybe some bots would be generous, but it’s not like he’s the one going around, telling other bots how small he thinks their houses are.

“Rung, please go,” Ultra Magnus says, and Starscream startles. His drink isn’t even half-empty.

“Okay!” Rung says. “Goodbye!”

There’s a soft chime, and he’s gone. Magnus turns to glare down at Starscream, who chews thoughtfully. “You can have one,” he says, and offers the plate, “I don’t even like these.”

 

 

 

The night ends with bots of all shapes and sizes streaming across the lawn, flashes of varnish and shadow in the bobbing lights that hover over the paths and gardens. They have two race tracks. Starscream isn’t even a racer and he’s livid with envy. Also with engex.

There’s something in the pit of Starscream’s fuel tank that he doesn’t like, and it gets worse every time he glances over his shoulder. Thunderclash stands on the doorstep with his dumb bot-friend waving goodbye to everyone, like some kind of shop window display, back and forth and back and forth, perfect denta flashing.

Starscream staggers back into his stupid tiny house with its millions of all-exposing windows and allows Ultra Magnus to catch him under the waist, as the force of heel-kicking open the door causes him to tumble backwards. A shiver runs down Starscream’s spinal strut. Ugh. Where does he get off being so big? His huge, canon-rending hands hold Starscream as easily as a cup, like something to be crushed and discarded.

“You’re so strong,” Starscream slurs, although it comes out more like yrssustronk. Oh well. He’ll manage. It’s not like he needs his silver tongue for this part. He can officially put that piece of anatomy on shore leave for the night.

The berth waits at the far wall, overlooking the room like a throne, huge and luxurious and impossible to look away from.

“You are inebriated,” Ultra Magnus observes.  

“I certainly am,” Starscream purrs. Or thinks he does.

The expression on Ultra Magnus’s face has an unmistakable edge of disapproval. What’s he complaining about? If he wanted to get drunk he had more than enough opportunities

Starscream pushes free of Magnus’s grip and makes his way through the dim room, kicking blindly at anything that gets in his way.

That damn video is still running, and Starscream fumbles for several seconds trying to get the thing to turn off . He doesn’t want to see whoever’s memories those are, with their grubby hands and their gunk-streaked plating. Ew. Who wants to be that guy? All those pitiful squishies looking up at him with big shiny eyes, treating him like some kind of a hero, lavishing him with—what was he doing?

The screen falls blank. In the thickness of real dark that settles over the room, Starscream turns around and brushes his hands together. “Well ,” he says, “that’s enough of that.”

Ultra Magnus is still lurking near the door, the blue of his optics radiating a glow that reminds Starscream hazily of the sky over Iacon, the night pale with light pollution. It’s nice that he’s not crashing right into it, but honestly, a little more initiative would have this over with a lot sooner.  Starscream unclasps his cape and lets it fall to the floor, hip cocked, and brushes a clawtip over his turbines.

“So where do you want me?” he says.

Ultra Magnus gives him some kind of look. “Based on your state of intoxication, right now I would prefer you in your berth.”

Berth . Okay, yes, he can handle that. Starscream sways back across the floor and lets himself tip into Magnus’s chassis. One thruster pops behind him, as he leans his weight against the broad bulk and traces his clawtip over a transformation seam.

“Why don’t you take me there, handsome?” he says. “I’m so lightheaded.”

Ultra Magnus stiffens as Starscream hooks a finger between two of his plates. “Why don’t you engage your FIM chip?” he asks, with his arms firmly at his sides.

“What?” Starscream flutters his ailerons. “Don’t you like me like this?”

“I am certain that I would like you regardless,” Ultra Magnus says.

Despite himself, Starscream perks up. “Really?”

“Of course,” Ultra Magnus says, sternly. “You are my sparkmate.”  

“…Right,” Starscream says. He grimaces into the warm chestplates, tasting something bitter behind his denta. It’s—whatever, it’s fine, Ultra Magnus is nothing but a convenient patsy in the grand scheme of things. Who cares if he thinks Starscream is someone he’s not? Starscream doesn’t want this guy to be his real conjunx.  Big fragging… bore, who cares what he thinks as long as he’s doing what Starscream needs him to do?

Starscream is gonna twist this faucet-drip around his little finger and he’s never needed the truth to do that.

“However,” Ultra Magnus says, “if you require assistance…”

All at once, there’s a hand under Starscream’s knee. The world spins; Ultra Magnus hefts him like so much loose padding. He bounces in the big bot’s grip, clinging to his chassis for dear life. Oh, oh wow. When he said take me there he wasn’t thinking literally. But Magnus carries him to the berth, easily, and lays him down on the inviting softness instead of just, like, tossing him around either. As he draws back, carefully, he seems to be actively minding the delicate bits of Starscream’s wings.

The world is still spinning. Starscream blinks up at him.

“…Strong opener,” he says, and allows his thighs to fall open. He leaves the modesty panel closed—certain rough types like to pull those open manually, and Starscream is just drunk enough to put up with it right now. He can take a little wear and tear.

He can still taste the clean sweet flavor of good engex, like acid on his tongue.

Ultra Magnus doesn’t say anything. Ultra Magnus stares at Starscream’s open legs like he’s seeing something completely new to him. One of his hands is frozen in mid-air, the fingers not quite curled closed.

Starscream tamps down a flare of self-consciousness. He wriggles down a little deeper into the padding and stretches his arms over his head, arching up into an appealing little stretch. His vision offlines. At any moment he’s going to feel Magnus’s hands on his frame—the blunt fingertips, the prodding and squeezing, the pressure against his panels. Any moment. Any… moment.

Starscream reengages his optics. “Why are you still up there?” he says.

“Where else should I be?” Magnus says.

Starscream eyes him, and then drops his pose with a huff. “Down here,” he says, “with me. Come on, I don’t have all night.”

Magnus recoils.

“What is it?” Starscream demands, narrowing his swimming optics. “You said you wanted it on the berth.” He reconsiders himself, his open legs and arms, and pauses. “Oh,” he says, smirking, “you want me on my front, is that it?”

The hovering hand finally withdraws, closing into a fist before it disappears from view. “We can’t do this. You’re inebriated.”

Starscream scoffs. “I’m the one who’s drunk,” he says, “it’s okay if you wanna do... whatever, I won’t even remember it.”

Magnus doesn’t return his smirk even slightly. After a moment, Starscream’s expression slides off his face. Primus, is he talking to a drone here? Starscream nearly pops his own panel out of sheer frustration. He climbs to his knees and lunges for Magnus’s collar faring, as much for support as to get the mech’s attention. He gropes blindly at Magnus’s frame with the hand that isn’t holding him up, searching for something that will make him give in.

“Wasn’t that a nice party?” Starscream urges him, “Didn’t you have a good night? Don’t you want to break me in?”

“Starscream,” Magnus says, and his voice is a low warning rumble that makes Starscream’s valve ache in the worst way. What a fragging time to start being sexy!

Magnus takes his grabbing hand and pries it away from a panel of armor.

“Come on,” Starscream whines, “take advantage of me!”

He’s got to salvage this. If Ultra Magnus doesn’t want him, there’s no way he’ll make it more than a few days in this place. They’ll know. That medi-jet slagger, he’s already got Starscream’s number, almost certainly . There was something about the way he watched Starscream introduce himself to Ultra Magnus—something in his optics, something too intent.  

He needs Ultra Magnus to want him, it’s got to be hook line and sinker. It’s not just a matter of dropping back somewhere a little less cushy—Starscream knows what kind of person he is, and he knows where he’s going if Pharma finds him out. There's too much of the wrong kind of grime on his hands.

Magnus gathers up both of Starscream’s wrists in one hand and holds them there, away from himself. “You need to recharge,” he tells Starscream, who can’t stop looking at both his wrists pinned in the same solitary hand.

“You want me to be asleep? ” Starscream tries not to totally panic at the idea. “Isn’t there—I mean I’m sure I could think up something more interesting than that—”

“That is not remotely what I meant,” Magnus says, “if I even take your meaning correctly, which I’m not sure I have, given that it is utterly depraved.”

“Oh thank Primus,” Starscream mutters.

Ultra Magnus sets his mouth in a grim line. “As flattering as this is…” he goes on, his gaze flicking back to Starscream’s hips like he’s having trouble keeping them focused on his face, “You needed assistance crossing the length of a single room. You are in no condition to be propositioning anyone.”

The hot, ugly feeling in the pit of Starscream’s fuel tank collapses into a bitter black wreckage. It feels like someone was cooking syk in his tanks and the fraggers blew the lab. He wrenches against Magnus’s grip, wriggling and tugging to the best of his abilities. His visions spins again. If he wasn’t being held up, he would definitely tip over.

Magnus gives him the kind of look that a caretaker gives a troublesome pet. He lifts Starscream up by the wrists high enough that the seeker can’t touch the berth with his knees anymore, and he doesn’t even have the good grace to pretend like he’s having a hard time with it.

“Why won’t you just do it,” Starscream snarls. “It’s fine, everyone else does it!”

The shape of Magnus’s expression contorts in a way that Starscream just doesn’t have the resources to parse, but it doesn’t look good.

“I can take it,” Starscream insists. “I—”

The look on Magnus’s face is making it hard to do this. It just keeps getting… weirder. Worse. Starscream becomes aware that his mouth is still open, and abruptly shuts it. This isn’t over. He just—he’ll just pretend to be out for long enough to get Magnus off his back, and then he’ll—

Magnus lowers him down into the berth by his wrists and, with a firm hand pressing his chassis to the padding, pushes one of those extremely fluffy pillows under his cheek. Starscream glares at him for a moment before offlining his optics entirely.

“Bet you’d frag me if I was a medi-jet,” Starscream mumbles into the pillow.

“You’re incoherent,” Magnus says, and pushes another pillow into his arms, which he reluctantly snuggles.

Starscream grumbles something, but even he isn’t entirely sure what it’s supposed to be. He has a hazy thought that he may have made a minor tactical misstep here, possibly.

“Recharge,” Magnus says. “I will come check on you in the morning, of course.”

Oh. Starscream’s intake tube gives a throb, deep in his throat, and the sinking feeling takes him all the way through the blown syk lab in his tanks and down into a heretofore undiscovered subbasement level of misery. “What’s wrong with you,” he mutters. “Why are you being so nice to me? It’s weird. You’re so weird.”

There’s that pit-damned face again. Part of Starscream wants to rip it off and shred it to scrap, and part of him wants to gently peel it free, hold it up to the light, dissect it for the hidden edge that makes his spark throb and sputter inside him.

Magnus retreats a step.

“Mag—Magsy,” he says, and throws up a blurry arm, managing more by luck than by skill to catch Magnus’s hand.

Magnus pauses. They both look down at the place where their hands overlap.

Starscream immediately pulls back, squeezing the pillow against his chestplates with both arms.

After a moment, Magnus clasps his hands behind his back and says, “Rest well, Starscream. Please do not ever refer to me as Magsy again.”

 

 

 

Starscream wakes up the next morning with one plan and zero hangovers, which is a significant step-up from every other morning as far back as he can remember. So, okay, he technically doesn’t remember most of last night except the part where he fucked up real bad right there at the end, but his brain module isn’t actually throbbing inside his helm. And yeah, okay, so his plan is just ‘pretend not to remember last night, apologize to Magnus, and socialite him out of the water until he’s letting me blow him under a cafe table’ , but at least it’s a plan. It’s got a motive, a desired result, a reliable fall-back excuse in case it blows up like everything seems to when he’s dealing with this guy, and a way to get him in his pocket for real. Figures Magnus wouldn’t like drunk sex, what was he even thinking with that? He’s like a goofy romcom virgin waiting for ‘the one’. He definitely wants dinner first.

He’s halfway through planning out the look he wants to go for (something thin, modest--sophisticated with only a hint of slutty, maybe blue? He’s going on a hunch, here, and assuming Magnus probably likes blue) and searching through the cabinets in his stupid glass house that he hates when he hears the first scream.

He’s used to hearing people scream outside his house at stupid hours of the morning, but this one catches his attention. Partially because it is so shrill, partially because it’s followed by another chorus of equally shrill shrieks, but mostly because he’s in the good place, and people shouldn’t be screaming here. He looks out one of his giant wall-windows, up the hill, back towards the center of town.

“What the pit,” he grumbles, squinting, “what’s that supposed to be?”

There’s a dense, pink cloud over the horizon, writhing and gnashing its teeth. Absurdly huge, wriggling, living snacks, flopping down in droves onto the pavement and crushing any shrubbery in their paths. Racing across the lawns, dropping from the sky and shooting back up into it, there are these huge, hideously neon blue-and-yellow mechanical birds--are those eagles?

It looks like just about everyone from the neighborhood is out in the wide open spaces, running back and forth, arms akimbo, and they’re basically all screaming. Suckers. If they were smart enough to stay inside, like he is, they wouldn’t be-

Something smashes through his very glass wall by force, and he screams, scrambling to the floor. It rolls to a stop just in front of his face. A black deep-sea pearl, like the ones on all of Thunderclash’s interior decorating--except that this one is the size of his fist. It’s got to be, like, five hundred times the size of the real ones, because Starscream definitely stole way more than five hundred of those things, and they all fit in his subspace. Actually... he pauses from panicking for a second to check. Yep, those are all still in there. What is he supposed to do with these? Why did he decide to nick them in the first place? It’s not like he can sell them for money. Or decorate with them without someone noticing.

The one in front of him, though... a pearl of that size? That’s got to be worth, what, four, five hundred thousand shanx? Yes, it smashed through his window, but he can pay all that back. He reaches towards it-

With another deafening smash, a second pearl rockets through another pane of glass. Starscream covers his head. This sucks. This sucks.

 

“In all the world, there could ne’er be
a more contented mech than me!”

 

He peers over the nearest piece of furniture towards the shattered, gaping hole in his wall. He knows that song. How does he-- know that song? It’s a baritone aria from that opera--they were playing it last night, at the party! He scrambles forward on hand and knee--maybe if he can get a closer look at the people outside. There’s something strange about the way they’re moving, something strange about their bodies. They don’t quite look real from down here. Something about their faces.

The door bursts open as Magnus--true to his word--barrels in. “Starscream,” he calls, “are you alright? Where are you?”

The light catches on him, shining and sparkling at every angle. There’s an energy radiating from him, something indescribable--the deja vu of seeing him here, kicking the walls down --Starscream leaps from his hiding place and bounds towards him, once, twice, and clings to his side. “Magnus,” he says, voice as breathless as he can realistically get it, “what’s happening? It’s chaos out there!”

The embarrassing thing is, it’s not even 100% fake. It’s about 85% fake. That might seem like a lot, objectively, but that still means 15% of Starscream wanted to leap into his fake conjunx’s arms like a dewy-eyed bikeformer at the end of a silver era film. Primus, it’s only a step removed from being tied to some railroad tracks.

Still. Magnus wraps a protective arm around him, and his stupid, huge chassis is swelling up with pride again, biolights flaring. He’s even shifting his own body between the window, beyond which all pit seems to be breaking loose, and the bot in his grip. Figures he responds well to all that stereotypical crap. Starscream chooses a romantically orange-red backlight for his optic array, splays a hand across that barrel-wide torso, and turns his glossy gaze right up at his face.

And yelps with terror, tearing right back out of his grip.

“What is that? ” he manages. “Magnus! Your face!” He covers his own mouth with both hands. “What happened to you? Is it contagious?”

Magnus touches a hand to the flat, featureless plane of his face, fingers prodding at the place where his mouth used to be. “Contagious?” comes the reply, which is--relievingly--still in his own voice. There’s a burn of synthesizer around the edges, but it’s still him. “Maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s why it hasn’t happened to you yet--”

“What? What are you saying?” He’s not sure how to play this. Does he keep his own hands on his own face? Does he reach forward and cradle Magnus’ in his palms instead? He doesn’t watch enough of these movies, but even if he did, he’s pretty sure that wouldn’t give him a good solution to this highly specific problem.

“It’s happening to everyone,” Magnus intones, “the whole neighborhood. All the residents woke up with their faceplates like this. Except, apparently, you.”

Starscream’s hands fall away from his face. “Slag,” he says.

Chapter Text

“My question is,” Thunderclash says politely, “how does something like this happen? I mean, was it scheduled?”

The unhappy chatter of the crowd, too polite to go much louder than a low murmur, bounces between the glittering columns of Thunderclash’s house and disagrees with its own echo. The light of the chandeliers passes through the empty stations of several missing pearls.

“Great question, uh,” Pharma replies, his grin wide, wobbly, and painfully fake, “in fact, the only question worth asking! Uh, well, the short answer, um, is, ah, Rung?” He turns his body, perpendicular to the crowd taking refuge in Thunderclash’s magnificent front hall. “Rung, was this event… scheduled?”

Rung, stationed at his left elbow like a king’s grand vizier, smiles up at him. “The chaos event was not scheduled,” he says. “The events scheduled for today are: basic video orientation at 10:JB pre-noon, flying for grounders at 14:IE post-noon, racing for--”

“Rung,” Pharma says, and the automatic rattle shuts off immediately. “How could something that isn’t in your schedule happen in the neighborhood?”

“Unclear. The most likely cause is a virus, or another alien presence. At your request, I can run a diagnostic.”

"An alien presence?"

Starscream nudges Ultra Magnus in the arm. “Hey,” he intones from behind his brand-new flat face. “Does this guy have showmanship under his belt or what?”

The whole tableau disappears behind the heads and shoulders of the crowd. They’re stuck about four rows back in the mass--not statistically bad, given that there’s about twenty rows of anxious mechs pushing and jostling at each other between those vaulting marble columns, but it’s just enough that since Starscream caught up with Magnus he now can’t see over anybody’s heads.

He can just make the tips of Pharma’s wings out, plus those stupid little helm-points, and he can’t see Rung at all, but he knows when someone is working a room. It's so sad how some people will do anything to make the situation about themselves. These chumps are hanging on to Pharma's every nervous twitch.

“I have no idea what you mean,” Ultra Magnus says stiffly. His stature puts him a good head and shoulders above the masses, and he’s shown himself to be one gullible spawn of a glitch so far, which means he’s probably eating it up like the rest of these goody-two-pedes. “It might behoove you, in the future, to avoid such--your face, Starscream! When did that happen?”

Behind his chic new mouthless faceplate, Starscream purses his lips.

~~

“It’s happening to everyone,” Magnus intones, “the whole neighborhood. All the residents woke up with their faceplates like this. Except, apparently, you.”

Starscream’s hands fall away from his face. “Slag,” he says. “So, I mean...what do we do? I mean, what do we do? Magnus? What do we do?”

“Firstly, we stay calm,” Magnus says, “secondly, we move towards cover. Thunderclash has offered refuge in his home to all residents until this… unpleasantness is over, but residents are in a frenzy, and aren’t likely to be thinking rationally. I’ll get you to cover, then take to the streets and redirect whoever I can towards safety.”

Starscream gets a brief mental image of Magnus tucking him under one arm like so much dirty laundry and sprinting across the lawn, fighting fists akimbo, heroically saving his sparkmate from harm. He would like the opportunity to do that, wouldn’t he.

“No way,” Starscream says, “I’m not a--I mean--I want to help too. I know where Thunderclash’s place is. I could really… expedite the process. Plus, I mean, it’s a great date activity. You and I? Saving people’s lives? Working together for the common good? We could really get to know each other. From across the green.”

Magnus sniffs. “Perhaps our time would more wisely be spent reaching out to others in the neighborhood,” he says, “since the entire purpose is to direct them to safety. However, I am moved by your offer of assistance.” There’s a crash in the distance, and Magnus stiffens and turns to watch as a giant pink snack hits the landscape with force. “There. There’s a group of them. I’ll go and make sure it’s safe, you follow.”

With a leap and a bound, he’s plunging through the open wall and heading out on the green. Springing uphill. There must be some serious pistons in those legs.

Starscream scowls at Ultra Magnus’s retreating form for a few seconds longer than strictly necessary, then hurries behind the washrack. It’s just a wall hiding the plumbing and not ideal cover, but it’s one of the only solid walls in this stupid glass house so at least it’s something.

“Slave robot,” Starscream says into empty air. Nothing happens, and he tries not to feel as foolish as he must look.

Tiny slave robot?” he tries, in case this place has more than one slave robot and they want him to be specific. Nothing. Starscream wracks his processor. The mech had had such a simple name. Eminently simple. Agonizingly simple. It started with an R, right? Rang?

Starscream tries it. The bot doesn’t appear, and he tries not to grind his teeth too hard.

“Ring? Rong?” He stomps his foot. “Rung?”

“Hello!”

Starscream definitely does not yelp when he whirls. “Rung!”

“Hello,” the little mech repeats with a polite smile. He’s kind of cute, if you like smaller bots. “How may I assist you?”

“What’s going on?” Starscream demands.

“Unclear,” Rung says. “There appears to be a glitch in the neighborhood.”

Starscream takes a deep breath and tries to tamp down his frustration. “I can see that,” he says around gritted teeth. “Why isn’t it affecting me? Or you?”

“Unclear,” Rung repeats. “If I had to guess, and by guess I mean look at the most likely of over fifty-thousand possible causes and run a mathematical algorithm to find the most commonly occurring problem, I would say that the glitch is most likely caused by a virus, or an alien program. Something that’s not supposed to be here.”

The energon in Starscream’s veins runs cold. “Something that’s not supposed to… be here?”

“Or a virus. It’s possible that a trojan--”

Rightrightright , right, trojan, right,” Starscream says, biolights beginning to rocket heat back and forth over his plating in a way he does not enjoy. He bites down on a claw tip. “Rung. The face-plates that everyone has. Do you know how I could… get one of those? For me? For my face?”

There’s a soft chime. “Here you go,” Rung says, and holds up both his hands. Cupped between them, sure as day, is a full-face replacement plate. No nose, no mouth. It’s exactly Starscream’s size. Without thinking, Starscream snatches it up in both hands and tests it over his own plate. Perfect fit.

“You’re incredible,” he says, “but can you frag off?”

“Goodbye!” Rung replies, grinning. There’s a soft chime, and he’s gone.

“Starscream?” calls Ultra Magnus from a distance, and Starscream jumps, shoves the plate into his subspace (right next to all the pearls. He really needs to dump these somewhere). “Are you there? We need to take more permanent cover. It’s dangerous out here.”

“You are so right,” Starscream calls back, hands fumbling, “um, why don’t you go ahead? I’ll make sure people who are, um, further away know which direction to head in--if we’re both working on our own, the work will go faster.”

There’s a beat, and for a second, Starscream is panicked he’s said the wrong thing--until at last, at a significantly lower volume than before, “Sound logic, Starscream,” Magnus says, voice breathier than he anticipated it would be. “Very sound. I will find you at the apex, under the fourth volucite banner.”

“Uh,” Starscream says. “Right. Fourth… yes. Right.”

~~

Four rows back in a crowd of nervous milling residents, Starscream purses his lips under his false face.

Ultra Magnus had been so helpful in directing people towards Thunderclash’s palace (which is really the right word for it, and honestly, had he actually needed to take the time to direct people? Couldn’t they just use their eyes and look at the horizon, and head towards the eight billion turrets poking into the sky? ), that it had been… almost too easy.

“You know,” he says, running delicate fingers over his beautifully flat new face, “I bet it is a virus, like Rung keeps saying it might be. Someone probably passed it to me while I was... you know, touching them and, uh, making sure they were going in the right direction out there… I take it with pride, actually. Having your frame mutated may be repulsive, to some, but to me? It’s just proof that I did the right thing.” He nods as sagely as he can. Head tipped to one side, eyes almost shut--88% of the time, it works every time. He’s practiced it enough.

“I don’t think--” Magnus begins, but he’s interrupted by an excited little trill at the front of the room. Starscream rolls his eyes. There’s only one mech a voice like that can belong to.

“Look!” Thunderclash exclaims, turning to face the room at large. And he does face it--with something between shock and relief, Starscream realizes the flat mask is melting away like one of those thin energon globules at the super-fancy restaurants on TV where the waiter comes out and pours a different, hotter liquid energon over it to reveal that there’s another, separate, non-energon related desert. Only instead of another dessert, it’s his infuriatingly sculpted nose and perfect, full lips. “It’s going away! Perhaps that means this awful time of chaos and confusion is behind us!”

“Oh! Yes!” says Pharma. “Everyone, look at this! If it’s going away, that might mean that this whole event is close to being over!”

As if on cue, the rumbling of super-huge pearls hitting the several roofs of the palace shutters and quiets down.

Pharma sighs, brushes a hand over his cockpit with no small aura of relief. “It might be too early to say,” he says, “but I think the storm might be passing. Alright, first things first: Rung, what’s the extent of the damage look like?”

“The destruction is almost total. Only a few buildings were spared of major structural problems, and only the building we’re currently in has been entirely protected, presumably on account of its location, size, and defensive measures.” He smiles. “I have access to a clean data sweep of the neighborhood. By my estimates, it should take about six Rs to repair, clean, and maintain the city square until it’s back to its original form.”

Starscream slumps his shoulders unattractively. “Ugh,” he whispers, nudging Ultra Magnus, “did he just say six hours?

“He very clearly and distinctly said ‘six Rs’.”

“Oh.” He considers this. “What’s an R? Is that like an hour?”

“I would assume it’s some unit of time,” Magnus says, sounding more sure of himself than he can possibly feel. “It may be exclusive to the good place. Could be logical, if time moves differently here than on Cybertron.”

“What? That’s bullslag. Let’s just ask.” Starscream sizes up the crowd in front of them, pursing invisible lips. “You’ve got longer arms. I don’t think anyone up there’s gonna notice me waving like a schoolbot. You ask.”

Magnus considers Starscream, and considers the length of his arms. At first, Starscream thinks they’re going to get into an argument about the various heights of the bots between them and distance of Pharma and who could be seen over whose stupid ridiculous kibble, but after a moment, he swings his arm up over his head. Starscream has a moment of instant relief. Right, it’s not like Magnus is Thundercracker, he only gets into arguments about, like, morality and logic and stuff. Besides, he seems like kind of a good-intentioned, sweet, totally gullible mech who’d do anything to make his ‘sparkmate’ happy, like ask how long an R--

“Rung, is there anything we, as citizens of the good place, could do to assist you in this process?” Magnus says, and Starscream’s tank grinds with betrayal. “This is our home. I’m sure there are plenty of mechs here who would be willing to assist you in this task.”

“Great question. Yes, while assistance is no way asked of you or required, if you have the desire to do so, it would be a great help to mark the location of various destroyed buildings and call me to you. Because of my protocols, I can’t appear in multiple places at once unless I’m assisting residents of the neighborhood. But I can help all of you at once, as long as you ask me to repair the building for you.” He smiles. “Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“Yes. How long is an R?”

“Shorter than a B and longer than an i,” Rung says, “does that help?”

“Yes. Thank you.”

Rung’s chipper ‘you’re welcome!’ is drowned out both by the pump of Starscream’s fuel lines now roaring right in his audials, and by another round of unnecessary applause from Thunderclash.

“Oh, what a wonderful idea,” their host says, “of course, Hot Rod and I would be thrilled to help Rung as well. What a splendid team building activity, what a joy to have suggested it.”

After that, it’s just a fest of murmuring agreements and various residents raising their optical ridges at each other and saying well, if only I had thought of that, and smiling at Magnus or reaching forward as though to shake his hand before Starscream glares them off, the glow of his optics as bright and disrespectful as he can get them without burning himself. Next to him, Magnus’ own mask starts to melt away, revealing a stern--but ever so slightly upturned--smile.

And then people are pushing off in every direction. “I believe we should focus our efforts in the center of the town square,” Magnus says, as they walk back through the entrance of Thunderclash’s (unfairly, undeservedly) beautiful home. “It contains the majority of buildings, and they’re close together. We can begin there and proceed out along a grid.”

The lawn is pitted with craters, some of them still holstering the black heft of meteoric pearls, although a lot of the big round headaches just hit the ground and kept rolling downward. At the bottom of the hill there’s a pile of them lined up placidly against his front door like a queue to a concert.

“Uh, you know, actually,” Starscream says, “just because--you know, we’re here, and, um--well, I figured I’d go get Rung to clean up my house, just, while I’m on the way to the town square, otherwise we’re going to have to double all the way back up here to ask him about it later. Why don’t you go along to the square, and I’ll meet you there? Once all this broken glass is swept up.” He waves a hand towards his house, as if to indicate 1) how close it is and 2) that it’s a hazard, and made of broken glass.

Magnus gives him a deeply suspicious look. Starscream is… kind of offended. He hasn’t even done anything that bad yet, it’s not like Magsy really has the right to be judging him. He doesn't even know about the time that Starscream left to catch a match in the middle of a biochemistry conference and Skyfire had to give their joint presentation by himself.

“Very well,” he says, “I will… see you there.”

“In less than an R!” Starscream promises, smiling. “In an... i, in fact!”

 

 

Okay, okay. The relentlessly peppy, kitchy, condescending miasma of the good place has been starting to get at him like a scraplet in his knee servos, but—Primus he’ll take a squadron of these cookie cutter pricks any day if it means getting washracks like these.

The solvent is just cool enough to make his joints ease into something resembling relaxation for the first time since he woke up in this middle class wetware dream. The pressure is incredible, almost like having so many busy spa hands working over his armor. It smells incredible. There’s an oil tub . Starscream luxuriates in it for longer than strictly necessary, long after the dust and gravel of the morning’s chaos has all been chased out of his creases. He thinks about going for broke with the wax and polish, but he’s a little out of practice with the hard to reach spots. He hasn’t really done that for himself since he trined up with—

He turns off the solvent flow abruptly. He’ll just go to one of those detailing shops later. Yes. He wouldn’t want to come out streaky, not with all the endless prying optics in this place just waiting for him to slip up.

Damage control is well under way by the time he gets back up the stupid hill and into the city center, fresh and clean and reasonably shiny. He’s this close to just transforming and to the Pit with that hill, but he’s got these visions of scraping his undercarriage against the turf on the launch up and he can almost feel the way the pumice would grind off his topcoat.

Starscream saunters through the main quad and straight into the hard eye-contact of Ultra Magnus, who is holding up a doorway while the rest of the building resets brick by brick around him. His expression redefines “grim”.

“Starscream,” he says, coldly, and steps out from underneath the perfectly whole, neatly reassembled Frozen Yogurt place.

Starscream becomes aware that he is currently the shiniest person in the dusty bustle of the market.

“Good of you to join us,” Magnus says, flicking a mote of concrete from his shoulder. It bobs in mid-air and then zips back towards the building to join the rest of the masonry.

“Yes, well,” Starscream says, his processor running so many parallel programs that his cooling fans threaten to kick on. “I’ve just been over by the, in the gardens, you wouldn’t have seen me--”

If anything, Magnus’s expression becomes colder. “You abandoned your neighbors during a time of crisis in order to indulge your personal vanity.”

“I’m here now, aren’t I?” Starscream mutters. He crosses his arms across his chest. “It isn’t my fault that everyone else is so efficient.”

“You said that you would help, and then you did not,” Magnus rumbles. “I am familiar with the prevalence of seeker narcissism, but I expect you to rise above--”

Seeker narcissism ?” Starscream snarls. “ Seeker narcissism ? Do you realize that more bots of my frame type have died from mud in their tanks than relinquishment accidents and overdoses combined? We aren’t built to survive without maintenance!” He jabbed a finger at Magnus’s nose, venting steam. “If I don’t get these parts scrubbed I will literally fall apart! Seekers aren’t made to last!”

Magnus frowns at the claw tipped finger for a moment. “You were cold constructed?”

Starscream snatches his hand back against his chest. “How endearingly blunt of you,” he sneers. “Of course I was! Every seeker was! If you know enough to know about seeker narcissism, you ought to know that.”

“I’m... not sure where I heard that phrase,” Magnus says. He seems genuinely uncertain, his gaze defocusing as if he’s scouring his memory files for a match. Starscream eyes Magnus’s stoic bafflement. There’s one sure place where the usual stock of frame-type belittlements would definitely have come up. After that whole debacle last night, Magnus certainly doesn’t strike him as the type to watch a lot of fetishy cold-con porn, but you never know with people. One minute they’re fine and the next they’re asking if they can touch your casting seams.

Starscream relaxes marginally. Probably had a coworker with specific tastes. There aren’t really a lot of seekers left on Cybertron these days, but simvids live forever.

Either way, Magnus is losing steam, which means he’s on the offensive now, riding the updraft and ready to dive for the kill. He cocks a hip and says, “I’m so sorry that protecting my health and wellness came as such a blow to your reconstruction efforts. I can see that absolutely nothing was accomplished without my help today. Next time I will be sure to get a good long vent of concrete dust, and then when my t-cog ruptures you can bury me in the foundation of the yogurt shop, how does that sound?”

He stands there, triumphant, mouth pulled back over fangs, for a single glorious moment. And then Magnus furrows his brows. “But you’re already dead,” he says.

Starscream opens his mouth. The figurative firing pin drops.

“Slag,” he says.

His processor starts running trains of thought on parallel tracks. Magnus’ expression is no longer outright hostile, which is good, but he did very much just call Starscream out on doing something he wasn’t supposed to be doing and--because of the whole ‘dead’ thing--literally has no excuse for. Which is bad.

The tracks converge, and the trains crash into each other.

“Well, I--forgot. About that,” he says, because it’s true, “but I… I mean, afterlife or no, I don’t like getting dirty. It feels dangerous. Even if, uh, technically nothing here is dangerous.”

Magnus stares at him, brows still furrowed. “That is… I suppose I cannot entirely fault you,” he says after a moment. “I hadn’t considered your physiology.”

There’s this weird, deflated pause as they stand in the shadow of a once-ruined Yogurt shop, staring uncomfortably at each other. Starscream kind of wishes they were still fighting, and Magnus hadn’t brought up that whole awkward--but then, Magnus looks like he wishes they were still fighting, and Starscream hadn’t brought up that whole awkward--so, there. They’re stuck in this together.

Magnus shifts his weight from one pede to the other. “If my prying about the nature of your construction was inappropriate, I apologize. I had not considered---”

“S’okay. Don’t worry about it,” Starscream mutters, “you would’ve figured out sooner or later.”

“But that doesn’t make it--”

“I really don’t mind,” he lies. “Look, I’m--in light of your very true comments about how we’re dead and I can’t die from getting dirty, I’m sorry. Okay? And to prove it, I will... touch... some dusty things.” His nose wrinkles. “In the name of reparation.”

It doesn’t seem like the largest sacrifice in the world, now that he’s getting a good look at what ‘reparation’ looks like around here. It’s basically just mechs holding up pieces of wrecked buildings while Rung warps around and does everything else. He is part of this neighborhood, isn’t he? Or more, he is the neighborhood, or something like that. Starscream wasn’t actually paying attention. Point is, Rung seems to have this under control.

“You know what we should do,” Starscream says, turning back to Magnus, “you and I? We should actually do… like, a lunch thing. Get some coolant? A bunch of these wrecked buildings are actually nice, high end places, I could spend a few hours in one of these.”

There’s that cold look again. “There is still work to be done here, Starscream.”

“I meant after we singlehandedly do all the work to repair this place, top to bottom, saving it from its own destruction with our own two hands and our construction abilities,” he says, and rolls his eyes. “That should take, what, two hours? Rung’s really going for it over there. Come on. Lunch date. Me and you.” He pivots on his heel and just starts walking, which is how he’s won kind of a lot of arguments in his life. “See you there!”

True to form, Starscream makes it several blocks away, makes sure he’s totally out of sight, and then finds a cutesy wicker chair to sit down in and nods, approvingly, as other people get work done. After a moment, he picks up exactly one piece of rubble to hold up in case Magnus somehow rounds the corner to catch him doing nothing. Now no one can say he isn’t helping, right? He’s got a rock, and everything.

Starscream jolts awake some time later as someone unfamiliar touches his arm and immediately prompts his survival protocols to launch this convenient rock straight through their intake.

I’ve got a rock!” he shouts, and scrambles to his feet to get a look at his assailant.

“I... can see that,” Thunderclash says, and gives an awkward little laugh. Starscream, processor still scrambling, decides his best course of action is to laugh back. “Didn’t get too much sleep last night? Everything’s just about done here.”

“No, yeah, no, I...did. Not. Sleep much last night,” Starscream lies, gaze lashing out for anything he can catch. Next to Thunderclash, Hot Rod is also holding a piece of rubble--when he makes eye contact with Starscream, he drops it on the ground. “Must have been...nerves? Yes, nerves. Sorry to say I, uh, probably didn’t help too much. But you must have done a lot. Look at how dirty you two are. So official! So cute.

Thunderclash pulls Hot Rod against his side with a cloyingly playful squeeze. “We’re so glad to have been of service,” Thunderclash says, as Hot Rod kind of… limply leans away from the arm around his middle. “I hope all of this messiness is behind us now! Poor Pharma, he does try so hard.”

“Couldn’t happen to a nicer mech,” Starscream mutters.

Across the quad, Pharma is directing Rung as the AI pieces back together the shattered remains of the last decorative fountain with little more than the flick of his fingers. Rung doesn’t seem like he really needs directing. If this place is made of him, or whatever, he probably knows how to rearrange the rubble better than Primus’s glorified HR minion does.

Hot Rod stiffens as Thunderclash seems to squeeze him a little more tightly without noticing it. The big mech’s optics are following Pharma with a kind of single minded focus, something far away, as if Pharma is the lone player in some holovid only Thunderclash can see.

“It does worry me that he doesn’t seem to know the source of the glitch,” Thunderclash says. There’s a tightness in his voice that… Starscream doesn’t think he’s heard before. It’s barely there, but it lights up the back of Starscream’s processor like a klaxon in a windowless vessel. “I wonder what the cause is.”

Hot Rod gives a little wriggle, and suddenly Thunderclash seems to realize what he’s doing. He snatches his arm away, apologetically, and Hot Rod skitters a couple feet back on the pavement.

Starscream’s gaze flickers rapidly between them. A thought is blooming in him like a crystal growing in fast motion and it feels like safety, it feels like the hot yellow promise of daylight after the dull claustrophobia of the underground.

“I wonder about that too ,” Starscream says. “I wonder if Roddy here has any ideas about it.”

The problem with Hot Rod’s face is that it’s stubbornly resistant at doing anything a face is supposed to do. Starscream’s known his share of mask-and-intake bots—it’s a popular look for disposables, even the forged ones, and there were always disposables in the Shades—but Hot Rod’s whole… look, whatever, is a different heap of scrap entirely. The eyes barely move. It’s just a lot of fancy paint and eyelids , which are uncommon enough to make anyone a little uneasy with them. Why the pit he couldn’t just have glass pane optics like everyone else—

Think about it,” Starscream purrs. “He’s the only one in the neighborhood without an intake or anything. Almost like an empuratee. Do we really know anything about Caminus? Do we know what they do to criminals?”

Oh—he may have written Roddy off too soon. His face might be a dead blank canvas, but his body language is surprisingly expressive. His fists clench at his sides, his pedes dig into the ground with a low grind. Is he shifting his stance?

“Are we really sure that Hot Rod belongs here?” Starscream says, leaning in conspiratorially. “Like the rest of us do?”

Thunderclash opens his mouth. He closes it. He looks from Starscream to Hot Rod, who is almost rattling with suppressed rage, despite his perpetually smooth, serene faceplate. Starscream gives him a winning smile.

“Ah,” Thunderclash says. All at once he relaxes, and he returns Starscream’s smile with one of his own, although this one is so patronizing that condescension just about condensates on it. “I understand you’re frightened. You want the best for this neighborhood, as do we all. But Hot Rod earned his points the same as you did. Why, he belongs here as much as any of us!”

For some reason, Roddy doesn’t seem to find that particularly reassuring. There’s a vicious little burst of pleasure at the bottom of Starscream’s spark, because Hot Rod clearly knows the same thing he knows—once you’ve put an idea into someone’s processor, nothing short of mnemosurgery can take it back.

“Of course,” Starscream says, shifting back. “My apologies. I shouldn’t let my suspicion subroutines get away from me like that.”

Thunderclash settles a big, heavy hand on both of their shoulders, and both Hot Rod and Starscream flinch at the same time. “You know, Starscream,” Thunderclash says, “you and I haven’t spent any time at all here together yet! It’s understandable that you’d like to get to know me. Why don’t we set up a little one on one time at the race tracks?”

Starscream’s wings twitch in their housing. This self-obsessed gearstick actually thinks— “Of course,” he says, still baring his denta, but he can feel the edges of his smile going brittle.

“Let’s make it tomorrow night!” the garish fragger says, beaming at Starscream. “Maybe Hot Rod and your Magnus would like to become better acquainted as well! He seems a very noble, calm soul. I’m sure Hot Rod would be delighted. Wouldn’t you, sweetspark?”

Starscream’s gaze catches on Hot Rod. He’s got a good paint job. Attractive kibble. Something about his aura indicates that if he had a smile, it would be both understated and stunning. He’s absolutely the picture of a racer crowd darling.

His HUD pings him. ‘ Engage combat protocol [Y/N]?’ Quickly, he dismisses it, reinforcing his grin. “Obviously, that’s no problem,” he says. His jaw hurts with the effort of smiling. “I’m sure Magsy would just love to hang out with someone so... calm and noble. Only if you want to, of course!”

There’s a moment of perfect stillness, and then Hot Rod gives a slow, almost hesitant nod.

Engage combat protocol [Y/N]?’

Starscream keeps his smile on, even as he closes the prompt three successive times.

“Well there you have it!” Thunderclash says. He claps Starscream once on the back and Starscream stumbles, wings stinging, leaning into the shove just to get out of range of those huge hands again.

Once he's got a little space, he rights himself and brushes his wings off. “What fun,” he says, and manually disengages the targeting system that has decided Thunderclash is now a better place than Hot Rod’s chic shiny face to rehome a null-ray. “I’ll just go let him know what we have planned for him. I’m sure he loves surprises. He seems the type.”

As he extricates himself socially from the slag pit that is the Dream Duo, Starscream takes note of the fact that--except for the blinking--Hot Rod has not taken his eyes off him this entire conversation. In fact, he still feels Hot Rod’s gaze on his back as he skitters through the market square in search of Magnus, who might make him hold more rocks but at least won’t blink at him with those horrible eyelids.

 

 

Ultra Magnus couldn’t look more uncomfortable if he tried. It isn’t entirely his fault; the table and chair, while the perfect size for Starscream, are just a shade too small for a mech of his size, and he has to hunch in on himself in order to fit. Most of it, though, is a prison of his own making. He frowns in distaste at the menu, clearly reading through the long lists of ingredients in the dozens of dishes, then looks around.

“Shouldn’t someone have come to get us drinks by now?” he asks, and Starscream fights the urge to roll his eyes.

“This isn’t a diner,” Starscream says, lips curling around the word in vague disgust. “It’s a cafe. We’re here for the ambience. Relax, you might enjoy yourself.”

He smiles, aiming for soft and pretty, and Magnus blinks like he’s trying to figure out if he should be insulted. If he is, he doesn’t deign it with a response. He looks back at the menu, and the distasteful expression returns.

“Do they have just coolant here?”

This time Starscream can’t contain his eye roll. “ Darling,” he says, “you can’t just come to a place like this and order coolant. I mean you could, but what’s the point? Here.”

He stretches up over the little table to read Magnus’s menu upside down. He doesn’t know a lot about Ultra Magnus yet, but he knows the guy’s uptight, and more importantly, Starscream knows how swanky bots like him think.

“Try this one.” Starscream taps the tip of a claw on a picture of a bright blue concoction. It’s mostly antifreeze, but there’s coolant in it, the big guy can’t protest that much. Ultra Magnus purses his lips.

“I don’t know,” he says. “It seems a bit excessive.”

Starscream slumps back in his chair and drags a hand down his face. Primus help him, he has the most dense fake sparkmate.

“Magsy,” he starts.

“I told you not to call me that.”

“Ultra Magnus, sparkmate of mine, we’re in the afterlife. Heaven. The good place. Whatever. You’re allowed to enjoy yourself.”

Magnus makes a face like he’s thinking about arguing, and in a flash of inspiration, Starscream hooks both of his ankles around one of Ultra Magnus’s huge ones. Whatever argument Magnus was going to make dies before it leaves his mouth as Starscream gives him the most simperingly-pleading-yet-genuine look he can muster.

“Please?” he asks, and he can feel his victory before Magnus sets down the menu with a fond but exasperated: “fine.”

As if on cue, or as if watching from a safe distance, a luridly green and orange minibot with a notebook and a wide smile appears next to their table almost as suddenly as Rang. Rung. Whatever.

“What can I get you two sweetsparks to drink?” the minibot asks, and Starscream dearly wants to test Pharma’s assurance that no one can get hurt here.

Instead, he smiles, the sort of vacantly polite smile that he’d seen turned on staff at nice places like this and never on himself, and places their orders. Both of them, because he desperately needs to win some points back in his favor. He says please and thank you and everything.

“Wonderful!” chirps the waiter, and turns to Ultra Magnus. “Would you like cobalt shavings in your antifreeze?”

“Oh, um-”

“Of course!” Starscream interrupts before he can finish his refusal. Magnus gives him a sidelong look but doesn’t argue, and Starscream chalks it up as a victory. The waiter promises to bring their drinks right out and disappears back into the kitchens so quickly that Starscream can see the negative after image of that Pit damned paint job burned into his optics. He turns to see Ultra Magnus staring at him.

“You’ll like the cobalt, I promise,” Starscream says.

“It ruins the integrity of the compound,” he says stiffly.

Starscream lets out a helpless laugh. “It’s just antifreeze, it doesn’t have integrity. We’re trying to get you to have fun, remember?”

“Is that what we’re doing?” Ultra Magnus asks, voice going a little cold, and Starscream winces internally. Right. He’s still mad at him about earlier. “I thought we were trying to clean up after this morning’s disaster.”

“We are!” Starscream says quickly. “And we did! But you can have fun too. What do you think caused that anyway?”

It’s a pitifully obvious subject change, and Magnus doesn’t seem too keen on indulging it. “Starscream-”

“I think it was Thunderclash’s sparkmate,” Starscream bulldozes on. “Hot Rod, or whatever. I mean, everyone’s face was just like his. And his house was the only one that didn’t take any damage! Maybe he’s the trojan.”

He’s aware that he doesn’t actually need to lay this groundwork with Magnus, who doesn’t seem particularly curious about anything and would probably be happy to stand at attention for the next several vorns watching the crystals grow if Pharma suggested they needed a firm hand, but there’s an itch at the back of his processor that won’t quiet down until he’s made absolutely certain the finger of suspicion is pointed well away from him.

Magnus’s frown deepens. “Hot Rod is a monk. He has earned his place here just as much as the rest of us.”

Not all of us, Starscream thinks. As much as he tries to keep his expression neutral, something on his face makes Magnus’s frown soften.

“If our goal for this venture is... enjoyment,” Magnus says, “I believe this is the wrong subject.”

“Probably,” Starscream says. Why couldn’t this place be full of normal people? He used to spend hours with Thundercracker and Skywarp just talking about one of their regulars’ new paint job. The chaos from this morning would’ve kept them going for days.

“What’s wrong?” Magnus asks, and Starscream remembers that for however gullible he is, he was also a lawyer. Just his fragging luck.

Starscream vents heavily. “I just want this to go right,” he says, gesturing between them, “but I keep messing up. I keep putting my pede in my mouth, and I never know when I do until you’re giving me that look.

It’s a surprisingly honest answer, as close to honest as Starscream’s been probably since he got here, and it does the trick. Magnus’s frown vanishes completely, replaced by a soft, soppy look. He leans forward, and Starscream belatedly realizes he never unhooked his ankles from Magnus’s leg.

“I understand the transition has been difficult,” he says, with so much naked earnesty that Starscream almost feels bad. “Your effort is all I ask. The rest will come with time.”

Starscream looks away and clears his throat, saved from having to answer by the waiter returning with a tray with two sickeningly adorable cups. The effect is probably supposed to be romantic, but the effect shoots right past sweet to the point of caricature. Still, Starscream will give credit where it’s due: the waiter doesn’t spill a drop as he sets the saucers with their drinks, full to the brim, on the table. Magnus’s drink fizzes softly with something other than just cobalt shavings, and Magnus eyes it suspiciously. Far be it for Starscream to call anyone paranoid, but seriously. They’re in the good place.

The waiter leaves, and Starscream is about to sip his own drink (nicer oil than he ever had on Cybertron, with magnesium flakes) when Magnus lifts his cup. With the saucer still on the table.

“No, no, stop,” Starscream says, setting his saucer and cup back on the table. Magnus pauses. “You’re supposed to hold the saucer under your cup.”

“Why?”

“So you don’t dribble on the table cloth,” Starscream says with only a little exaggerated slowness. “Like you’re about to.”

Magnus barely avoids spilling, and picks up the saucer. He’s holding it far too close to the cup, nearly knocking them together, and Starscream wants to bury his face in his hands. Instead he watches the look of surprised delight, or as close to it as a mech so unrepentantly serious as Ultra Magnus gets. It’s sort of adorable.

“Told you so,” Starscream says smugly, and takes a sip of his own drink. The magnesium adds just a hint of spice that sends warmth curling through him. “I can’t believe you didn’t know how to use a saucer. Look at you, you’re hopeless, it’s darling. Aren’t fancy lawyers like you supposed to know this stuff?”

“I didn’t go out much,” Magnus admits, looking embarrassed. He sets the saucer back on the table, then the cup on the saucer, and gives the set a look. “Is it a standard redundancy to have a smaller plate for your cup?”

“I just told you it’s for spills,” Starscream says and sets his cup back on the saucer, then as an afterthought adds, “And it makes a very satisfying clink.”

Something like amusement glints in Magnus’s eyes, and his mouth twitches. “How do you know so much about this? I thought you were a philanthropist.”

Starscream stares down at his cup and purses his lips, mind racing. He’d known he’d have to talk about himself at some point, but he doesn’t have to like it. He unhooks his ankles from Magnus’s leg.

“I was,” he says, “but you can’t do scientific philanthropy without funding. This was my life back on Cybertron. Bowing and scraping and smiling at bots who wouldn’t give me the time of day if I didn’t meet their impossible standards. I got good at it.”

“Oh.” Magnus looks abashed. “I didn’t know.”

“Yeah, well,” Starscream shrugs. “I got used to it. Cold cons have to be twice as good to get half of what forged bots do. Doubly for fliers.”

Magnus looks anguished. “You shouldn’t have had to get used to it.”

“It doesn’t matter now,” Starscream says. “I’m dead, and everyone here is too polite to say anything about me.”

He takes a sip of his drink and lets the warmth run through him. That had been uncomfortably personal, too close to sincerity for his tastes.

Small mercies, Magnus seems equally eager to drop the subject for something lighter, and they end up spending the next hour talking about restaurants they’ve been to. Starscream’s list is far longer, but, as Starscream finds out in between ordering food and more drinks and their arrival, Magnus’s is much more impressive. Starscream is practically drooling with envy. He would have given Skywarp’s left arm for reservations at the Orbiting Cirque.

By the time they’re both done eating and the sun is setting outside the window, Starscream feels like he’s making progress with Ultra Magnus for the first time since meeting the big mech. Took him long enough to get his takeoff stabilized.

“So,” he says, running his pede slowly up Magnus’s leg, “ready to get out of here?”

Magnus’s contented expression falters, and Starscream’s spark sinks. He fragged it up again.

“Starscream,” Magnus says, reaching across the table and taking one of Starscream’s hands in both of his own. He doesn’t look disappointed or annoyed. Just sad. “I can’t imagine how your life on Cybertron was, but things are different here. You don’t owe me anything. You don’t have to prove yourself to me. You’re my sparkmate, and I’ll be loyal and faithful to you for eternity. You are required to give nothing.”

It’s incredible, really, how quickly Starscream went from having control of the situation to having his footing ripped out from under him. His spark feels tight in its casing, fragile. He hates the feeling of weakness almost more than he hates the way Magnus must be able to feel the trembling of his trapped hand. The three attempts at rebooting his vocalizer before he can speak are not an act.

“That,” he says, “was like staring into the sun.”

It’s an odd thing to say, with no logic behind it, but if it confuses Magnus, he doesn’t show it. He seems placated, even, and when they leave together (without paying, that’s a thrill even though there’s no money in the good place), Starscream allows him to twine their fingers together.

Officially, they’re supposed to be walking home. They stop in the town square. They stop by the fountain. They stop in the garden, watching the zirconian crystals flare as the light on the horizon dims, dipping the evening into a soft purple glow. Under their pedes, the sheen of black obsidian blooms with starbursts of blue light where they touch it. The lights glow as softly as though they were deep within the rock and glistening like they were protected under glass. They burst up quickly under each step, and slowly melt away as they’re left behind.

Twice, Starscream has to remind himself of his manners and snatch his hand back as it reaches out to touch the long strands of pink diamond that web back and forth in a net around intricate amethyst carvings. He raises the intensity of his optics to stare at the fine details of a chalcedony bubble-structure--then he lowers it to reduce the glare on the glittering blue opal raindrops, hanging airborne off bushes. A voice in his processor that he remembers from somewhere reminds him indignantly that ‘ beauty is the worthless cross-section of expensive vanity and pacifying showmanship ’, and he tells it to shut up and let him look at the mesolite blooms springing up from the cracks in the tiger jasper.

Twice, Starscream glances at his companion to catch him staring back at him. Each time, Magnus quickly and awkwardly turns away, like he’s been caught out.

After the second time, Starscream says, a little sadly, “I guess we should go. It’s getting late. I think.”

“It is hard to tell,” Magnus agrees, “but if you want to stay a little longer, I am of course willing to accomodate you.”

“Hm? Oh. No, this must be boring for you. Besides, it’ll be here for eternity. I don’t need to see all of it at once.”

“What makes you think I’m bored?”

Starscream shrugs. “You’re not exactly admiring the sculptures.”

“No,” Magnus admits, “I’ve been admiring something else.”

Wh-

Starscream feels his biolights flare with heat, his optics burning in their sockets, and he turns suddenly to make eye contact with Magnus, who looks surprisingly un flustered and kind of handsome and smug about it. “I-” he manages--then, fully aware that the headlight-glare he’s currently turning on his fake-sparkmate is either blinding or a dead giveaway, turns his face the other way. He brings up one hand against his cheek to protect himself from Magnus’ gaze.

Get the ground under yourself, he thinks viciously, stop flaring up every time he says something mildly flirtatious! I love fake people, I love drama, I love games--

He sucks a vent in and cycles cool air through his tank. His biolights won’t go down, but he can dim his optics manually, and he turns back to smile at Magnus. “Wow,” he says, and laughs breathlessly, “you’re kind of smooth, Mags. Are you going to write me a sonnet, wordsmith?”

Magnus clears his intake uncomfortably. "It's Ultra Magnus," he says. He still looks utterly shifty.

"Can you write me a sonnet?" Starscream asks, with dawning delight. "You weren't satisfied with being a cop and a lawyer, eh? You had to take up poetry too?"

“I’ve… dabbled,” he concedes with a shrug. He looks a little light-flushed himself, like he’s admitting to some dark secret. Starscream thought fancy upper class types were all supposed to be lavish purveyors of art--well, maybe it’s a different thing to patronize it than to do the dirty work yourself.

Magnus steadies himself. “I promise, as long as you wish to stay, I shall be perfectly diverted.”

Diverted, huh.

Starscream glances around the various pathways and clearings. The garden really is huge, spiralling and sprawling in every direction. Surely there’s at least one--oh, there. He points, and sends a smile with just a glimpse of teeth in Magnus’ direction. “I’m going to go sit down on that bench over there,” he says, “you’re more than welcome to join me.”

“By all means,” Magnus says, and offers an elbow, “allow me to escort you.”

The bench is basically perfectly designed. It’s right in the middle of a grove, with tall branches and growths all around it to shield it from view, and it’s slightly too small to sit apart from one another on. By design, they press into each other.

“I think this bench is too small,” Magnus says, “perhaps I should stand.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Starscream replies, “it’s because your arm is between us. Put it around me.”

He glances up at Magnus as a hand settles awkwardly over his wings, half-expecting to get another face full of adoring stare. Instead, he catches him staring up directly overhead. Starscream follows his gaze.

Far from each other, the two moons are both huge and full on either side of the horizon. As the dark of the night descends, the sky lights up with a half-trillion stars, clustered here and there in swirling patterns or scattered thickly through the navy-black velvet of the evening. “They’re beautiful,” he says, because it’s the sort of thing you’re supposed to say about the stars. Honestly, they just remind him of interstellar travel, which tends to be long and boring. And lonely. And cold.

“They’re different from the ones back home,” Magnus says, “they look like they’ve just been arranged for some aesthetic purpose. I don’t suppose they’re real--surely Pharma designed them to put us at ease.”

Starscream considers admitting that he wouldn’t know--he barely ever saw the evening sky back on Cybertron, spent most of his nights in the murky underground of Iacon once his exploring days were finally behind him--but decides on a different tack. “This is home now,” he says gently, pressing a servo into Magnus’ chassis. “There’s no going back. I know you miss Cybertron--”

“I’m hardly so sentimental,” Magnus says, maybe a little too quickly.

“--I miss it, too,” Starscream lies, “but I’m here with you. We’re here, together. This place existing is the only reason we found each other at all. Give it that much credit.”

It’s a good bit. A really good bit. Starscream doesn’t shutter his optics or purse his lips or get his glossa involved or anything to undermine it--it’s enough that it’s quiet and almost husky. And that they’re so close to each other.

Magnus is attractive. Especially this close, with his optics slightly too bright, their shutters blown wide. He’s got a heady scent around him, like coolant and iron, slightly burnt like his engine is running too hot. This won't be so bad.

Starscream tips his head just slightly, dims his optics, and leans a fraction forward--

Magnus jerks back like he’s been struck, arm recoiling from its place around Starscream’s shoulders. Before Starscream can get his balance back, he’s on his pedes, fans venting, biolights thrumming in unfamiliar patterns. “Allow me, to,” Magnus says, the words stumbling over themselves as Starscream stares up at him from his (now very lonely) seat on the bench, “that is, you are correct, it is late. Please, allow me to walk you home.”

“I,” Starscream says, brow furrowing, “sure, okay.”

The worst part is, Starscream muses as he takes Magnus’ elbow once again and allows himself to be led back towards the city square, he doesn’t even know what he did wrong. It was basically natural--he was only faking, like, 25% of that. Maybe less. And right up until he tried to kiss him, everything was going fine.

And it was only a kiss. It’s not like he tried to crawl on Magnus’ lap and have him right there, or stuck a glossa in his cables or anything. He wasn’t even gross about it. It felt natural. Was the evening light bad for his shading? Was he streaky somewhere from his morning wash, somehow, and no one told him?

If it bothers Magnus that Starscream doesn’t say anything the whole walk home, he certainly doesn’t mention it. Or anything else. They make it back to the awful glass prison at the bottom of the hill in total silence.

“You know, I don’t normally do this,” he half-jokes as Magnus lets go of him, desperate to break the silence in any way he can, “but do you want to come in for some coolant?”

Magnus’ brow furrows. “We’ve just had some,” he says.

Starscream turns his optics. He shutters them once, then smiles. “Goodnight, Magnus,” he says, “I’ll see you whenever tomorrow is.”

He’s only a little ashamed to admit that he watches Magnus go, through the glass of his stupid walls. But if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have seen Magnus storm up the hill, fists clenched, shaking his head, and hit himself directly in the forehead with his palm at the very top of the ridge.

Which makes him feel a little better.

 

 

The first thing Starscream does, when he wakes up, is to wriggle deeper under the covers on his berth, to block out the miserable sunlight bearing down on him from every angle. The second thing he does is try to curse. It’s cutesy and adorable. He hates it.

Thirdly, in a panic, he throws his covers off and pats himself to double check that he’s still here, and in one piece. A cursory glance to literally any wall in this stupid house guarantees him that he’s still in the good place, and that there’s no chaos raining down from the sky. So that’s all...good.

Magnus isn’t here yet. It occurs to Starscream that they never actually agreed on a time to meet, or a place. Maybe Starscream should go see him, at his house? Apartment? He actually has no idea where Magnus lives. He could probably ask Rung. After he gets some fuel.

Or maybe some engex. He hasn’t had a hard drink in, what, a whole day? That’s longer without straining his FIM chip than he’s gone in at least a thousand stellar cycles. Surely Magnus wouldn’t hold it against him, and maybe it’d give him the courage to ask why he got so cold and iffy last night.

With a plan fully formulated, Starscream heads towards the door, feeling upbeat and ready to get into a fight. And stops.

There’s a piece of paper on the step just outside. A cursory glance to either side of the house reveals no potential perpetrator, leaving him to just pick it up and flip it over.

You don’t belong here, it says.

 

Chapter Text

You don’t belong here.  

Although he is alone in the gilded cell of his new home, Starscream can still feel the weight of an arm--heavy, armored, unwelcome--wrapping around his shoulders, trapping his wings. Can still hear a quartet of ringing mandolins and stemware imitating the ethereal motions of the seven celestial spheres. Sparkling wine and sparkling glass and a thousand glances thrown his way. A pretty grounder, slim and chic, bringing him close with an arm on his elbow and leaning against his audial. “Why are you here, seeker? You don’t belong here.”

The note stares accusingly up from his hands.

He could boil over. A thousand microcosms, a thousand little parties and gatherings and events until his corpse was literally in the smelter, broken down for spare parts, and nothing has ever changed. He’s still out. His processor is running hot, and he clutches at his helm in pain as it burns against his casing.

The good place. The good place! He’s literally in robot heaven and he’s still not good enough! Starscream vents, hard, and clutches at his turbines. He needs to stay calm. “Don’t belong here,” he mutters, “don’t belong… in the good place, obviously. Who would…”

There’s someone. There’s a perpetrator somewhere. He vents, in and out. His processor starts to slow and cool. That’s right, this is someone’s fault. He’s being attacked, here. There’s nothing like a little time playing the blame game to bring him back to center. Someone might be attacking him, but this time he can do something about it.

He vents deep. “I love fake people, I love games, I love drama,” he mutters to himself, “music means nothing to me…”

Ultra Magnus, he thinks, wings so flared in rage that the joints ache. Sneaky fragging lawyer must have figured it out. That was why he didn’t kiss him last night; Starscream’s performance was fine.

Still, something keeps niggling the back of his processor. Something’s not right here, beyond the obvious. Magnus isn’t the type to leave a note and watch a mech squirm. He isn’t cruel, unless he’s a far better actor than Starscream’s been giving him credit for. More likely to just go straight to Pharma and let him do the dirty work.

Besides, if Magnus was going to leave him a threatening note, it would probably be itemized or--notarized, or something.

Starscream looks at the note crumpled in his hands. Only one way to find out. He needs a handwriting sample, and a mech as uptight as Magnus must’ve written something down by now.

 

 

 

It takes longer than Starscream thought it would to find Magnus’ apartment--and it is an apartment, not a house, which takes him a little by surprise. You’d think he’d want something big for a big frame. Maybe that’s why he’s never home, always hanging out around town. He actually should ask Rung.

While he’s storming up the stairs to the fourth floor (why aren’t there elevators in paradise?), he’s formulating a plan. Step one: invite himself in. Step two: get him to write something down. Step three: crow victory or grovel for forgiveness, depending.

He throws the door open, note clutched in one hand, and sees Magnus sitting by the window, reading something on a datapad, wearing optical augmentors. Which would be cute, if he wasn’t currently furious.

“Starscream,” Magnus says, “what a surprise. I thought we were going to meet in the--”

“Yeah, of course, the thing,” Starscream says, waving a hand in the air like he’s brushing away a bug in his face, “actually, can we scrap that for a moment and talk about--you write poetry! And that’s interesting. I wonder if I could see some, maybe right now?”

Magnus’ biolights flare dramatically. He stands, setting aside his reading materials, not quite looking at Starscream. “That work is--personal,” he mutters, “I have no doubt you would find it inadequate. What about the works of Phoros? I think his lyricism may appeal to you.”

“Oh, lyricism,” Starscream says. “Forget that. I want to see your writing! In fact, the more raw the better! Maybe you have some scribbles lying around, rough drafts, notes?”

Magnus creaks like he’s straining against stasis cuffs, and says, “No, no I—perhaps I could show you some of the works that influenced me. Milli Ton, or The Voice Of—”

“This isn’t about poetry, Magnus,” Starscream snaps, trying to sound like he’s not losing it, “I want to see a sample of your handwriting. Maybe a—checkbook, or—no, it’s the good place. What about—”

“Why would you want to see my handwriting?” Magnus asks, baffled. “I mean, I was awarded several honors in my schooling for neatness, but I hardly think—”

“Did you write this?” Starscream snaps, shoving the note up into Magnus’ face.

“I don’t understand,” Magnus says, still sounding reasonable, “what are you—”

Did you write this,” Starscream repeats, panic rising, “yes or no, Magnus!”

Magnus pauses. He gently takes the note out of Starscream’s hands and looks down at it, optics focusing. He frowns. “What is this?” he asks. “No, I didn’t write this. Where did you--”

“Your handwriting,” Starscream interrupts, “I want to see a sample of your handwriting.”

“Starscream, stop,” Magnus says. He grabs Starscream by his shoulders and holds him steady, staring down at him with those soft blue eyes. His field radiates concern. “Calm down. You’re being hysterical.”

Starscream glares back up. “I am not,” he snarls, “being hysterical! I am being perfectly within my rights by wanting to know who would leave this on my door! And you’re the only one who knows anything about me.”

The big lug looks shocked. Maybe a little hurt. “Someone did this? This is the good place. It must have been a mistake.” He shakes his head. “Starscream, I know you’re upset. But you do belong here. With me.”

No, I don’t,” he snarls, “I am a mistake! This was a mistake! I should not be here!”

As it comes out of his mouth, he tries to reach out and catch it--take it back--but it’s too late. The confession tumbles out all over Magnus’ chest.

“What are you talking about?”

“I mean, I’m not supposed to be here,” Starscream repeats, slowly, as though talking to an imbecile. He thought this would feel awful--he hates being honest, even when it makes him look good--but instead he feels so incredibly relieved. “There’s been some mistake. I’m not a good person. Well, I mean--I’m kind of a good person, I’m not--there are definitely people worse than me, is all I’m saying.”

“Starscream, you think so little of yourself. Have a little more faith in--”

“This is not a faith thing!” Starscream shoves Magnus’ hands off his shoulders. “The house Pharma assigned me? I hate. The memories that are always playing on that video screen that like, rarely ever turns off? They’re not mine. I’ve never been a philanthropist! I’ve never helped organics on off-world expeditions. I like opera! I’m not a good person. There’s been a mistake. I’m not being modest, Magnus. I’m not supposed to be here.” He waggles the note. “And somebody knows.”

Starscream stares at Magnus, feeling breathless. Magnus doesn’t stare back.

There’s a heavy, awkward pause.

Magnus is staring at the ground. “So everything you told me was a lie.”

He startles. Oh no, back up, back up. “No! Not everything! Just all the stuff that made me, you know, look good. You know, most convincing lies are based primarily on truth--”

“You have done nothing but lie to me, and to everyone else, for the entirety of your stay here,” Magnus repeats, voice rising, “not only have you made a fool of me and of everyone who has treated you with honesty, respect, and kindness, you have also personally contributed to the unmaking of this neighborhood, the destruction of which everyone else has taken care of for you.” He takes a step forward, and Starscream stumbles back.

“What? No!” The transformation seams in his arms clatter--as his back bumps into the door, he raises both null rays in terrified desperation. “Don’t come any closer! I…”

Magnus stops, shocked. Then, as quickly as he had approached, he turns a shoulder and looks away. “I’m not going to hurt you,” he says in that same quiet, spooked animal voice of the past few days--but then, stronger, “I will report to Pharma what you have told me. He is the authority on such matters, and will handle you himself.”

Starscream splutters. “You’re going to turn me in?” he quails (why not? If Magnus reacted to fear when it was genuine, he may as well keep putting it on after the danger is gone. His hands remain firmly locked and loaded). “But...what about your promise?”

He pauses. Glances back over his shoulder. “I made no promise to you,” he says, uncertainly. Starscream scowls.

“Really? ‘I’ll be loyal and faithful to you for all eternity’--sounds like a promise to me,” he sneers, “or do you only keep the promises that are convenient to you, and forget all the rest? I have to admit, I’m surprised. You didn’t seem the type.”

The glow of Magnus’s optics blinks once, twice, before his eyes go cold. “I made that promise to my sparkmate,” he says coolly, and Starscream winces like he’s been slapped. He feels like he’s been slapped. “Now, if you would prefer to tell him yourself, I will, of course, escort you to his office. Otherwise, I must ask you to step out of my way.” He stares pointedly. “You are blocking the door.”

Starscream stares down at his own pedes and dims his optics miserably. He has nothing. He has no plan. After a moment, he takes a step to the side.

Wait.

“Wait,” he says, as Magnus’ hand hits the doorknob.

“Starscream--”

“Magnus,” he replies, spark surging, “what if--I am your sparkmate?”

Ultra Magnus pauses, frozen in place. One hand rests on the doorknob. Inside his tank, Starscream feels something lift--he’s got something, he’s got a thread. It’s time to pull.

“Think about it,” he continues, voice starting to pick up the pace, “Pharma says this whole place runs on a perfect system, right? How could someone who doesn’t belong end up in the good place if the system is perfect? What if--what if it’s because of you?” Dramatically, he reaches forward, touches feather-light fingers to his chassis. “You--you’re an amazing person,” he breathes, biting his lip, “and this is supposed to be your paradise. Any perfect paradise would have the perfect sparkmate to complete it. If I’m your sparkmate, maybe the system brought me here for you, and--made up a whole bunch of data to support the glitch! It happens with computer systems all the time.”

He pauses for a moment. Come to think of it, maybe that is why he’s here. And maybe he’s not the only glitch. It would certainly explain Thunderclash.

“It would certainly explain why my score was so high in the system,” he adds, holding up a finger and shaking it slowly for the full, working-it-out effect, like Skywarp does when he’s orchestrating and a musical line isn’t quite right, “if it’s generating random information, it wouldn’t factor in negatives. It’s probably not counting any of my real actions on Cybertron. It’s just…dummy positives.”

Magnus lets go of the doorknob, which is a step in the right direction, but he doesn’t move away from the door entirely, so this could be going better. “That’s all assuming that you are my sparkmate, and that you’re not lying to me, as you just informed me you have been for the past two days,” he says. Starscream feels his face fall.

“Don’t you know why I just came clean about everything? I feel awful lying to you,” he lies. “I’m not… asking you to be in love with me, okay? I’m not even--I’ll be honest, I don’t even want to know what you think of me right now, because it’s probably awful and… you’re probably right. But I know how I feel about you. I’ve never…” careful, here. Delicate touches are key. He looks away, presses his finger to his mouth like he’s collecting himself. “I mean… I’ve never met anyone like you before,” he says, hushed, “I’ve known you for two days and I’m literally putting my life in your hands, here! Er, my afterlife, anyway. I’ve never trusted anyone like I trust you.

When he looks up at Magnus, the big mech’s eyes are glistening like distant constellations. “I,” he says, voice thick with static, and there’s the soft sound of his voice box rebooting. “Excuse me. I believe that…you believe that you are my sparkmate.”

“Oh,” Starscream sighs, and leans his head against Magnus’ chassis in relief, ignoring the twitch as he startles, “Magnus, you don’t know what that means to me.”

“I also believe your theory holds some weight,” he adds. “Pharma’s neighborhood has had small errors, here and there, since we first arrived. It doesn’t seem impossible that larger issues may have slipped through, especially, as you say, in cases of conflicting priorities. The two of us will go to his office and ask him how this could have happened.”

Starscream jerks back as the other pede drops. “What?” he says, maybe a little too loudly. “But--I thought you said you wouldn’t hurt me!”

“I’m--not,” Magnus replies, looking confused.

“No, you’re just letting someone else hurt me instead,” he snaps, “giving it away to whoever else is around, huh?”

It hits Magnus all at once--his eyes go wide, guilt billowing up plainly on his face. “No! That is not at all what I meant,” he says, “I will be with you every step of the way. We could quickly find out why you have been placed here--”

“--And get me sent straight down to the bad place,” Starscream snarls, “tell Pharma, and I’m gone! He’s not like you. The second he figures out I don’t belong, he’ll just zap me away so this place can be perfect without me.” He crosses his arms--considers. A little petulant, a little selfish. He can do better. He glances up. “I don’t want to leave you. Here. Alone.”

Direct hit. Magnus bites his lip.

“I can’t lie to Pharma,” Magnus says after a moment, sounding miserable, “I don’t tell lies. It’s against my personal code of conduct.”

“You don’t have to lie to him,” Starscream insists, “just don’t tell him all of the truth! Leave it out, if I come up.”

He frowns. “That is the literal definition of a ‘lie of omission’.”

“Wh...I…” Starscream blinks, squinting up at Magnus. “I didn’t go to lie school, okay? I’m self-taught. An autodidact in the art of mistruths.”

Magnus clears his throat. “It’s actually law school,” he says, “easy mistake to make. The pronunciation is key.”

Starscream scowls. “That is not at all--

He jerks his hands down to emphasize his point, and his null rays--which are still armed and live--shoot off. Confetti bursts out.

As one mech, they look down at the little colored strips of paper now floating in the air.

“Has that ever… happened to you before?” Magnus asks.

“Um,” Starscream says.

Wordlessly, Magnus transforms one of his huge hands into a barrel gun and aims it at the floor a safe distance away. He fires. Cheerful pink and green flakes explode with an excited little pop.

“What the frag,” Starscream mumbles.

“No need for weapons in the good place,” Magnus says, sounding a little shell shocked himself.

At that point, it seems difficult to proceed. Starscream kicks a fleck of green confetti and shreds it against the floor as Magnus stands stock still, his biolights flaring in fits and bursts. After a moment, Magnus’s voice box gives a telltale little burst of static as it resets.

“The philanthropy,” Magnus says, without looking at him, “the charity work… was any of it true?”

Starscream finds something interesting to look at which is conveniently located in the opposite direction of the huge glowering blue bot he’s having a conversation with.

“Well,” he says. “Some people would say I was still…serving the people…uh, a little closer to home.”

~~

The blue seeker that Skywarp introduced as Thundercracker glances up from his datapad, which looks like it’s been passed through a trash compactor as only the start of its very bad day. He’s factory mint, show-room handsome, no casting seams, no custom parts, no bubbles.

The restaurant is crusted with oil from old bar fights and sticky with spilled drinks. The tables are more carved up than a gladiator’s back, but when Skywarp called him up looking to see if anyone in their old unit was interested in some low-risk, under-the-table work at the edge of the Shades, Starscream had hardly expected glamour.

“Then you ask them if they want the extended tour,” Thundercracker says, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. “If they say yes, you take them through the employee door and show them the break room or the back alley or whatever grimy slag they want to see. And then when you’re done with that, you ask them if they want to see anything else.”

“Sometimes they say no!” Skywarp pipes up, behind the bar.

“Yeah! Sometimes they say no.”

“But moooostly, they say yes.”

“Yeah.”

Skywarp shrugs his wings. “And then, whatever, you snap your panel back and reroute the receptors so you only kind of know what you’re feeling,” he says. “Or if they open theirs, ask ‘em what they want, and—I mean they’re mostly old, it doesn’t take more than five minutes, and they’ll palm you what they owe you in cash.”

“Try to get them to go for the valve,” Thundercracker advises him. “Everyone knows it’s worth more.”

“You might wanna make some noises, they usually like that.”

Thundercracker gives him a reserved once-over. “You okay, there? You got it?”

One of the drooping patrons at the back table topples over in slow motion and lands flat against the floor, spilling engex all over himself.

Starscream scoffs. “Yeah, buddy, I got it. You want me to let gross old codgers fingerfuck me for money. It’s a prostitution ring, not rocket science. Which tables are mine?”

~~

“It was more like...” Starscream says, “customer service.”

Magnus gives him a long, unimpressed look.

“I did go on a space mission once,” Starscream says, defensively. “It wasn’t all grunt work! I have most of a degree in practical chemistry from Nova Point! I was a senatorial aid for six hundred years! I’m at least--half-way the person in Pharma’s system.”

“That is not the same thing as being that person.”

“No no no, listen,” Starscream says, inspiration all at once lighting up his processor. “So I waited tables a dive restaurant and got thrown out of Nova Point and sold contracts to shady bots for cash, so what! I didn’t ask to live like that. If I’d had a fighting chance from the start, Pharma’s version of me could be me.”

“Did you say you got thrown out of Nova Point Academy?” Magnus tries to interrupt, but Starscream just keeps talking, barreling past him.

“If I hadn’t been slapped out on an assembly line I wouldn’t have been an energon seeker! And if I wasn’t made an energon seeker, then I wouldn’t have been dropped by the mining company when they moved to off-world surveying projects, and if I hadn’t been out of a job I could have been somebody, and I could have finished my degree, and then who knows where I would be! It’s not my fault! None of it is my fault! If I’d had half a chance, I could be that person!”

He stands there almost shaking, his processor burning with triumph and fury until the whole room is nothing but a blind cascade of unparsable data.

After a moment of almost rapturous bitterness, Magnus’s voice cuts through his revere.

“Very well,” the enforcer says. “Then now is your chance.”

The white hot inferno in his head collapses. “What?” Starscream says.

“You believe that Pharma’s data represents some hypothetical projection of yourself, adjusting for factors of bad luck and outside influence. If that is the case, then this is your chance to become the better version of yourself. The more selfless, more honest version.”

Starscream frowns. “You don’t like me how I am?”

“I would prefer to help you improve, yes,” Magnus replies with a sniff. “If we aren’t going to tell Pharma about you, vis a vis your relative mathematical morality, you must at least attempt to improve.” He puffs his chassis out. “I studied and practiced law for the entirety of my functioning. Accept my help, and I will instruct you in legality and ethics. With my tutelage, you may yet become…”

He glances once over the entirety of everything Starscream is, and clearly finds him wanting.

“...A moral person,” he finishes. “A person worthy of residence here in the neighborhood Pharma has worked tirelessly to provide.”

“How generous of you,” Starscream almost spits. “And if I refuse?”

“That is within your right,” Magnus says. “If you choose to remain as you are, what we have said here will stand as evidence, and I will bring it to Pharma. It is his neighborhood. He will decide what to do.”

Starscream’s tank churns with an audible scraping. “Wonderful,” he snarls, “at least you can keep taking care of charity cases in the afterlife! Maybe I will go tell Pharma myself. Then I can be tortured for eternity on my own terms, instead of being betrayed by someone I thought I could trust.

“I am offering you a plea bargain,” Magnus replies, and straightens almost to his full-height, the back of his head scraping against the cramped ceiling, “I suggest you think carefully before you answer.”

“I’m not giving you an answer,” Starscream snaps, “I don’t need to! I don’t need you or anyone else. I’ll just do it all myself! On my own, like everything else!”

“Starscream--”

“Good-bye, Ultra Magnus.”

The door makes a satisfying whunk when it slams behind him.

 

 

 

Sparks strike up under Starscream’s thrusters as he stalks through the market, little yellow stars flaring under his pedes. He doesn’t know where he’s headed, except that it’s wherever Ultra Magnus isn’t. As far across this neighborhood as he can get without banging nose-first against a glass wall or ending up back where he started or something equally annoying. Maybe there’s a hatch somewhere in this joyship, and he can just—climb out into someone else’s heaven, or—

“Starscream! Just the bot I wanted to see!”

Starscream freezes in mid-stride, wings twitching as he fights the t-cog that wants to transform him into something that can make a quick getaway.

“Pharma!” he says, spinning on his heel. He smiles brightly. “Whatever can I do for you?”

Pharma comes across the quad with his arms thrown open, as if greeting an old friend. “Starscream, how are you? Good? Good! Look, listen. I need someone I can trust with a little responsibility around here, while things are…settling.”

“Responsibility?” Starscream echoes.

“Yes!” Pharma says, with visible relief. “After all that unfortunate disorder yesterday, it’s my feeling that the neighborhood needs some reassurance. I need someone I can trust to liaison with the other residents, someone who can handle their concerns while I work on getting to the bottom of the glitch.”

“Getting to the—” Starscream clears his intake. “Isn’t it over now, though? Why look into it, when there’s so much else that needs doing?”

Pharma taps the side of his nose. “Ah, you’re right, but that’s what I’ve come to you for. Too much is riding on this neighborhood’s absolute perfection for me to dare risk ignoring a problem this early in the process. It needs my full focus.”

“Right,” Starscream says. His spark sinks.

“People need a face of stability, if you follow. And then it hit me: who better to oversee my perfect neighborhood than my most perfect resident! It’ll be challenging, time consuming, a lot of work, but—” Pharma gives him a friendly clap on the shoulder, “—I know you would never turn down the opportunity to serve your fellow Cybertronian, no matter how thankless and difficult the task.”

Starscream reboots his optics like that’s going to make this not be happening to him. “Maybe you should ask Ultra Magnus," he says, temporarily forgetting that he really doesn't want Pharma to talk to Magnus right now. "He—”

“It’ll be almost like you’re my second in command!” Pharma carries on, as if he didn’t hear. “Or maybe my third. After Rung. Except you won’t get a title or a paycheck or anything, of course! Just the warm, happy feeling of a job well done.”

Third? After a drone? Starscream’s denta creak under the pressure of his jaw still clenched in a smile.

“How could I possibly refuse?” he manages.

“That is exactly what I thought you would say,” Pharma says, and taps a blue finger against Starscream’s turbine.

Starscream watches the finely-forged finger tapping his engine and tries not to twitch at the echoey, intimate feeling. Pharma is already too keen for anyone’s good, underneath all the hand-wringing and the blithe cheerfulness. Being near Pharma feels like being tracked by a target lock, like being watched by someone else just behind the friendly blue eyes.

Gracefully built and smoothly proportioned, Pharma shines in the sunlight like every grounder’s dream of what a flight frame should be: useful, beautiful, and effortlessly natural. Whatever Pharma actually is, it certainly comes in an effective package.

“You must be proud of this neighborhood,” Starscream says. “I heard Ultra Magnus say it was your first…?”

“Oh! Yes!” Pharma says. He gestures broadly to the neighborhood as a whole. “Yes, it’s my first project. All those long nights slaving away over the blue-board finally paying off! I pitched the plans for ages before I got the OK. I’m known as a bit of a rogue with the management, if you can believe that. It’s not how we normally do things, they said! But, well. I really want our residents to feel that personal touch, you know?”

Starscream eyes the gilded sign of the Berth Bath and Beyond. “I suppose you would be terribly upset if anything were to interfere with the smooth running of the place.”

“I’d be devastated,” Pharma says, pressing a palm to his chest plates. “I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but there’s quite a lot riding on this project.”

Hmm. The motivation is there, but the more he thinks about it, the more he finds himself stuck on the method. If it was Pharma, why bother with a note? There may be an angle here he’s not seeing yet, but--if it was Pharma, wouldn’t he just pull the cord on the trap door and send Starscream pitching pedes-first into the old inferno?

Everyone knows where bad little bots go, he thinks, with an uneasy prickle of heat in his coolant lines.

He guesses he has to make nice with Pharma, even if the note was his—after all, the fragger runs this place, and Starscream dearly needs that on his side. Even now he can feel the phantom heat of that great big Smelting Pit of the Soul cooking against his pedes. If this is the end where the boutiques and the oil baths are, then he doesn’t like to think what’s on the other end.

Anyways, he’s just lost Ultra Magnus. And sure, he can win the big lug back, but it’ll take time. It’ll take maneuvering. It’ll take…a show of character, perhaps?

“Sure,” he says, and holds his hand out. “Tell me what you need me to do.”

Pharma claps his hands together with a bright little “Ah!” and he at least looks genuinely pleased that Starscream passed his test. He takes Starscream’s hand and squeezes it, just firm enough to be playful, not hard enough to imply a threat. “As I said, morale took a bit of a hit yesterday what with all the…excitement. It would mean the world to me if you could do a little something to make people feel at ease! Turn on that winning personality! Make them feel at home!”

“Shmooze, in other words,” Starscream scoffs. “I can do that in my sleep.”

Pharma gives him a nonplussed tilt of the head, and his brief moment of smug certainty goes sour. Of course these people won’t be flashy entrepreneurs and politicians; these are good people. They probably have integrity, or whatever. How in the Pit is he supposed to talk to good people?   

Trust heaven to ruin even the sanctity of a good old fashioned shmooze.

Starscream’s gaze wanders past Pharma, trailing over the refreshed bustle of the market quad to rest on the screaming teal visage of Thunderclash. He stands out in any crowd, if not for his colors then at least for his height.

A gaggle of admirers have him penned in at the mouth of the Wax and Polish, cooing and making spark-eyes at him while he gently indulges them. Someone holds out a pad and a stylus, in the universal appeal for a signature. Thunderclash takes it easily. He’s head and shoulders over most of them, leaning effortlessly into their attentions. Someone asks him a question, and he answers easily as they all swoon away from him, flushed and tittering. He looks like a Prime holding court over an adoring multitude—regal, effortless, like the fragging sun rises out of his spark chamber.

“You’re up to the challenge, I hope,” Pharma is saying.

Starscream abruptly looks away from Thunderclash and interlaces his fingers, stretching his servos. A grin of his own settles across his faceplate. “My dear Pharma,” he says, “you’ll soon learn not to doubt me.”

 

 

 

The oil soak stays cool against his raging frame for ages and ages, like you would expect it to do in heaven. It’s the perfect temperature with no sign of surrendering to thermodynamics, and yet Starscream still can’t seem to relax. The washrack is the least exposed part of his house, so it’s not the sense of being watched that’s putting him on edge. At least, not primarily. He wriggles down into the oil and tries to get comfortable, flaring his plates to let a little more soothing coolness wash against his protoform.

The smelter and the all-spark. Starscream had heard of them in a hazy sort of way, the way you remember a rhyme you heard over the comms on your first assignment. Religion was never big in Vos, and in the Shades people had other things to pray to than gods. As far as he could tell, everybody had their own opinion about the all-spark: silent grave, ethereal paradise, tearful reunion. The smelter, though. With the smelter, you knew exactly what to expect.

Starscream lifts one of the luxurious little coolant cakes off his eye and pops it into his mouth. “A moral person,” he sneers. The coolant melts on his tongue.

Tax evasion. Arms dealing. Impersonating an officer of the law. Trading in banned goods. Assault with a deadly weapon. Jay-walking. The harder he tries to calculate his theoretical rap-sheet, the less good the bath seems to be doing him.

Oil splatters over the sides of the bath as Starscream sits upright, all at once. He lets the stuff drain and pulls himself out, shakes off, lets the airblast clear out the excess between his plates. His wings won’t stop twitching. He wants to fly, or run, or drink his tank capacity in engex.

“A moral person,” he snarls at his reflection. A moral person! Back home, nobody cared if he was a moral person. They’d all been terrible, but at least they’d been terrible together.

Home seems a very long way away.

“Rung!” he calls.

Their informational aid appears at the side of the bath, hands clasped easily behind his back.

“Hello,” Rung says. “How may I assist you?”

The easiest way to get a note into Starscream’s house would be with Rung. You could write it anywhere, and then have the drone deliver it in a nanosecond without mess or witnesses. It’s what Starscream would do.

With his round little glasses and his skinny ball joints, it’s hard to imagine anything less threatening than Rung. It’s like he was designed to be unobtrusive, which Starscream supposes he must have been. He waits patiently while Starscream scrutinizes him, examining every curve of bright plating and greenish glass.

“Do you keep a record of things people ask you for? Searches people make?”

“Great question,” Rung says. “I do not. That information is confidential.”

Starscream purses his lips. Well even if he did keep a record, he wouldn’t say so, would he? Let’s come at the problem from another angle.

“Is there anything you’re not able to do?”

“My function is to assist the residents of this neighborhood,” Rung says, with an easy smile. “I am enabled to accomplish almost any directive as long as it is within those parameters.”

“But you won’t tell me what other people searched for,” Starscream grumbles.

“Correct. The privacy of individuals takes precedence. You can also ask of me whatever you wish, with the full assurance of your privacy.”

Starscream narrows his eyes. “I had better be able to,” he says, “because if you mention one word of the thing I asked you for yesterday to anyone, especially Pharma, I’ll rip that fake spark right out of your--”

Drone. Smelt him down for salvage, he’s reduced himself to threatening a drone. Starscream kicks the cabinet where he found the coolant cakes and listens to the stack of boxes inside toppling over.

Rung just stands there, benignly patient, unaffected by the threat of violence. Does it want anything, Starscream wonders. Can sufficiently advanced AIs be bribed? If it has a sense of self, he reasons, it should understand self preservation.

“If you need assistance,” Rung reassures him, “you only have to ask.”

Starscream flicks a stubborn drop of oil from his wing. Rung’s inability to judge anything he might say brings certain thoughts swirling up to the top of his meta-processor.

“Do you know--” Starscream pauses and clicks his tongue, fingers tapping. “Could you tell me what happened to Skywarp and Thundercracker? I mean, not that I care or anything. But if they’re dead too, I might as well know. Skywarp owes me sixty shanix.”

“Neither Skywarp nor Thundercracker are in the good place,” Rung tells him, brightly.

Starscream looks away, fingers drumming harder against his forearm. He could have worked that out for himself. “But are they dead,” he says. “Did I-- Were they with me when I died?”

He was making a gun, Pharma had said. But he doesn’t remember taking on a new order, and he doesn’t remember being on a ship. He’s not sure how his last clear memory and Pharma’s report of the final event matches up, but to think that the two moments were in any proximity of each other--

“At the time that you entered the good place,” Rung says, “neither Skywarp nor Thundercracker were with you.”

Starscream’s wings drop, releasing a tension he didn’t realize they had been holding. “Oh well,” he says, waving off the whole conversation with a flick of his hand. “I shouldn’t be surprised. They always wriggle their way out of trouble somehow.”

In fact, they’re probably toasting a glass of that Rodion Violet to his memory right now, crying probably, talking about how great he is--was--whatever. There better be a speech. There better be a bar full of leakers and scavs and general no-gooders knocking back a bitter one for him right now, because by the allspark if he can’t have a real burial he can at least have a fragging memorial that’ll kick your denta in.

They’re probably--fine. Without him.

He opens his mouth to dismiss Rung, but the words get lost somewhere along the way, and what comes out instead is, “can I see them?”

“No,” Rung says, and Starscream’s wings flinch upwards again. “In order to ease the transition to the good place, I cannot show anyone any images of their loved ones at any time.”

“They’re not my--” Starscream cuts himself off with an irritated noise. “Nevermind. Can you tell me where they are? Are they okay?”

“I cannot,” Rung says, and something in his voice seems gentler under the vacant pleasantness. “And I cannot speak to the condition of your friends.”

“Why not!” Starscream demands. “Don’t you know everything?”

Rung seems wholly unphased by Starscream’s sudden rise in volume. “At the time I came online, I was filled with knowledge in the universe until that point. I am unaware of the goings-on of Cybertron at present. The only comfort I can offer you is that Skywarp and Thundercracker were not with you when you entered the good place.”

“You said that already,” Starscream says. “Couldn’t you try? Pharma says I’m the best mech in the good place, can’t you bend the rules a little for me?”

“No,” Rung says. “My protocols prevent me from showing anyone their loved ones back on Cybertron.”

Starscream vents hot air. “You said that already,” he snaps. “Goodbye, Rung.”

“Goodbye!” Rung says, and Starscream’s wings droop until they nearly brush the floor.

 

 

 

Starscream arrives at Thunderclash’s mansion wound tighter than a chronosmith’s spring and as exhausted as if he hadn’t slept since he arrived. Over the course of the walk here he’s talked himself in fragging circles. Maybe it was Ultra Magnus who left the note. He could have been putting on an act this morning; could have been playing it up to twist the screws. Nobody has an aft bolted on that tight. Maybe he’s a sparkless monster just like Starscream, after all. Maybe he likes to watch a bot squirm.

Starscream nearly punches the glass out of the visitor’s intercom when he presses it. A moment later, Thunderclash’s voice comes back with a smooth little “just a moment!” as Starscream sulks back against the facade.

Thunderclash doesn’t deserve this house. Starscream deserves this house! The scrap he put up with from the day he onlined, the grind he worked, the disrespect? He was born with nothing, not even his own face. He deserves a mansion as much as any goody-goody glory hog!

“You’re early!” Thunderclash says, throwing the door open with a suddenness that startles Starscream right out of his sulk and straight onto his aft. He hits the ground with a clang and screech.

“Oh—” Thunderclash immediately reaches down and takes hold of his arm, hauling him upright. Thunderclash has to plant his pedes and strain a little harder than Ultra Magnus would have, which is weird, maybe. Starscream wobbles upright and then rips his hand free, shaking his fingers at his side.

“I apologize sincerely,” Thunderclash says, his hands hovering in front of himself as if he’s only barely stopping himself from reaching out again. “Are you hurt? Any bolts loose? Old wounds acting up?”

“I’m fine,” Starscream snaps. “I don’t get wounded.”

Thunderclash opens his mouth and then closes it again.

“I’m early,” Starscream goes on, “because Pharma has put me, the best person in the good place, in charge of an essential administrative duty. And being in charge is 90% delegating to other people, so I thought--why not make our little rendezvous benefit the collective good of the neighborhood? Let’s make this a social night. You can cheer everyone up, and I can…supervise.”

“Oh,” Thunderclash sighs, “Starscream, you are a wonder. How lucky we are to have you.”

“That’s true,” Starscream says, examining his gleaming claw-tips. “I should have a sash or something. Maybe a crown? Do you think a crown is too much? Of course it isn’t, what am I saying.”

“Not to fear.” Thunderclash turns back towards the interior of his home, tapping his mouth with one finger. “Of course I’ll accompany you. I’m sure it will do the neighbors a world of good to see that I’m here with them. We should bring them a little something, eh? A housewarming present, perhaps. Hold on a tick.”

“Well, I,” Starscream says, just as the heavy door slides shut in his face.

He resets his optical feed. The decorative ceramic inlay stares back at him.

Well,” he says.

After a bit of distant clanking and rattling, Thunderclash comes back out with a box in hand, some sort of transport for delicate items. The urge to wiggle a hand inside of it and skim something off the top is almost unbearably tempting.

“I want people to feel that I’m visiting them as a fellow resident. As another working mech, just like them,” Thunderclash says, as he closes the door behind himself. “I don’t want people to feel like I’m just a celebrity, you know.”

Starscream sniffs. “I don’t know you,” he says.

Thunderclash pauses, half way down the steps. “You don’t?”

“Trust me,” Starscream says, “I never forget a paint job.”

“Intrepid Merchant Rescues Stranded Research Team?” Thunderclash suggests. “Plucky Transport Ship Takes Pirates?”

Starscream, who hasn’t accessed a newsfeed since the last time he shorted out his FIM chip on a weeklong bender after finding out the Grand Taxonomy had passed with a sweeping majority on the senate floor, says, “Nope.”

“I was awarded the golden spark for civilian valor,” Thunderclash says. “You may have followed some of my more unusual adventures in the ‘venture reels. We had a little archivist along with us for a while. They put on a historical at the Tetrahex Opera House based on his footage. People certainly seemed interested in our exploits; we could hardly move for admirers by the time we returned to Cybertron. Naturally,” he adds, “I understand the public’s keenness for news of the galaxy.”

A fuzzy memory of a screen pings in his processor. Thundercracker always liked the ‘venture reels. A lot of the other seekers did, actually--restless and sky-sore, it was hard not to ache for even the illusion of freedom, open skies, adventure. They wouldn’t be so keen on it if they’d had a taste of off-world living, he’s sure. Adventure is nothing but aching, low tanks and dirty snow melting into the crevasses of your armor. There’s nothing romantic about alien skies once you’ve stood alone underneath them.

“I guest starred on several topic panels, gladiatorial reviews,” Thunderclash goes on, “talent shows, before those were banned. Maccadam’s had a drink named after me.”

“Oh!” Starscream startles. “The Thunderclasher! We used to buy that for my trine-mate when we were in Rodion because it sounded like--” He snaps his mouth shut. He flicks his wings. “I didn’t realize it was named after a grounder. You know how it is with jets, we’re all ‘thunder’ this or ‘sky’ that--” he rolls his wrist with a careless flick. “I assumed it was named after one of us. Some fling the owner had, or something.”

Thunderclash looks at several of the facade’s architectural flourishes but not actually at Starscream as he says “I make it a personal policy not to engage in flings with fans.”

“Huh,” Starscream says, grinning. “Sounds like maybe you learned that the hard way, stud.”

Thunderclash’s face remains impassive, but his biolights give a suspicious flicker.

“Anyway,” Starscream says, “if you had gotten a little naughty, maybe I would know you. Interpersonal dynamics are kind of my specialty. Senators, moguls, prima donnas, you name it. I knew who every single priest in Iacon was paying for lap dances.”

Thunderclash visibly startles, and then settles into wary disapproval. “All that?” he says. “Why would you care?”

Starscream’s fans threaten to kick on at the familiar, uncomfortable rush that comes from standing on the precipice of a lie. “We should,” he says, “we should always concern ourselves with corruption, shouldn’t we, Thunderclash? Especially when it concerns those in positions of power. People in the public eye have to maintain a standard, don’t you think?”

“--Of course.” Thunderclash relents gracefully. “In that case, I’m glad that I gave you no reason to concern yourself with me. I always aimed to maintain a…standard.”

“I’m sure you did,” Starscream purrs.

He strolls down the steps, and after a moment, Mr. Big Shot deigns to follow after him.

“Compared to everyone else here I must admit I feel out of place,” Thunderclash says. “Learned law persons like Ultra Magnus, doctors and political activists—tireless pedes-on-the-ground charity workers like yourself…I really have nothing to boast but incredible wealth and fame.”

Starscream rolls his eyes and curls his lip where Thunderclash can’t see him. Thunderclash keeps on talking, with big sweeping gestures, like he’s delivering a monologue to the lawn ahead of them.

“Yes, there were credit accounts, and guest slots on sold out venues, and upgrades and scores of cheering fans, but those things aren’t what are important, you know? I’m most proud of the lives that I saved while we were abroad in the galaxy. That’s what I’d like to be remembered for.”

An ice age passes through the core of Starscream’s spark, phantom snow biting through his internals. If Thunderclash was an actual space-farer, an actual do-gooder, was it possible that he had realized something was amiss with Starscream’s credentials? Had he unthinkingly said something to give himself away over the last two days? His memory of the party in Thunderclash’s mansion is almost nonexistent after about glass six of that engex.

Between Starscream’s genuine disinterest in literally everything Thunderclash has to say and his own whirling processor, he’s managed to tune out so much of his surroundings that he nearly walks into the doorframe of the first house on their list. Thunderclash sticks out a broad hand to catch him as he presses the visitor’s intercom.

Big house. Attractively decorated. Gorgeous meditation garden of sand and pebbles for a front lawn. Starscream scowls. Does everyone have a bigger, nicer house than his? With no small amount of spite, he scuffs a pede against one of the carefully placed rocks (green, shiny, probably worth more than Starscream’s entire apartment back on Cybertron), sending it rolling over perfectly manicured ridges of sand.

A quick glance tells him Thunderclash is preening at his own reflection in the glass of the door. Good. He doesn’t even have to give an exaggerated ‘my bad’.

“Oh, wow--is that Thunderclash?” gasps a decidedly feminine voice, and Starscream turns to see a femmebot hurrying her way up the path. “I guess I got home just in time! I’m so sorry no one answered the door--my sparkmate’s probably out in the back, doing some amethyst gardening--she just loves that eco-sustainable DIY stuff. Or maybe she just didn’t hear--she’s been deaf ever since she donated all of her auditory systems to the Metallurgist Society for Damaged and Unfinished Protoforms.”

“She’s still deaf?” Starscream frowns. “In the good place?”

“How can we be of service, Thunderclash?” she says, turning a shoulder so she’s facing fully away from Starscream, planted between the two of them like a jealous lover in one of those low budget serials where everyone is always cheating on everyone else. Skywarp watches them constantly, mostly because they make Thundercracker so mad. So. He’s seen the occasional episode.

It’s not like he would watch them on his own, is the thing. It’s not like he went through a whole case of freezerburnt coolant-alloy spoon by spoon during a marathon once. He definitely didn’t cry.

“Oh, this is just a social visit,” Thunderclash is saying, “Starscream had the most wonderful idea, that we could go around together and see how everyone is holding up after the awful event yesterday.”

The femmebot stares serenely. “Who?” she asks. Starscream’s engine burns.

“Of course, allow me to introduce you,” Thunderclash says, reaching past her to press an uninvited hand against one of Starscream’s turbines. “Starscream, this is Axel--back on Cybertron, she was an artist fighting for the rights of sentient beings in the Hexactrix Nebula. Her sparkmate Booster was an environmental lawyer, just exactly like your Ultra Magnus, isn’t that right? Axel, this is Starscream, Ultra Magnus’ sparkmate.”

“Oh, my polish,” Axel breathes, “Thunderclash knows who I am! You are just the best! Isn’t he just the best, Starshriek?”

“It’s Starscream,” Starscream says, grin frozen on his face, “actually.”

“Oh! Whatever!” she says, smiling right back. “Well, if you’re here on a social visit, come on in! We are just so excited to have Thunderclash and guest with us in our home, I’ll run back and grab Booster and then you can tell both of us all about that heroic off-planet rescue we’ve heard so much about!”

“You know you’ll have to be a little more specific than that, Axel,” Thunderclash says, laughing, as he follows her into the house, “the one on Fishoot or Arizenith-5?”

As Axel explains that she actually meant a fully different rescue that Starscream’s also never heard anything about, he kicks the green stone again--further, this time, and much harder--and hurries after them. The door doesn’t literally shut in his face, but it may as well have.

It turns out Axel and Booster are both as boring as they are sycophantic. They spend the better part of an hour fawning over Thunderclash’s oeuvre and chatting with him about the abstract paintings all over the walls, which Starscream is given to understand are all replicas of pieces Axel did while alive that sold for more than seven million shanix, apparently as some form of charity organization. This one is a blue period, Thunderclash rescued a ship full of unregistered protoforms from the pirates of whoever, Booster is learning how to grow organic plants to donate to organic charities that literally she can’t do anything for because she’s dead, the mechachondria is the powerhouse of the cell, blah, blah, blah, Thunderclash made oil cakes--

“They’re from an archaic recipe I uncovered during one of my travels to the great and forgotten ancient cities of Cassatheia, the planet where the map of Scalantix led us to believe the body of the great old one whose name must not be spoken may have been buried,” Thunderclash is saying, opening the attractively decorated container he’d brought with him, “of course, I had to make some tweaks--you can’t get fermented pearl shards on Cybertron, and after some experimenting here I think the recipe is stronger without them, it must have been the flavor of the times. Very strong umami. Please, have some.”

Starscream peers into the basket and plucks one out as the femmebot couple is cooing that they couldn’t, not Thunderclash’s hospitality, but if he insists, and tuts. “Oh, Clasher, you shouldn’t have,” Starscream says, “sorry to say it--mm, I shouldn’t--oh, but you only want the best for our neighbors--they do look a little burnt.” He crinkles his nose and pointedly takes a pity-bite.

They’re not burnt.

“But they are…not,” he admits after a moment, “they are not. Oh, frag, that’s good--”

“They are so good,” Booster agrees, “you truly are the crown jewel in the constellation of this neighborhood, Thunderclash. We are so lucky to have you.”

Starscream hides his scowl behind his oil cake. Constellations aren’t made of jewels, he doesn’t say. “We are so lucky,” he manages instead, “actually, though, I think we’d better be moving along soon...I’d really love to meet everyone, and I bet everyone in this neighborhood would love to meet you.

“Well, we’d never deprive our countless neighbors of the opportunity to meet the real Thunderclash,” Axel insists, smiling, “if you two have to get going, I completely understand. It was so good getting to meet you as a real person, Thunderclash! Your secretary is so lucky to get to spend all day with you.” She glances at Starscream and winks. With some effort, he dismisses a combat protocol prompt that’s popped up on his hub.

“Oh, Starscream isn’t my secretary,” Thunderclash says, throwing an arm around his shoulders, “he’s my best friend! Isn’t that right, Starscream?”

Starscream grits his teeth, which might look like a wide grin from far away, or to an insane person. “Oh, yeah,” he manages, “besties.”

 

 

 

At the next house, they meet a boatformer who dedicated his life to installing solar panels on every planet in his system, even the frozen wasteland ones no one else could reach. At the mansion after that, a combiner whose gestalt was part of a water-processing plant for organics at the far reaches of the galaxy.

“The medibot on duty told me he couldn’t arrange for me to donate all of my techno-organic parts, because he said I could die if I tried to give them away to the whole ward,” a cute little jet tells them in the comfortable shade of his back porch, looking over a scenic lazy river, “but I couldn’t let them die instead of me! So I went and got myself a medical degree, and signed the forms for the transfers myself.”

In a marble building packed with shelf after shelf of datapads, Starscream tunes back in to the submarine explaining to a fascinated Thunderclash that “...when I realized there were still people inside, I thought, ‘I don’t care if it’s on fire! Someone has to get them out!’ Of course, as I suspected, the ash had gotten into their ventilation systems, and they’d gone into stasis. If I hadn’t gone in, they’d be dead.”

“Tell me all about the crash on the dead planet! Is it really as dangerous there as the ‘venture reels say?”

“I hear you beat Blurr in a charity race on Nova-12. Was he stiff competition? Is he really as nice as everyone says he is?”

“I can’t believe I’m meeting the real Thunderclash. Isn’t he just the best?”

“You are so lucky to be working with him. I would give anything to be his assistant.”

“Oh, wow. Is that Thunderclash?”

“Huh,” Starscream says, smiling and waving as they walk away from the last apartment building, every resident leaning off their balcony to watch them as they go, “you really are famous. It seems like I’m the only one with no idea who you are!”

“And I’m the only one who knows you,” Thunderclash says, “and that’s why we’re perfect friends. No reputations! Just the two of us, exactly like we were when we were forged, before we dedicated our lives to improving the lives of other people.”

“Haha,” Starscream says.

“Actually, I feel like you’re the only person here I can be totally honest with,” Thunderclash admits, “like you said, you don’t care about celebrities. I never want to disappoint his fans, but Blurr’s actually kind of an aftport. He made fun of my paintjob any time the cameras stopped rolling.”

“No way. You lied?” Starscream raises an eyebrow in faux surprise. “Clash. What about maintaining a standard?”

“But this is about protecting their feelings,” he insists, “I’m willing to sacrifice talking about my own if it makes others happy. But you don’t need me to do that! You’re totally self-sufficient. Ultra Magnus must feel very lucky.” He brightens his optics--in the falling dark, false stars beginning to peek out overhead, they gleam an attractive orange.

Starscream thinks of Ultra Magnus, hunched slightly against the ceiling of his apartment, stuck with a hot fraud for all of eternity, determinedly offering to study ethics with him. Desperate for even a chance of a happy afterlife, saddled with some buymech seeker from the wrong side of Vos. “You know,” he says, “I’m pretty sure I’m the lucky one.”

Thunderclash touches his own chassis and makes a soppy face as he leads Starscream through the front door of his own stupid, stupid, worthless huge palace that Starscream deserves and this guy definitely doesn’t deserve. “You two are so perfect for each other it makes my tank hurt,” he croons, “it must be just killing you to be away from him.”

“Yeah, well,” Starscream says, as Thunderclash leads him away from the grand entrance and into an equally grand parlor, “not as much as being away from your Hot Rod must be killing you.

“Oh,” Thunderclash says. “Um. Yes.”

'Um'?

Starscream has just had an objectively miserable day. He’s being blackmailed or threatened or whatever by some invisible attacker, Ultra Magnus hasn’t committed one way or the other to helping him, Pharma apparently thinks him being Top Point Getter means he’s some kind of errand bot or personal assistant, and he spent several hours with Thunderclash. Who has hugged him more times than he can count on both hands, and thinks they are ‘besties’. Who has, just now, belayed some deep-seated and heretofore unknown misery with a misplaced ‘um’.

“Trouble in paradise?” Starscream, swallowing his desire to display sharp, predatory teeth, puts on a somber face. “You can talk to me about it. We’re best friends.

“It’s nothing,” he says hurriedly, “no trouble! We’re actually, we’re really very happy together.”

“Come on. He’s not back, is he?” Starscream gives an exaggerated glance around the room, as though hunting for the little red monk. He’s not back. Obviously. “He and Magnus only got together for their meeting after we left.”

“Oh, yes,” Thunderclash says. “You know. Bonding time. Aha, ha.”

“Any idea what they’re up to?”

“You know, I bet Hot Rod is probably meditating,” he says, a picture of forced happiness, and lets out a shrill little laugh. “I suppose Ultra Magnus would embrace that, he seems a noble spirit and very…thoughtful, and attentive, like he listens to people’s problems.”

“Yes, my sparkmate and I have that in common.” Starscream nods sagely. “As they say in the annals of organic life in the furthest reaches of the galaxy, spill the beans, girl.”

“What’s a bean?”

“No idea. Organics are funny that way. Out with it.”

He shifts his weight a little. “It’s nothing interesting, you understand,” he admits at last, “it’s only that--well, whenever I see you and Magnus, you just have this rapport, this--immediate understanding, like you were made for each other, and it’s so charming. And I love talking to people! But Hot Rod simply cannot talk back to me! I have absolutely no idea if I’m connecting to him or not. Sometimes, I even get the impression that he doesn’t like me.” He casts a miserable glance at one of his beautiful, half-pearled chandeliers. “And everybody likes me!”

‘I don’t like you,’ Starscream only barely keeps in his mouth.

Thunderclash and his groupies have singlehandedly taken Starscream’s day from awful to unabashedly miserable, and now the big gaudy idiot is vulnerable. This is the perfect moment to twist the knife. There are a lot of ways he could play this--imply that Hot Rod is sleeping with Ultra Magnus right now, maybe? Offer up the idea that maybe everyone is only pretending to like Thunderclash, and they really--

“Give it time,” his mouth says, and his processor stops on its heel, whirls, tries to figure out where the pit that came from. “Hot Rod’s a monk. He’s probably not used to being around other people yet. Solitude can be hard to recover from. Maybe he’s just not ready to connect to anyone, and he doesn’t want to disappoint you.”

What? No! That was good advice, he snaps at himself, we’re supposed to be giving him bad advice.

“Also, you should get an etching of his name over your bumper,” he adds, “I hear grounders love it when you do huge, unprompted, overly-personal grand gestures before the two of you even really know each other yet.”

Thunderclash stares at him--then, he throws his head back and laughs. It’s not exactly uproarious, but it also isn’t that polite little titter he’s been using all day. “Oh, you’re funny,” he says, covering his mouth with scant fingers. “Thank you, Starscream. I shall not give up hope! Besides, I’ve got some things planned, to really connect with him over these next few days. Oh!” He grabs Starscream by the shoulders, just as overly familiar as he always is. “Maybe you could help me practice?”

“Um,” Starscream says.

“I’ve been studying with Rung,” Thunderclash says, and Starscream reels back as the AI appears immediately between them, just underneath Thunderclash’s massive chassis.

Hello, Thunderclash,” Rung says, “what a pleasure it is to serve you. Is that a new polish? You look lovely.”

“Thank you, Rung,” Thunderclash says.

Hands folded behind his back, Rung gives the impression of subtly preening.

“Rung has been teaching me about the culture on Caminus, so that Hot Rod and I can engage in some cross-cultural exchange,” Thunderclash continues, apparently unbothered by the small orange admirer standing in his personal space. “It’s been absolutely diverting.”

Diverting, please, like he thinks he can convince people he’s all dignified and refined just by using Ultra Magnus’ word. That’s so sad.

“I’d be honored if you would join me for the tea ceremony,” Thunderclash says. “My understanding is that it’s a noble and delicate art, requiring perfect meditative calm. It’s four hours long.”

“No!” Starscream resets his voice box, which just cracked embarrassingly. “What I mean to say is--I’m very attached to my own culture’s…tea…ceremony. I would really rather not learn another one so… soon. Look. It’s been a long day, what I’d really like to do is stretch my wings. You wouldn’t mind that, would you?”

Thunderclash retreats graciously. “Of course not, Starscream,” he says. “Please, feel welcome to any of our launch pads. Do you have a preference for size or altitude? I could show you around the--”

“No, thanks,” Starscream rushes to say, hands up, warding off the whole idea. “I’ll show myself up. You just--you just stay here. Stay. Good.”

Thunderclash watches him with some kind of bemusement as Starscream beats a hasty retreat. There’s an elevator across the atrium, that’ll do. As Starscream steps into the lift, he gets a flash of a glimpse of the two figures remaining under the beaded chandelier. Rung is offering their host an array of tea ores, but Thunderclash is still just watching Starscream. And then the doors slide closed.

Starscream sags against the wall of the lift. He is going to get as far away from that guy and his tea as he can get. Thank god Thunderclash doesn’t have a flight mode.

The roof is wide and gorgeous, underneath the false stars that are just starting to peer down through the violet skies. Two moons are tag teaming their way slowly over the dark cut-out shapes of rolling hills, smooth-worn mountains. There are four launch towers of varying styles, and a runway ending in a balcony for lateral takeoff. Just the feeling of springy mesh under his thrusters calms his spark a bit. Which one to try, which one to try...

Something claps down against his shoulder and Starscream throws himself across the roof with a yelp.

“Whoa,” says a cheerful voice, “you’re gonna scuff your paint there, flyboy.”

The fact that Starscream can feel new abrasions on his knees and palms is not doing anything to make him any less furious. He rolls onto his back, one null ray coming up in an automatic attempt to guard himself, and looks up into the blazing red streak that is Hot Rod.

Relax,” the monk says, in what sound like the rolling easy tones of a recreational dross-user. His lidded eyes narrow in what could be amusement.  “The look on your face is priceless.”

Remembering the confetti, Starscream reluctantly lowers his weapon.

He’s talking. He’s talking. It’s not unreasonable that someone would keep their voice box despite a vow of silence, he guesses, but somehow when Pharma said the guy didn’t talk, Starscream had assumed that meant he couldn’t.

“Hot Rod,” he says, warily.

The monk holds up his hands. “Whoa whoa whoa,” he says, “first of all, my name isn’t Hot Rod. It’s Rodimus.”

This conversation is already out of control and they’ve only exchanged two sentences. “You’re not Hot Rod?”

“Well, no. I mean, yes. I mean, I used to be Hot Rod.”

Starscream lifts a brow.

“What! What? People change their names all the time. Mostly like, after coming back from a near death experience or whatever, but you don’t know how many people died of a near death experience and then changed their name anyway!”

“So you died, and then you decided to change your name,” Starscream says, slowly.

“I dunno if I’d call it ‘deciding’,” Rodimus says, hooking his fingers into little claws around the word decide. “That’s just my name. Woke up in Pharma’s office and I knew it was my name. Hot Rod’s out, Rodimus is in, and that’s all there is to it!”

His voice has a slightly distant, faraway quality to it, and drawling accent that Starscream can’t immediately place, but doesn’t seem particularly colonial, let alone Camien. In fact it sounds almost like…

“Little Nyon,” Starscream mutters. “You’re from Little Nyon?”

“Close, but no catch,” Rodimus says. “I’m from big Nyon. The real deal! The Big ‘Still!”

Everything clicks into place like the perfect spin of a forge-fresh t-cog. “You left that note!” Starscream shouts, “It was you!”

"Bingo," Rodimus says, shooting two finger-guns his way. He gives off the distinct impression of grinning.

“Why would you do that?” Starscream snarls. “What do you want? Is this blackmail? You don’t have any evidence!”

“Take it down a gear shift, babe,” Rodimus says, holding up his hands. “I just wanted to talk. You know, shoot the scrap. Chew the rubber.”

“And that’s why you left me a threatening note in my house like some kind of stalker,” Starscream says, through gritted denta.

“I’ve been wanting to talk to you for like ever,” Rodimus says mournfully. “Blunderclash won’t let me off his slagging hip for more than a minute, I swear to Nexus Prime, it’s like rooming with a suckerfish.”

He’s had enough of this. Starscream scrambles up, forgetting his paint. “Who told you?”

“You did!” Rodimus says, laughing with delight.

Starscream’s wings arch up high and threatening on his back. “I told you that? I would never have told you that!”

“You told me at the party!”

“At the—at the party?”

“Yeah, you were pretty smashed,” Rodimus says. “It was kind of like…”

~~

“Hey! Hey, nice face, lipless. You kiss your conjunx with that thing? No, don’t worry, I like a guy who can keep a secret. Big mouths are the worst, nothing but talk—a guy with a facemask is just a guy who can’t bite your spike off when you feed it to him, am I right or am I right? Anyway, hot stuff, since I know Solus is never coming back, you might as well know, guess what! I’m not supposed to be here! Go ahead and don’t talk about that to your bird-brain botfriend and his ugly aft paint job! HahahHAHA—Rung? Rung? My glass is empty, Rung!”

~~

Rodimus taps the side of his head with one finger. “It was just like that.”

“Hhhhhh,” Starscream says. He feels like his spark is oozing out through his thrusters. “Maybe I do need good-people-lessons.”

Suddenly the rash of mouthless faceplates from yesterday is slotting right into place with the meteoric pearls and the angry pink snacks. It was him. Not a fluke, not a glitch—just him and his inability to keep it together for one fragging night. Pit slag, what a mess. Starscream and Drunk-Starscream are about to have to have a come to Primus moment.

Rodimus cocks a hip. “I’ll admit it though,” he says. “Was it a dick move? Yes. But was it also pretty funny? Also, yes. What I don’t appreciate is you insinuating to Blunderclash that I don’t belong here.”

Starscream is so disoriented by that comment that he feels almost nauseous, and he’s pretty sure his expression reflects it.

“I mean, I may not be a,” Rodimus twirls a hand, “city speaker monk whatever, but I’m a good person! I’m a pillar of my community! Like—like, just the other day, me and my best buddy knocked over this fuel truck, right? And the first thing we did was pass out cubes to the bots living out on the canal. Okay, so the first thing we did was we bought him some syk, but the second thing we did was we fueled up those disposables down on the canal. You know some of them are living on fifteen percent reserves?”

He looks at Starscream like he expects Starscream to be familiar with the gutter trash in Nyon, somehow. Starscream just stares back at him.

“Anyway, you bet those guys love me down there. They know who’s looking out for them, and it sure ain’t the billionaire ivory tower so called flantropists handing out a couple shanix a year and acting like it makes them some kind of a hero!”

“Philanthropists,” Starscream says.

Rodimus blinks. “What?”

“Phil-an-thro-pist,” Starscream says. He taps his mouth as he enunciates each syllable. “You really don’t run in these circles, do you, Hot Rod?”

“I told you,” Rodimus says, “it’s Rodimus. And I’ll mispronounce as many stupid words as I want. Find a shorter word if you want me to pronounce it right!”

Starscream brushes grit out of his scratched knee armor. “Let’s just cut to the part where you tell me what you really want, Rodimus.” His claws flick over the sore joint.

“I just think we should hang out,” Rodimus says, and slaps Starscream on the wing, which hurts a lot more than the stinging in his knees. “We could ditch this one-wheeled dump truck and have some fun.”

“I doubt it,” Starscream sneers, and before Rodimus can continue, because even without a mouth, Starscream can sense him gearing up to say something else stupid, he asks, “If you’re not a monk, how did you get that face?”

Rodimus pauses and traces a finger down one of the painted red curls near an eye. “You know, I’m not sure. Pharma said I died in a stunt gone wrong showing off to Drift, which, not gonna lie, sounds like me, but I don’t know where the mask fits in to that. Unless we stole it for cash? But I don’t remember that, either.”

“Huh,” Starscream says, because he doesn’t have time to unpack all of that.

“It’s not like I hit my head,” Rodimus continues. “I was trying to backflip off of our apartment building onto my other buddy who turns into a motorcycle, okay? But I didn’t get enough spin, or actually I did but I guess I misjudged the velocity? Cause it got me between the legs, and my spike--”

“Okay!” Starscream all but shouts. “I don’t want to know, and I don’t care.”

“Lame,” Rodimus mutters.

“You’ve distracted me,” Starscream says. “Why should I hang out with you?”

“You distracted yourself,” Rodimus says. Starscream starts to argue, but Rodimus shushes him and brings a hand to his not-a-face. “Check it out,” he says, and presses his splayed fingers to the smooth oval of his faceplate. It disengages with a little click, pulling away to reveal unpainted metal, a nasal ridge, and one wide, grinning mouth. “I’m hiding something too!”

It’s a handsome face, but it doesn’t have any of the curling red lines, or the exotic ceramic smoothness. It’s just a face, a little weathered, a little roguish. In the wideness of the smile, he can see that some of the denta have been cracked and subsequently patched with cement.

“I got the idea to have Rung switch me out of this little freak show when I saw you pulling yours off yesterday,” Rodimus says. “Not having a mouth is weird. And bad. I’ve always had a mouth, I dunno what Pharma was playing at.”

“You can talk,” Starscream says. “And you wanted to talk to me.”

“Well sure,” Rodimus says. “You ‘n me are a lot alike.”

“How, pray tell, am I anything like you?”

Rodimus spins the oval faceplate on the tip of one finger, a sight which would make a more squeamish bot somewhat ill. “‘Cause you’re not who you act like you are,” he says. “And I’m not either.”

Starscream stares at one face, and then at the other.

“And you super hate Thunderclash,” Rodimus adds, tossing the mask and catching it out of the air. “That already makes you the coolest person in this nerd convention.”

“He’s your sparkmate,” Starscream feels compelled to point out.

Rodimus sticks out his tongue. “Yeah,” he says, “and he’s a big dumb buzz kill. Pharma said he was supposed to be, like, my ultimate best friend. Well, I’ve already got a best friend, and his name is Drift, and he’s awesome. Me ‘n Drift used to go racing down in the canals and make big cash, and then we’d get wasted for days. Thunderclash just goes on and on about how many famous people he’s met and then talks down to me, like I’m a newbuild fresh out of the Light House or something.”

“He talked about Transluscentia Heights for an entire block,” Starscream says, flexing his fingers as if he could strangle the mech in question right now. “Just in case anyone didn’t know he was alt-mode exempt, like anyone gives a flying frag in a flaming cockpit.”

“Ugh, he was talking about the benefit gala again?”

“He was!” Starscream shouts, stomping a pede. “Maybe at his next upgrade he can trade in that abominable paint job for a personality!”

“You’re mean,” Rodimus says, with undisguised delight. “Talk more about how much you hate rich people and Thunderclash’s paint job.”

Hmm.

Starscream pauses and considers the bizarre and unlikely mech which stands before him now. Fast and bright and reckless, and pretty, of course. Definitely someone who could  benefit from good, strong influence from someone slyer and wiser.

He’s like a really stupid Skywarp, he thinks. He smiles.

“You know what,” he says. “I guess I could stick around a little longer.” 

Chapter Text

The Tetrahex Opera House is a pinnacle to the industry of architecture, a thing of gold in the evening and red in the sunsets. Banners stream from every turret, light glimmers on every piece of stained transmetal artistry. It stands righteous among the older buildings surrounding it, a new and glorious silhouette against the horizon of progress. Ponte’s operatic adaptation of Omega Prime, glorious in its sets and backdrops and mysteriously missing any of the original text about the dangers of authoritarian dictatorships or the primacy, premieres there tonight, boxes stuffed with senators and the floor deeply painted with frames dictating money and prestige.

A student at Nova Point Academy could never hope to attend. That’s what the Iacon Opera House is for.

The Iacon Opera House is mostly made of granite. It’s two stories high, lit dimly with glowrods, and after only two hundred years of activity, is basically in pieces. There’s a part of the roof that just has a big hole in it, and instead of doing necessary repairs, somebody has thoughtfully covered it with a tarp. Starscream picks through the crowds, nervously covering his subspace in case anyone asks him what’s inside, elbowing and winging his way past drunkards and buymechs alike. Somebody hits their head on a rafter. By the bar, a waiter drops a huge tray of glasses, and the subsequent laughter drowns out the sound of tambolins tuning up.

“I can’t believe you got tickets,” Skyfire says, ducking through a low-slung doorway, “I thought Ponte was crazy famous.”

Ponte is famous, that much is true. The Trials of the Pyramids is well into its forty-fifth season, running nonstop in the dilapidated old building, performing to packed crowds week after week. As soon as tickets go on sale anywhere, they sell out right away. It’s probably good it premiered before the construction of the Tetrahex Opera—there are a few too many jokes about interfacing and malfunctioning FIM chips to play well to that audience.

Starscream waves a cavalier hand, trying not to literally start preening under the attention. “Don’t get too excited,” he says, “we’re sitting in the lugnut gallery.”

“Oh,” Skyfire says, “is that bad?”

“It’s not good,” he replies. “Haven’t you ever been to a show before?”

Skyfire shakes his head, crouching to shuffle under a series of hanging lights. “The academy’s always been really strict about extracurricular stuff,” he admits, “especially the arts. Plus, the scholarship allowances were so tiny you could barely pay rent with them. I didn’t have the time to juggle a job with my courseload, so I mostly just…stayed in before I met you.”

Starscream hums sympathetically, peering down at the tickets for their seat numbers. “Speaking of academy money, how goes the quest to get funding for that pet project of yours?”

“It’s not a pet project,” he grouses, “no one on the board has any appreciation for the benefits that organic lifeforms could offer us!”

“Benefits like…?”

“Like being really cool,” he sulks, “and being interesting to study, and I want to hold one really bad.”

“Wow, real scientific there.”

Skyfire perks up. “You know, I might have a more compelling argument to bring the board if I had a team,” he says, shuffling and scootching his way between the thin aisles to his seat. “I could use—oh, excuse me—I could use a chemist on—“

“—Absolutely not,” Starscream interrupts, and Skyfire’s wings droop pathetically, “there’s no amount of respect and love I can have for you that’ll change how disgusting organics are, and how much I—unlike you, you freak—do not want to touch them.”

“Well, I’m just letting you know you’d be welcome if you change your mind,” he says, and drops awkwardly into his seat.

At the Tetrahex Opera House, they say the chairs are cushioned, draped in rubyfibre mesh and ornamented in gold. At requests of mechs with larger frames—though there are very few unusually sized mechs who can afford a seat there—the seats can be folded or rebuilt to take up more space, making sure every patron of the fine arts is comfortable and secure. The Iacon Opera house avoids this delicate, expensive problem by furnishing, more simply, with benches. Seats are as big as you’re willing to pay for, since they’re priced in yardage, and (as in every theater in the universe) price per yard is lower the further back you go. As a side-effect, the lugnut gallery is usually thick with enormous drill bits and tanks, while the little USBs cram together, packed tighter than sliders on a soundboard near the front. It’s an impoverished minibot indeed who takes to the back.

And an unlucky one. Starscream’s pretty average in size—the seeker frame is as middle-of-the-ground as it gets for fliers—and he’s straining to see over the heads in front of him.

“You know, if you want the board to take you seriously, you might want to avoid the nepotism issue altogether,” Starscream says, leaning one way and then the other, trying to find a visual window to the stage. “Try offering the gig to someone competent, not just your hottest friend. With someone like me, they’d just assume it was some romantic tryst.” He fluffs his plating meaningfully, bats his optics. Skyfire just laughs.

“Starscream, you are the most competent researchdonor in the chemistry department,” he says, “why do you think I approached you in the first place?”

Starscream’s biolights flicker. His plating, puffed up, flattens and flutters uncertainly. “What?”

“I wanted to hire you,” he continues, “form a professional connection! It wasn’t until we started talking that we became friends.”

His biolights commit, and they flare up intensely in excitement and surprise. He nervously covers the ones on his arms. There’s a smile trying to force its way onto his face, but he wouldn’t be him if he wasn’t suspicious that this is all a trick, somehow. “But I’m a seeker,” he mutters, gaze scratching at the rows of shoving and shushing people all around him. It’s his territory. Not exactly the place you go hunting for academics and intellectuals in.

“Who cares about that? So you’re a flier, like me. Does that mean I can’t succeed? Can’t lead my team?”

“What? No! That’s not at all what I—“

“Okay, so shut up about it already,” Skyfire interrupts, and elbows Starscream in the side. “You got that scholarship for a reason, Star. Quit doubting yourself. And quit doubting me! It’s rude. And it makes it way harder to…hire you…?”

Starscream laughs, embarrassed, and prods Skyfire back. He wants to blow his turbines and see if he can break the sound barrier. “Organics are still gross,” he protests, “look, let’s… talk about this later, alright? No more work.”

“So what should we talk about? They’re still tuning up.”

“We don’t need to talk at all,” Starscream purrs, and pulls two enormous bottles of engex out of his subspace. Skyfire’s optics blow wide, beaming bright in the dark.

“You smuggled those in?”

“I always smuggle stuff in,” he replies, matter-of-factly, spark swelling with pride as Skyfire hides his mouth behind a hand to giggle, “they price-gouge like crazy here! And trust me, you’re not supposed to watch Ponte’s early stuff sober. You’ll get all hung-up on the interface comedy and whether or not everyone thinks you’re a pervert for laughing at it.”

Skyfire stops laughing. “Interface comedy?”

“There is always interface comedy,” he says, starting to crank open one of the bottles. “Especially with older works, and especially in act one. Once everybody’s drunk, they can start doing the somber stuff—but it’s a comedy, you know, it’s all a comedy, it’s no problem.”

Skyfire smiles, but he’s chewing his lip, and Starscream curses internally. Of course, he always forgets Skyfire doesn’t like all that bawdy stuff—it’s not like he’s a prude, okay, he doesn’t mind interface talk, but he’s said the jokes always make him feel embarrassed, because he never quite gets them.

In the two years that Starscream’s known him, Skyfire has never once mentioned having a partner, or a one-night stand, or a crush, or anything. If he has a night life, he doesn’t talk about it.

“Hey, don’t worry about it,” Starscream says after a moment, “you like drinking, yeah?”

“Who doesn’t?”

“This whole thing is for you,” Starscream insists, and pushes the bottle into his hands. “I want to see that thing gone by intermission! No ifs, no ands, no buts!”

“I can’t drink this all by myself,” Skyfire manages, incredulous. The bottle’s almost the size of his forearm. Starscream actually had to clear out some hardware to make it fit. It’s all back at the apartment, ready to be re-installed, of course.

“You can, and you will! That’s the Ponte viewing experience, babe. I can’t help you, I’ve got my own to tear through.” The sound of bots tuning themselves slows to a halt, and onto the stage walks the maestro, a poor-looking mech in an ill-fitted wingframe. There’s a smattering of applause, which he barely acknowledges. Starscream elbows Skyfire just under the cockpit. “Every time someone sings the same note four times when once would do, take a drink!”

“I don’t know enough about music to know when that is,” Skyfire says, looking panicked as the lights dim.

“No problem! Just follow my lead!”

He looks like he’s going to argue further, but the maestro raises his arms above his head, draws his arm back in prep, and slams the orchestra into action, hand striking at the invisible ictus as the music bursts to life, fitting itself to his hands like soft protoalloy in a metallurgist’s careful grip.

The first chords swell, slow and majestic, leisurely in their regal presence, before the first melody snaps through the valleys of their rolling hills, sharp and fast and desperately alive. It rushes up, unusual chords and trilling grace notes, stringfomers bowing up and down their own bodies like they were on fire. The brass heaves—the strings cry—the music runs past them, escapes the fingers of its creators and the audials of its listeners, blooming, exploding into a crescendo that burns through his spark like lighting, like ecstasy, and leaves them all behind. It’s wonderful. It’s too much. It’s just enough.

Starscream’s heard the overture before—he bummed a clip of the first performance’s recording off the little orange guy who lives across the street, turns into a bike or a wheelbarrow or something. It always sounded a little rough—they say the first performance had to be like that because Ponte was still writing the overture an hour before the premiere, and every instrumentalist had to sightread it at their seats. It’s different, now, forty-whatever seasons in. The orchestra follows the arms of her conductor, entranced, memorized in a flight done a thousand, a hundred thousand times before. Every beat, every rest, every sink of music as teasing melodies fall into each other, each one just touching his spark and promising more and better to come, later and longer in the evening—they twist around inside of him and he aches to leap to his pedes, to be a part of them. The slow and wailing plea of a protector with his prime stolen away—the imperial march of the beastpharaoh revealing his noble intentions—the light and clever tune of a maybe-organic-maybe-mundane mech with a magic bottle of engex and a song always on his lips—and among it all, the leitmotif of the hero, a nobody, nothing but a man with no prospects or pay but the cloak around his shoulders and the sword the gods give him, a mech from the poorest of alleys—

It’s no wonder this opera doesn’t play well to the supremacy of the functionalists, to its rich and reserved, who are born into their good fortune—who dislike the idea of a pauper, earning his place among them—

It’s no wonder it continues to play, season after season, in the chipping concrete walls of the Iacon Opera House.

The orchestra saws on, but the volume sinks just out of the way as the patchwork curtains lift, exposing a gloriously colored stage, little fake jewelgrowths dotting the landscape in front of a gorgeous mountainside set. No one in the audience has probably ever seen mountains—Starscream supposes they could look like anything—but there’s something about the underwater-glitter of the lights fading in and out in waves. What the production team lacks in money, they make up for in artistry and dedication. There aren’t many art jobs out there—the opera house can pay whatever it wants, and get the best.

Over the low, intense pulse of the instruments, the hero bursts from the backstage, sprinting away from a pursuing predacon, and launches into a diatribe about his plight. Starscream smiles. Tamino always was a protagonist after his own spark—anyone introduced in the midst of cowardice has him convinced. With a powerful tenor, he begs the audience to help him—“Or else I shall perish!”

Then, after a beat or two, he repeats “Oh help me, or else I shall perish!” And that’s the Ponte Starscream knows. Primus forbid anybody ever say anything just once.

He elbows Skyfire. “That’s twice! Drink!”

“What?”

“Drink!”

“Oh!”

 

 

 

 By intermission, Skyfire is gone. Starscream implores him to engage his FIM chip, but he keeps putting his head on Starscream’s wing and giggling and it’s sweet, okay, he didn’t want to admit it but it’s kind of a relief that even someone as overworked as—well, as any grantfund student—can take a break and forget about work. But also, he could use some coolant to wash all that engex down with.

Starscream isn’t the worst friend in the world. He doesn’t want Skyfire waking up tomorrow feeling, like, big fucked up in his lecture halls, and, whatever. He manages to detangle himself from the grasping arms of a wasted carrier-jet and shuffle down a couple seats. “I’m getting you coolant,” he calls, “you want anything else?”

“Do they have lugnuts?”

“I dunno. I’ll check.”

With a series of shoves and well-placed shoulders, Starscream starts making his way into the lobby to the always-bustling refreshments bar—the only part of the whole building that seems kept up. He pushes past another seeker with a blue paintjob, cute red accents, who’s telling his companion something about how “Ponte’s overrated. Did you hear he’s writing for the senators now? Yesterday’s news—I never thought he was that good, anyway—“, and starts flagging the bartender down.

“Hey, two coolants,” he hollers over the wash of the crowd, “you guys got lugnuts here?”

The bartender tells him he’ll check, that they might be out already, but they’ve definitely got coolant and he’ll get that for you sir—a title he only hears when he’s got shanix visibly clenched in his hand—and then he finds himself comfortably alone, leaning against the bar in the crush of people. Quietly, he hums the protector’s theme to himself, a long and convoluted string of notes that only the truest of performers can do in time. They’ve got a good high-frequency spinto playing him, strong voice—‘you, you, you! Shall boldly go forth to save him! You shall restore that mech of mine’—commitment to the character, of course, the color of his optics flickered and cycled as he wailed through the grieving recitative…he’s no Bocal, of course, but Bocal found work in Tetrahex and hasn’t been seen by anyone save the superrich since. So the spinto will have to do.

There’s a raucous chorus of drunks across the way blasting their way through some of the catchier tunes of the evening, and they burst into the first comedy number—each mech in his own key, of course—and Starscream smiles and changes in the protector for the featherpet. His pede taps against the ground.

‘In all the world there could ne’er be
a more contented mech than me!
I make my trade with—‘

“Starscream?”

He blinks, shakes himself out of the reverie, and turns to see another seeker—smaller than him, silhouette tucked in oddly around the edges. Slightly misshapen. There’s something familiar about him—

“Stripseeker?” he asks, squinting.

Stripseeker shifts uncomfortably from one pede to the other. “It’s Slipstream now,” he says, and his voice is higher, more mellifluous, maybe. Strange.

“Slipstream, right. Primus, it’s—I didn’t recognize you. Been a while.”

He crosses his arms. “I’ve been working off-planet for a while. The pay’s good.”

“Isn’t that dangerous?”

“Isn’t everything?”

Starscream shrugs, looks away. He used to work with Strip—Slipstream, down in the barracks. They never talked that much. He wasn’t being dramatic—it’s been a long time.

After a moment, Slipstream reboots his vocalizer. “Skywarp says you’re doing the University thing now,” he says, and there’s something odd about the way he says it, something that sets Starscream’s wires humming with discomfort, “isn’t that awfully expensive?”

“Not as expensive as re-framing. Why did you—I mean,” he says, “I mean—it’s not that it’s bad. But you had a pretty good one before, no bubbles or anything.”

Slipstream stares at him, looks away over the bar. “That’s not me anymore,” he says, “I’m not…you see stuff off-planet, there’s…I’m a she-her now.”

“A what?”

“Like…one of the femmes,” she (her?) says, “like the…like that gladiator, Arcee, the one with the pink scheme.”

“The sociopath?”

Slipstream sniffs. “We prefer to think of her as a…single-minded activist,” she says. “She’s the reason most of us figure we can do it at all.”

“Oh,” he says, frowning. It’s not like he’s dumb, he knows femmes come from somewhere. It just kind of…he never really realized that femmes were someone before they were femmes. He’s never known a femme before. “So, you’re, uh…you staying on Cybertron long?”

“I quit the drilling job,” she says, “I was only doing that stuff so I could get my reframing done. Like you said, it’s not cheap—especially the voice processor stuff—and risky work’s the only kind that pays. But I didn’t want to keep it once I was done, and Skywarp told me he had a job I could take, so…” She shrugs. “It’s just nice to be home.”

The bartender returns, two coolants in his hand and an embarrassingly greased-up minipack of lugnuts that look like they passed their rust-out date thirty cycles ago. Starscream grimaces and pays extra for the tip.

“You here with one of your friends from school?” Slipstream asks, eyeing the two canisters. Starscream glances at her.

“Uh, yeah,” he says, “one of the grantfunds in my program. He’s nice.”

‘Oh, should I find a handsome mech
Whose oil could fill my homely nest,
Then could I find, by—‘

“He doesn’t get it, does he?” she says. She doesn’t sound like she’s asking. Her optics are focused on the group of miners who are joyfully cackling their way through the verse about exactly where Papageno’s future Conjunx might deign to put his spike. “The opera. A grantfund’s probably a little too educated for this stuff, right?” Starscream stares at her.

“What are you talking about?”

Her optics dim—brighten—shutter. Like she’s practicing using them. Maybe they’re a new set. “Skywarp has a couple jobs,” she says distantly, “you know, for seekers. One of his friends is looking to hire. It’s not bad work. It’s better than drilling. I can give you the frequency if you think you’d need it.”

“Thanks, I’d rather find work in my field,” he says, feeling bitter. He can taste his optics in the back of his mouth. Professional connection, he’s here as a professional connection.

Slipstream snorts. “Your field?”

“Chemistry,” he says, “I’m studying at Nova Point. That’s good work. Field opportunity. Upwards mobility.”

‘In all the world there could ne’er be
A more contented—‘

“You think you’re so much better than us, don’t you?”

“I don’t think anything,” Starscream says, “I’m just not going to waste my time in some dive bar when I have an opportunity for a real career. Don’t you ever get tired of just being a seeker?”

“I am a seeker,” she says, “and I’m proud of it. Seekers stick together! You were supposed to stick with us.”

“I didn’t ask for that!” he snaps. “Face it, I don’t have anything in common with any of the rest of you! We worked together on a job. That’s it. I’m not friends with you just because we got pumped out of the same mold—that you don’t even want, apparently—and got hosed down in the same washracks for a few cycles. It’s my turn to have my own life, and I don’t want anything to do with what I had back then.”

“You mean anything to do with us,” she says, “you’ve got a scholarship and a university position and a new friend and suddenly, you don’t need us anymore!”

“No,” he says, crossing his arms over his chassis, “I don’t. And you don’t need each other, either. You don’t have to be tied down to ‘sticking together’. You could do whatever you wanted.”

He knows it’s a losing fight. He’s had it with Skywarp before.

“Whatever I wanted,” she says, sneering, “I could go to university, just like you, and spend—what, four, five cycles convincing myself that a degree would get me a real job and a real career and opportunities? Face it, Starscream, you’re deluding yourself. You’re there for diversity so they can pat themselves on the back for having a seeker on the campus, and that’s it. They’re never going to give you a real assignment.”

Starscream stares her down, fury roaring in his processor, systems running hot. Two cans of coolant hang in his hands. As it happens, he wants to say, I just turned down a job offer, I’m drowning in them. He wants to sneer and strut and tell her that actually, Skyfire and I are working to get a grant for a project right now. It would be so easy to mention that it’s off-world, dangerous, pushing-the-envelope kind of stuff, it would be so easy to pretend they’re here celebrating right now.

What is he doing? Showing off to some femmeseeker who apparently hates him anyway? Trying to prove himself?

“Maybe they won’t,” he says, “they definitely won’t if I don’t try. Bye, Slipstream. It wasn’t particularly pleasant.”

He turns, and starts to elbow his way back through the crowd.

“Starscream, wait,” Slipstream says, and when he turns, she’s stumbled a few meters after him, “I didn’t mean it like that, it’s—of course you’re capable, but only seekers are ever going to see it. We just don’t want you to get hurt. We’re worried.”

“You don’t need to waste the energy,” he says, “I’m fine on my own.”

 

  

 

Skyfire accepts the coolant gratefully. “You got lugnuts!”

“Careful with them. I’m not sure they’re actually any good anymore,” Starscream says as he wriggles his way back into his seat. “The bartender found them at the back of a cabinet, so, you know, give them a sniff first.”

“Is that what took so long?”

“Huh? Oh. Yeah.” Starscream shifts in his seat. “Plus, you know, there’s the line—hey, uh, what do you know about pronouns?”

“Pronouns?”

“Yeah, you know that linguistics history stuff better than me. Do you know where the, uh, the she-her pronoun came from?”

“I think it was the root stem from Solus Prime,” he says, chewing his lip like he always does when he’s thinking hard, “yeah, it’s—it’s one of the thirteen Prime sets. It’s like, ‘Primary: I/you/she-her, Secondary: [blacksmith]/[forger]’. Pretty florid iconography, but Neo Cybex usually is. Associated with building and forging, either objects or life. Of course, it became ‘Primary: I/you/he-him, Secondary: [citizen]’ during the early revolutions, like all the rest of the archaic sets. Nobody uses it anymore.”

Starscream frowns. “I think I heard femmebots are…reclaiming it,” he says, after a moment.

“I guess that would make sense.” Skyfire shoots him a sideways glance. “Everything okay?”

“Huh? Oh. Yeah, I’m fine.” Starscream peers over the heads of the slowly-reforming crowd, thinner (as usual) for the second act, now that the truly overcharged have been dragged out by their friends. Too bad. For them, anyway. Starscream’s going to appreciate having a clear view to the stage for the best aria of the performance, still yet to come.

“Because you know if something wasn’t okay, you could—“

“Sky, I appreciate it, but seriously,” Starscream says, “I promise I’m fine. It’s just seeker stuff, it’s like…it’s weird coming back here. That’s all. Lots of people I used to know. It makes me feel like I’m not supposed to be here.”

“You’re moving on,” Skyfire says, “that’s part of self-improvement. Moving on, moving up.”

“With you.”

“Yeah,” Skyfire says, smiling, “with me.”

There’s a smattering of applause from the front of the house, and Starscream sees the curtains shift and bend as the maestro returns to the front of the orchestra. The few lights that still work in the house dim.

“Skyfire,” Starscream says, “that grant you’re trying to get. It’s for…”

“Off-world exploration of systems which have traditionally beamed back signals of organic life,” he rattles off automatically, “with a focus on soil samples and atmospheric conditions.”

“Right. And you would need a chemist to…”

“Take measurements on the makeup of said samples and how they differentiate from the cyberforming on mechanic lifeform-supporting planets, like Cybertron and Caminus.”

“And I’m… I mean, of the chemistry department, my grades are the best,” he says, shifting closer as the maestro taps his baton against his music stand demonstratively, “I mean, your work would be better with my analytical techniques. And it would help me move into the grantfund program, so I could get paid for my own research for once.”

“Are you asking—“

You’re the one who asked,” Starscream interrupts, biolights flaring, “I’m just saying yes. Okay? Yes, I will go on your dumb expedition. I’ll be your chemist. You’d be lucky to have me.”

When he looks up, Skyfire is beaming, optics fully flared and flooding him in light. His mouth is split in a wide grin, denta on display. “And you’ll help me petition?”

The first note of the orchestra strikes.

“We’ll talk about this later,” Starscream whispers, “okay? After Act Two.”

And if he thrills when Skyfire wraps a huge arm around his waist and squeezes him close, he doesn’t say anything about it. And if Skyfire is startled when Starscream crawls up into his lap (“for a better view! There’s too many tall bots here!”), he doesn’t say a word about it, either.

They watch the show, and don’t say anything else to each other at all.

Chapter Text

“Come on in,” Rodimus says, knocking the door open with an easy hand, “this is the Rod Pod.

As far as Starscream can tell, the ‘Rod Pod’ is mostly Rodimus’ best efforts to recreate the entirety of the slums of Nyon in a space only barely large enough for the two of them to stand comfortably in. Garbage--mostly wrappers from energon candies and rust sticks--carpets the floor so thickly that Starscream couldn’t hope to guess at the color. The video game paused on the vid screen plays an annoying, high pitched jingle, and the walls are plastered in posters, including several for various races Blurr was in, and several more for various softcore photo shoots that Blurr had also been in. The only available seating option is a massive stuffed bean bag that, even if Rodimus hadn’t just dropped down in it with a satisfied noise, Starscream would never sit in. He likes having a spinal strut in one piece, thank you very much.

Rodimus tilts his head back to look at Starscream and beams. “What do you think?”

Starscream opens his mouth to say whatever nasty thing first popped into his head, then thinks of Ultra Magnus’ angry and disappointed stare and snaps it shut again. “It’s very Nyon,” he says finally.

“Bomb,” says Rodimus. “Wanna frag?”

“Excuse me?” Starscream says.

“Oh, sorry,” Rodimus says, and resets his voice box like pronunciation was the issue, “I said, you wanna frag?”

Starscream raises an eyebrow and gives him a once over. He is annoyingly handsome. “If by frag,” he says, “you mean I suck your spike, then sure.”

Rodimus rolls over in the bean bag, eyes lighting up. “You wanna ‘face-number? I’ll eat your valve, I’m real good.”

Something ugly curdles in Starscream’s tanks, and he wrinkles his nose. “I only do valve stuff for cash.”

With a lazy shrug, Rodimus rolls back. “There’s no money here, man. Guess that rules that out.”

Just like that. Starscream resets his optics.

Rodimus roots around in the garbage and pulls out a half eaten pack of rust sticks with a small, triumphant noise. Starscream eyes the place where, hanging on the back wall completely without irony, a banner reads “I SPARK NYON” with a little graphic rendering of the iconic canal system as seen from above. It’s the tackiest thing Starscream has ever seen.  

“So what’s the deal with Rung?” Rodimus says around a candy. “Is he like, Pharma’s conjunx?”

Starscream whips around to stare at him. “What?” he says. “No he’s not Pharma’s conjunx, what are you talking about?”

“Oh tight, he’s single?”

“What? No!” Starscream gestures fervently at nothing useful. “He’s a drone! Are you high?”

Rodimus scrunches up his newly expressive faceplate. “I wish I was high,” he says. “You know who’s always got Dross? Rung. Every time I ask him about it he’s like ‘here you go buddy!’ and he just gives it to me. He’s great.”

“That’s because he’s specifically conjuring it for you! Because he’s a—he’s a part of—an artificial—because he’s a drone!”

“Yeah, he’s magic or whatever and it’s hot as frag,” Rodimus says, and frowns. “Hey, you know what I’ve noticed? Why can’t we say frag? I mean, frag. You know I mean frag and not frag, right?”

“There’s no cursing here, it’s the good place,” Starscream says, rubbing his temples. “Look, can we focus up? You can’t frag Rung. You have to frag Thunderclash. He’s your sparkmate.”

Ugh, ” Rodimus says, slumping backwards over the beanbag like so much mesh over a chair, “I’m telling you, Thunderclash is not my sparkmate! He’s boring, and I hate him!”

“Okay, Magnus is boring too, ” Starscream snaps, feeling a little peeved off, “but he’s my sparkmate anyway . Sure, we don’t get on with them now, but we have to make the best of it.”

“How d’you figure?”

“How else did we get here?” Starscream jerks his shoulder in an aggressive shrug. “Our proximity dragged us with them. Magnus is my sparkmate, but he’s good and I’m not, so… I’m part of his paradise. It’s the same for you and Thunderclash--kinda weird, I figured he was the interloper--”

“Oh, you mean Magnus like the blue dude,” Rodimus says, only now getting on the same page, “the big guy! How hard have you been working him? He is, like, so into you.”

What?

“What?” Starscream says, something scraping inside his tank, “how do you--did he tell you that?”

“Well, I mean, he’s like, mad at you, I think,” Rodimus says casually, “but, you know, like, obsessed. He knows, right? Or at least, you know that he knows, right? ‘Cause he knows.”

“Rodimus, if you’re fragging with me--”

“Hand over spark!” Rodimus slaps his own chest. “We had this stupid friend-date thing set up, right? Thunderclash made me go over there and bother him for, like, hours. So I sat in the corner, pretending to be meditating--which is what I always do when Blundercrash is talking too much, by the way, it’s a great way to recharge--and he was literally, the whole time, he was like, ‘blah blah blah, I owe him a second chance, blah blah blah, I can’t tell Pharma because whatever or something, he can’t have been lying about everything, something, something, and then he asked me what I thought about you and--I did you proud, okay?” Rodimus grins winningly. “I gave him one of these.”

Starscream stares dismally down at Rodimus’ outstretched thumbs-ups. “Was he receptive?”

“How should I know? He kept talking for, like, a thousand hours. Or something.” He shrugs. “I just went into recharge after like twenty minutes. Pain in the aft. Did you know he used to be a lawyer?”

“Unfortunately,” Starscream mutters with a snort. “Did you know he wants to teach me about the law? Teach me how to be a good person?”

“Ugh, gross, ” Rodimus replies. “We’re already good people! The best people! You wanna rip some dross with me? I can get some. Rung’s, like, super cool. Is he single?”

“We just talked about this,” Starscream says.

He and Rodimus do have a lot in common, actually, if by a lot of things you mean one thing. Magnus is planning on ratting him out, right? This might be his last night in the good place. He’s spent a lot of ‘last night alive’ parties blasted and wet on compounds harder than dross or engex, and Rodimus really isn’t that bad looking.

So what if he feels...what’s that word. It’s like...that feeling when you do something bad, and then later, you feel bad about it. What’s the word? There’s definitely a word for that.

He’s feeling that.

“I think I have to...go,” he says, feeling fuzzy, “I...Magnus said he’d--I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’d love to--”

“You guys are so cute,” Rodimus says, “are y’all already clankin’?”

What?” Starscream stares Rodimus down, his processor already whirling away elsewhere. “No, we’re not--and that’s none of your business if we are, anyway.”

“Tetchy.”

“I’m not tetchy,” Starscream says, tetchily. “I’m leaving. That’s what I am. Leaving.” He can retrace his steps back to the apartment. That’s where this whole slagging day started. “I’ll--I’ll come up with some excuse to see you tomorrow. We’ll figure out what to do then.”

He turns on his heel and gets the door back open. As he closes it, he can hear the muffled sound of Rodimus going “So no head?” and then laughing hysterically to himself. He doesn’t get it. Nyonite humor, probably.

 

 

 

The apartment is empty. In retrospect he shouldn’t be surprised by this, because Magnus hardly ever seems to be at home. Nonetheless, Starscream stands in the doorway of the apartment he just broke into-- firmly let himself into, he mentally corrects--and feels a sandstorm of anxiety grinding through his tanks. It’s getting late, and Magnus really struck him as the early-to-bed-early-to-rise type.

“Rung,” Starscream calls.

Rung appears at his elbow with a bright little chime. “Hello,” he says.

“Find Magnus for me, I need to talk to him about something.” There’s a ‘pad out on the table inside the dark apartment. Starscream picks it up and taps it, opening up the page where Magnus left off.

“I cannot share the current whereabouts of any resident,” Rung replies. “That information constitutes a breach of privacy.”

Starscream turns and glares at him. “What?” he says. “I’m not going to assassinate the guy, I just want to talk.”

“Regardless,” Rung says. “I cannot share the current whereabouts of any resident.”

“What possible reason could there be for a rule like that!”

Rung tilts his head slightly. “That is an interesting question,” he says. “It is, of course, beyond the scope of my awareness.”

“Why is everything so difficult here!” Starscream says, stamping his pede. “Every time I try to accomplish a simple task I feel like I’m back on Cybertron trying to cancel a subscription package!”

“If I’ve inconvenienced you, I am sorry,” Rung says, without any particular tone. “I can tell you the location of his home residence if you want.”

“I already know where he lives!” Starscream shouts, “I’m in his fragging house!”

The ‘pad hits Rung square in the chest before Starscream even realizes he’s flung it. The glass makes a sad popping sound and goes dark as it bounces off Rung and falls to the floor. Rung, belatedly, looks down.

“It seems that you’ve broken this datapad,” Rung says. “Would you like me to provide a replacement?”

“Aaaa ughhh!” Starscream shouts, flexing and clenching his fists in impotent rage as his fans whirl desperately in his chassis.

For a moment, Rung does nothing. And then Rung picks up the ‘pad, taps it once, and restores the screen to a single smooth pane of uncracked glass.

“Here,” he says, almost gently, holding it out with both hands. Starscream stares at him for a long moment, fans clacking, heat bellowing out of his armor. “In-vent through your dorsal intake for a three count. Let your fans push the excess back out.”

Starscream obeys before he can remember to ignore Rung on principle. The fresh air in his tanks makes him feel both uncomfortably full and also less overwhelmed with heat exchange errors. Once his system has calmed down enough for his processor to reassert itself, he snatches the ‘pad out of Rung’s hands and clutches it against his chassis suspiciously. The page on the screen is still the same as Magnus left it, when he pauses to peek down at it. Lectian Moral Deserts: Do We Get What We Deserve?

He tucks it back flush against his chest. Okay, no harm no foul. He’s fine. He does not have to start his new ethical lifestyle with the breaking, hiding, and lying-about of Magnus’s possessions. It’s all fine.

“Thanks,” Starscream says, warily.

“Of course,” Rung says, perfectly gracious. He steps back and falls into patient attention, waiting for his next order. Not for the first time, it strikes Starscream that he’s being sort of a gearstick to something that couldn’t fight back if it wanted to. Maybe Rung doesn’t know the difference. He’s not a real person, so why should he? And yet, there’s something about this moment--this conversation--that feels to Starscream like looking at his own memories from the wrong end. His tanks turn a little queasily, as he tries to find something to say that will paper over this uncomfortable moment.

“You can, um,” he says, “you can go. Now.”

Rung disappears with a pleasant chime.

Moral Deserts, Magnus’s datapad asks him: Do We Get What We Deserve?

He thinks of Magnus again, crunched down in his undersized apartment, tapping through his books of morality as the big empty chasm of eternity yawns open in front of him. Magnus, stumped and delighted by the mere concept of a plate with a smaller plate for your cup. Did Magnus get what he deserved?

A truly good person would turn themselves in right now. They’d walk up to Pharma’s desk, hold out their wrists, and allow the wheels of ineffable justice to exchange them out for someone who might stand a chance of making Ultra Magnus happy. Well, Starscream isn’t a good person. He’s not going to throw himself on anyone’s mercy.

Starscream sets the ‘pad down on the table, turns off the light, and closes the door behind him.

The cafe should still be open for a while. He’ll start there.

 

 

 

The ambiance is different than it was in the dusty, sunny afternoon of yesterday. No longer is there a pale, sunlit rosy tint to the air--in the dark of the evening, the cafe looks more like an inexplicably gorgeous version of a hundred-thousand bars Starscream was never quite polished enough to get into on his own. It’s dim with the pale, pervasive blue of burning mercury in neon-safe glass, running in attractive circles around the perimeter, while each little booth has its own yellow-white bulbs built into the wall to better illuminate the table. It’s quiet of both hustle and bustle, the clinking of glassware replaced by a few hushed conversations in dark corners.

And, at the same table as their lunch date, Magnus’ slightly-too-big frame, curled over itself. He’s got a cup in one hand and--yes--a saucer in the other. With a strange swell of glee, Starscream realizes there’s three more of them sitting, stacked, in front of him on the table.

Belatedly, he catches a smile on his face, and straightens it out. Okay. Penitent, right. Penitent, with just the right hint of namedropping, humblebragging, and a gentle overtone of ‘I told you so’ about his overall goodness. But not in, like, a smug way. Just a--a sort of--okay. Alright. Showtime.

“Hey,” Starscream says, sliding into the seat across from him, “thanks for agreeing to meet me here.”

Magnus eyes him suspiciously. He sets his saucer down. “I didn’t,” he says. “You just sat down and started talking.”

“Whatever, I don’t have time for a history lesson,” he says, waving a cavalier hand. “So, I spent all day doing... selfless charity work--”

“Say that again,” Magnus interrupts, “and this time, tell me the truth.” He takes a sip of coolant. Starscream’s wings droop.

“Pharma asked me to do it, and I was scared of what would happen if I said ‘no’,” he admits, face scrunching up. Primus, telling the truth feels awful. “Figured if I didn’t, he’d go to you next.”

Magnus stares contemplatively at him over his coolant. There’s something inscrutable in his gaze. If he’d ever forgotten the big guy used to be a lawyer back on Cybertron, the realization that he’s been openly emotional on his own terms might have been a crueler awakening. “And what did you think would happen then?” Magnus asks after a long moment. Starscream has the awful feeling he’s being cross-examined.

“I didn’t exactly leave on the best terms,” he mutters, and sinks lower in his seat, “just kinda figured you’d rat me out and be done with it.”

There’s a clattering of dishes not-quite being dropped, and a couple of bots rush to help pick up a spilled tray on the other side of the bar. Distantly, Starscream can hear the waiter apologizing and thanking them in words he can’t quite make out, but a tone altogether too familiar to him.

“As a matter of fact, Pharma did come to speak to me,” Magnus admits after a long moment. “We had a long conversation. You didn’t come up.”

Starscream startles. “Really? Why?”

“Contrary to your beliefs, there are other topics of discussion,” he says, sounding a little chilly. “He wanted me to pursue a “hobby” of some sort. I was too distracted to put much thought towards you.”

“Right, until your date with Hot Rod,” Starscream says, “and of course, you couldn’t talk to him about any of this.”

A flash of guilt passes over Magnus’ face, which he takes as a small victory. “Regardless,” he concedes, “Pharma asked you to…”

“Go around cheering people up, basically,” Starscream allows himself to be prompted, “and I spent the whole day hanging out with people who are way better people than I am--and Thunderclash--and I...you were right. If I want to earn a place here, I need to be...a better person. Way better. I suck. ” He sighs. “And so does telling the truth. Gross. Does your...plea bargain still stand?”

Magnus settles back in his chair. “I never set a deadline,” he says after a moment, “in a legal context, it would be impossible to rescind it.”

“Well then!” Starscream says, concealing his relief. “How does this work? Are you more of an assigned-readings-with-midterm-testing type or more of a field-work-with-reports type? I don’t suppose you could really assign me lab work in this context, which is a shame, because I have been told that I am, and I quote, ‘terrifyingly results oriented in a laboratory setting’.”

The top of Magnus’s coolant is covered in a delicate white foam, spotted with several blue flakes of cobalt. Starscream spares a moment of smug vindication at the sight.

“I will be instructing you in a rigorous, one-on-one setting,” Magnus says, lifting his cup and taking a sip of his coolant, “with constant supervision, to make certain that you are retaining and comprehending the concepts that our lessons will untangle.”

Some of the foam sticks to his lip; Starscream spends a second staring at it in unexpected delight. Then Magnus’s words finally register. “You don’t think I can handle it on my own?” he asks, his tanks curdling.

“It’s not a question of handling,” Magnus says, primly. “You have no background in the subject; you don’t even seem to have a clear handle on the ethical logistics of your own subjective experience.”

“I mean, I’m not totally clueless,” Starscream insists, feeling slightly wrong-footed, “I’ve been--uh--” is he supposed to start being honest right now? He gets a lesson first, right? He’s not mentioning that he got arrested for selling homebrew Syk to an undercover cop in a back alley yet. “I’ve had jury duty before. And I’ve seen episodes from Judge Judicious back when I was stealing frequencies from our neighbors.”

Magnus’ biolights flicker queasily. “That is worse than knowing nothing,” he says.

“What?”

“The first step towards becoming an upright citizen is a thorough understanding of legal philosophy,” Magnus says, sitting forward. “After a thorough grounding in the underlying logic of legal code, we will graduate on to the particulars of each major governing body on Cybertron, accounting for the variation between provinces and the influence of common law , which while out of favor in modern Cybertron still provides the basis for many obscure criminal verdicts.”

“Uh,” Starscream says.

“I’m probably a bit old school,” Magnus goes on, “but I think that a proper education in the law involves a thorough examination of the precise wording of each item, rather than a broad overview of the effect of that wording. I like to go line by line, teasing out the implications of the phrasing and syntax, subjecting each proposition to a series of ethical stress tests, and scrutinizing areas of philosophical ambiguity.”

Starscream goggles. “Syntax? ” he says.

Magnus frowns at him. “You said you wanted to do this. We’re going to do it the right way, or not at all. I will not help you cut corners on this of all things.”

Ethical stress tests?”

“There are times in which the law can seem to be at odds with itself,” Magnus allows. “If you understand the essential precepts behind the law, you can anticipate the correct action in any scenario, regardless of your familiarity with the rule in question. This will put you in the most defensible position if the time ever comes that your actions are subjected to judicial scrutiny.”

Starscream lets out a half-hysterical laugh. “I thought this was going to be more--don’t do crimes, er, give back those pearls you stole, stop pushing people out of the way so you can get to the front of the line during a limited time sale at the Wax and Polish--”

“You stole what?”

“Hypothetical example!” Starscream says, quickly, “Totally hypothetical! I just mean… you’re really talking about every law on the entire planet?”

“And several colony worlds,” Magnus says. “The ones that have their own court system, in any case.”

Oh, sweet Solus Prime. The Eternal Smelter is starting to sound like a hot oil bath.

Magnus must notice the absolute dread broadcasting off every panel of Starscream’s frame. He softens marginally. “Relax,” he says, “a few centuries of cripplingly intense study and it’ll be over before you know it. You’ll be ready to live out the rest of your… death… in peace and relaxation. Who knows, it might even be…”

Starscream quirks a brow. “Diverting?” he suggests.

Magnus points at him. “Excellent word. Yes. Diverting.”

Starscream slumps. He offlines his optics and focuses on the thrum of his engines, in-vents through his dorsal intake for a count of three, lets his fans push out the excess.

“Okay,” he says, after a moment. His optical feed is still as dark as the underside of Iacon during a blackout. “But only, and I want to stress this, only because it’s you.”

 

 

 

It’s a brand new day in a perfect neighborhood, and Thunderclash wishes he could say he was feeling just as upbeat and positive as the lovely mid-morning sunshine seems to expect him to be, but unfortunately, he can’t quite get there. He folds his hands on the edge of the bridge and forces himself not to edge away from Pharma.

There’s something about the medical red of Pharma’s paint job that makes Thunderclash deeply uneasy. He felt it the moment he stood up from the waiting room chair and entered the office--the soft blue lights like a high end hospital, the clean medical tiling, and the red of Pharma’s paint job. He doesn’t remember being this nervous about medical facilities when he was alive. He’s been in and out of so many of them over the course of his eventful life, he’s sure he would remember if he was. But maybe that’s the very problem--he’s been in so many. And Pharma did tell him he died in a hospital…

“Complications arising from a spark related injury,” Pharma had told him, grimacing apologetically as he closed Thunderclash’s file. “You took a blast straight through the casing while you were trying to prevent a mutineer from blowing up the ship. Thanks to your selfless actions, almost a third of the crew were able to reach the escape pods before the cruel vacuum of space swallowed everything onboard.”

A third. He gave Pharma his best smile and tried not to let his own guilt show on his face. A third.

Why would someone mutiny against him? Everyone loves him. He was voted Cybertron’s Most Relatable Personality three vorns in a row. He must have made a mistake--there must have been a misunderstanding--if he’d been a better captain, more approachable somehow, maybe--

“You really are zoned out right now, aren’t you?” Pharma says, abruptly shaking him from his revere with just the knowing quirk of a brow ridge.

Thunderclash gives him an apologetic little laugh. “Sorry, Pharma. Go on, I’m listening.”

At this point, the two of them are standing on the bridge above the decorative mercury pool, which is full of the sail-shaped fins of decorative Altaran koi. Thunderclash has been wandering around town all day, ever since his attempt to share the Camien tea ceremony he worked so hard on ended with Hot Rod just staring at him for several seconds and then moon-walking backwards out of the parlor. Thunderclash wasn’t even aware that mechs could move their legs like that.

Did that mean something? Was Hot Rod trying to communicate with him somehow?  Thunderclash had stood there, tea pot in hand, staring at the door for long enough that the waiting solvent started to go cold.

“I was saying,” Pharma goes on, “you did such a good job of doing Starscream’s job for him, I was thinking of passing on some tasks directly to you.”

“Oh!” Thunderclash brightens immediately. Having a job to do always makes him feel better. He’s felt edgy and over-energized since he arrived here with nothing to do but relax. “What would you like me to do? I didn’t even know there was work to be done in paradise--but of course you must be doing all kind of difficult moderating work behind the scenes, to keep something of this scale running, I’m sorry for not thinking of it before.”

“Actually Rung does most of that,” Pharma says, “somehow. I was thinking something a little bit more front and center, a little less backstage.”

“Oh.”

“One of our residents--you know Vega?”

“Jumpstart’s conjunx? Turns into an energon transfusion machine?”

“That’s the one.” Pharma snaps his fingers. “Well, his dream was always to open a restaurant, but things being what they are back in the land of the living, it never worked out. His eternal reward won’t be complete without the realization of his lifetime’s dream, you know?”

Thunderclash nods mutely, still a little embarrassed about getting his last guess wrong.

“Rung is taking care of all the structural details, of course,” Pharma says, and gestures at an invisible billboard with his open palm, “--corinthian columns, ice sculptures, the works! But it’s not going to be much of an opening night if nobody organizes it. And I’m just a mess with this whole glitch in the system, I’m positively tearing my flight panels out, I’m worried that I’ll let everyone down if I try now.”

Thunderclash turns and reaches for him immediately. Pharma stares down at their joined hands in blank surprise while Thunderclash says, “Oh, Pharma, you must be deeply distressed. Of course, no one would think less of you if you postponed some of the individual rewards until after the problem is solved. You shouldn’t feel at all as if you are letting us all down, I won’t hear of it.”

Pharma looks several times between Thunderclash’s face and his hands before extricating himself from the reassuring grip. “--As a matter of fact,” he says, as he shakes out one hand sort of behind his back, “I won’t feel that way at all, because you’re going to help me! You are going to help me, aren’t you?”

“Of course I am,” Thunderclash says, with a reassuring smile. He wonders if he perhaps held Pharma’s hand too tightly. He always forgets things like that until it’s too late.

“I’d like you to organize the opening night,” Pharma says. “Invitations, place settings, all those sorts of details.”

A flicker of unease pulses through Thunderclash’s spark. “Ah,” he says. “I’ve never really… organized an event before. I mostly just attended them.”

“Well then you have plenty of experience to draw on!” Pharma tells him. “Just do whatever other people did for you in perfect reverse order!”

He tries to remember the last party anyone threw for him. They all kind of blur together after the first fifty.

“...Right,” Thunderclash says. “How hard can it be?”

It’s a small neighborhood. He can handle this. He’s given spark-to-spark resuscitation in the middle of a gunfight on an alien vessel. What’s one little party?

“Wonderful!” Pharma says. He takes a step back, away from the koi pond, in a steady retreat that makes it hard for Thunderclash to ask any follow up questions. At the edge of the bridge, Pharma calls out, “Remember! The responsibility for everyone’s good time is entirely on you!”

And then he’s off like a shot, a blue and red streak against the sunny midday sky.

“Oh,” Thunderclash says, mustering up a smile. “Is it?”

Despite the fact that Thunderclash knows the names and occupations of more than a hundred mechs in his immediate vicinity, he feels deeply, powerfully alone.

 

 

 

The Annalects of Alpha Trion: Unabridged and Annotated

“We will start with this,” Magnus says, and aims his laser pointer at the large, neat writing on the holo board. Starscream squints at the device in his massive hand.

“Is that alive?” he says. “It looks awfully similar to someone I used to know in Iacon. He never paid his tab. You wouldn’t believe how much engex those little tanks could put away.”

Magnus hesitates. He looks at his hand. “No,” he says. “I’m sure it’s… just a convenient… device.”

Nonetheless, he sets it down on the top of the podium Rung conjured for him ten minutes ago and pushes it away with one fingertip. He resets his voice with a little pop .

“The Analects of Alpha Trion,” he starts again. “Rung has provided you with a copy.”

Like clockwork, Rung is at the edge of the desk, holding out a ‘pad in the same basic shape as the ones Starscream used to buy as a student. It unfolds into two screens, one for notes and one for whatever download he’s looking at. The Analects are already queued up for him. He longs powerfully for some of that brackish homebrew the sleep-deprived denizens of the chem lab used to whip up.

“According to Alpha Trion, society begins with the Prime,” Magnus says. “The Prime of Primes is Primus, who models the perfect relationship of subject to overseer… The relationship of a captain to his soldiers is modeled off this on a smaller scale, and the employer to his employees… Rules are put in place by the overseer for the benefit of the subjects…”

Magnus turns to the board, neatly writing the glyph for “alpha” [beginning][first value of a set] next to “prime” [beginning][source code].

“Alpha Trion argues that order begins with the logic tree,” he says, tapping the glyph for prime. “It is an important distinction to make that this beginning is rooted in a concept of genesis rather than--”

“Okay that was fun!” Starscream says, and shoots to his feet. “I feel like a better person already, let’s call it a day.”

“Sit down ,” Magnus says, in a voice that could make a typhoon sink away in shame. Starscream sits. Scrap. That was pure instinct, he didn’t mean to do that.

“Look,” he wheedles, leaning forward over the desk onto his elbows. “Can’t we at least do the abridged version? The Idiot’s Guide to Ethics? I don’t need to know who invented moral philosophy, do I? Can’t I just--download a patch or something?”

“You mean shadowplay,” Magnus says, looking as if Starscream had set a wriggling organic parasite down in his soup bowl.

“What? No!”

“You would like me to patch your core processor with a completely foreign set of values, altering your ability to perceive the world, your sense of self, and your most basic personal autonomy,” Magnus says. “In short, shadowplay.”

Starscream sucks on his lip, tapping the tips of his fingers together. “Okay,” he says, “so… not that, then.”

“I am teaching you from the beginning because of Alpha Trion’s precept,” Magnus says. “ Order arises from the source . The law doesn’t just exist , Starscream. Each regulation and ordinance exists to combat an outgrowth of disorder.”

Starscream give him a narrow, mirthless smile. “The law exists to make crimes,” he says, with a familiar sing-song lilt.

“That is a grossly inaccurate understanding of legal philosophy,” Magnus says, stiffly.

“Prisoners do the jobs nobody else wants to do, and they do them for free,” Starscream counters.

“There must be punishment if the law is to be taken seriously.”

“Right,” Starscream says, “and I suppose it’s only a coincidence that manual classes are sentenced to hard labor while the desk jockeys up in the towers get let off with a fine, eh? Nobody benefits from that, I’m sure.”

“The labor of a microscope would not serve the state in the same way as--”

“Sure, sure,” Starscream says, “but if that’s the morally correct punishment for the crime, it should be morally correct for everyone, shouldn’t it?”

Magnus considers him for a moment. Then he turns to the board. “What you’re describing is a school of moral objectivism,” he says, sketching the glyph for the term below the other two, “in which there are rational procedures for identifying morally impermissible actions--”

He sketches an equation, a = a, and then a more complicated series of iterations from that.

“But your suggestion doesn’t take into account the increased suffering of a frametype not built for the work they’ve been assigned. Increased suffering, as punishment for the same original crime, doesn’t satisfy the rational procedure for universal sentencing.”

Starscream tightens his jaw, the claw of his thumb slowly digging into the desktop. He knows there’s something wrong here, but he can’t articulate it--can’t pry it out of the long string of fancy words Magnus is throwing at him.

Is he meant to feel stupid? Is Magnus putting him in his place?

Perhaps ,” he grits out, “if you began by defining your terms?”

Magnus considers him for a moment, and then pushes the current contents of the screen aside, opening up a new space on the board. “Forgive me,” he says. “I forgot that we are not currently in a scholastic setting. You haven’t received the primary linguistic downloads.”

He starts laying out neat lines of glyphs, some of which Starscream recognizes, and most of which he does not.

“First we will work on laying a groundwork for your vocabulary,” Magnus says, “and then we will move on to the Analects of Alpha Trion , which is the basic philosophy upon which all later legal systems are founded. It is one of the few complete works to survive the Warring Primes era, and I think you will find it surprisingly non-Functionist…”

And Magnus just barrels on, without stopping to rub in the fact that Starscream basically just admitted he has no idea what most of these words mean. If anything--and it’s hard to tell, because Magnus doesn’t exactly express positive emotions like a normal bot--he seems like he’s more enthused about doing vocabulary work than he was about just lecturing.

He really does have neat handwriting.

So this is still terrible, but it seems like Magnus isn’t actively trying to make him look like a fool. It’s a small comfort, but, still. In a place like this, he’ll take what he can get. Starscream slowly untenses, first at his fists, and then his shoulders, and then his ramrod spine.

It’s an excruciating thing, to be known--the last person to know Starscream is long gone now, and that knowing long gone with him. Magnus hasn’t smiled for him since that night in the garden, when he thought he was watching the stars with a dashing philanthropist. If he smiled now for the real Starscream, laid bare in the daylight, what would it be like?

He thinks of a smile that he remembers from exhaust-stained dormitories and crowded starship laboratories, and wonders if Magnus’s smile would look anything like the same.

Chapter Text

 

Out of the many many residents of the Cosy Cosign, only two have no prior expectations of Thunderclash, Daring Adventurer and Unflaggingly Winning Public Personality. Even Ultra Magnus, otherwise quite dour, has admitted to Thunderclash (during a quiet moment at the welcome party) that he found Thunderclash’s publications on the topic of punctuation and syntax in contemporary standard neo-cybex to be a personal inspiration. And he said it so shyly, stiff and awkward, that Thunderclash had no choice but to find it endearing.

Thunderclash had thought: of all the things from which someone could form an opinion about him, better that it be something he had put genuine effort into than something he had stumbled across by accident. His dozens and dozens of research papers authored over the centuries were at least his own work, from start to finish, and they hadn’t been paid for in spilled energon and wreckage (except in the way that all his successes were ultimately paid for in the like).

Nonetheless, Ultra Magnus was still a fan, and a fan could not be dissapointed.

This left, somewhat ironically, the two mechs to whom Thunderclash felt closest. There was, of course, Hot Rod, who lived in his home with him and who, of course, was something of a twin spark pining away for love of him the same way Thunderclash was, and vice versa, and things like that. Somewhere behind that mask, anyway. A dear soul and spirit who, nevertheless, literally cannot answer any of Thunderclash’s anxious questions. Side-stepping the issue of vocal gymnastics for a moment, he is a monk, with zero prior social experiences, who would probably be pleased with anything Thunderclash produced, not simply out of love but also because, darling thing that he was, he legitimately had no standards.

Which leaves Starscream.

There’s something so refreshing about Starscream, Thunderclash decides, stopping to make idle conversation with a gaggle of mechs asking for a few more autographs. Starscream doesn’t fawn. (Not that the mechs who do fawn are bad. It’s just that he can’t often get from point A to point B without rehashing some old story about some amazing thing he did back when he was alive, and everyone always has a specific one in mind they want him to “do”, and then--well, that’s just his night.) Sometimes, he acts like he doesn’t even like Thunderclash, rolling his eyes or doing that thing with his hand where he pretends it’s a mouth and makes it talk too much, which always makes him stop and laugh. It’s been so long since anyone just treated him like a person. It’s been so long since anyone just gave him a little slag.

Starscream’s a perfect friend, an immediate and trustworthy confidant. That’s why Thunderclash is terrified of coming off too clingy--how much is too much? He hasn’t had to do any work to preserve his side of a relationship in megacycles.

Nevertheless, he’s not just a true friend--Starscream’s a socialite. He knows how parties work. If there’s anyone Thunderclash could ask for advice from (and, simultaneously, not be letting down by doing so), it’s Starscream. It’s all just a matter of asking him at the right time, and not looking desperate.

Yesterday, when they were having an all-day spark-to-spark, Starscream mentioned a specific cafe that he enjoyed frequenting with Magnus. It feels like lunchtime, or just-before-lunchtime, so they’ll probably be going there. Thunderclash just has to be there first, so he can run into them! But incognito, so he isn’t being swarmed and doesn’t miss his chance.

“Rung,” he calls, and the little mech appears beside him.

“Good morning, Thunderclash,” Rung says, “you’re looking particularly vibrant today. I love that can-do attitude I can feel in your field. How can I help you make your dreams come true?”

He smiles gracefully down at the little mech in front of him, which is a great way to not look uncomfortable. He’s not really sure why Rung spends so much extra time complimenting him , and nobody else. Was he specially programmed to do that? Does Pharma think he needs that to be happy in his afterlife? Does he need that to be happy in his afterlife? What does that say about him?

Rung smiles back up at him. One of the little mech’s pedes starts to twist in the dirt with the nervous, flustered energy of a hundred other fans before him, hands clasped low in front of his pelvic plating.

“Right, of course,” Thunderclash says, “Rung, I was wondering if maybe you could find me...some sort of disguise? Nothing big or fancy, just something that would make me...not look like me, for a little while.”

Something weird happens.


Thunderclash stares at him. “Rung?” Confusion swirls in his tanks. “Did you--I swear you--are you alright?”

“I am fully charged and ready for duty,” Rung says with a smile. “Preliminary scans show no sign of internal damage or redundant code lines.”

“But you just--”

“Would you still like your disguise?” Rung interrupts, raising it up, and Thunderclash blinks. He can’t quite remember what he was saying to Rung--he was sure it was important--

“Oh, it’s perfect,” he says as he glances down at last. Gently, he takes the fake optical augmentors out of the smaller mech’s hands. “There’s even facial insignia on it!”

Rung clasps his hands behind his back, shoulders hunching ever-so-slightly in modest shyness. “And a nose,” he says, “to hide your extremely famous profile from onlookers. Does it meet your expectations?”

“It’s perfect, ” Thunderclash says, smiling. “And there was something else--I swear there was something else--” he pauses, pursing his lips. Something--oh! “Could I get a newspaper, too? Um, a big one. I’m feeling sort of old-fashioned.”

 

 

 

The host gives Thunderclash a corner booth and an odd look at his request, squinting down at him in something like confusion before assuring him a waiter will be with him shortly and walking off. Probably, he thinks, confused by the presence of an unfamiliar new mech in the neighborhood, who no one has ever seen before and is incredibly inauspicious. Is that the word he means? Insuspicious. Incipid. Insomething.

At a table closer to the center of the room, Starscream and Ultra Magnus are leaning intently over something on their table. It looks like a big piece of painted aluminum in spun-candy colors. Little miniature tech-ewes and meeples dot the landscape. They seem focused--still, Thunderclash doesn’t want to be caught spying. He unfolds his huge hardcopy newsfeed and hides his face behind it.

“That’s my tile you landed on,” Starscream is saying, “you have to give me--it says forty-k here. So sad.”

“That isn’t your tile.”

“My house is on it! See? There’s a little house, and it’s green. I’m green.”

“You couldn’t possibly own that property. It’s been out of your budget all game,” Ultra Magnus says calmly, “besides, I’ve had it marked down since round two on my Longest Road card.”

“It can’t be yours! You must have made a mistake. Your little house isn’t on it.”

“What’s in your hand?”

“Nothing!”

“What’s in your hand.”

As they erupt into a small argument about whether or not Starscream has been stealing Magnus’ pieces, Thunderclash gives his newsfeed a once-over. There’s an awful lot of articles for a publication in a neighborhood where everyone is already dead, but most of them seem to just turn into keysmashing about three paragraphs in. On page J13, there’s a picture of Ultra Magnus, looking confused and slightly blurry. ‘Prospective editor in chief?’ The caption says. ‘Exclusive interview below!’

“If you would just pop the pop-o-matic popper and do some basic subtraction, ruled on the laws of general mathematical probability--”

“Don’t use logic against me, we’re talking about your relative guilt vis a vis how many of my sheep you have under the table.”

“Four! Okay? I have four of them! But I stole them out of your supply at the beginning of the game, I didn’t take them off your tiles or anything once they were down!”

Thunderclash finds the interview on the page. ‘New editor in chief? The former lawyer Ultra Magnus has the stuff! “I don’t understand the purpose of journalism in the afterlife,” he says. “Also, I’m uncomfortable with how subjective it is. And nobody reads the paper, anyway. Where are they even distributed? I haven’t seen any stands. How can you be sure they’re up to code?” We’re excited to have him on the team!’

“So what? The point of games is to win!”

“The point of games is to play.”

“Oh, whatever. I can’t even have this argument with you right now. I’m taking a breather.” Starscream stands from his table, scattering little figurines of animals and resources across the board, and turns on his heel, storming away from his table.

Right towards Thunderclash’s booth.

“Hey, I’m sitting here,” Starscream says authoritatively, slinging himself into the padded seat across from him. “Magnus is being a total aftport about board games right now. Who even invented those, anyway? Someone who hates fun?”

Thunderclash reboots his optics behind his amazing disguise. “How did you know I was here?”

“Uh,” Starscream says, “I saw you the minute you came in?”

“Through my disguise?”

Starscream purses his lips. “I don’t know if you, uh, know this, ‘Clash,” he says, “but there’s like, a huge eagle. On your chest. It’s blue. There’s a border to make it pop, in case somebody misses it. Nice beaglepuss, by the way, the paper’s a nice touch.”

Thunderclash sighs. “Of course it wouldn’t fool you,” he concedes, pulling it off his face, “you just pay such close attention.”

“Uh, sure,” Starscream says, squinting. Distantly, Thunderclash is aware of a minibot three tables down squealing ‘omigosh, is that Thunderclash?’ as soon as the augmentors drop. “So is there a reason you’ve been sitting in the corner spying on us for a quarter of a… I can never remember how time works here. A quarter of an R, maybe? An e?”

“I haven’t been spying!” Thunderclash insists. “I was just… waiting. I didn’t want to interrupt your… together time.”

“First off, gross,” Starscream says, “second off, if you ever see me trapped in a board game, you’re free to interrupt any time. You’re literally rescuing me. They should spell it B-O-R-E-D, am I right? Bored game.”

“I can hear you,” Ultra Magnus calls from the other table, where he’s delicately placing pieces back on the tabletop.

“Then stop listening, this is a private conversation between me and my best friend Thunderclash,” Starscream yells over his shoulder, and turns back to face Thunderclash, who hides his smile behind his hand with a little thrill in his spark. “So I rephrase my apparently impossible question: why were you… waiting to talk to me?”

“Oh, um,” Thunderclash stammers. It’s one thing to know he needs help and who can help him--it is quite another, he realizes, to ask for it. He’s supposed to be good at everything--people rely on him, they--they’re everywhere, crushing in around him. Would the waiter think less of him, knowing he couldn’t do this on his own? Would the minibot in the corner, quietly recording him with a built-in camera? Would Starscream?

A hot, heavy feeling stuffs his vents. There’s no going back now--he covers the side of his face with his hand, shielding himself from the rest of the restaurant, and leans forward over the table. “I, um,” he says, “I need some… help. Advice.”

Starscream pauses--his optics move left, then right, brightening and dimming like a hyperspeed light cycle. They focus on his hand, on his elbow pressed into the countertop.

And then he leans forward and raises the opposite hand, hiding his own face, and dims his optics subtly, blocking the both of them from view. “Romantic trouble?” he mutters, lowering his voice. “Rod--uh--Hot Rod giving you heel?”

“I--oh! No, ah, I’m still fighting the fight on that front, yes,” Thunderclash says, “but that isn’t what I came to ask about. Um.” He bites the inside of his cheek and glances at the little wall of servos that--without hesitation--Starscream built with him. He doesn’t expect anything from me, he reminds himself. “Pharma asked for my help in planning an… event,” he says, “because I helped you the other day? And of course I said yes, because he’s the architect and helping him means making this place run smoothly, and he said it would be so helpful and that it would make everyone so happy, because they love me and they all want to be at something I planned. And I love having a project.”

“Wow, big stuff. Are you just here to brag?”

“No!” Thunderclash hisses. His spare hand scrambles in a spasm against the tabletop and jerks up to his face. “I have no idea how to plan an event! I’m going to do a terrible job and it’ll be awful and I’m terrified!” He grabs for his own mouth, like he can catch the terror spilling out of it and shove it back in. After a moment, he offlines his optics and ex-vents, blowing heat across the table in a wave. “I’m sorry,” he says, “I just--”

“Don’t apologize to me,” Starscream says. Thunderclash keeps his optics offline. Even sinking his heat hasn’t made him feel calmer--he couldn’t possibly look up now. “First of all, you did the right thing by being bad at something, so that you have to ask me for help.”

He onlines his optics again, managing a smile. It always does make him feel a little better when Starscream starts “roasting” him. “I’m glad you’re here,” he replies. “I didn’t feel like there was anyone else I could go to.”

“Uh,” Starscream says, “sure.”

Too much? Thunderclash wants to sigh. He never knows exactly where to stop, and Starscream looks slightly uncomfortable. He just hopes he didn’t overstep his bounds entirely--maybe he can pull this whole thing back. “You told me yesterday you used to organize… events,” he says after a moment, “charity galas, and things. Pharma wants me to organize the opening of Vega’s new restaurant, it’s his lifelong dream that he can only achieve here. It’s the most important thing in his afterlife, and it’s--it’s really important for it to go well. I don’t know if--well, I don’t know where to start.” He flexes the fingers in their little hand-wall. “You’ve done this before. What do I do?”

“Oh! Okay, yeah,” Starscream says, tapping the index finger of his other hand on the table. “Okay, so party planning 101 is literally just making someone else’s vision come to life. Who’s opening the bar?”

“Restaurant.”

“Whatever. Vega, right? You need to talk to Vega. Go to him and ask him, like, ‘what kind of music do you want? How crowded should it be? Who do you want there?’ Is there a guest list?”

Thunderclash feels his tank churn. “Yes, um--”

“So you can look at that and figure out how many people you’re going to need to sit in this venue. Go to the building, check it out, figure out how many seats you’re going to need.” He throws a tiny, delicate hand to the wind. “And that’s it! I’m not kidding, that’s literally it. Music, seating--it’s a restaurant, so you don’t need to worry about food or drinks, the house should be providing those. Just double-check with him so he knows that’s on him, make sure he has wait-staff. That should all be in place, but double-check, and if he doesn’t, get in contact with a--I guess there aren’t temp agencies here, huh? Grab some volunteers from town. And that seems like all you’re supposed to be doing. Everything else is hardware, which I assume Rung is taking the lead on.”

Thunderclash curls his fingers nervously on the tabletop. “But I don’t really know how to do--even those things,” he admits.

“You don’t have to! You’re just planning. No one’s asking you to get up on stage and start, uh, trilling. Orating?” He wrinkles his nose. “You know, actually I did once have a performer bail on me, and I did get up there and give it my all. Not too bad. No one threw rocks, and that was a tougher crowd than this. You’ll do fine.”

“Really?”

“Well, I don’t know your range. Maybe you could do a bit from Cuckold’s Revenge, that always gets the crowd--”

“I just mean--” Thunderclash flails for words, biting the inside of his cheek. “You make it sound so easy, but I feel really… overwhelmed.”

“It’s just asking for help, TC,” Starscream says, “and you know everyone. Ask people for help with music. I’m sure someone would be willing to play, especially to help you. Everyone loves helping you. They basically worship you here.”

“They do,” Thunderclash says with a smile, “everyone but you. That’s why--”

“Yeah, yeah,” Starscream cuts him off, waving his adorable little hand through the air, “that’s why I never help you, and I’m always mean, and you have to go into recharge wondering what my damage is every night, right?”

Thunderclash smiles. “I was going to say that’s why I asked you,” he says, “is there something you need to tell me?”

“What? No!” Starscream sits up straight, shoulders rolling back, well-polished wings bouncing. “I’m an upright citizen of great renown, who never keeps secrets, and you’re lucky to know me, actually.”

Thunderclash laughs. “Thank you,” he says, “I’m going to--I’m going to ask for help. I think I can… I think I know how to start.”

Starscream crosses his arms over his chassis, optics unreadable. “Look, I should go,” he says, “Magnus and I were going to try to finish this dumb, pointless game thing as a morning activity, and I’d love to blow him off, but right now I’m losing and I can’t let him have the satisfaction.”

“I understand.”

“You said this thing’s in a few days?”

“Yes, it--oh!” Thunderclash startles, pops open a cabinet in his subspace. “I have your invitation, actually,” he says, rummaging around, “I wanted to give it to you personally, just to make sure it got to you.” He frowns as he produces it. He’d had to ask for it to be made special. Starscream hadn’t, actually, been on the guest list, which was odd, because everyone else in the neighborhood had been--even Hot Rod, who wasn’t much of a conversationalist, and anyway had already mimed his choice to decline with surprising fervor. Vega probably left him off by accident, or maybe there had been some kind of glitch with the system.

If he didn’t know any better, he’d say it felt a little deliberate.

Starscream takes it in a slim hand, peers down at the meticulous diamond shard calligraphy. “Thanks,” he says, “uh, look. I live right next door. How about I come over in the afternoon the next few days? Help you out if you need help, get skid marks over all your nice furniture… Magnus is kind of an introvert, he needs a lot of personal time in a day so he can recharge, and I get bored. I’m actually just being selfish, here.”

“Oh, Starscream,” Thunderclash says, “you’re too kind. You don’t know how much that means to me.”

And he smiles--and Starscream, after a moment, smiles back.

 

 

 

Another day, another lecture. Starscream’s servo is going to leave a mark in the soft proto-metalloy of his face as he scribbles notes and tries desperately to want to care about whatever it is Magnus is explaining to him.

Outside, on the hill, several of their neighbors are playing fetch with tame turbo-kits, which are adorable if you forget that their teeth were evolved to break open primary fuel lines and siphon live energon from screaming prey. The weather is beautiful, like it always is. Starscream wouldn’t admit to wanting to play with a larval turbo fox like some kind of bourgeois idiot, but he can admit to wishing he was up there, in the atmosphere, stretching his wings.

“Alpha Trion, however, argues that a correct ruler will govern his subjects with love and concern for their wellbeing,” Magnus is saying. “Rather than the fear of coercion, with reciprocal love--”

They say turbo-kits are safe as long as they’re well fed. As long as the maturation blockers keep them from reaching their adult stage, as long as they still regard their owner as their care provider. They say that.

“Of these,” Starscream murmurs, “it is better to be feared than loved.”

Magnus turns and frowns at him. “We haven’t covered that. What are you quoting?”

What is he quoting? He looks away from the window, frowning as well. He can feel the words in his head, the familiar rhythm of them. It’s something he’s said to himself before, like a mantra, something so old it’s almost worn meaningless. It’s--the smell of discharging null rays, the hollow feeling of a dark room, a smile that isn’t a smile on a mouth that--

“Some old rhyme, probably,” he says. “Forget it. Can we finish early today? Thunderclash’s thing is tomorrow, I feel like I should go over a little earlier and help.”

Magnus gives him a strange look. “You’ve been over there the past few days,” he says, “surely there can’t be so much more to do, so close to the event?”

Starscream frowns. “Well, it’s not that,” he says, “I just want to… I mean, he seems so anxious. I dunno. And I actually feel like I’m making progress with that.”

“Do you not feel like you’re making progress in my class?”

“That’s not it, I’m just--” he pauses, heaves a little ex-vent. It’s hard to say exactly what his problem is, actually. It’s so nice out, but they can’t ever study outside because someone might overhear them. Little turbofoxes run this way and that across the lawns.

“When I make progress here, I’m learning about laws and how to be a good person,” he says after a moment, “and every day I learn something new, I’m learning about how something I used to do that I thought was smart or cool or worthwhile is actually wrong, and I was bad for doing it, and it makes me feel like garbage. At least when I’m helping Thunderclash, I feel like I’m making something good happen because I have a skill, and I’m using it to, I don’t know, make something work? It just feels productive.”

When he looks up, Magnus is regarding him carefully. “I didn’t know you felt that way,” Magnus says. “I assumed your recalcitrance came from boredom, or disinterest in the subject. I apologize if my lesson plan--”

“Oh, Primus, don’t apologize to me,” Starscream says, waving a hand, “look, there’s nothing you or your lesson plan can do that won’t make me feel like a heel, okay? That’s just… I can get through it, alright? I’ve felt like a heel my entire life. At least now I’ve got the option not to feel like a heel, even if it’s by feeling like a heel.” He sighs. “I’m just tired. I need a break. Then I can get back to it.”

There’s a pause as Starscream stares out the window, only 15% aware of Magnus fiddling awkwardly with his holoboard stylus. “I admit to feeling slightly fatigued, myself,” he says. “Perhaps you should visit with Thunderclash for a while. I could get started on reading your most recent essay.”

Starscream perks up. “You could go for a walk or something, you know,” he says, already straightening his desk and shutting down his notepad, “it’s a beautiful day out--I won’t be long, just an hour or two, I won’t even stop and meditate with Hot Rod--”

Magnus hums noncommittally, gazing out the windows. “Maybe I will,” he says, as Starscream fiddles with the door handle, “Starscream?”

“Hm?”

“You are making unprecedented progress,” he says, “and I’m pleased that your activity of choice is to help someone else, rather than to serve yourself. It suits a resident of this neighborhood.”

And as Starscream strides across the lawn, stumbling up the hill, he tries to figure out what it is about a sentence like that that makes him feel so guilty.

He is helping! He is! So what if it’s basically just an excuse to be in the house so he can sneak away and hang out with Rodimus after he’s given Thunderclash some super-basic instructions? So, technically, he’s taken a hit or two of dross in the past week, but he’s stressed out about literally everything. Anyone who wasn’t Ultra Magnus, Duly Appointed Enforcer of the Tyrest Accords, would totally get it. They’d probably do the same thing.

Anyway, befriending people is good, right? Being nice to them. Getting to know them. Starscream’s got a twofer on that. He smiles and nods at TC, and then makes pained eye contact with Rodimus behind his back when he starts going on about how fragging famous he is again.

He is there kind of early. Starscream lets himself in through one of the many side-doors, partially because he can’t take an excited face full of Thunderclash without a little prep time first and partially because it’s closer and he doesn’t feel like walking all the way around the building to get to the front door when he knows he’s allowed in anywhere. He glances longingly at a large, ornamental vase in gold with sapphire inlay. No way would that fit in his subspace.

On the floor above, he can hear distant footsteps--from several rooms over, the sound of talking voices. He picks up the floating sound of Vega’s nasal intonation, and frowns. Is Thunderclash actually taking initiative and doing planning stuff by himself? Maybe he’ll just go hang out with Rodimus upstairs, shoot the scrap and--

“Starscream isn’t here,” Thunderclash’s voice carries. That perks his audials up. Talking about him behind his back? Up on the tips of his pedes, he scrambles forward towards the door to get a closer listen. Finally, proof that Thunderclash isn’t the sweetsie sparkling he’s been acting this whole time.

“Who?” Vega says. Starscream scowls. Okay, maybe not as juicy as he thought.

Starscream,” Thunderclash repeats. There’s the gentle sound of flapping paper, like he’s handing something back. “Ultra Magnus’ sparkmate? Lives next door? He isn’t on the list. And I put him there last week.”

“Oh, of course,” Vega says, “you said he was working on the team, so he’s not listed as a guest. I have him on the volunteer list--Pharma says he has some experience on waitstaff, so I put him on that.”

Starscream’s countenance darkens. Experience on waitstaff, sure, he’s got loads, he’d love to unlock his null rays and show these two exactly how much experience he’s got--

“Oh, no, there must have been a miscommunication,” Thunderclash says with that polite little laugh, “I didn’t mean that he was volunteering for work at the event. He’s on the organizational team, he’s been working with me on planning. He’ll still need a seat for dinner, just something closer to the back of the house in case there’s an emergency or something.”

Oh. Starscream’s fingers unclench. Of course, Thunderclash wouldn’t say something that might get around. He’s probably more conscientious of gossip, that kind of thing… he was a celebrity, after all.

“Starscream? Isn’t he a seeker? Am I thinking of someone else?”

“That’s him.”

“Well… but…” Vega pauses, like he’s struggling for words. “On planning detail? Doesn’t that seem a little… you know, beyond him?”

Ugh, of course. Starscream rolls his optics. The good place, and he’s still being mocked and underestimated. Only a grounder would buy into such outdated scrap.

The lull in the conversation drags on for… longer than it should.

“I don’t understand what you mean,” Thunderclash says stiffly, “has Starscream given you reason to doubt his abilities?”

“No, of course not,” Vega says quickly, “it’s just--well, you know how seekers are.”

“No,” Thunderclash replies, “I don’t know how seekers are.” He doesn’t sound curious. If anything, Starscream thinks, he sounds angry. “Frankly, I don’t think you do, either.”

“That’s not what I meant,” Vega replies, “I just mean--I don’t think big picture stuff is really his area of expertise, do you? I think he’d be much happier on something smaller. You know what they say about--”

“I’ve just told you, I don’t know what anyone else says about that,” Thunderclash snaps, “and I don’t understand why you think his frame should have anything to do with the responsibilities he’s already taken on. Starscream has done more to organize this than anyone else on the team, whether you’ve noticed or not, and I will not put him on waitstaff at the last moment. I need him with me, to make changes on-scene if things go wrong.”

“Oh, Thunderclash, you’re so humble--don’t think so little of yourself--”

“I am not thinking little of myself,” Thunderclash interrupts, “I am thinking-- period-- of Starscream, who you have somehow managed to miss or ignore for the entirety of this week. Either he’s present as my co-organizer, or I won’t be present at all.”

“Thunderclash!” Vega splutters. “Please be reasonable.”

“I am being reasonable,” Thunderclash says. “Starscream is my co-organizer and more importantly, my friend. He will not be waitstaff.”

Footsteps, heavy, and coming towards his hiding place. Starscream scrambles back on some old, forgotten instinct and throws himself into the next room to the background sound of voices. His gaze leaps for something innocuous to be doing, settling for the gold-and-sapphire vase and poking it experimentally. Nothing happens. After a moment, he shifts his weight.

Yes, absolutely, the picture of nonchalance.

Actually, he’s kind of reeling. Starscream sort of figured Thunderclash hadn’t cared about the way other mechs in the neighborhood routinely pretended Starscream wasn't right in front of them, or even that he thrived on the way they put him in his place. He definitely figured the big gaudy bastard wouldn’t give him the time of day when he wasn’t useful anymore. But that’s the most nice things anyone has ever said about Starscream at once, and it wasn’t even in front of him, right after he won a lot of money--in fact, it was behind his back, for absolutely zero social capital. Thunderclash took a net loss. For him.

The door bursts open much more aggressively than Starscream expected it to, and he tries not to startle himself out of his super nonchalant ‘I totally wasn’t just eavesdropping on your private conversation’ position when he turns to face Thunderclash. “Oh,” Thunderclash says, startled, “Starscream!”

“Thunderclash,” Starscream replies, “what a surprise to see you in your own house! I assume that open invitation still stands.”

“Of course, always,” Thunderclash says, smiling at him. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you’d be here so early--I have to rush off and talk to Racketwrench, he’s agreed to compose some covers of Vega’s requested song list for the quartet, he wants me to listen in on them.”

“Orchestrate,” Starscream corrects quickly, “orchestrate some covers. Seems like you’ve got it in hand--I’ll let you go, couldn’t let you be late to that. I’ll, er, make conversation with Hot Rod.”

“Are you sure you wouldn’t like to come?” Thunderclash’s lips purse slightly. “You’re more discerning about music than I am, I’m sure you’d be awfully helpful with critique…”

“Believe me, if it isn’t perfect the day before the performance, it isn’t getting changed by tomorrow,” Starscream says, “besides, I’m sure they’d much rather hear praise coming from you. Whatever you say will be fine.”

Thunderclash chews his lip. “If you’re sure,” he says after a moment, “of course, you’re welcome to stay as long as you like, I’m sure Hot Rod is upstairs meditating somewhere, just waiting for someone to come make conversation at him--with, make conversation with him--so I’ll just… pop off, and see you when I get back?”

“It’s a plan. Knock ‘em dead.”

He waits until Thunderclash is well away over the lawn before he makes his way upstairs. He pauses briefly to examine a light fixture hanging from the wall, which is slightly discolored in places marked by the absence of black pearls. Maybe no one noticed they were missing, or maybe they can’t be replaced, somehow.

“Rodimus,” he calls, when he gets to the door of the Rod Pod, “I’m not coming in, that place is nasty.”

Rodimus pokes his head out the door. “Is he gone?” he asks, sliding into the over-decorated hallway. Just beyond the railing of the staircase, there’s a sheer drop down to the main hall, giving the little alcove a feeling of grandeur and superiority. And it’s furnished. For obvious reasons, it’s Starscream’s favorite spot.

“Yeah, he’s off doing some final check for tomorrow,” Starscream says, “he left me here, so I figured I’d come up while I wait.”

“Ugh, finally,”  Rodimus says, throwing himself face-down onto the flat of a chaise lounge dramatically. “He’s so annoying. You know, he was talking to that guy in the front hall for like an hour, and I couldn’t even come through here. It’s like he can’t even respect that I’m avoiding him and stay out of high-traffic areas.”

Starscream stares at Rodimus.

“Aw, come on,” Rodimus says, wriggling his face out of the pillows to glance back at him, “what’s that face for? Wait, was it you he was talking to? I’m sorry I didn’t recognize your voice from up here, okay, I was busy trying to--”

“It wasn’t me, okay?” Starscream interrupts, “it was--it doesn’t matter. That’s not what’s bothering me.”

Rodimus squints. “Then… what is bothering you?”

Starscream sits down in one of the high-backed chairs, squinting at the guard railings of the marble stairs. Something in his tank is churning, like it’s trying to whirl the contents into syrup, scraping at him almost painfully.

“We just sit around dunking on him all day,” he says distantly, “and I only… I mean, I don’t see him that often, I don’t really see him in private. Is he really so bad?”

“Don’t get me started,” Rodimus groans. “He’s awful, man, don’t go soft on me. I thought you were cool. All he does is stand around talking to himself and try to make me do long boring things that no one in their right mind would do, you know? You want some dross? I already had some this morning, but I can get you some.”

“I have to work when he gets back,” Starscream says. “Look, I don’t think he’s--I mean, he’s condescending--”

“The most condescending.”

“But he’s--” Starscream bites the inside of his cheek. “I don’t like him that much either, but he’s trying. Can’t you just try?”

“Try what?”

“Try… I don’t know. Connecting with him, I guess. Not always avoiding him.”

Rodimus wrinkles his face up. “Gross,” he says, “pass.”

Starscream feels a flicker of frustration. Where the churning of his tank once held an uneasy anxiety, he’s now scraping up irritation. “I’m trying,” he snaps, “you think I want to spend time with Magnus, being honest and open with him? Thunderclash is the whole reason you’re even here. I’m not saying you have to be nice to him, I’m just asking if it would kill you to be a little less awful to him, once in a while.”

“Listen, I don’t need a lecture from you on how I need to be nicer and who deserves it, okay?” Rodimus is straightening up, face definitely veering for the pissed-off. “I have to pretend I’m some slagging Camien monk all the time. At least you have someone you can be honest with, but I just have you! At least when I’m not around him I don’t have to pretend! Do you know what it’s like to be lying to everyone, all the time?”

“Of course I do!” Starscream snaps. “I am well-versed in that existence, okay? Look, I’m not going to tell you what to do, because neither I nor anyone else in this universe can control you, apparently.” He sighs, rubs the circles under his optics. “I’m just saying--the reason he wants to do all that boring slag with you is because he’s trying to… to connect. And he’s your sparkmate! Maybe the reason you can’t get on with him is because you’re pretending to be something else. Maybe you could just--bring a little of whatever makes you you to the table.”

Rodimus leans back, ex-venting in a low rattle. “I like the idea of bringing me to something,” he admits after a moment. “Usually, the problem with things is that I’m not in them, making them good.”

“I feel the same way,” Starscream agrees, “only with me, instead of you. Every event I’ve ever been to could almost certainly not use more of you in it.”

“So… I should be… me,” Rodimus says, squinting. “You think I should get flame decals? I had flame decals back on Cybertron. They were so good, they were like--kind of like his dumb eagle thing, only flames, so it was cool, instead of dumb.”

“Maybe just be… the best version of you,” Starscream amends, “like if you were going to a job interview.”

“I’ve never been to a job interview,” Rodimus says, scrunching up his face. “When I need credits I just go to my guy Bookie down at the canal and ask him to put me in whatever race is paying out best on account of it’s super dangerous and will kill me, maybe. That or I knock over an energon transport, I do that sometimes.”

Starscream stares at him. “How does someone your size knock over an entire transport truck?”

“Oh, it’s way easier now that me ‘n Drift are hanging out,” Rodimus says, “‘cause I’m the fastest thing on four wheels and Drift’s built like a Prix winner with an aft to match, so when he does the bend-and-snap for the transport truck, I just--”

And Starscream sits there in horror and a certain amount of awe as Rodimus describes exactly how he and his partner in crime regularly seduce, rob, and escape from several-ton semi trucks. God damn, a small part of him thinks, I wish we had thought of that.

“Okay, no,” he says, when Rodimus starts detailing the exact backstory and identity of each of his fences, one of which is actually named Fence. “No, no, look. Forget the job thing. Think of this like a… like a slag crucible. The best version of you is the version of you that you want people to see. The version of you that holds up to… scrutiny.”

He’s thinking of the park again--he’s thinking of Ultra Magnus and the shot-scatter of illusory stars, he’s thinking of the night and the glittering garden, the absence of a kiss against his mouth.

“The version of you that someone could love,” he says, almost absently, as his memory retraces the garden again and again. “It’s whatever little of you is worth something.”

“Deep,” says Rodimus. “So yes to the flame decals?”

 

 

 

“The Rule of Law as a concept was first proposed by Lectus Maximus,” Magnus says, poking an overlarge finger at the House of Lectus insignia on the projection. “It proposes that every member of society is subject to the same laws, even those who write and enforce the laws. At first Primes were considered exempt from this, given the divine right of rule…”

Starscream startles from his glazed slump at the sound of something outside the house giving a sudden wump.

“During the warring primes period, however, the divine right of rule came under some scrutiny,” Magnus goes on, despite the growing volume of thumps outside. “Of course at that time only radical secularists denied the divinity itself, but after the Massacre at Ambustus Major, political theoreticians began to argue that Primes themselves should be subject to the same laws as--what is that noise?

It sounds like something enormous is going into fuel pump arrest. For a wild second Starscream entertains the horrible thought that this neighborhood could be alive , like the old colony cities, that they could be under the scrutiny of not just Pharma but the ground itself, before he realizes that the erratic beating actually follows a musical progression that he recognizes.

“That’s shard pop,” he says, standing abruptly. He walks to the door and throws it open, poking his head out to peer at the empty hillside. “Why--”

There’s a distant crackle and crash of glass breaking, and then a decorative vase ends its rocketing path across the lawn by smashing flat against one of the few metal struts in Starscream’s glass house. Starscream stares. He can hear Magnus marching over, no doubt to investigate the source of the disorder.

There’s a matching broken window in Thunderclash’s hilltop mansion. Starscream narrows his eyes.

“You wait here,” he tells Magnus, stepping out onto the lawn. “I’ll be back.”

“Starscream,” Magnus says, trying to sound all stern and teacherly and doing an annoyingly good job of it, “we should finish your lesson before--”

“I said I’d be back!” Starscream shouts, already halfway up the hill. He’s getting better at scaling this thing. “Just--collate your slides or something!”

He’s got a very bad feeling that this disruption is more than harmless noise pollution.

Starscream storms into the parlor with his wings up and his thrusters making scorch marks on the lovely altarian tile. For a half a second, as he throws the door open, he thinks he’s walked into an empty room. And then, like a rocket whizzing past his ear, Rodimus comes swooping down from the ceiling.

“Starscream!” he shouts, executing a kind of loop-de-loop in mid air that involves crouching for some reason, and Starscream has a half second to be furious with that Rodimus apparently forgot to tell him he wasn’t even a ground frame , before he notices the hoverboard.

“What do you think you’re doing!” Starscream shouts back at him.

The hoverboard hits the side of a marble-topped desk and grinds along the edge leaving a terrible pink track mark. Rodimus swings wild and launches himself into a handstand that would probably be impressive if you had one neuron in your processing network and several head injuries.

“You said to be the best version of myself!” Rodimus says, as the handstand turns into a hand-spring and he goes careening across the parlor again. “This is the most rad version of me!”

The room, on second glance, looks like the rod pod exploded all over it in a single awful purge of Nyon canal water. On the table there’s a little cube pulsing with light at each beat of the music. The beat is pretty intense, so the effect is more like a strobe.

“This is not what I meant,” Starscream hisses, and slams the power off button. The room falls abruptly silent.

“Hey!” Rodimus whines, hoverboard fizzling to a stop in mid air. “That was the good part! The BPM was just about to kick way up. Turn it back on, you’ll love this.”

“I will not love you getting our cover blown!” Starscream says, and picks up the little cube and throws it, physically, through the broken window.

“Aw slag. Rung!” Rodimus shouts, and of course the informational aid immediately appears just behind him.

“Hello, Rodimus,” Rung says, “you are looking very ‘radical’ today.”

Rodimus spins in mid-air. “Thanks babe,” he says, posing a little for his new audience. The hoverboard wobbles as he shifts his balance to cock his hip out a bit more. “Can you get me a new stereo?”

Another cube blinks into existence.

“Your decals are ‘the bomb’,” Rung tells him, and offers him the stereo.

“Why is he doing that?” Starscream snaps.

“Doing what?” Rodimus says. He’s fiddling with the buttons now.

Complimenting you!”

“Oh!” Rodimus looks up, flashing him a conspiratorial grin. “I asked him to say nice things about me like he does for Thunderclash. Why should he get special treatment?”

“Rodimus has requested that I remark upon his qualities of ‘awesomeness’, ‘rad-ability’, and ‘general bad-aft-ittude’,” Rung clarifies. “Within these parameters I have generated several hundred appropriate observations.”

“That’s not fair unless you do it for all of us,” Starscream retorts. “I demand that you address me as--”  

The door slams open as Magnus marches briskly into the parlor. “I heard shouting,” he says, in that terse kind of worried way that he gets, “is everything al--right?”

He stops, staring, as the full comprehensive pile-up of this disaster dawns on him. He looks from the wall with the 24th Vorn Grand Prix commemorative banner to the softcore pin-up of Blurr posing with a trophy cup, to Rodimus, who is still spinning in slow circles in mid-air as he fiddles with the stereo.

“What,” Magnus says, “is happening, here.”

Starscream’s core processor whines and bleeds heat like it just engaged some kind of warp drive. His fans kick on furiously.

“This is,” Starscream says, “cultural exchange. Thunderclash was--he was quite the celebrity, as we all know by now, and Hot Rod wanted to--”

“It’s Rodimus, not Hot Rod!” Rodimus calls, still spinning lazily, although it seems like he’s picking up speed now. “Rod-i-mus!”

“What he means is,” Starscream says, desperately, “in his culture, there are true names that, um, are only bestowed on the most enlightened monks, and his name… is… Rodimus.”

Magnus gives Starscream a stony, unreadable look. Then he turns his attention to Rodimus. “Is this true?”

“Nope!” Rodimus says. “Come over here and check out my new hoverboard! It’s got mad kick.”

Starscream stalks over and yanks Rodimus down by the spoiler, sending the newly unoccupied hoverboard crashing through a lamp and into the wall.

“You’re supposed to be pretending to be a good person,” he hisses.

“I am a good person,” Rodimus scowls, from the floor, rubbing gingerly at his spoiler. “I don’t need some prissy doc-bot to diagnose me with Good Person to know I am one!”

“Starscream,” Magnus rumbles, “what is going on.

Starscream throws up his hands. “Fine!” he says, “I can’t cover for you if you’re just going to undermine me at every sentence! Why don’t you tell Magnus who you are?”

Rodimus rolls to his feet, brushes himself off, and then shoots a pair of finger guns at Ultra Magnus. “Name’s Rodimus,” he says, “cool head, hot rod, and nerves of steel. Sup?”

Magnus looks like he bit into something that just started wriggling. “What is the meaning of this?”

Starscream rubs the place where his faceplate joins his helm. “Okay so you know how I’m not supposed to be here? Well, I’m not the only one.”

Magnus’ biolights blaze like a lightning storm, but his expression goes if anything more stone-faced. “Are there any other secrets you’ve been keeping from me?” he says.

Starscream actually stops and wracks his CPU. “Uh, no,” he says, “no, I think that’s the last one.”

“Are you certain?” Magnus says. “You’re not perhaps hiding some third stowaway in a closet somewhere?”

“Wow,” Rodimus whispers, loudly, over his shoulder, “he’s really mad at you.”

“I’m angry with this entire situation!” Magnus says, the stone face finally breaking into something that it kind of hurts to look at. “There are rules! There must be rules! Even in the afterlife there seems to be no peace, no order--!

Rodimus makes a little sympathetic noise and reaches out. “Hey, don’t get worked up, Big Blue. You want some dross? Rung can get us some dross.”

Magnus snatches his arm out of Rodimus’s hold like the metal burns him. “I certainly--I do not want--that is a class four felony, the procurement of--”

“Aw slag,” Rodimus says, shooting Starscream a look of supreme grief and sympathy. “Your conjunx is a narc.”

“He’s law enforcement, you knew this.”

“Mm, there’s a difference between narcs and cops,” Rodimus tells him, with a knowing look. “I knew a bunch of cops who were down in the ringside taking bets with Bookie. I bought syk off a cop once. Being a narc is about what’s in your spark, not your job.”

“Nyon is a pit of depravity and lawlessness,” Magnus says, “please do not speak any more about it.”

“Look,” Starscream cuts in, “I don’t know what’s wrong with Pharma’s neighborhood, but it’s clearly not our fault! We don’t know how to hack into heaven! We didn’t ask to be put here! But we are here, and we’re just trying to make it work!”

“Does Thunderclash know?” Magnus ask.

“No,” Starscream says, “and you can’t tell him!”

“Why not? Doesn’t he deserve to know?” Magnus says. His eyes flash as he looks between the two imposters. “Doesn’t he deserve to know he’s been saddled with a fake? A fraud? A liar?”

“Hey!” Rodimus says, “I’m not a liar! I will tell him, see how you like that!”

“No you won’t,” Starscream says, grabbing Rodimus by the collar faring and jerking him back. “Magnus, come on. Be reasonable. Wouldn’t it hurt Thunderclash more to know that Hot Rod isn’t real? Wouldn’t it… wouldn’t it be cruel to deprive him of the happiness that he’s started to make here, with nothing to offer him in compensation?”

Magnus wavers. His gaze flicks away.

“What’s that, that concept,” Starscream says, snapping his fingers. “Intent of harm. There was no intent of harm in Rodimus just existing. Pharma is the one who brought him here, and Pharma is the one who told him he should court Thunderclash. If anything, Rodimus is obeying the terms under which he arrived!”

“That is… a passably solid defense,” Magnus says.

“Just let him be Hot Rod,” Starscream says. “If you let him continue being Hot Rod, like Pharma wants, then nobody gets hurt!”

“Okay but I don’t want to pretend to be Hot Rod,” Rodimus says, wriggling in Starscream’s grip. “I want to be Rodimus!”

“Too bad,” Starscream hisses. “Because this is what you get. You get this house, and a conjunx who loves you, and all the processor-melting dross you can shovel down your greedy little intake! It’s either this, or the smelting pit. And I think you prefer your spark not boiled down for spiritual recycling.”

Rodimus breaks free, elbowing Starscream off him.

“I’m tired of you telling me I’m a bad person!” he says. “I help people all the time! I take care of the leakers down at the canal and I look out for my friends when they’re fragged up and I get my buddy Drift all the syk he needs, and I don’t narc on my pals!”

“That’s not being a good person!” Starscream shouts. “That’s being a criminal! Nobody cares if you were nice or you helped people, all they care about are the numbers on your rap sheet!”

You’re the one who tried tell Thunderclash I was a criminal!”

“Because I thought you belonged here!” Starscream throws up his hands. “It would have been the perfect red herring! If you go now, you’re just taking me down with you!”

“Eugh,” Magnus says, groping uneasily at his chassis. “I think I have a fuel leak in my central line. There must be some kind of corrosion in my--”

“Put a plug in it, you wet hypochondriac,” Starscream says, and whirls back to Rodimus. “Your inability to keep your face in a mask is going to get not just you booted, but me too!”

Rodimus makes a face at him. “What? No it won’t.”

“When they realize the system is screwed up, who do you think the first person they’re going to look at is? It’s me! The guy who knew what was going on and didn’t say anything! You might be confident about the state of your immortal spark, but me?” Starscream jerks a thumb back at his own chest. “I know what kind of slag I’ve done, and I know where I’m going. No one cares why you did it, they only care about the stain on your hands.”

“I wouldn’t tell them about you,” Rodimus says, but he sounds less confident now.

“You don’t have to!” Starscream says. “Pharma already half suspects me, I’m sure of it. And I’m the one who’s got a--” he jams a hand into his subspace and pulls out a couple loose pearls, “--a subspace full of stolen chandelier fixings! Primus, I have got to find somewhere to put these!

“Why do you have--” Magnus starts to say, but Starscream just shoves the pearls into his hands and keeps on talking.

“If you tip them off that the problem here can be people, it’s only a matter of time before they notice that I don’t belong! And you! Don’t! Narc!” he jabs Rodimus in the chest, “On your pals!”

Rodimus stumbles back from the jabs to his chest, wide-eyed. He looks from Starscream to Magnus. “They wouldn’t,” he says. “Would they?”

Magnus looks up from the fist full of purloined pearls. “I--” he says. “I would vouch for Starscream’s… willingness to improve, but… yes, I think, given the rule of law, he would likely be removed.”

“Which means Magnus,” Starscream says, going in for the kill, “would be alone. Forever.

Rodimus looks between them, sighs, and collapses petulantly into a chair. He picks at one of his new decals, which is shiny and golden and completely over the top. There must be something to the idea that he's meant to be Thunderclash’s sparkmate. Their shared taste is certainly tacky enough.

Magnus resets his voice box with a pointed little pop of static. “I have agreed to give Starscream instruction in legal ethics,” he says, straightening up into a stiff military posture. “I will extend the same service to you. Attend my lessons, apply yourself, and you may yet find that you improve yourself enough to settle amongst your peers.”

“Thanks but no thanks, Big Blue,” Rodimus says, still staring at the wall, cheek propped up on his fist. “I don’t want cop lessons from a cop.”

“You do realize I wasn’t a police officer, don’t you?” Magnus says. “I was a member of the primal vanguard, until Tyrest selected me to enforce the accords. Which is an intragalactic post .”

“You say scrap I say slag,” Rodimus replies, flicking his hand. “Whatever. No thanks for the lessons. I know I’m a good person, even if this stupid slagging system doesn’t.”

Starscream doesn’t have to look to know that Magnus is gearing up to argue, and his wing gives an irritated flick. “Leave it,” he snaps at Magnus, “he’s not gonna talk, are you, Hot Rod ?”

Rodimus glares at him for a long moment, then deflates. “Fine. I’ll shut up and be a monk, but I don’t like it.”

“No one said you had to,” Starscream says, then waves his hand at Magnus. “Let’s get out of here.”

He hasn’t taken more than two steps before the sound of the front door being thrown open and a familiar, grandiose voice echo through the house. Magnus gives Starscream a panicked look. Scrap.

“Scrap,” Starscream says, and turns around. Rodimus is also frozen in place and makes no move to help. Panic starts to light up Starscream’s systems, but then his eyes light on Rung, standing calm and patient as ever next to the broken window. “Rung!”

“Yes?”

“Clean this up! Get rid of everything he --” he jerks his head at Rodimus, who seems to be just starting to pull himself out of a haze “--had you conjure.”

“Okay!”

“And fix the window!”

“Okay!” Rung snaps his fingers, and the mess vanishes. The shards of glass from the window fly into place and meld together like they were never broken, and hoverboard and scuff of pink paint vanish with a soft chiming sound.

“Great,” Starscream says, “now frag--”

Thank you, Rung,” Magnus says with a pointed look at Starscream. As much as he would love to argue about how stupid it is to be reprimanding him about manners now, Thunderclash’s footsteps are getting closer.

“Yeah, yeah, thanks,” Starscream says in a rush. “Now go.”

Rung vanishes with another pleasant chime, and Rodimus pouts at the spot where he was standing. Starscream looks around, ready to congratulate himself on a job well done, and spots the pearls still clutched in Magnus’ hands.

“Wait, frag , give me those!” Starscream snatches the pearls out of his unresisting hands and crams them back into his subspace. He really should’ve asked Rung to take care of those too.

“And put your face back on!” Starscream snaps at Rodimus.

Thump, thump . There’s a creak at the hinges of the door, and Starscream hurriedly closes his subspace. It’s fine, everything is fine, he’s taken care of it and they’re all going to get away  with it--

Thunderclash steps through the door, and does a double take.

“What… are you all doing down here?” Thunderclash says.

Starscream’s tanks practically ice over. Oh. He didn’t think that far ahead.

“Nothing,” Rodimus says, sullenly, looking at the wall.

Thunderclash looks from Ultra Magnus, who appears physically ill from the effort of resisting the instinct to narc, to Starscream, who is just standing awkwardly in the middle of the room trying not to look like someone who has a subspace full of stolen pearls, to Rodimus, who is still slumped in the chair with his ostentatious new decals.

“I cannot believe,” Thunderclash says, slowly, “that all of you… went behind my back… to try and teach Hot Rod Neo Cybex!”

Starscream resets his audials. “I--yes--what?”

“I should have realized,” Thunderclash says, pressing his palms to his helm, “Caminus has been separate from Cybertron-proper for so long--it was millions of years ago when the colonies broke off--”

Thunderclash just about lunges across the floor, falling to one knee at the foot of Rodimus’s chair. Rodimus jerks back, wild eyed, as Thunderclash reaches nonetheless for him. The big bot takes hold of Rodimus’s golden hands like a knight swearing eternal devotion to a Prime in one of those fancy propagandas.

“All this time I thought you were just refusing to speak to me out of a sense of cultural obligation, but you’re embarrassed! Your dialect probably stagnated several thousand years ago, you don’t know anything about modern colloquial speech on the homeworld!”

Rodimus looks desperately at Starscream, very visibly straining to get his hands out of Thunderclash’s iron grip.

“Hot Rod, my beautiful, innocent Hot Rod--you should know I don’t care how silly your accent is!” Thunderclash assures him. “Nothing you do could ever embarrass me! I’m just happy to be here with you, forever, while we spend every moment of the next eternity learning absolutely everything about each other. You shouldn’t be afraid to talk to me in whatever charming little style your people are accustomed to.”

Starscream fights to keep a straight face. Even by the standards of the Shades, Rodimus’s gutter-slum slang is disorientingly modern. Rodimus, for his part, is visibly offended at the suggestion he might sound either silly or charming.

“Now that you’re speaking,” Thunderclash tells him, “you absolutely must attend the event I’m planning. I want you to be there to see the very first ever Thunderclash Soiree ever thrown--it will mean so much to me to have you there, cheering me on.”

Rodimus nods slowly.

Thunderclash slumps in visible relief. “Wonderful,” he sighs. “I know you’ll love it, I won’t let you down! Well, you or anyone else here, of course, but you especially! I’ve never met a task I couldn’t excel at on the very first try, even with--with so many people watching! And then someday you’ll be able to say you were right there at the very first ever Thunderclash Hosted Event, cheering from the sideline the whole time!”

With the look of someone who has a gun pressed against their head, Rodimus says, “Na...maste…?”

Starscream mouths what? at Rodimus, who gives him an angry little how should I know? shrug. Thunderclash is still clutching his hands like they’re some kind of primal sacrament.

“Well!” Starscream says, clapping hard enough to startle Thunderclash. “That’s enough for today, I think. Thunderclash, why don’t you show Magnus out, okay? I just need to wrap up here with Rodi--Hot Rod.”

“Of course,” Thunderclash says, and then lifts Rodimus’s hand to his mouth. He presses his lips to the knuckles, gently and lingeringly, before he finally tears himself away. The second he’s turned way to collect Ultra Magnus, Rodimus screws up his weird optics and scrubs his knuckles against the chair upholstery.

Great,” he hisses, as the parlor door closes behind both their fake conjunxes. “Now I’ve got to go to his stupid party and pretend to be some hoity toity Camien for who knows how many hours--”

“Oh how horrible, Primus spare you from free drinks,” Starscream says. “Just keep saying fake words and you’ll be fine. Bow to people. Hum enigmatically. The mask does all the work for you, you’re just being a minibot about it.”

Rodimus thumps some hidden lever and the whole chair clunks backwards into a reclining position. He eyes Starscream, expression inscrutable behind the ceramic faceplate. “It’s not me you oughta be worried about,” he says, after a moment. He nods his head meaningfully at the window, where down below the small figures of Thunderclash and Magnus are paused on the lawn.

Even from here, Starscream notes with sudden unease, Magnus looks like he’s about to crawl out of his frame. It’s a worrying posture to see on anyone, let alone someone with built-in shoulder-missiles.

Rodimus picks up a paperweight in the shape of a Creation Matrix and tosses it, absently, spinning it in midair before he catches it in his hands. “Your bot’s a bona fide narc,” he says.  “How long d’you really think he can keep this up?”

Chapter Text

Starscream points at one of the glittering strings of floating roselights on sparkling aluminum. “See that?” he says, with a little nudge at Magnus’ side. “My idea. ‘Keep the light low’, I said. ‘Low consistent light is good for dinners and dates. Super romantic and intimate’. I think it gives the whole place a nice ambiance. Approachable.”

“It’s beautiful,” Magnus replies. “Almost keeps my mind off the fact that we’re lying to the organizer of this event about his sparkmate, and if any of us are discovered, I’ll be responsible for sending both of you to the smelting pit. Am I an accomplice? How do they attribute justice in the Good Place?”

“Well, frag me for trying to keep your mind off that, I guess,” Starscream says, “come on, we’re sitting over there.” Pushing at Magnus’ shoulder with one hand and grabbing a protesting Rodimus by the spoiler with the other, he starts shoving his way towards the dimly lit corner.

“Nice spot,” Rodimus whispers, “was this whole co-organizer thing just an excuse to get your boyfriend alone in the dark with you?”

“You’re sitting at the same table, idiot, it’s for four people,” Starscream hisses back, “and if you must know, we’re here because it’s near the back of the house.”

Everything about the event really does fit together well. The music’s at a good level, stringformers backing up a woodwind soloist in a soft concerto-form orchestration of Don’t Need Money Don’t Need Fame by BaySea. (Starscream doesn’t own any of her albums, but it’s hard to avoid hearing about that one submarine femmebot who made it big.) Soft lights hang between tall columns and plinths. There’s a variety of table sizes, for larger and smaller social groups, all at a good distance from each other that the noise doesn’t get cacophonous. Starscream’s tempted to go find Thunderclash and give him a pat on the back, tell him it’s a job well done, except then he’d probably be subjected to a thirty-minute lecture on how actually this was a group effort, and oh, how could I have done it without you, my Best Friend Starscream, and basically it’d be a slagshow.

Besides, someone needs to keep an eye on Brainiac and Brainless here. Magnus looks like he’s about to implode, and Rodimus looks like he’s about to explode. Starscream sighs and takes a seat. In front of him is an empty plate, with six sets of cutlery flanking either side, and a sherry glass full of something that smells like it could melt paint off an active F-22 next to a wine glass half-full of something pale and sparkling. He goes for the sherry glass first.

To his credit, he barely winces as he forces it down his intake.

“Don’t give me that look,” he snaps at Rodimus, who’s taken a break from scratching impudently at his facemask to goggle, “I need bracing up. You two are killing me, here.”

“What was that?”

“As far as I can tell? Turpentine.” He shoots a glance the other way towards Ultra Magnus, who’s looking down at his table setting with something like horror and nausea working together to find middle ground. “It’s not as complicated as it looks,” he soothes, placing the tips of his fingers delicately over Magnus’ forearm, “you start at the outside and work your way in. Just follow my lead.”

Magnus glances down at his hand and pulls his arm back. Starscream’s hand retreats like it’s been burned. “How can I follow your lead on anything?” he snaps. “How am I supposed to sit here, across the table from him--”

“Hey,” Rodimus interjects, “I can hear you, you know.”

“--And act like everything is fine?” Magnus goes on, rolling over Rodimus like a dedicated tank on wide treads. “And you--you’re blaming me for having an emotional reaction? Just because you’re some kind of career criminal who takes lying and, and stealing in stride--”

Starscream frowns. “Wait, I might have lied, but I never--”

“You think I don’t know where those pearls came from?” His glare burns into Starscream. “You literally said that they were stolen while you shoved them into my hands. That first morning, the chaos, the majority of the destruction--that was all you. You stole them, the glitch practically destroyed our entire home, and all you care about is covering for yourself.”

Something hot and furious and ugly is burning behind Starscream’s face as he glares back. “You know what? You’re right!” he snaps. “Does that make you happy? Does that make you feel righteous? All I care about is myself! Because I’m the only thing that sticks by me! I can’t count on anybody to have my back! Not you, not him, not--”

The soft cut of cutlery tapping on stemware slices through the room, and Starscream startles with a jump, jerking away from Magnus’ stare to see Pharma on the bandstand, smiling politely, flanked on either side by Rung and Thunderclash. “Thank you all so much for coming,” he declares, grin broad, “first of all, I’d like to say a few words about all of you while the waitstaff is bringing your food to your tables…”

“Starscream,” Magnus says, “I didn’t--”

“Save it,” Starscream interrupts, not looking at him, “we’ll talk later.” He pointedly avoids the raised eyebrows Rodimus is shooting at him, focusing attentively on Thunderclash’s tense frame.

“...Being so supportive of me in this trying time,” Pharma is saying, “which is why I wanted to encourage community-building activities like this opening. If it hadn’t been for Vega’s beautiful vision, we wouldn’t have evenings like this. And, of course, if it hadn’t been for organizers like Thunderclash--” the room explodes into a smattering of applause. “--Yes! Give it up! You know, I feel like you’d all rather hear from him than from me,” he adds jokingly, and glances back at Thunderclash.

Who raises two modest hands. “Oh, I couldn’t possibly,” he says, smiling, as the crowd bursts into another round of applause. Starscream squints. He might be overthinking it, but he’s pretty sure that’s Thunderclash’s ‘terrified’ pose.

“Oh, great,” Rodimus sighs, slumping over, “we’re about to get another four-R lecture about how he starred in a vidreel once.”

Starscream watches as Pharma maneuvers Thunderclash into the front of the triad, where he smiles and waves awkwardly. “Actually, I’m pretty sure he’s about to pass the buck,” he says, tank churning. Not to me, he thinks, fingers clenching into fists on the tablecloth, please don’t pass it to me…

“Thank you so much, Pharma,” Thunderclash says, “thank you, everyone. Really, if I’m going to say anything at all about the experience of organizing my very first event, it can only be composed of gratitude. I want to thank Pharma for thinking of me, and for giving me this opportunity, which has been so rewarding and so integral to my development. There were so many other residents who would have been so much better suited to do this, but you thought of me, because it would make so many people so happy to watch me succeed.”

“I’m gonna blow chunks,” Rodimus mutters, “I swear to any and all deities that are listening, I’m gonna blow chunks all over this carpet. I can’t do this, mech.” Starscream kicks him under the table.

“Of course, I also have to thank Vega for even making this opportunity possible,” Thunderclash continues, “if it weren’t for his beautiful dream, I would never have been able to connect with the mechs who assisted and tutored me through this process…”

Not me, not me, not me--

“Starscream, could you stand up?” Thunderclash asks, squinting at him through the murk of the evening lighting, and Starscream feels his tank crumple up inside him. Thunderclash beams and starts waving his hands. “Starscream is--yes, you, come on--Starscream is the true hero of this evening. If he hadn’t been there for me when I first asked him for advice, I would never have known where to begin.”

Standing in the least-lit corner of the room, Starscream waves an awkward little hand and smiles. Sure, sure, get through it and move on to the next person--

“There are mechs who might make the mistake of underestimating Starscream,” Thunderclash rolls on, and Starscream’s smile tightens until his denta crack together, “who might see him and think less of him due to his smaller stature, or even for his social status in life. But having worked personally with him, I can assure anyone in this room that to underestimate him would be a great personal failing. He is intelligent, and honest, and generous with his time and advice almost to a fault. I am lucky to call him my closest--and most intimate--friend,” he says, smiling, “and to say that his sparkmate, Ultra Magnus, is even luckier than I.”

Magnus glances up, apparently in surprise, and Starscream nods and waves off a smattering of applause as he sinks back into his seat.

“Of course, I also have to thank Racketwrench,” Thunderclash continues on, and Starscream stares meaningfully at his wine glass. His turpentine-stuff hasn’t refilled yet, which concerns him slightly. Maybe he has to ask Rung specifically?

Rodimus kicks him under the table.

“Ow! What?”

“That was like, so intense,” Rodimus hisses, “are you fragging that guy?”

“What?” Starscream reels. “What are you-- ‘that guy’? Do you mean your sparkmate? No, I am not-- I helped him organize this event, what are you--”

“I mean, it’s okay with me if you are, no hard feelings.”

“For your edification, Rodimus,” Starscream hisses, tanks starting to boil against the rising heat in his frame, “I can get a job and work at a high level of authority without fragging someone! Believe it or not, I do have skills beyond how desirable some grounder finds my frame!”

“Woah, not where I was going with that,” Rodimus says, throwing up two hands in the universal ‘chill out’ signal. “I just meant, that was like, so intense. Also, he said ‘intimate’. I know what intimate means.”

“Oh, thank Primus, Rodimus knows what a word means,” Starscream sighs, and presses two fingers to his temple. “Someone, circle the date on the calendar! An ‘intimate friend’ is just a close friend. He’s showing off his vocabulary, not telling everyone in this room that we’re ‘with benefits’ or something.”

“Drift and I were definitely ‘with benefits’,” Rodimus says, rubbing his chin thoughtfully as Starscream shoots a desperate look in Magnus’ direction. His sparkmate is rearranging the cutlery by size and pointedly not looking at him. Typical. Just more sulky, unhelpful behavior. “Of course, Drift’s the kind of guy who knows what he likes, so he was basically ‘with benefits’ with everybody. No judgement, though, ‘cause practice makes perfect, right? I’d go to visit him and he’d always make time, he’d be like, ‘oh, come on up, I’m just distilling some diesel, wink wink,’ and I’d be like--”

Should he apologize to Magnus? No, he’s not--he’s not sorry for snapping, Magnus is the one who came after him like that, just because Magnus is having a terrible day doesn’t mean he has to bend and scrape for him. Starscream’s had nothing but bad days since he got here. Still, it’s not fair that Magnus might have heard--would Magnus believe that, that Starscream and Thunderclash--no, he’s not stupid. And anyway, if--if he does believe it, it doesn’t make it true, and--goodness of character, clean moral judgement, is about what you do and how you act, not how others perceive--

“--Even though one time, we got like, full-on gooshy,”  Rodimus is saying, “it was lowkey pretty nasty, but Drift was loving it because I have the touch, you know? Which--”

“I am begging you to stop talking,” Magnus interrupts.

“I hate to agree with Magnus,” Starscream adds, “but seriously, your whole disguise revolves around you shutting up, like, 90% of the time. Can you shut up?”

“Why? So you two can keep bringing down the mood by getting out the paperwork and planning your divorce?” Rodimus snaps. “All I’m trying to do is make this table, like, slightly more livable, and all you two want to do is fight and not talk to each other. Well, I wanna talk about Drift and his weird fetish for--”

“--So without further ado,” Thunderclash’s voice cuts through, “I’m going to hand the floor over to Vega, to explain exactly what he’s prepared for this dinner and just how exciting it all is. Please, can we get a round of applause--thank you, thank you--”

Starscream claps politely as Thunderclash dips away from the microphone and fully off the stage, slipping past a few tables into the dark of the restaurant floor. “I’m gonna go check in with him,” he says, “make sure he doesn’t lose it the night of. Please, just--sit here, and don’t kill each other somehow…”

He gets to his pedes and starts making his way through the dim towards Thunderclash. The big guy looks like he’s about to start stagger-venting, all clenched fingers and tensed arms, and as much as Starscream loves a disaster party, he’d rather not have one when his name’s been so thoroughly attached to it. Besides, if one more thing goes wrong tonight, Magnus is gonna snap and rat him out for sure.

“Hey, good job holding it together,” he says, tapping Thunderclash on the upper arm, “did you plan that?”

“No, Pharma just dropped it on me,” Thunderclash whispers back, grinning and looking slightly hysterical. “But it was okay?”

“Very thorough,” Starscream says. “Excruciatingly so. You know I didn’t think I would ever get enough of hearing about myself but! Here you are! The miracle mech, proving me wrong!” He gives Thunderclash a slightly-harder-than-friendly tap on the chest because he cannot punch him right now. “You look like you’re gonna pop a gasket, do I need to find you a rebooting couch?”

“Rebooting couch!” Thunderclash says, with a thin, uneasy laugh. “Imagine me, rebooting! In front of all these people!”

“Well technically you’re in back of them right now,” Starscream says, as he frantically calculates how much of Thunderclash’s considerable weight he’ll actually be able to support if the big mech goes down.

Thunderclash makes a noise that sounds more like a hiccup than a laugh and slaps a hand over his mouth. “Oh Starscream, you’re so funny!” His optics are so bright that Starscream almost looks away just to protect his own. “I’m so glad you liked the speech, can you believe Pharma didn’t even warn me? I mean I-”

“Everything alright over here?”

“Oh, Pharma! We were just talking about you,” Thunderclash says, and if Starscream were a less observant mech, he would’ve missed the deliberate way Thunderclash keeps Starscream’s wing between himself and Pharma. Interesting.

“All good things, I hope,” Pharma says, rubbing his hands together. “Thank you for giving it your all with that speech, by the way. I know we didn’t prep, but I just knew everyone was expecting something. Of course, I didn’t doubt your abilities to improvise something spectacular.”

“I’m so glad one of us didn’t,” Thunderclash says, and laughs. It’s getting shriller every time.

Starscream suppresses the urge to raise an eyebrow. “Everything’s going fine,” he says, when Pharma continues to stand expectantly, “the music’s at a good volume, it seems like conversation is going well, and the food is so… organic and free-range. Some of this energon looks like it's fresh out of the ground. I think there's still dirt in it.”

“Oh, that’s fantastic,” Pharma says, and clasps his hands together. “Well, why don’t you two go sit down and enjoy dinner? With everything done, I’m sure the two of you would love to ‘chat it up’ with your special somebodies, and surely there’s no reason to remain vigilant all evening…” he trails off meaningfully, glancing around the room.

Starscream risks a glance back at his own table, where Ultra Magnus is now anxiously twirling various cutlery and rearranging it again, presumably into some more mathematically efficient structure. His mood, low to begin with, takes a moment to curdle. “Actually,” he says, plastering a huge grin on his face as he turns back to Pharma, “you’re most likely to have problems come up during an event. It’s important that someone stays on the ground, monitoring, um, things the whole time.”

“I’ll stay on the ground, too,” Thunderclash insists, “I couldn’t possibly leave Starscream to fend for himself out here, when it’s my event. We shall do it together.” He throws an affectionate arm around Starscream’s shoulders and squeezes, as if he’s trying to make a point.

“Uh, yep,” Starscream says, listening to something in his joints creak under the strain, “I don’t know if you’ve been informed of this, Pharma, but we do everything together, now, because we’re best friends.”

Pharma’s grin splits his face. “Wonderful!” he says. “You two are such kindred spirits, I just knew you’d get along and make each other so endlessly happy. It’s wonderful that you have each other to lean on when you’re forced to be away from your sparkmates all evening.”

Thunderclash’s squeeze loosens a bit. “It is too bad,” he admits, “I had hoped to spend the evening growing accustomed to the sound of Hot Rod’s voice--oh, Pharma, you don’t know!” With a squeal of gears, the pressure on Starscream’s shoulders redoubles. “Starscream and Ultra Magnus have done me such an honor in convincing Hot Rod that his lexicon is nothing to be embarrassed of, and helping him overcome his shyness about talking! I so look forward to making conversation with him--but I suppose I shall just have to wait until tomorrow.”

Pharma raises a finger to his lips. “You know, that’s not such a bad idea,” he says, “Vega’s dinner is personalized for each resident. Maybe we could have an activity! To start a room-wide conversation!”

Starscream opens his mouth to mention that actually, dinner parties usually don’t benefit from people yelling across the room to each other, but Thunderclash is off like a rocket next to him.

“Oh, we could have everyone say one thing they liked about their own dish,” he’s saying, smiling brightly, “and then I could both hear Hot Rod’s voice and learn something about him! Doesn’t that sound just wonderful, Starscream?”

Starscream thinks of all of the things he’s learned about Rodimus over the past week, and then he thinks about Thunderclash learning them. Okay, what he said before about avoiding disaster parties? He’s changed his mind.

“Uh, yeah,” Starscream says, “that sounds just… so, super wonderful. The most wonderful. I’m going to… double-check with the kitchen that everything’s going smoothly, okay? Just… touch base with the back of the house. You stay here and cover the tables.”

He turns heel. The world kind of goes… cool. It’s far away from Starscream, who is just a processor running calculations in a head with a mouth that smiles at whoever it needs to. This room becomes a series of angles and pressure points, escape routes, weak spots. His hand snags a cup of clear bright energon from in front of a guest as he walks past.

(“Hey!” he’s dimly aware that someone is saying. “Who was that guy?”)

What are his assets. His nullrays shoot confetti at about the same pressure differential as a loud yawn, and the room is too tight for him to transform in. Rung conjured the stage for them and it’s sturdy metal but it’s too heavy to move with all the performers on top. All the meals are already out, he can’t poison them or--ignite them--

The pale energon in his hand catches flickers of roselight, peachy and warm. He sees the crystal clear line from A to B.

No one notices him swiping bottles from the kitchen into his subspace. No one notices him rounding the back of house, past the curtains, into the improvised backstage. It’s just an alcove behind the platform, something with a view of the lake outside, perfect for a romantic table for two or else for storing sheet music. Through the gaps of the stage curtains he can see the shadows of wind and brassformers as they rock against the platform in time to their parts. He edges closer.

“Perhaps Hot Rod could start us off with something,” Pharma is saying distantly. “Hot Rod, stand up! A round of applause! Hot Rod, what about your meal is so special to you?”

Rodimus’s voice box clicks with reset. “Let me tell you all,” he says, slowly, “about Maccadam’s Old Oil House…”

Primus have mercy.

The salt that Vega is using for the base of his house brewed Old Corroder is a chemical matrix that reacts violently to the kind of solvent he keeps on hand for cleaning up sticky spills. Expose energon to that reaction, and you have explosive conflagration. Starscream slides the peachy pale drink up against one of the stage supports, lays the salt down around it, and then crawls back to a safe distance, with his thrusters pressed up against the window and his knees pinning sheet music to the floor.

Arson is a great problem solver. Every time Starscream introduces arson to a problematic situation, he immediately has a new, different problem.

Starscream lines up the open bottle of cleaning solvent with the nose of his nullray, takes aim, and fires. Confetti flowers the air; the bottle rockets forward into the cube and tips it over; there’s a soft crackle like a krsh krsh, and then-

A boom.

The stage collapses sideways, instruments in their altmodes skidding and crashing down in a pile on the floor as smoke and chips of broken marble spit out from the site of detonation. Starscream whips up to his feet and slides out the other way while the room’s attention is on the ten mech pile up stage left. A tuba gives a sad wheeze.

From there it’s easy to rush up to the tangle of mechs and join Thunderclash and Pharma in damage control. Or rather, Thunderclash and Starscream help the instrumentformers while Pharma wails about how he can’t do anything right, and Starscream pauses in helping the woodwind untangle her half-transformed arm from a stringformer’s strings to roll his optics. Everyone here needs to get a fragging grip.

Okay, that's his alibi secured. On to the next thing. Where’s Ultra Magnus? The last thing he needs is the Duly Appointed Enforcer of the Tyrest Accords snooping around his crime scene.

“Magnus!” Starscream shouts, “can you--there you are! Can you lift this guy for me? I don’t have the leverage. Wonderful, thank you, you’re a peach.”

Magnus squints at him, braced against the ground to lever this admittedly pretty heavy silver guy out of the tangle. “What’s a peach?” he says.

“Great question,” Starscream says, and promptly fucks off.

Everyone is busy disentangling performers or generally rubbernecking in the dining area, so backstage is still empty when Starscream slips back into it. The explosion didn’t leave much behind except for the slagged support strut, but Starscream wriggles down until he can get an arm underneath the platform, fishes out the remains of the solvent bottle, and chucks the melted husk out the alcove window for safe measure. It’s important to be seen responding to the disaster immediately, but it’s equally important not to leave around any suspiciously out of place crime tools where his law enforcement sparkmate can find them.

There. A flawless plan, executed flawlessly. Starscream’s vision swims for a moment as the cold clarity of panic finally subsides into the warm relief of satisfaction. His ventilation systems give a full body shudder.

Everyone is mostly back on their feet when Starscream re-engages with the festivities. All the performers are being herded towards the kitchen, presumably for a steadying pull of whatever was in that sherry glass earlier. Magnus passes the last of the stunned mechs into the arms of Pharma, who at last seems to have remembered he’s a medical build and is making himself useful. Or at least he’s wearing a medical build. Starscream still isn’t sure how this psychopomp thing actually works.

“What did I miss?” Starscream asks, brushing away some dust before settling his hip against the nearest table. One of these glasses is still full. Maybe he can just...

“Where were you?” Magnus says, “Is something going on?”

Starscream absently brushes a little snowfall of construction dust from his shoulder. “Nothing, nothing,” he says. “Just a bit of last minute damage control.”

He pauses, hand halfway to the glass at his hip, fingers powdered with white lime chalk. He looks up. He looks down.

The building groans.

Starscream saw a sinkhole open up in Vos once, a long long time ago. From the air, watching the support struts of the military quarter collapsing into the swamp of the planet surface had been almost poetic. The rubble and sludge tearing open the ground like a gaping toothy maw  hadn’t meant anything to Starscream. It was all so far away below the frantic evacuation launching from every window and walkway. No one lived on the ground of Vos--it was unlivable, nothing but sludge and rust and the broken shells of ancient garbage that had been easier to push over a discrete ledge than scrap for recycling. From the tower of a senatorial office, the whole cataclysm had barely rippled the liquid of the drink order he had been dispatched to retrieve.

Senator Sherma’s host had tutted, hardly even glancing down long enough to confirm the nature of the disaster. “Should have supported that bill to have the supports repaired,” he had remarked. “Starshriek, bring the coolant over here, would you.”

This is alike to that in the same way that a draining tub is alike to a supermassive black hole. In other words, this is not like that.

The ceiling goes first. He would have thought it would be the other way around, but actually the first sign that something has gone terribly awry is the distressed creaking from the ceiling beams, and the growing trickle of dust falling from above. Ragged cracks shoot across the marble from underneath his pedes, rattling the cutlery on the tables as it passes underneath. He wobbles, catches his balance, and throws himself away from the crumbling gash.

“Get back!” he hears Ultra Magnus shouting, as the same time that Thunderclash is yelling, “Walls and doorways! Stick to the walls and doorways!”

The gaping nothingness beneath the restaurant swallows a table whole, decorative arrangement and cutlery and all. It crashes and shatters against the bottom of the pit, however deep in the gloom that is--another table promptly slides over the edge of the sinkhole after it, and then another, each wreckage worse sounding as ceramics and silver smash into each other. Chunks of the ceiling crash into the floor.

Starscream staggers back into a pillar and steadies himself--everything is cracking up, like an ice flow in a spring thaw--he spots Rodimus, on the other side of the fissure, penned back against the table as the chasm widens before him. Thunderclash is at the exit, directing people through as Magnus hands them off like a well oiled rescue machine.

Every instinct is screaming at Starscream to transform and flee, but he reigns himself in with gritted denta. There’s too much falling debris, and the space is too confined. Once the ceiling opens up a little wider, he can take off through the clear space, he just needs to wait it out--

The ground beneath Rodimus abruptly splinters into a spiderweb of unstable hairline fractures. Rodimus clambers up onto the table, rucking back the tablecloth and knocking over glasses in his haste. The profanity filter does some creative gymnastics with his cursing while he jabs a finger at Starscream. “You shoulda let me bring my fragging hoverboard!” he shouts, as the table gives a wobble underneath him.

Magnus turns at the sound. Even on the other side of the room, Starscream can feel as much as see the way his optics widen and then narrow, the way his mouth tightens, the way that he goes still for a single perfect fraction of a klik. The decision writes itself over every strut of his frame.

“No,” Starscream says, getting louder with each syllable, “no no no, don’t you even think about--!”

Magnus launches himself. Those pistons don’t hold anything back; his whole heavy body moves like it’s spring loaded, so that for a moment it seems as if he’s in flight. The floor crumbles. Rodimus leaps from the tabletop as the whole thing falls away under him. He throws out a hand.

And then there’s just the whumph and explosion of dust as Magnus hits the inside wall of the pit with Rodimus tucked to his side.

It’s impossible to see from this angle, but it seems like they’re stable. Starscream is deep in thinking about ropes and tablecloths and fabric tensile strength when Magnus calls out, and so it takes him a moment to realize Magnus isn’t talking to him at all.

“Thunderclash!” Magnus calls. “We need an extraction!”

Across the room, Thunderclash perks up. Starscream pushes off the pillar and skitters sideways towards the edge of the pit, thrusters skidding on the ground. He doesn’t have a very good frame for ground balance, with a high center of gravity and precariously heeled pedes. His hands swing out as he moves, trying to steady himself against the shifting floor.

“I swear to the shadow of the pit-blasted assembly line that spit my chassis into this slagshaft existence,” Starscream snarls, “if you fall in there I will light you on fire and sell the scrap.”

The floor has opened up so wide that it’s more like the full jawed yawn of paleozoic predacon, a mouth full of half chewed prey, but it doesn’t seem to be spreading as much anymore. Only the occasion bit of roofing crashes to the floor. Now that Starscream is closer, he can see past the rim of the wreckage to where Magnus has anchored himself with one arm to a makeshift handhold in the concrete foundation.

“--Gotta throw me,” Rodimus is saying, “don’t freak, okay, I can handle it--”

In the thick gloom of the dust and the night sky opening in a sliver above them, Magnus’s optics glow like headlights. “I will not recklessly endanger your life after just--”

“Thunderclash!” Rodimus shouts, wriggling in Magnus’s grip until he’s all but climbing the bigger mech’s shoulder. “Big M’s gonna toss me, you ready?”

Without a second of hesitation, Thunderclash bends his knees and locks his stance at the far edge of the pit. The ground gives a threatening tremor below them all.

When Starscream thinks back on this later, he will come to the conclusion that Magnus wouldn’t have gone along with it if it weren’t for the tremor. For a brief flash his eyes are narrow and disproving as he struggles to keep hold of Rodimus, and then--the ceiling creaks, the marble floor makes a terrible pop as something gives way--they go wide with pale blue realization.

At the same time that the concrete handhold crumbles from beneath Magnus’s grip, even as gravity is reasserting its cold tyranny, Magnus uses the flat of his free hand to springboard Rodimus into one last desperate leap. Like two repelling magnets flying apart, Rodimus goes up as Magnus crashes down.

Thunderclash sweeps Rodimus against his chassis and swings him around and they go tumbling back onto more solid ground, but Starscream has stopped paying attention to them at the first familiar scream of metal being punched back in the pit down below. It’s a sound that haunts his recharge--armor grade metal bowing and breaking, the crack and snap of internal components. A short sharp groan, and then silence.

Before Starscream even knows what he’s done, he’s over the edge of the pit and scrabbling down concrete-studded rebar, down the piled up wreckage of tables and the already slagged stage. In the thickness of the air, with the legs of furniture sticking up at twisted angles, it’s almost as if he’s descending into a shipwreck somewhere deep beneath an alien sea. He skids on dirt and then tumbles the last few feet, and Magnus should be right here below him but he can’t see anything, he can’t see the blue light of those familiar optics. Everything looks jumbled and unfamiliar down here.

He locates the blunt shape of Magnus by tripping over it. All the biolights are dark, the glow of the optics completely snuffed. He lands kneeling on Magnus’s chest, fingers scraping armor until they find something--wrong.

Something hard and sharp is poking out of the middle of the chest plate. It feels like it might be the slagged support strut of the stage, its once-blunt end forged into a warped tip by the heat of the explosion earlier. Magnus’s body weight must have driven it--

Okay, okay, there’s no point in worrying yet. Yes, the fact that none of Magnus’s lights are on is worrying, a little bit, but it’s probably just because the strut is still stabbed through him. This is the Good Place, after all. If Starscream can just get him off that thing, everything will be set right. Everything will be fine.

Starscream grabs him by the shoulders and tries to lift him up off the spit, denta gritted and servos protesting as he pulls. Primus, the bot is dense. What’s he made of, durasteel?

With an earsplitting scrape, Magnus suddenly slides free. Starscream staggers back, just managing to stay upright by dint of will and also still holding on to Magnus’s arms.

“There,” he pants, giving Magnus’s shoulder a squeeze. “Up and at ‘em. This place is an MSHA nightmare, I’m not spending a second longer than I have to here.”

But slowly, with the relentless tug of gravity, Magnus slips backwards and hits the ground again.

“No no no no,” Starscream hisses, grabbing frantically after him and missing him by a finger’s reach. Dust rains down over them both. Magnus remains dark, limp, and inanimate.

He’s heavy, he’s so fragging heavy, and so huge… Starscream grabs him under the arm and pulls at him. “You stupid idiot,” he snarls, furious, “get up, already! Help me out, here!”

Magnus doesn’t twitch.

Across the sinkhole, there’s a loud crash and a clatter as another huge chunk of earth comes loose and drops into the depths. Starscream yelps and covers his head with two hands, some old instinct, folding himself over Magnus’ prone body, protect the wings, they’re too costly to lose/can’t be replaced/high reuse value, but the wings are damaged/shattered/missing/etc., protect the processor, if the processor is intact they can’t scrap the body, there’s regulations--

The rumbling slows, and Starscream pushes himself up on two shaking hands, staring down at Magnus’ offline optics--they’re so close, they could be outside in seconds if he could just get up. “Magnus,” he says, voice box fritzing and sparking painfully, “come on, Magnus, please.”

“Starscream,” someone says, distant from him.

“I can’t move him,” he says, “he won’t move…”

In his periphery, he’s aware of a huge, pale blue hand grabbing Magnus’ other arm, looping under his shoulder. “Come on,” they say, “I need your help, we can get him outside.”

He nods, mutely, and grabs Magnus by the arm again--his optics won’t come online--the cannons on his shoulders scream as they scrape upwards, over the marble debris--

It’s beautiful outside, it’s always beautiful outside, the stars are

“He won’t wake up,” Starscream says helplessly, dizzy, he is aware of sound and shapes but they don’t mean anything, they don’t have any form, “what’s wrong with him, this wasn’t supposed to happen--we’re in the, in the good place…”

“I’m so sorry,” someone is saying, Thunderclash is saying, “this is all my fault--”

This is the good place, this wasn’t supposed to happen, why won’t he wake up, they’re in the good place, why

“How could this possibly be your fault?” Starscream snaps, and throws his wings back, high, ready to strike. “How could any of this be your fault? You didn’t build this place!”

His gaze shoots left, right--stops on a red-and-white frame, wings, little blue lights on a bright-friendly-here-to-help paintjob. “He did,” he snarls, and jerks a finger forward, pointing furiously at the architect. “He built a neighborhood where someone like Magnus could get hurt.” He feels optics on him, people are staring but he can’t see them, they’re not important. They’re not who he’s looking for. “This is the bad place.”

Pharma holds Starscream’s gaze, frozen, looking as confused and alarmed as every unimportant, mindless drone behind him. He holds up his hands in what’s clearly meant to be a soothing gesture, and Starscream’s plating flares. He’s a good liar, but Starscream’s a professional. People don’t just lie to him and get away with it.

“Starscream,” Pharma says, coming back into motion, “I know things have been rough, but I’m doing my best. I promise, this is--this is just a mistake.”

“Don’t lie to me!” Starscream shouts. His voicebox sparks and shorts for a moment in a burst of feedback before coming back online, and Starscream clutches his throat. Someone, Rodimus, Starscream thinks, touches his shoulder.

Starscream jerks away, clipping Rodimus on the side of the head with his wing, and snarls, “Don’t touch me!”

He’s aware of Thunderclash wrapping his arms around Rodimus, shushing and mumbling something that garbles into nothing in his audials. His optics fall back on the gaping hole in Magnus’ chest. It’s pretty high up, it might’ve missed his spark, it must’ve missed his spark.

In a daze, Starscream twists back to Magnus and touches the ragged edge of the wound. It’s dry. It’s curled back and delicately twisted and it’s as dry as a scrap heap.

Starscream shoves his claw into the hole and starts tearing.

Metal squeals. “I love fake people,” Starscream pants, “I love games--I love drama--” the armor comes away in chunks, tearing gashes in his palms but he keeps going, “--if you screw with my friends I will help you do it--” his shoulders scream in protest as he hooks his fingers under either side of the widening gouge and pries it apart, metal crumples, “I would betray any of my loved ones at any time--”

His hands are smearing energon, new cuts opening as fast as the Good Place can seal them. Pale tracks of pink make the sharp edges of the armor shine as he methodically rips back everything between himself and the spark he knows is in there, somewhere, just a little deeper. He needs to see it. He needs to see that it’s undamaged.

“Starscream, stop, please,” Thunderclash says, grabbing uselessly at his wrists, “stop, stop, you’re going to hurt him--”

“I need to see it, I need to--” Starscream pulls against his grip, pistons overworking and shaking his arms, “if it’s still there he’s still alive, I’ve seen mechs come back from worse, we just have to, we have to, expose the main line and the engine and, he has to be alive, I can’t, I can’t lose this…”

This is my fault, he realizes, staring down at the crumpled metal plates scattered over the ground. I did this.

“Hot Rod, over here,” Thunderclash is saying over his head, “I need your help…”

Vaguely, Starscream is aware of Rodimus’ body kneeling on the ground at his other side, grabbing his shoulder with one arm and touching his back with the other. His vents are fluttering up and down, unable to sink the heat and struggling to regulate his intake. He opens his mouth to tell them both to get off him, that he’s close to the spark, he just needs to move a few major lines, but all that comes out is a sob of static. His optics are on the fritz.

Self-preservation.

It’s all about self-preservation, it’s all about Starscream first, it’s all about maneuvers that a smaller frame could manage in high winds, it’s all about safety first, reconnaissance second, it’s all… it’s all his fault. It’s always been his fault. Mud and snow and wind, that lonely barren sound of wind moaning between distant hills. The wind-torn fog of snowflakes blotting out an empty, lonely sky full of stars he can’t recognize.

“I should have gone back for him.”

“You did go back for him,” Thunderclash soothes, “you pulled him out. You did everything you could.”

He wriggles his hand free, shaking, reaches out to touch the side of the hole. Energon is streaked over his hand--his own? You can’t get hurt in the good place--unless it isn’t--no one will believe him now. “Why isn’t it healing?” he mutters.

Pharma makes a static sound, like he’s resetting his voice box. “Could be proximity to the sinkhole,” he says, “it’s some error in the system, it must have been set off by that trojan. Stabilizing systems aren’t working nearby. We should… vacate, to safer premises…”

Who’s fault? Who’s fault? Who put themselves before everyone else? He didn’t just cause a distraction, he realizes with a twist of guilt, he ruined something that Thunderclash worked so hard on. He destroyed it in front of everyone. To save himself.

He thinks of Magnus’ voice, earlier that night. ‘That first morning, the chaos, the majority of the destruction--that was all you.’ This is him, too. The sinkhole opened because of him.

‘All you care about is covering for yourself.’

“I’m not going anywhere,” Starscream says, optics not moving from the prone form. There’s a steadying squeeze on his shoulder--with some surprise, he realizes it came from Rodimus.

“Let him process,” Rodimus says, slowly, and reaches across Starscream’s front to take Thunderclash’s worried, reaching hand. “I’ll stay.”

Thunderclash stares down at their joined hands for a moment, face unreadable. “We’ll both stay,” he says, after a moment. “And we’ll… we’ll help you. What do you need?”

“His, his spark,” Starscream says, trying to tear his gaze away from the linked hands on his lap, “it should be under the, um, the CRV plate--if I can see it, it means he’s alive, it’s…”

Rodimus reaches forward. He stops. “Um,” he says.

“It’s fine, I’ll do it,” Starscream says, shaking his head, “I get that it’s kind of gross, I can do it.”

Rodimus doesn’t move out of the way. “Um,” he says again.

“Okay, budge up, lover-bot,” Starscream sneers, and pushes Rodimus’ arm out of the way, “if you want something done right--”

He jolts back with a scream as a tiny arm punches its way out of the open cavity like a corpse forcing its way out of a grave in a B-reel.

With a rustle, the hand retreats. The CRV plate scrapes as it pops out of the cavity entirely. In its place, a tiny mech sits up and rolls his shoulders before turning to look at his small audience. Green paint job. Red optics. Confusion, maybe shock, on the face.

“Um,” he says. “I can explain.”

“Haha,” Starscream says, and reboots.

Chapter Text

At the end of the night, the noise in the bar winds down to just the clatter and chime of glassware in the wash station, the grumble of shift-closers as they wipe down the stations and haul out the trash. There’s the sigh of old drunks closing out their tabs. They can't stay open indefinitely—this place is no Maccadam's, they just don’t have the resources. As little as he cares for the job, Starscream doesn't want to go home, but he certainly can't stay here. Maybe he'll go to window shop uptown for thruster upgrades until his regulator fries.

Starscream throws his apron into the crate and turns to find Thundercracker lingering at his back. He tenses.

Thundercracker gives him some kind of grin and retreats marginally. “Want me to walk you home?”

Starscream scoffs. A litany of irritating minor injuries are scratching at his already thin patience; the dent in his aft from where some whistling oaf smacked him on his way to the bar, the numbness in his array, the sore spot on his lip where one of the VIPs bit him after slipping him enough cash to make kissing worth his while. Putting up with his boss on top of all that is the last thing he needs.

“Save the chivalry for the minibots,” he snipes, and kicks the crate away with the back of his thruster.

“You sure?” Thundercracker says. “It’s on my way. You live Scund’s tenement, right?”

Starscream’s wings bristle. “I didn’t give you permission to know that about me. You should cease knowing it, if you have any idea what’s good for you.”

“Sheesh,” Thundercracker says. He holds up his hands in the universal plea for clemency from the righteous fury of a superior combatant. “If it makes you feel better, I’ll wait five minutes and then pretend I’m not walking the exact same way as you.”

“You will not,” Starscream says. “You will walk several paces in front of me, the whole way, so I know you’re not up to any funny business.”

Thundercracker gives him a long, bemused look. After a moment, he says, “Okay, just let me close out the register.”

It takes Thundercracker longer to wrap up at the front than it does for Starscream to get the serving of fuel included in his “wages”, but it doesn’t occur to him that he’s accidentally made it look like he wants to walk home with Thundercracker until they’re both on the street, walking a few steps apart. Thundercracker wastes no time in falling back into pace with Starscream, in direct contrariness to every single word that they have exchanged today.

If there’s anything Starscream has learned about the blue idiot since he started working at this bar, it’s that Thundercracker’s brain moves like a train on rails. It’s been less than a year and he already knows that it’s pointless to try and shut him down. You just end up steamrolled.

They pass down deeper into the Shades, away from the crust of misery tourism at the mouth of the underground. It’s ironic that so many of them--the winged kind--end up down here sooner or later. But if you can’t take the Shades you either starve on the surface, or you give up and go back to Vos.

“You know,” Thundercracker says, “when I said I wanted to hire you on, Skywarp told me I shouldn’t bother.”

“Don’t try to neg me,” Starscream says, “I’m the grand emperor of negging. I’m un-neggable.”

“He said you were a jerk,” Thundercracker goes on, unperturbed. “He said you act like you think you’re too good for the rest of us.”

“Oh yes, an absolute class traitor I am,” Starscream sniffs. “Just because a mech gets some custom parts—ha! Just because I’ve got a degree and the rest of you grunts have been getting blackout drunk in the same dirty bars since they decommissioned your unit—”

“I’ve got a degree,” Thundercracker says, in an absolutely unreadable tone, and Starscream has to do a double take. He’s never heard Thundercracker utilize irony before—in fact, he would have said the guy wasn’t capable of it.

“What in?” Starscream says. “Last I checked they don’t give out diplomas for breaking the sound barrier.”

“Literary composition,” Thundercracker says. “I specialized in metered forms.”

There’s a weird, hollow feeling in Starscream’s tanks. An uneasy, unbalanced feeling. This day is full of surprises in the way that a bad road is full of potholes. Maybe Skywarp will show up to regale them with his mastery of meditative arts.

“...You finished it?” Starscream asks. “The degree, I mean?”

“Yeah,” Thundercracker says.

See the thing is, cons like them don’t just get degrees in literature. Nobody just gets a degree in literature. That’s a thing you do once you’ve already got two or three applied science degrees under your plating, a luxury indulgence of the alt-exempt, a pedigree for prospective senators and trophy conjunxes. Most of those programs still hadn’t desegregated in anything but name.

Starscream looks him up and down. “And yet you run a dive bar where the wait staff gives head in the back alley.”

Thundercracker gives a stiff little shrug. “Just because you’re qualified doesn’t mean you get the work,” he says. “It’s better than relinquishment.”

They share a moment of sober synchronicity, grimacing at the pictures behind their eyes. Quick and nasty body tourism comes in worse forms than theirs.

A rattling old rust bucket lurches past them as they turn the corner, blowing greasy exhaust over the already dim street. Above them, the cavern ceiling is lit up in long buzzing strips like an old warehouse. Struts pounded into the rock slag hold up the weight of Iacon over their heads. Half the buildings down here are built against those support columns--people in the Shades make do with whatever’s on hand. The place started out as a cold con reserve, and to look at it now, you wouldn’t guess that apartheid was supposed to be over.

He thinks of Vos, sometimes. It’s a thing they all say to each other, when the day is so long that you think you might scream if you don’t crack first. You can always give up and go back to Vos, they say.

“Flicker says he’s getting out of the Shades,” Thundercracker remarks, although his impression of an offhanded remark is about as convincing as pasteboard. “He says he’ll sell me the flat up top, where he lives, if I want it.”

Starscream sneers. “He’s just saying that because he thinks you’ll let him get his spike wet,” he says. “He’s got a fetish for cold cons with smooth shiny seams. You’re his dream bot.”

Thundercracker wrinkles his nose. “You think?” he says. “He’s never said anything about it.”

“Trust me,” Starscream says, flicking his wrist. “I can smell a sucker at twenty paces. You’re thinking about buying in, I take it?”

Thundercracker shrugs self consciously. “It’s a three room,” he says. “I wouldn’t know what to do with the extra space. Skywarp says he wants to move in if I go, but, um…”

“Oh, that’s so sweet,” Starscream coos. “You want to share a bedroom with the hyperactive processor glitch. I don’t know what’s funnier, a big lumbering idiot like you with a romantic streak, or the fact that you want to subject some third unwitting fool to your desperate clanking and grinding.”

Instead of rising to the bait, Thundercracker just says, “We were thinking of asking you.”

Starscream briefly loses all sensory input, while the entire not-inconsiderable vastness of his intellect furiously tries to process this. He might still be walking. It’s anybody’s guess.

Trine, is the first thing his stupid seeker brain screams at him, from the primal underside of his social coding. Trine! Trine!

Shut up, he snarls at it. He doesn’t need a trine. He hasn’t had a trine since those days in the barracks, where they used to bunk three to a berth, exhausted and covered in grime with their wings and arms in a tangle. Back then the management used to switch in a new member every time somebody offlined down in the wilderness. There was a kind of innocence in their exhaustion, back then, a kind of intimacy like mechanimals in their burrows, like drones in a storage vault. They hadn’t really known anything about each other, because then there was nothing much to know. They were only one step above disposable class, and they had lived like it too.

Trine meant comfort. Trine meant safety. Trine meant someone to mourn you when the whirlwind swallowed you whole over the jagged desert and there wasn’t even enough left of you to be worth hauling back for scrap.

It’s stupid to long for that again. He doesn’t need anyone. He’s doing just fine on his own.

“Why," is what he manages to say.

They’re at his door, he realizes dimly. This is his building. They’re at his door. How long was he just gaping like an idiot while Thundercracker waited for him to reload?

Thundercracker presses the buzzer for him too, because why not, he guesses. Starscream already looks like a complete headcase, what’s a little more incompetence.

“You’re not what I thought you were gonna be,” Thundercracker says, “I mean you’re prissy as hell and you can’t clean worth a damn, but I dunno. You’re alright.”

Something tightens inside of Starscream’s intake. He swallows to disperse it and hardens his spark. Negotiations are no place for weaknesses like that.

“This would just be business,” Starscream says, warily. “The broom closet I’m shelling rent out for right now is positively pitiful, I’d take anything over more of that.”

“Business, sure,” Thundercracker says, with an uncertain flick of his wing. “If you can come up with a third of the cost we’ll have somebody draw up a contract.”

Starscream jabs a finger into Thundercracker’s chassis. “You had better not try to cheat me,” he says, optics flashing hard and bright. “I’ll be looking over every inch of whatever contract your cronies come up with.”

Thundercracker squints at him. “I don’t have cronies,” he says. “I was just gonna get Pitjumper to write us something. He’s been arrested more times than I’ve had hot baths, he knows a bunch of legal words.”

Starscream hums. “Good enough,” he says.

Thundercracker brightens. He sticks out his hand, firm and stupid and handsome, and says, “Shake on it?”

Starscream looks from his expectant hand to his bright, open face, and grimaces. “Just get it in writing,” he says. “If I’m paying for a third I want to own a third.”

Thundercracker slowly retracts his hand. “Right. Um. See you at work?”

Starscream ignores him and pushes open the door to his building instead. “Whatever,” he says.

It doesn’t have to mean anything, Starscream thinks, and starts tallying his credit accounts.

 

 

 

Starscream is sorting through Thundercracker’s old files, sitting on his berth with his pedes kicked up on the wall, while Thundercracker does the actual work of washing the exhaust soot off the flimsy tenement walls. It builds up in places with bad ventilation like these, and it’s gross. It’s gross and unlike Skywarp, Starscream seems to agree that it’s gross, but he also won’t do anything about it.

If we were a real trine, Thundercracker thinks sourly, we’d both be cleaning, instead of just me.

Starscream taps a new file.

“What it costs,” Starscream reads, “in doctors and parts…”

Thundercracker freezes.

“A simple empurata—” Starscream cuts off with an interested noise. “What’s this?” he says.

Thundercracker drops the cleaning solvent and rushes to get the datapad out of Starscream’s hands. He fumbles with it, fingers clumsy and embarrassed. “It’s nothing—don’t read that,” he says, as Starscream wriggles away with the ‘pad still in hand.

“Why not?” Starscream says, holding Thundercracker at bay with one arm while he squints at the ‘pad on his other side.

“I don’t—it’s nothing,” Thundercracker says, “it was stupid, just give it back.”

“Uhuh,” Starscream says. He holds out for a second longer, but eventually Thundercracker lunges hard enough to knock Starscream fully off the berth where he lands in a yowling heap.Thundercracker hangs off the edge of it, the pad clutched victoriously in his hands.

“What is it though,” Starscream demands once he’s gotten up, with minimal drama. Despite being vain as all pit, Starscream’s pretty tough. He doesn’t scratch too easy. He’s the type to spend all his money on engex and upgrades, and forget about everything else. He can take some damage.

Thundercracker hunches over the ‘pad as he closes out the file and buries it again. “‘S nothing,” he says. “You know how I went to the academy?”

You can’t do anything with a literature degree. It’s not meant for doing. You just have it. It costs a fortune in unpaid hours of work, while everything you write there is sold and distributed under the university name. But it’s not as if someone like him could get distributed any other way.

They don’t talk about this, much. Starscream didn’t finish his degree, and Thundercracker feels... weird, he guesses, about the fact that Starscream—who’s whip smart and kind of a tool about it, but definitely still smarter than Thundercracker even on his worst day—didn’t finish his degree while Thundercracker… did. It’s just another one of those weird things about being friends with Starscream.

“I had to send in a writing sample,” he mumbles. “It’s just what I had around back then. I never finished it.”

Starscream makes a humming noise. He doesn’t ask any more questions. Whether that’s because Thundercracker obviously doesn’t want to talk about it or because Starscream just doesn’t care, that’s anybody’s guess.

They’re not a real trine, not really. They’re just a trio of roommates, tripping over the broken glass of each other’s ugly little pasts. A real trine is trust and synchronicity, caring and keeping. This isn’t that. It’s proximity without commitment. It’s convenience and exhaustion and an intimacy they all pretend not to feel.  

 

 

 

Starscream’s always had a tendency to talk to himself. He spent a long time on his own—neither Skywarp nor Thundercracker are sure how long exactly, except that it was long enough that by the time he swaggered into the bar acting like he was doing them a favor by even showing up to interview, he’d all but started falling apart. He was always muttering, hissing under his breath whenever he thought he wasn’t being paid attention to.

He’ll still turn to speak to someone, sometimes, and seem surprised to find anyone actually there.

So it doesn’t strike Thundercracker as odd to hear Starscream mumbling or chanting or whatever to himself in the mirror. He just pulls the door closed and keeps walking past.

And it doesn’t strike him as odd to hear Starscream humming, or singing to himself in the dark, long after they’re all supposed to be recharging. Starscream has his own room, but the walls are so thin that Thundercracker always hears the singing. He hears the crying too. He doesn’t mention either.

It’s weird how you can want so badly for someone to know you, and still flinch at the idea of being known.

 

 

 

Starscream swaggers up onto the makeshift stage, hips swinging, wings high, and the bar breaks out in catcalls.

Thundercracker grins and leans over the counter. “Boo!” he calls, good naturedly. “Boooo! Talking about yourself isn’t poetry! Get off the stage!”

Starscream counters this with a gesture that conveys graphically what Thundercracker can and should do with his opinion, at which point it occurs to him that Skywarp isn’t backing him up with the usual Starscream-slagging routine. He does a double-take at the room. He finds Skywarp preoccupied with one of their regulars, the old drunk Brass Tap, over next to the stage.

Brass Tap, who comes in to see Acid Storm, transforms into a musical instrument none of them know the name of, and which might be one of a kind. There are buttons and bellows and complicated layerings of small and large tubes. He’s gotten sloshed a couple times and transformed in the bar, played lagging, staggering tunes for the others to sing along to, but Thundercracker has never seen him like this before. He climbs up on the table with barely a stagger and transforms smoothly, coming to rest upright on the pitted steel.

On the stage, which is really just a couple of tables pushed together against the back wall, Starscream cocks a hip.

“This one is for a couple of writers who refuse to share what they make,” he says, and then snaps a claw at the corner with Skywarp and the regular.

A low tone unfurls into a melody, one brassy mouth spitting a rhythm to carry the leaping notes of another. Thundercracker looks from the instrument to Starscream, nonplussed. Starscream can sing, he sings whenever they do a bar-round chorus of Lonely Cybertronian or whatever drinking song the night calls for, and every so often Thundercracker will hear him in the dark, at the window, singing something bitter down at the ragged, seething streets of the Shades. But he’s never tried to sing solo for anyone else before. Thundercracker would have assumed his pride was too prickly to suffer being mediocre at something in front of an audience.

Starscream winks at the audience, and then opens his mouth. “I am a mech who loves finer things! The higher the price, the sweeter the drink!”

Thundercracker gives him an indulgent whistle. Not bad so far. It’s a good tune, and one he hasn’t heard before.

“What else to expect from a mech of respect? The judge in his court is a king!”

At which point Thundercracker’s tanks give a wild lurch, like he’s performing a barrel roll without ever leaving his spot. He knows those lines. He wrote those lines. That’s Crucible, the judge. That’s his opera. How--when--?

“The Law, oh yes! The Law!” Starscream sings, his voice wicked and light, trilling up and down a scale that Thundercracker wouldn’t have thought him capable of a month ago. “The craftsman exists to build objects, and the law exists to make crime! The law, oh yes!”

All around Thundercrackers there is laughter and clapping as people realize with delight that Starscream isn’t just a passable singer—he’s blessed with stage presence. Of course he is. Why didn’t anyone ever think of it? On a stage, all his melodrama and grand gesticulation shine like expensive crystal, rather than cheap glass.

He’s been practicing, Thundercracker realizes. He definitely couldn’t have just gotten up here and sung this, it’s too… challenging, it’s too complicated, it’s not the hardest thing he’s ever heard sung but it’s definitely not Lonely Cybertronian.

“Today on the courtroom floor, they brought me a craftsman who had broken the law. Yes, I know, I know—so sad!” Starscream does a beautifully fake impression of someone who actually feels remorse, turning his head, covering his mouth, drooping his wings. “So sad! So very sad!”

Starscream, mid-pantomime of grief, throws his open palm out towards the stage edge, and allows Acid Storm to place a cube of high grade in it. It’s so smooth, so graceful—it’s rehearsed, they rehearsed this, Thundercracker can’t get past that realization. Skywarp, Skywarp must have done the music for it, that’s why he’s over there with Brass Tap, he orchestrated this.

“The prosecution was done up in red, the bailiff was done up in blue—the resting defense fell asleep, but the trial of course must continue! Such a shame, to waste a good craftsman. Such a shame to waste such fine hands! But the labor was done for a laser to sing, and his hands—ah his hands! Were the tools of unicron’s forge!”

The light falls, in the restaurant, until only Starscream is clear in the darkness, red-tinted beneath the jury-rigged spotlight.

“You doubt me?” he presses a hand to his chest. “Oh, you doubt me. You say I’ve denied you your pleasure, by taking the craftsman’s keen hands. His workshop will ever lie empty! His orders will ever lie lost! But a mech of fine taste will assure you, the best pleasures all come at high cost.”

Starscream touches his lips. “They cut out the delicate mouth. How will he kiss? Ah hah! How will he kiss! Let him long for the lips of another, if his suffering brings him to heel. They broke every delicate finger. How will he work? Ah hah! How will he work! Let him starve for his country a while, if his hunger breaks him to kneel!”

Vicious catcalls break out through the bar, denta bared, as Starscream leans back against the wall and opens his legs, a hand brushing lightly down his hip.

“It’s a fine, fine luxury,” he sings, and the part of the instrument carries him through a complicated series of notes as he inspects his glass and repeats: “A fine, fine luxury. A sweet, sweet thing.”

He lifts the glass to the audience, as if for a toast.

“To perform one empurata, what it costs in doctors and parts! One eye at the price of two, one mouth at the price of a spark. The hiring, the wiring, the scrap and the waste!”

Engex glitters pink beneath the lights, as he takes a long, sweet sip.

“But good punishment, like good drink, is expensive! And ah, what a wonderful taste.”

It’s... perfect. It’s every bit Crucible, every bit the villain Thundercracker imagined it would be—every bit the smug false piety, every inch the cultured careless cruelty. In the space around Starscream the whole opera unfolds for him, the staging, the orchestra, the scenes. Crucible indulgently allowing Wist’s aria, as the servant begs for his amica’s life. The chorus of subterfuge and scheming. The execution scene, the reckless last minute heroics, the savage and vindictive satisfaction of bringing just one arrogant slagger to his knees, just this one time.

The lights click back on. Everyone in the bar howls and slams their cups against the nearest flat surface in a riot of delight as Starscream smirks and takes bows and blows kisses. Thundercracker is not clapping or banging the cup in his grip. His hands are much too busy shaking. His body feels far away.

“One for the meistro,” Starscream calls, waving a hand towards Skywarp. The applause flares up again. And then he looks at Thundercracker, and his expression goes hard with satisfaction, a metal-edged contentment nothing like the vamping of moments before. His eyes gleam.

Ribbons of light are bleeding from Thundercracker’s own eyes, he can see them happening, the way they blur the colors and the shapes of everything around him. He’s crying.

“And one for the idiot who wrote it!” Starscream calls, waving a hand towards Thundercracker, and the world dissolves into bleeding light and cheers. Countless hands slap him on the back. He doesn’t see who any of them belong too; he’s blind to everything but the bleeding of light in his optics.

“What is that?” says Bulkhead, who acts as a bouncer for them sometimes. “I ain’t heard anything like that at the opera house.”

“It’s from a three act,” Thundercracker says, numbly. “A dark comedy.”

He looks up at Starscream, who hates it when anyone else is more popular than him, who throws a fit if he’s not the center of attention—and who is still just watching, hard-edged and satisfied, as most of the bar crowds around Thundercracker, demanding to know the rest of the plot, whether there’s more, if they can see it.

Thundercracker curls away from the attention. “I never finished it,” he says “My professors told me it was too radical, and that I shouldn’t finish it, and that I would get into trouble.” He stares at the glass in his hand, rattling faintly against the bartop. “They said I should wipe it out of my memory bank if I didn’t want to get hurt.”

There’s a general bitter murmuring, which Thundercracker isn’t listening to. He’s remembering standing at the desk in an instructor’s office, feeling ashamed and too aware of his clumsy, unwelcome wings. It had been in a thesis meeting—early on in his degree—when they told him in gentle but no uncertain terms that he would be focusing on other topics for the length of his degree there.

A student at any academy traded the rights to their work in exchange for access to downloads and library access and tools, and the academy—he was told—didn’t want products that were going to get them in trouble. Write about the sky or flying, they said. That’s exotic, people will love that.

“They thought a grounder wrote it,” he says. “They had blind applications that year. They gave me a scholarship, and then they saw me, and they told me to throw it away.”

“You should write more!” Acid Storm pipes up.

“No one’s going to see it!”

“Not your professors, anyway.”

“I have been looking for a libretto, y’know,” Skywarp says, which Thundercracker didn’t know, actually. Skywarp almost never talks about music. They all play their secret longings pretty close to the chassis, it seems like.

Thundercracker chews his lip. “I shouldn’t. If someone found radical writing in my possession, I could be in real trouble.”

“You mean like those Tarn poems you keep carrying around?” Starscream says, in a clear voice that cuts through the chatter.

Thundercracker looks up, at Starscream, who is watching him expectantly. The red light remains, catching the white panels of Starscream’s armor, turning the blue pieces a strangely shimmering purple.

He licks his chewed-up lip. “Um,” he says. “Fair enough.”

Later, Starscream will say, “Well of course it was my performance that sold it,” and “I’m just tired of listening to sonnets about engex,” and “You will write the part for me, naturally,” But for now, he only watches from the stage, as something new and rare and unprecedented shines through this single, unexpected moment.

A real trine, he thinks. We could be a real trine.

Chapter Text

Starscream’s vents ache before he’s even woken up fully. Every attempt at funneling fresh air into his systems ends in a wheeze and a hot, muffled strain. He onlines his optics at a muzzy 20%.

It’s Thunderclash’s parlor, he’d recognize those blasted chandeliers anywhere. A pair of red optics swim into focus. “N’now ‘Clash,” he mumbles. His memory core is doing the slowest rebooting job of all history, and he can’t handle any new RAM input right now.

“He’s awake,” a refined little voice says, and Starscream immediately bolts upright as his memory core makes the leap to the last time he heard that voice. Unfortunately this means that Starscream’s facial vents clock the little guy right in the nose.

“Ugh,” Starscream says, at the same time that he says “Ow!”

“Starscream!” Thunderclash says, immediately insinuating himself into the scene. “Are you okay? You rebooted in the middle of the street, you scared us half to death. Well--” he considers it for a moment, “--figuratively.”

Starscream grabs the little green face, which fits full into his hand, and pushes it back out of his space. “I’m fine,” he says, “I’m just full of more dust than a vacuum cleaner right now. I didn’t reboot, I just--I hard restarted, okay? It’s the dust, that’s all.”

Thunderclash gives him a knowing, sympathetic look, which Starscream would like nothing more than to rip off his condescending faceplates and crumple like tin foil. 

“And who’s this?” Starscream demands, redirecting his attention to the minibot currently trying to pry his hand off his face. 

“A stowaway,” Pharma says, and Starscream immediately whips around to look at the jet. Pharma is standing in the doorway, arms crossed over his chassis, with the grimmest look Starscream has ever seen on his faceplates. It’s nothing like the hand-wringing and wing-fluttering they’ve all grown accustomed to when something goes wrong for Pharma. If Starscream didn’t know any better, he’d almost call it calculating. Certainly cold .

The minibot says something that Starscream’s palm muffles to the point of unintelligibility, at which point Starscream reluctantly lets him go. He’s a finely made thing, with the same sleekness of limb that Rung has and an insignia that could put Thunderclash’s beaglepuss to shame.  

“I said I’m not a stowaway,” the minibot tells them, giving Starscream’s hand an offended little glare. “I was forged Minimus Ambus, Principe Inferior of the House of Ambus. But you know me--you have always known me--as Ultra Magnus.”

“So you’re not a parasite living inside a bigger guy and slowly hollowing him from the inside out to make room for your eggs,” Rodimus asks, leaning over the arm of the couch to the point where a strong wind could probably overbalance him.

Minimus gives Rodimus the exact look of disgust and dismay that Starscream has seen so many times on a bigger, bluer face. It’s a perfect match, despite the fact that Magnus and Minimus look nothing alike in coloring, scale, or structure. It’s unmistakably a Magnus Look.

“No I’m not a parasite ,” Minimus says. “I am Ultra Magnus, and Ultra Magnus is me. At least, the only version of him you’ve ever known. Admittedly, I’m not the first--”

“I have records of Ultra Magnus,” Pharma interrupts, eyes narrowed. “Points totals. A death dossier. I don’t have anything on a Minimus Ambus. This cycle vorn two, Ultra Magnus tracked down and arrested an arms dealer attempting to take Cybertronian technology beyond the bounds of contested space. Extinguished in the line of duty, neutralizing the fugitive.”

“Yes that was--I mean to say, I think that was me,” Minimus says. “It sounds like me. I was appointed to the position by Tyrest after the last Ultra Magnus died in… died of… in the line of duty, I presume. I suppose I was never told…”

“If you’re Ultra Magnus,” Starscream says, “then whose aft did I haul out of that sink hole?”

Minimus pinches the space between his optics and says, “Let’s start this over, shall we?”

Over the next several kliks, Minimus outlines for them the history of Ultra Magnus, immortal lawman. The original Ultra Magnus was a police officer who was offered a brand new post as intragalactic peacekeeper, and after some time comporting himself nobly, was killed in action. First a living mech, then a suit in the shape of a corpse: Judge Tyrest had taken it upon himself that the figure of justice should be as undying as the idea of it. Minimus describes the gruesome puppeteering of a dead mech’s likeness in practical, matter of fact tones.

“Presumably, back among the living,” Minimus adds, “Tyrest has already selected the next bearer of the title. No one but those present will ever know that the mech in the suit was killed at all--to everyone else, Ultra Magnus will simply make one more miraculous recovery, and carry forth inviolate.”

“But what about you ,” Thunderclash asks, “the pilot? Minimus Ambus? What does history say about you?”

“Oh,” Minimus says, with a flick of his hand, “long dead, if anyone remembers that name at all. Tyrest had one of his people diagnose me with cybercrosis--a bit young for it, but not unheard of--and I was dismissed from duty in order to seek euthanasia. And so I went, and I was wired into the suit, and there I have been for… quite a long time.” 

Starscream and Rodimus exchange a look. 

“So this is… you,” Starscream says. “The real you.”

Minimus shifts his weight uncomfortably, the same way that Ultra Magnus did, at an uneasy parade rest.  “Well, I,” he says. “I prefer to think of the real me as the… what I mean to say is, Tyrest offered me the opportunity to live up to my potential, after a lifetime of living in someone else’s shadow, and—”

“Except you didn’t,” Pharma cuts in. He taps his stylus against his arm. “That wasn’t you, that was you pretending to be Ultra Magnus.”

“I wasn’t pretending,” Minimus insists, “in the same way that an elected prime is not pretending to have—”

“I don’t think you fully understand the severity of the situation, Minimus Ambus,” Pharma says, holding up his hands. “This doesn’t just affect what we know about you. The system didn’t count you. Points have been misattributed. Your file isn’t your file. Do you understand?”

“I’m afraid not,” Minimus admits, “perhaps you wouldn’t mind explaining yourself?”

Pharma drags a hand over his face. “My file for you,” he mutters, “is labeled ‘Ultra Magnus’. It dates back through the entire life of Ultra Magnus, back to his forging. You say there have been six or seven different Ultra Magnuses? Magni?” He waves his hand in the air. “When you arrived here, and called yourself Ultra Magnus, I assumed you were the Ultra Magnus. You’ve received points for all of their achievements.”

“I see,” Minimus says, fingers catching on his facial insignia and running fingers over it. He seems deep in thought. “A severe clerical error, of course. I apologize. Of course, I would be happy to assist in unfurling any information that has to do with my own experiences. And, possibly, make sure the points of other pilots go to the right mech.”

“We can’t accept your help,” Pharma says, “Minimus Ambus, the number of points it requires to get into the Good Place is extremely high. Ultra Magnus made it in because of his many, many years of heroism and heroics. You? I’m not so sure.”

With a heave of his engine, Starscream’s vents spit out a chunk of dust and a not-insubstantial mist of dirt. “Wait, what are you saying?” he says, wiggling a finger into one of his cheek-vents to try and pry out a clump of wood-chippings that have stubbornly staked a claim just behind his grill. “You mean Magnus—Minimus—whatever—you mean you think he’s not supposed to be here?”

He should be thrilled, he thinks to himself. He wanted a gullible patsy to throw under the bus when the going got tough. But now—Minimus’ tiny frame looks so fragile, so unlike Ultra Magnus’ regal presence. He looks confused. He looks off-kilter.

“I’m saying I don’t know that he’s supposed to be here,” Pharma says, “maybe Minimus Ambus was a good person, maybe he did earn enough points during his time as Ultra Magnus. I don’t know. What I do know is there’s been some mistake, and that means I need to run some numbers. I need time.” He crosses his arms. “Which, due to the most recent series of glitches, we’re probably going to have a lot of.”

Starscream pauses. He feels like he’s missing something. “What does that mean?”

Pharma sighs. “The last glitch has had a cataclysmic effect,” he explains. “We thought it would stop with the sinkhole, but the energy has just rippled out. The framework of the neighborhood is mostly in place, but the air is thick with kinetic energy and general bad vibes. I’m putting the whole system on hold until I can figure out how to fix this most recent disaster.”

“On hold?”

“We’re all under house arrest,” Rodimus interrupts, looking for all the world like he’s going to overbalance and sprawl across the floor any second, “indefinitely. Rung’s offline, too.”

“Not ‘offline’ like he’s hurt,” Pharma quickly adds, like anyone was worried, “he just won’t be accessible to the residents until we can fix the structural… integral… issues.”

“House arrest? Here?” Starscream scrambles to his pedes, then sways as heat warnings blaze across his HUB. “I mean, house arrest, fine. But can’t I stay in my house? I need to wash up.”

Thunderclash frowns. “I admit the dust did a number on all of us,” he says, “and I understand the desire to remain tidy. But isn’t a wax and polish a slightly lower priority, right now?”

Starscream opens his mouth to say he’s got a lot of priorities, right now, that they’re all coming at him at once and he’s just answering them as they dip in, but before he can say anything, he hears Minimus Ambus’ proper little voice saying: “Seeker frames can become seriously damaged with particulate build-up. Not washing up would have been a death sentence on Cybertron--it makes sense as a first priority.”

“No one is going anywhere,” Pharma says curtly, “except for me, back to my office. You have plenty of space here for four mechs, especially since one of them is…” Pharma gives Minimus Ambus an appraising look, “...so economically sized.”

Minimus stiffens. 

“Anyway, you’re all such good friends now,” Pharma says, “I can’t imagine it’ll be any real hardship for you. Take some time to get to know each other. Really get in there, find out what you’re all about. There’s nothing like the relentless psychological pressure of house arrest to bring people together!”

“...Wonderful,” Starscream says, through gritted teeth. He can almost taste the walls closing in. When Starscream said that he should get this house, he did not mean with everyone else still inside it

Pharma tosses the stylus in his hand; it folds itself into thin air and disappears. “Don’t worry, I’ll get to the bottom of this in--as little as a few B’s! Or a few Bearamies, maximum. Somewhere between one B and several Bearamies.”

Rodimus is rocking vaguely from his perch on the arm of the couch, which seems to be what he does when he can’t fidget with anything in arm’s reach. Thunderclash is watching everything with big, uneasy eyes. And Minimus--like a soldier waiting for an enemy firing squad, he’s looking at none of them, shoulders stiff and eyes fixed on the far wall.

Pharma pauses at the door. He looks over his shoulder and flashes them a smile. “I’m sure you’ll make the most of it. After all, you may not all be together again like this in the future.”

There’s a metallic click, as Pharma disappears. The sound of heavy steel shutters closing down on every window throughout the house bounces off the high walls and ceiling of the parlor, leaving the four of them collectively speechless in its wake. A dimness falls over the home.

Well. Prison at last, after all these years of just skating through by the tips of his wings. And it only took Heaven to finally make it stick. What is it you’re supposed to do on your first day of incarceration? Pick the biggest guy in the yard and take him out? Well the good news is that Thunderclash looks unsettled enough that a stiff pat on the back would knock him over.

Starscream takes a mental inventory of the washracks in this luxurious new prison. “Dibs on the east wing,” he says. “East wing is mine, no take backs.”




Minimus Ambus walks the halls in his own body for the first time in millennia. Everything resists him; his joints threaten to creak. The nature of the Ultra Magnus suit is that, for all its considerable assets, its removal leaves the pilot’s body more than just exposed. Stiff gears struggle to spin. Pistons whine. Not to be flagrant in his use of figurative language, but curled in the dark inside the chest cavity of the massive machine, Minimus Ambus had functioned as nothing so much as strange and heavy spark. His frame protests at the sudden autonomy.

The familiar mansion is disorienting from this height. Irritatingly, he spots several new discrepancies in the architecture, which he can only attribute to shoddy workmanship in the coding of the Good Place. The paint underneath the ¾ molding clips up onto the white railing in several places. 

After Starscream marched off, spitting puffs of dust with every pede-fall, Minimus had been left alone with the bots who could no longer accurately be considered his neighbors. His internal sorting algorithm keeps trying to re-classify them as kin. The trouble is the house, of course--while not as complex and sprawling as the House of Ambus had been, it is still a shared living arrangement with individuals who would expect…

And each time the reclassification arrives at this point, it stalls and drops. He does not know what they expect of him. This is not the House of Ambus. These are not staff or siblings or mentors. They are: 1. some kind of street urchin impersonating a monk; and 2. a bot whom Minimus respects and whom he has nonetheless been lying to, for an entire day now, as he may have to continue doing for the foreseeable eternity. 

He has judged it best to escape their company.

Out of sheer discomfort he’s begun to compile a mental list of imperfections, flaws, and poor design choices throughout the halls. His work as a defense lawyer even before his time as Ultra Magnus--he always acted with the most upright intentions, but perhaps he defended someone who was guilty? He rarely spent time getting to the bottom of his-- there , a crooked window pane, two degrees acute, forcing the rest of the glass to bend slightly to fit into a vaguely rectangular shape. It’s rucked up the wallpaper at the bottom of the sill.

He opens a door he assumed led to a staircase down to some lower level--why else would it be centrally located on the southernmost point of the building’s main vaunt?--and gets several shelves full of linens and towels. He prods at one, disgruntled. They’re soft, clean, and they smell faintly of a slightly organic scent he can’t put a name to. Something off-planet.

With a frown and a gaze fixed on the uppermost hinges, Minimus swings the door back and forth slightly in his hand. He’s no expert on interior design, but a toiletry closet really ought to have a folding door. For what it’s worth, it seems to hang well.

Had Starscream thought to grab towels on his way to the washracks? He’d seemed in quite a hurry--of course, if he’d been in pain--maybe it wouldn’t have crossed his mind. Perhaps he could comm--no, there are no comms in the Good Place. He sighs and shakes his head, lifting a small stack of towels and nudging the door shut behind him. There’s no harm in checking, anyway.

The East Wing isn’t far, although Minimus’ internal navigator reminds him with little red errors that there aren’t really cardinal directions in the Good Place whenever he thinks things like ‘Southernmost point’, and once he’s there he follows the sound of running water. Perhaps, he thinks, he could find a sponge and oil and scrub this whole building clean. Scrub the rust off the pipes and dust off the paintings and little ugly lies and untruths off himself.

“Starscream, I brought you these,” he says, opening the door to the washracks, and promptly swallows his tongue.

For one second, frozen: Starscream under a stream of water, his chassis unlocked and open, delicate fingers buried deep inside himself to brush out dirt and mud, optics flaring up from a euphoric dim, panels opened all the way up his legs to his--

“Uh,” Starscream says, crossing his arms over his chassis, and Minimus rockets back into the world with a furious crash.

“I--excuse me, I, towels,” he fumbles helplessly, “I’m so sorry, I didn’t--”

“Uh, it’s fine, it’s--”

“I’ll leave them here, I,” Minimus says, as they fall out of his hands, “excuse me, I, the door--” 

With two backwards steps, Minimus half-strides, half-stumbles his way out of the washroom and slams the door shut in front of his face. He can feel the heat from his optics warming the faceplates around them. His vents shutter, open-close-open, cooling fans redistributing the air flow. 

He shutters his optics and immediately regrets it. Without optical input, Starscream’s form is seared into his vision.

There’s a knock from the other side of the door. “You okay out there?” Starscream’s muffled voice says. “I’m not mad--I mean, knock next time, maybe, but it’s not… you know, I’ve had worse.”

Minimus thinks of that form, twisted under him in the almost-dark of the Good Place’s night, intoxicated and pretending at attraction. His jaw tightens. “I’m sorry,” he replies miserably, “for everything.”

“You know you’re not the first bot to see my turbines, right?” 

“That’s not--” he breaks off, sighs, and runs a hand over his face, fingers prodding at the soft protoalloy under his optics. “I mean, I am sorry that I barged in. But I--I’m sorry I felt that I was qualified to criticise you. If I could make any defense of myself, it would only be that I thought my credentials were sound.”

“What the scrap is that supposed to mean? Are you trying to--” Starscream cuts off with a grunt. “Hang on, there’s something in my turbine--just gotta--dislodge it--”

Completely unbidden, Minimus’ processor fills with hypothetical visuals and starts running scenarios. Starscream, his chassis gaping open, turbines exposed and wet as he needlessly leans back with his--

He jerks a hand out and slaps himself across the face with a sharp metal thwang, and the images depart. His face is still painfully hot.

“Ungh,” Starscream groans, “there we go. Primus, that thing’s huge. I’m amazed it even fit.”  

Thinking diplomatically, Minimus declines to comment.

“Sorry, you were saying something,” Starscream says, “something about your--your credentials? Honestly, I’m having a hard time following here.”

Starscream is handsome, Minimus thinks, in a blithe, unbothered sort of way. He looks like he could’ve been a movie star, under all that travel damage on his frame. He’d never actually met a seeker, back when he was living on Cybertron--they didn’t live in the sort of places he visited. They’re all supposed to look the same, aren’t they? On account of being cold constructed? But why bother designing them to look… they were built to find energon, weren’t they? So why… 

His tank churns again. “Why won’t you just do it,” that old recording plays in his helm, “it’s fine, everyone else does it--” 

“Minimus?” He jumps as Starscream raps on the door between them. “You still out there?”

“Yes! Yes, I--” he resets his voice box. “Sorry, I was just--thinking.”

“Oh, well, don’t do that,” Starscream says. “You’re spiralling, aren’t you? Listen, you’ve got to stop thinking at once, otherwise you won’t be getting any recharge tonight.”

“But I can’t,” Minimus says, shuttering his optics as tightly as he can, “how can I just not think about things? I’ve condemned you to an eternity of torture because I failed to self-analyze! How could I believe I belonged here? It was that very inaction, the desire to accept a good situation without wondering if it was deserved. I didn’t even stop to consider that telling you that I was Ultra Magnus could be a lie. I believed it.”

“Yeah, see, that’s what I’m talking about,” Starscream continues on, like he’s barely even listening, “you’re retroactively freaking out about everything you’ve done and blah, blah, blah. ‘Did I do the right thing,’ and whatever. Just quit it! If you think about things that upset you, you’ll just fall down and never get back up again. It’s better not to care if you ‘did the right thing’ or not.”

“Is that what you do?” Minimus asks. “You just don’t think about it?”

“I’m an advanced player,” he replies, a little faster than Minimus thought he would. “It’s alright for you to just not think about things, you’re a beginner. Me? I got my processor all the way around to the other side. I took pride in doing the wrong thing.”

Minimus frowns, opens his mouth to ask how that had worked out for him, in the long run--then stops, closing his mouth again. What is acting high and mighty going to do? If Pharma is right, if he doesn’t belong here--well, that’s just it. He hasn’t earned the trueness of morality which would allow him to instruct another on proper moral behavior. Maybe Starscream is the one who’s supposed to be here, and Minimus is the one who broke in--he can’t be certain of himself. Maybe he’s the one guiding someone else down the wrong path.

Then he thinks about Starscream’s subspace full of pearls, and feels the tightness of his gears ease up slightly. There are thought exercises about morality, and then there’s absurdity. There’s no way he made it to the Good Place on his own.

“Starscream,” he says, “I don’t mean to change the subject, but I feel that I need to know. Are you… I mean, does this all come as…” he pauses, shifting from one pede to the other, unable to look directly at the door that separates him from Starscream’s open chassis, his stripped down form. Despite the reality of the situation, he feels desperately vulnerable, as though he were the naked one without a lock. “What I mean to say is, I apologize for being… me. I’m sure this is all very… disappointing.”

“Disappointing?” There’s a rattling of plates, and a little gasp, as though something very cold has touched someone comfortably warm. “You’re gonna have to-- ohh-- rephrase that, I don’t-- mmh-- know what you mean.”

“What are you doing in there?”

“None of your business,” he snaps hotly, which might be intimidating if it wasn’t sandwiched in between the borderline inappropriate sounds of someone enjoying a shower far too much. “And you’re stalling.”

“I just meant about my appearance,” Minimus says all in a rush, “I know the--I know that Ultra Magnus is larger and more--impressive, and I--that I lied to you about it, and I’m--I’m sorry.” He rubs his forehead. “Are you angry with me?”

“Angry? I’m thrilled.” The sound of the water shuts off abruptly. “I’ve never been the tall one in a relationship before.”

Minimus blinks, turning to face the wood paneling of the door. “Relationship?” he asks, inadequately.

“I’m still your sparkmate, aren’t I? That was the whole thing. I’m here for you. That’s sort of the whole deal.”

“You are Ultra Magnus’ sparkmate,” Minimus corrects quickly. “It was his number you were matched to, not mine.”

“See, that’s the thing,” Starscream says, “that’s convenient, isn’t it? I mean, it doesn’t add up, does it? Think about it.” There’s a gentle rustling, as though Starscream is moving closer, and as Minimus leans against the door, he can hear the seeker’s lowered voice through the wood. “You ‘got’ Ultra Magnus’ points? So where’s the original Ultra Magnus? He died, right? You said he died. So how come they wouldn’t have him here already? I’m just saying. How could an error like this happen?”

“Good people make mistakes all the time,” he replies. “I mean, look at this house. It’s riddled with so many errors I can barely stand to stay in any one room for longer than a few minutes.”

“That’s what I’m saying,” Starscream hisses, “ good people make mistakes. Bad people make malicious choices--like designing an apartment for a perfectionist like you with a ceiling that’s too low and--and a door that hangs wrong.”

“The door to my apartment hangs perfectly,” he snaps. He should know--he fixed it the very first night he was there while he was trying not to think about… things. That might have been. Said.

“Okay, bad example,” Starscream says, and there’s a noise of pedes moving away. “I’m just saying, it seems like we’re being kept in the dark on a lot of stuff. How do we even know this is the Good Place? Because Pharma told us? Pharma, the guy who can’t even get the right bolts on the hinges in my--did you bring a washcloth? I need to wipe down my rear fuselage, I can’t put it under direct water--oh, here’s one.”

For a moment, Minimus forgets to be indignant about the implications Starscream’s throwing at Pharma to be half-blinded by the implications about his fuselage. Just how open is his chassis? Is his--his cockpit detached? For a moment, he thinks he can hear a choked little ‘oh-’ from the other side of the door, and his face burns hot.

Then he refocuses, and the gaussian fantasy of Starscream’s internal fan monitors melts away in the heat of his fury.

“You’re asking me to question an authority on no evidence but the desire to further my own well-being?” he says. “I can’t help you. I won’t. I shall wait to receive my due, whatever Pharma concludes that to be.”

There’s a sharp and heavy click behind the door.

“Yeah yeah, just set your chin down in the apparatus,” Starscream scoffs, “you’ll look pretty with a single optic, I’m sure. Whatever.”

 

 

 

As lovely as this house that Pharma has provided him might be, the truth is that Thunderclash still has a hard time thinking of it as home . His ship is home to him—his little bubble floating through the horizonless sea of outer-space, the long flights and waiting destinations, the crew and captain’s chair. 

One might think that what with the radioactive void of space and the constant threat of debris, he would be more comfortable being locked inside his home. Actually, the moment the blast doors come down behind Pharma, claustrophobia starts climbing up Thunderclash’s spinal strut like a spotted crawler.

With Mag—Minimus, with Minimus gone, the parlor seems ominously quiet. Hot Rod is slumped over the back of the sofa, staring inscrutably at the door through which Minimus left them moments before, as silent as he ever was. The chrono-read on the far wall continues to count down to something Thunderclash doesn’t understand or recognize, two pointers like a paired finger and thumb spinning around and around.

“Um,” he starts, and clears his intake behind the polite cover of his fist, “Hot Rod, that was very brave of you, what you did in the restaurant, earlier. Um.”

Hot Rod turns his head slowly, pinning Thunderclash with a low, unimpressed stare. Thunderclash resets his voice box. This won’t do! Hot Rod has had a very difficult and confusing night! He needs to project confidence, to take charge and reassure Hot Rod that everything is under control now.

“Will you please sit down?” Thunderclash says, gesturing at the part of the sofa that people normally sit on. Hot Rod regards him for a moment in persistent silence, and for a worrying moment Thunderclash is afraid he’s just going to get up and leave—but then he obliges, sliding down into the seat and slumping there, legs akimbo. It’s crazy to be intimidated by your own sparkmate, so Thunderclash isn’t, but—

Thunderclash settles onto his knees at Hot Rod’s pedes, although he still manages to be on eye level with his sparkmate. Even with the unsettling mouthless faceplate, even a bot with sonar can see Hot Rod is gorgeous, a racer dream, with his narrow waist and broad shoulders, all pipes and spoiler and the promise of speed . On their homeworld, he would have been an overnight superstar. Maybe they would have hosted an event together at some point. Ended up at the same parties. Found each other drinking in the crystal garden behind Baysea’s summer house. Maybe they would have even fallen in love.

He wonders if Hot Rod and he are destined to be conjunx, or amica, or… or something else? Something Camien? He’s been too embarrassed to ask Pharma for clarification, and part of him is afraid that even Pharma wouldn’t know.

“You talked to me,” Thunderclash says, “at the restaurant. I mean, you shouted at me, but still. You have a good voice. I’d like to hear it under better circumstances.”

Hot Rod says nothing. Thunderclash slumps a little. Well what did he expect? That was a terrible conversation starter. He wonders what they’ll do for however long it takes Pharma to straighten this out? Surely they can’t just play Kleptocracy forever, they’ll have to find something constructive to do…

“…Good catch,” Hot Rod says.

Thunderclash looks up. “Pardon?”

“At the place,” Hot Rod says. “With the floor and all. Good catch.”

Thunderclash brightens. “Thank you!” he says. “You too! I mean, good jump! Right, yes.”

Hot Rod just keeps looking at him. Why is this so hard?

“Can I see your hands?” Thunderclash asks, holding his own open between them.

Hot Rod obliges, after another uncertain pause. Thunderclash carefully turns them over, bending each digit one by one as he examines the joints for jammed particles, or spring strain, or anything else that seems out of the ordinary.

“…What are you doing?” Hot Rod asks, at last, and Thunderclash whips his head up immediately.

“Damage check,” he says. “I know we should all be healed by now, but what with all the glitches happening, I thought it would be a good idea to double check. Especially if something healed back in the wrong place like a slipped disc, or a dislocated slip-plug—”

Thunderclash releases Hot Rod’s hands and pulls his left leg into his lap. His fingers skid lightly over the back of a calf, where three exhaust pipes connect to a nitro burner, searching for anything out of place.

“This kind of kibble is prone to coming out of alignment,” he explains, as Hot Rod stiffens under his touch. “Auto-repair can’t move whole pieces around, it can only patch microtears and coating wear. Someone has to pop these back into place by hand if they come loose.”

“It’s not loose,” Hot Rod says.

“No, not here,” Thunderclash agrees, and switches to the right leg, pushing the left one away again. Hot Rod’s pede twitches as Thunderclash smoothes his fingers up the back of this calf as well.

There’s some surface damage to the top coat, but nothing much worse than that. It looks old anyway, maybe something he acquired before dying. Thunderclash imagines him living a rough life on a rustic mountain top somewhere far away, carving out his serene monastic life among the alien flora.

“It’s not loose,” Hot Rod says again, more impatient this time. “I popped those back in enough times, I can tell when it’s loose.”

Thunderclash pauses, thumbs on the warm piping. “All by yourself?”

One of Hot Rod’s eyes squint closed. “Had to have someone kick it into place once,” he says. “Usually I just do it myself with whatever I’ve got around. Don’t usually have a medic handy.”

Well, that makes sense, what with the rustic wilderness and everything.  Thunderclash pulls his hands back to himself, feeling a little foolish.

“I’m not a real medic,” Thunderclash admits, his biolights flushing a bit. He hopes Hot Rod can’t see that as much from where he’s sitting. “Wrong kind of alt mode, they wouldn’t let me take the admission test. I wasn’t alt-exempt back then. I thought maybe they’d let me be a paramedic at least, maybe a nurse, if I could just do well enough on the admission test. Back then they’d let anyone with a cargo alt at least take the test. You couldn’t be a real doctor unless you were an ambulance or a defibrillator or something, but—anyway, I showed up for the test and they said no, we just turned out a batch of constructed nurses and we aren’t taking cargo alts anymore. So I had to go.”

 Hot Rod stares at him.

“Do they,” Thunderclash hesitates, “do they have functionism where you’re from?”

Slowly, Hot Rod nods.

“Too bad,” Thunderclash says.

For a moment they just sit there like that, Hot Rod’s pede sitting in Thunderclash’s lap, Thunderclash fiddling with his own hands, mouth twitching against a frown.

“You know doctor stuff, though,” Hot Rod says, finally, sounding confused.

“Oh,” Thunderclash says, “well, you don’t need to be a doctor to know things about doctoring. All you have to do is get access to the med school downloads. Which is pirating, of course, so you can’t just do that unless you’re good enough not to get caught. And it’s expensive to find someone to hack on your behalf. But there are other ways to get access to testing materials, if you’re subtle about it.”

“Oh,” says Hot Rod. “ Blackmail .”

Thunderclash lets out a startled laugh, clapping his hand to his mouth a second too late. “No! No, nothing like that. I just went to the bar nearest to the school library and hung out with the students there. After a while I made friends with one of the medical students, and then I offered to quiz him on the material every time he had a test coming up.”

Thunderclash smiles, setting his chin on Hot Rod’s knee as he thinks about the long nights in a cube-strewn dorm room, the furious “damn it”s at every wrong answer and the early morning nitro shots after an all-nighter.

“We ended up being good friends,” Thunderclash says. “And once he realized what I was trying to do, he just copied all his downloads for me instead of turning me in to the board, which was nice of him.”

“He’s not famous?” Hot Rod asks.

“Oh,” Thunderclash says, brow furrowing. “No, he’s… pretty famous now, in his way. Probably the most high profile doctor currently practicing.”

“So why didn’t you start with his name?”

Thunderclash pauses with his mouth open, not sure why Hot Rod is asking or how to answer him. He sucks the inside of his cheek for a klik. Normally he tries to connect his stories to whoever is most famous in them, for… name recognition, to keep people interested, to entertain, to be entertaining. So people will look at the people he knows instead, and not look too hard at him.

“I’ll do better next time,” Thunderclash says, glancing away. “Forgive me, I was just... lost in the memory.”

Hot Rod pokes him in the chest plate with the point of his pede. “Relax,” he says, with the casual confidence of a native speaker, “it’s a good story. Better than your usual stuff.”

“...Thank you,” Thunderclash says, “I think?”

“Needs more heists, though,” Hot Rod goes on. “I can coast on a good heist. You got any heist stories, superstar?”

Thunderclash laughs, startling himself. He presses a knuckle to his lips, hiding a smile. “I was once in a hold up in a bank on Antarus II,” he says. “The locals traded in radioactive isotopes, so the whole vault was like a nuclear reactor--this isn’t one of my better stories, though, people never ask for this one. You might--” his smile wavers, “-you might prefer something else.”

Hot Rod pokes him again. “How come?”

“Well I,” Thunderclash starts, and then clears his intake against the back of his fist. “I didn’t comport myself very… heroically. Truth be told, I didn’t realize there was a robbery at all until the enforcers showed up to arrest me along with the robbers.”

Hot Rod hasn’t got a mouth to open or cheek pistons to engage, but there’s no mistaking the way his eyes glow up, optics brightening. 

You ?” he says. “ Arrested? You need to tell me the rest, like, yesterday.”

Thunderclash’s spark whirls and pulses, like it’s trying to match the output of Hot Rod’s eyes. It almost hurts. He doesn’t mind it much, though; he’s too busy thinking about how to tell this story, as his fingers absently trace the outline of Hot Rod’s pipes.



 

There are things in this life which are certain. Minimus has been aware of them since he was first forged and awoken, back in the old and dark days which have since slipped from his memory. It is the duty of the strong to protect the weak; a good life is produced from good thoughts, good actions, good deeds; the law was put into place to benefit The People by a superior ruling body; that I comes before E, except after C (or when sounding like ‘A’, as in ‘neighbor’ and ‘weigh’).

(His back hurts, hurts, hurts, but he is built to withstand pressure and pain alike.)

“I grabbed us the best one,” Starscream is saying, waving his arms with less fluidity and grace then he typically possesses. The clicking of his thrusters on the marble tiles echoes in the cavernous space, and a small part of Minimus’ mind takes a moment to register that this is the hall from the party the first night. The space feels hostile now, not just because of his sudden change in stature. Without swirling groups of polished mechs moving around, flaws jumps out at him. The rows of tiles are slightly off center, so the edges of the ones he and Starscream are walking on are a full centimeter closer to the wall than the ones in the same row at the far end of the hall.

Minimus looks up. Far away, in the dazzling ceiling, there are little golden voids among a sea of black pearls. He stops walking.

“Starscream,” he says, “you need to put the pearls back.”

“What?” Starscream stops walking, glances down at Minimus, then follows his gaze up to the ceiling and the winking little voids. He looks back at Minimus incredulously. “You’re thinking about that now?”

“We’re here,” Minimus says. “You should return them.”

Starscream snorts. “Thunderclash hasn’t noticed. No harm, no foul.”

Minimus’ empty tanks give a fitful roll. How could Pharma’s system have even thought they could be sparkmates? They’re nothing alike, Minimus would never think to conduct himself in a manner such as Starscream’s. 

“You said you claimed this part of the house,” Minimus says after a moment. “Don’t you want it to look nice?”

Starscream opens his mouth. Starscream closes his mouth. He crosses his arms over his chassis, eyes wide with indignation. His lips twitch into something that Minimus would almost call a smirk before settling into a scowl.

“Fine,” he snaps. “I’ll have Rung do it whenever he gets fixed.” He whirls on his heel and stalks through the hall so Minimus almost has to jog to keep up.

(His hips, back, knees all ache with the effort of pushing himself forward, but he ignores them.)

It’s likely Starscream just lied to him. Most likely, he will conveniently forget to ask Rung to put the pearls back and hope that Minimus has also forgotten.

“If we’re all trapped here, we may as well insist on some privacy. Not to brag, but I’ve spent a lot of time taking stock of this house over the past week. I’d covet it if I could figure out how. Maybe I can still get my dirty little hands on the lease. Think I could frame Thunderclash for murder?”

Lying is not just a great sin, Minimus thinks. Lying undermines the machinery of law. Lies are dishonorable by nature, because to be dishonest is to be against reality. Is a falsehood a lie if it is unintentional? If only Pharma would have stayed to answer his questions, he could have at least eased his own mind’s insecurities. The variables, the unknowns. Even if they had pointed against him, at least he could stop providing himself with a heretofore untapped well of self-judgement and terror.

“Mag--Minimus? Hello?” Starscream’s voice cuts through his fog, and he blinks up hazily. “You know I was just joking, right? I’m not that much of an aftport. What, bad taste?”

“Oh--I’m sorry, I,” he manages, and shakes his head, “have some things on my mind at the moment. I apologize if I was… if I lacked presence in the conversation.”

“See, that’s what I’m talking about,” Starscream says furtively, “look, I get that it’s hard to forget about stuff like that when you first get into the ‘forgetting about it’ business. You need a distraction so you’re not just moping around the house for a… Bearimy.” He furrows his brow. “However long that’s supposed to be.”

Minimus stiffens, feeling a little offended despite himself. “I am not moping,” he insists, “I am merely considering the very real possibility that I have not been half as upstanding as I have always prided myself as being.”

“I’m trying so hard not to make a short-guy-inside-a-big-guy joke here,” Starscream says. “Alright, fine, so you don’t need a distraction. I do! I mean, Thunderclash is--eh--and Rodimus is-- ugh-- but I can’t hang around them all the time, I’ll go insane. So! If we need to wait around, you can at least teach me some more ethics or whatever.”

He stares up at Starscream. “You want me to continue teaching you?”

“Well, don’t get all weird about it,” Starscream says, waving a cavalier hand as though flicking something out of the air. “Yeah, you’re a good teacher, okay? It’s weird, I never even cared about this subject, but it’s like my processor is horny for knowledge. Not even downloads! Anyway, we’ve got to kill time, right?” He sets a hand on his hip, poses jauntily. Minimus swallows.

“I--” he says, trying to reset his voice box without an audible pop, “that is to say, Starscream, I’m very flattered that you--I mean, I’m happy that the field of moral philosophy and legal efficacy has started to compel you. But I don’t think…” his processor whirls. Moreso now than ever, he has to pick his words carefully. “I’m just not certain that I am… an adequate fount of this… particular… body of knowledge,” he settles on, finally. “Frankly, I don’t believe that I am--in light of recent revelations--fit to teach.”

Starscream stares down at him, stopped in the middle of a new room, smaller and warmer than the great hall. There’s that face again--the one he makes when he doesn’t want to let on what he’s really thinking. He made it all last night. Minimus is immediately on guard. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he asks.

Minimus sighs. “Be honest with me,” he huffs, “you can’t really want lessons on morality from someone who hasn’t--to speak frankly--proven that he has any.”

Starscream is looking at him. Starscream will not stop looking at him. “So what you’re telling me,” he says, “is that only a master in a particular field of study can teach that field.”

“That’s not what I’m saying,” Minimus says, “I’m saying that someone who is not moral should not instruct others on moral behavior.”

“Right,” Starscream says. “Moral philosophy. Would you argue that moral philosophy is an academic pursuit? Would you argue that a person can learn to be moral?”

Minimus narrows his eyes. Something is happening in Starscream’s voice, and he’s not certain it’s something he likes. It’s different, from Starscream’s normal self-important, voluminous peacocking, or snarky self-satisfied jabs of varying levels of pettiness. He doesn’t know how to handle it, and with Starscream, not knowing how to handle something can be dangerous. “I would argue that… the principles of morality can be taught, yes,” he says after a moment’s pause.

“Thank you,” Starscream says, in an odd tone of voice, “then, would you also call the study of… oh, let’s say opera. High art. Would you say that the study of musical composition is an academic field?”

“I… suppose so, yes,” he says, “Starscream, what is this about?”

“Oh, just a curiosity I had,” Starscream says casually, moving closer to Minimus and bending, slightly, to make optical contact. “So, Minimus, could you tell me who Ponte is?”

Minimus blinks. “He’s a composer, I think,” he says, “forgive me, I was never much a fan.”

“We’ve discussed it, yes,” Starscream says, “Minimus, do you think you could tell me who Ponte’s teacher was?”

Minimus blinks again. He can’t ascertain any intent in Starscream’s face. It’s making his panels rattle a little under his gaze. “As I have said, I have little knowledge on the subject,” he says, feeling wrong-peded and a little frustrated. “I’m sorry to disappoint you.”

“Oh, that’s alright. It’s perfect, in fact, thank you,” Starscream says, and leans away. “So you would say that Ponte is more famous than his teacher?”

“Yes.”

“So you would say that, while Ponte is a master in his field, he was taught by someone who was not a master in the field,” Starscream says authoritatively. “For what it’s worth, his name was Breckt. My friend Skywarp studied under him at university. Apparently he was never too easy to get on with.” Minimus frowns.

“Starscream, I appreciate the, er, history lesson,” he says, “good for your friend, in his higher pursuits. But what does this have to do with anything?”

“Oh, it’s pure curiosity,” Starscream says. “I wonder if you would tell me who taught you the field of law?”

“My professor,” Minimus replies, “professor Valeneia at the Cybertron Justice Academy.”

“Your professor, who taught you, Minimus Ambus, the most gifted orator for the defense in the history of Cybertronian trial,” he says, and Minimus bristles.

“Not gifted,” he says defensively, “that is to say, there’s no way of quantifying the skill of every mech, simply--to say, simply, that I had a record which went unmatched in the time I was functioning.”

“An unbeatable record,” Starscream agrees, stepping forward, “then, you would say your professor Valeneia had a record which was not, strictly speaking, comparable to the record you inevitably developed?”

“She was a teacher,” Minimus says quickly, feeling hurt, “she chose to teach, rather than to practice. There’s no shame in that.”

“For once, we agree totally, Ambus,” Starscream says, and suddenly, a furious sear of recognition burns its way across Minimus’ processor. The way he talks, the way he moves, those little leading questions and too-familiar closeness, of course it’s familiar because Minimus has seen those steps, those faces, a hundred thousand times on a hundred thousand different mechs. “So I want to know what the difference is between her, and you. Not in the field of law, but in the broader field of academia.”

“Starscream, I don’t--”

“You learned from someone who was not a master,” he interrupts, barrelling over Minimus, “Ponte learned from someone who was not a master. You agree to both these points! And yet you believe you must be a master of the field of moral philosophy in order to teach it. Tell me, Minimus, why are you different from them?”

“Stop cross-examining me!” Minimus shouts, desperate under the onslaught. His pulse is burning through him, his hands balled into fists. 

“Give me one good reason,” Starscream replies, looking cool and focused as ever, pistons flashing in the light. “You still haven’t answered my question.”

“I don’t have to!” Minimus yells. “I’m not on trial!”

“Yes! You are!” Starscream throws his hands forward, so suddenly and aggressively that Minimus stumbles back on awkward pedes despite himself. “And when you get up on the stand, Pharma is not going to be as nice as I am! You need to be prepared. You need to know what he’s going to ask.”

Minimus stares up, his anger starting to drain away. “You… you’re doing prep,” he says. “You’re doing prep? For me?”

“I’m not doing any thing for you,” Starscream says, “I just currently happen to be a little ticked off by you implying that I can’t learn to be a moral person, and I’m aware that if you go on trial, that’s a decision you’re going to have to defend.”

“That isn’t what I was implying,” Minimus says, “will you let me get a word in edgewise?”

“Because they’re going to let up on you?”

“We don’t know what they’re going to do,” Minimus says, “I’m flattered. Starscream, I’m--I’m touched. That you would even... want to help me with this. But this is the Good Place. I don’t need a legal representative.”

He wants to add that if he was going to choose council, he would choose a real lawyer, and not Starscream, then finds that he can’t honestly say that. He’s feeling sort of breathless, actually. Starscream is driving him hard--keeping him up and fast on his feet, desperately fending off question after question that his prosecutor doesn’t even seem to be formulating so much as spitting out, one by one, on a maddening and unflinching attack. Starscream watches people, he realizes. He knows their nervous tics, their little ways. He smells energon in the oil spill and darts forward to bite. He would be a killer prosecutor. 

“You don’t need representation, okay,” Starscream says, “so, on Cybertron, how often did you advise a client to refuse legal council in favor of defending themselves in court?”

“If they were my client, they had already made the choice to accept legal council,” Minimus corrects him, “ my legal council.”

“Let me rephrase,” Starscream says. “If you were speaking with a citizen who was going to be prosecuted, would you advise him to accept legal council, or to defend himself in court?”

“To accept council, of course,” Minimus says, “but we’re not on Cybertron. A citizen defending themselves wouldn’t know the tricks of the trade as a lawyer, wouldn’t know the vocabulary, and wouldn’t be able to adequately build a case in their defense. In the Good Place, that won’t factor in. The vocabulary in use isn’t legal, it’s moral.”

“Are you calling the Cybertronian justice system immoral?”

“No!” Minimus scrambles. “The justice system exists to uphold the law. It is--moral, in the sense that the law is moral, that it is immoral to punish someone for a crime they did not commit.”

“If the Cybertronian justice system is moral, why would anyone need a lawyer? Wouldn’t their judge and jury have the best moral intentions?”

“You’re trying to mix me up on purpose,” Minimus snaps, “it won’t work! The position of a lawyer is to protect a client from the well-intentioned but ultimately flawed Cybertronians who all work together to discover the facts and the nature of a case. The legal system on Cybertron is a well-oiled machine with multiple moving parts. A defense lawyer is necessary because they are in a position to look at the case from the outside on behalf of their client, who cannot, and illuminate facts that an untrained eye wouldn’t think of or consider necessary. That is not--that is not the case--” he pauses to suck in a vent. “In a trial by omnipotent beings,” he finishes. “Pharma knows everything. He knows all of my mistakes.”

“Pharma does not know everything,” Starscream says, pouncing on him while he struggles for cool air, “he didn’t even know you weren’t Ultra Magnus! Frankly speaking, Pharma doesn’t know scrap. If a defense lawyer sees angles that the judge wouldn’t consider and the client wouldn’t consider, that’s still applicable! Let me do it. Minimus, let me do this. Let me help you.”

Minimus shutters his optics and clenches his fists. “I don’t want help,” he snarls, “I want to be viewed and measured by--”

“A flawed ‘omnipotent’ being? Primus, Minimus, what do you think you’re saying? You aren’t even listening to me!” Starscream throws up his arms in frustration. “I’m trying to make you realize that you need help! Don’t you want to be here?”

“Of course I do, but I--”

“Don’t you think you deserve to be here?”

“I don’t know!” Minimus shouts.

They both pause for a moment, as mortification constricts Minimus like a full set of stasis cuffs. He feels--hot, all over, humiliated. Starscream is staring down at him.

After a moment, he watches as Starscream’s facial vents open and release a small puff of hot air. “Okay,” he says, “let’s start over.”

“It doesn’t matter how you lead to it,” Minimus says, miserably, his tongue heavy in his mouth, “I’m never going to be able to answer that. I can’t…” his voice box refuses to react, and he restarts it. “I can’t build my own defense,” he admits. “I don’t know what to think. I need someone to tell me what to do.”

Starscream turns away and stares at the opposite wall, focusing on one of the bare pearlescent lamps. Benignly, as he always does when Starscream’s processor is focused on something far away, Minimus realizes he’s beautiful, with his sharp chin and his proud, unsmiling lips. When he loses this case, he’s going to lose him, too. Maybe he’d better make peace with that.

“I think I’m going to miss you,” he says, and Starscream looks at him sharply, as if taken by surprise. “When they take me away somewhere. I’m not going to miss this place, but I suspect I’ll miss you.”

“You think?” Starscream says. “You suspect?”

All at once, his optics flare aggressively, too bright, and Minimus has to wince back. “Listen to me, nerd. Every day away from me is going to be a hellscape, and you’d better get used to that! ‘You suspect’, slag. Listen to me!” He stamps his pede like a petulant newform, hissing and spitting. “Can’t defend yourself? Fine! I’ll do everything myself. Look there!”

He jabs a finger, aggressively, at an empty chair across the room. Minimus glances at it, confused.

“There sits your client, Ultra Magnus,” he snarls, “how do you defend Minimus Ambus? His afterlife is in your hands. How does he plead to the charge of lying his way into the afterlife?”

Minimus shakes his head. “I’m not Ultra Magnus,” he says, “not anymore. I can’t be.”

“You pretended to be him for millennia,” Starscream says, “all I’m asking you to do is pretend to be him for a little longer. Mins, I’m not a lawyer.” He places two palms over his cockpit. “I don’t know how to build a case. And I need you to be proactive and help me, because, stupid as it sounds, I don’t have a chance without you. If you just give up and roll over, you’re condemning me to the pit, too.” He reaches out and grabs one of Minimus’ hands, angrily glaring down at it like he isn’t sure what he’s supposed to do with it. “I’m not a good person,” he snaps, “you’re the only one who ever thought I could be. I’m not letting you give up on you because I need it, because I’m selfish, because you haven’t taught me enough to keep me from grabbing what’s not mine.”

And Minimus stares up into his furious face, into the sear of his optics and the burn of exhaust pouring out of his vents and heating his face, and he wants Starscream. Wants him like this, vicious and alive and about to bite one of his fingers off, unpredictable and angry and brilliant and disrespectfully bright, never dimming, never cooling down. He’s not passively handsome, he’s not just a sexual object made for somebody else’s pleasure. He’s pissed off. He’s radiant. He’s divine.

“My client,” Minimus snaps right back into his face, “has been misused and persecuted by the very system that claims to reward the honesty he has lived his life trying to uphold.” 

He pulls away, desperate to make distance between himself and his revelation. “Your honor,” he posits to an imaginary bench, “I intend to prove that Minimus Ambus is not guilty on this count. He has been unlawfully misled by authority figures, and was asked to confess to crimes with no attorney present. I seek to prove firstly: that as an official bearer of the name Ultra Magnus, he should not be punished nor charged with fraudulent behavior for identifying as such, and to prove secondly: that even without the legacy that his secondary name implies, his intentions and actions have always been designed to uphold a strict code of morality which is synchronistic with the values of the Good Place. By these two points I intend to prove that the motion to displace him is unlawful and misguided by an authority figure looking to place blame.”

 

 

 

The office, all of its windows shuttered with the same blast shields as the mansion they spent the last week inside of, glows with the light of the projection.

“Leaving my service record as Ultra Magnus, at this point,” Minimus says, turning to gesture at the projection, which Starscream switches over seamlessly, “on the screen, you will see a graph describing the ratio of cases I defended to cases I won during my time practicing law as Minimus Ambus.”

Pharma narrows his eyes over the interlocked bridge of his fingers. “Braggery isn’t a particularly virtuous trait,” he said.

Starscream’s turbines give an irritated spin at his inability to just kick Pharma out of the office and declare himself the new architect. That would solve everything. But if that was an option, Starscream would have just done it a week ago and then popped open a new case of engex as a congratulations present to himself. 

“I assure you I’m not self aggrandizing here,” Minimus says. “I mean to show the effect that these cases have had on the living world in a demonstrable way. Each innocent that was set free reduced the amount of general suffering in the world and increased the amount of happiness. Their dependants and kin all benefited from their continued freedom, and therefore all of their dependants and kin. There is a rolling chain of benefit which must be mathematically accounted for in the valuation of my life on Cybertron.”

“You don’t mean to tell me you never once defended someone who was guilty?” Pharma asks, his almost lazy tone belied by his sharp eyes. 

Minimus clasps his hands behind his back. “I never made claims counter to what I knew at that time to be true. I don’t lie. It has always been a personal policy. However, in many cases, I did build and submit defenses based on legal technicalities.”

Starscream switched the slide for him.  

“Even in cases where a defendant who committed the infraction in question was acquitted on a technicality, this result has a beneficial effect on the justice system as a whole. Police efforts are rewarded for their adherence to procedure, which in turn reduces the amount of false or premature accusations are filed. For example, if a warrant was not granted prior to a search--”

Starscream holds his finger hovering over the projector button, wings quivering with anticipation. 

Days of pouring through law books, scribbling furious notes on a lightboard, shouting at each other in the library as Rodimus slurped engex with a little umbrella poking out of it and watched them with bemusement. Exhausted hours where Minimus slumped over an open ‘pad with his face in his hands saying, “I don’t know what’s admissible--I don’t even know what’s relevant --”

The download suite in the mansion contained just the right array of top of the line equipment to make copying and transferring stills from Minimus’ memory as easy as pi. By which, Starscream meant that it was doable, but they had to limit themselves to what was actually within their capacity. They were never quite able to figure out how to download full scenes of memory, like the ones the Good Place had lifted to play in Starscream’s house. Wher ever those had actually come from.

All of that work to watch Minimus now, shining in the light of the projector, granite and durasteel and unflappable, unstoppable certainty. 

If Pharma doesn’t see how much Minimus deserves this, as much as and more than anyone else in this pit-blasted joke of a heaven, then he’s even stupider than Starscream gave him credit for.

Minimus stops in front of Pharma’s desk, falling into parade rest. 

“In conclusion,” Minimus says, lifting his chin, “I acted in good faith, and it would be a perversion of justice for the Good Place to disregard my evidence of good conduct in favor of the clerical error in which I had no part.”

The projector whirrs. Pharma’s eyes glow, his wings perfectly still behind him. 

Starscream can’t take it anymore. “Well?” he demands, slamming his palms against the tabletop.

Pharma is still for a moment more. And then he sits back with a sigh, wings slumping, and snaps his fingers. All at once the blast shields around the room roll up and disappear into nothing. Blue, bright daylight pours in, complete with the sound of an ornamental waterfall rushing serenely in the distance. 

“How wonderful,” he says, and smiles broadly. “I’m so happy you all got the chance to… to really get in there, to spend this… this quality time together. You know, I knew you two--”

“Please don’t prolong the verdict,” Minimus says quietly.

Pharma seems to be wavering. “It’s just such a--an orgy of evidence,” he says, his mouth quivering, “of course, I’m so happy for you two! Er, you seem so… happy, and hardworking. It’s difficult to say ‘no’ to a display like this.”

“Then don’t,” Starscream says. “You’re not supposed to judge a case before you see the evidence. If anything is good enough, it’s this.”

“That’s not really… the problem that I’m having,” Pharma says. He lists to the side, dropping his forehelm into the cradle of his fingertips. “Er, oh, yes, um, well done. I was running numbers for Minimus Ambus, it seems fine. Plus, of course, all your hard work! Right, yes, Minimus Ambus can stay, sure, fine.”

Starscream looks at Minimus, who covers his mouth with his servos and shutters his optics in a silent bend of relief. He looks back at Pharma. “Really? I mean--right, good! Of course, we--”

“It’s just,” Pharma interrupts, “that if Minimus isn’t the one who’s supposed to go… I mean, things are wrong here. Really wrong. Something’s falling apart here. The structure is wrong. Rung hasn’t come online in a Beari and the sinkhole is still open and--” he stops, sucks air in through his vents. “Unless someone comes forward with a great idea in the next--oh, day, or so, I’m going to have to remove somebody.”

Starscream stares. “Somebody?”

Pharma shutters his optics, flutters his fingers nervously, and places them on his collar. “Somebody,” he repeats, “me.”

Chapter Text

Starscream barges into the house with enough force to make the front door bounce off the inside wall and knock Minimus back onto the lawn, but look, he’s not worried about it, the guy can handle a little blunt force. He was a fragging enforcer.

“House meeting!” Starscream shrieks, firing off his integrated confetti cannons. 

Thunderclash and Rodimus both pop their heads out of the same room, which happens to be the Green Parlor, and Starscream makes a beeline for them. They’re covered in uneven splatters of pearl topcoat. The Green Parlor, Starscream’s favorite parlor, is back to its natural state of sunlight and wide windows. Starscream pushes past them and shoves everything off the window seat, plopping himself down there instead.

“Items on the docket,” he says, and pushes down a finger with each item, “1. Is Pharma going away, and 2. Should we care.”

“Pharma’s going away?” Thunderclash asks, looking concerned. And also disconcertingly pearlescent. 

“It’s not a certainty yet,” Minimus says, stepping into the parlor and closing the door behind him with a distinct air of disapproval. “He suggested that the problem with the neighborhood, given the elimination of possibilities thus far, might be himself. If so, he may need to remove himself from the project. He is, technically speaking, a foreign entity to the system, as he is neither a resident nor a neighborhood interface.”

“Unless someone can come up with any other theories to test out instead,” Starscream says, “which brings me back to item number two.”

“Shouldn’t we help him?” Thunderclash says, shifting uneasily. “He’s worked so hard on this.”

“Counterpoint,” Starscream says, “he’s insufferable and I don’t like him.”

“Starscream,” Thunderclash says, taken aback. “I know he’s not very… good at his job, but that’s a mean thing to say. He’s trying his best.”

“Oh, don’t stick up for him,” Starscream says, screwing up his face. “Look at the way he treated you just the other night! Throwing you to the sharkticons like that, when you didn’t even have a speech prepared.”

“I’m with Starscream,” Rodimus says, at which point Starscream belatedly notices that he’s sitting in the middle of a stained tarp, surrounded by jars of paint. “All Pharma ever wants to do is have boring dinner parties and tell us not to do stuff. And he took Rung away! That guy is dope as frag, has anybody seen him recently?”

“Of course we haven’t seen him!” Starscream says. “You’re the one who said he was offline! What are you doing down there?”

“Mixing paint,” Rodimus says. “Duh.”

“The blast shields are up,” Minimus observes, moving to inspect the windows. “I would have expected Rung to come back online with them.”

Hovering behind the couch, Thunderclash folds his fingers together in front of his mouth. “Didn’t Pharma say this neighborhood was unusual?”

“Unorthodox, I believe, was the word,” Minimus replies.

Starscream leans back on his palms. “It’s something his boss wasn’t keen on, whatever that means,” he says. The seat under him gives a creak. “Which… mm. That could be a problem. If he gets taken off the project, the whole place could get scrapped. And some of us--” he eyes Rodimus and then Minimus in turn, “--like where we are.”

Rodimus sticks a paint-covered finger in his mouth and sucks the paint off it with a pop. “Pharma’s bad enough. I bet his boss is a total skidmark.”

“Don’t put that in your mouth, Rod--Hot Rod,” Minimus says. “Paint isn’t for eating.”

“Uhhh, then why’s it taste good,” Rodimus says, smugly. “Check point.”

“Check mate ,” Minimus corrects. 

“No,” Rodimus says, “I’m pretty sure I’m right. Anyway, what’re we supposed to do about Pharma being a bad mayor? Other than dismantling his house panel by panel, which was what we used to do when the politicians in Nyon did something fragged up. Like flooding Low Street so they could make a water feature for the senator’s mansion. But I don’t even know if Pharma has a house.”

“Go back to eating paint,” Starscream snaps. “What we need is something we can dangle in front of him that will keep him too preoccupied to worry about a couple sinkholes here and there. Some suspicious looking nimrod, maybe. I volunteer Vega.”

“Even if throwing Vega to the turbofoxes was an ethically acceptable alternative,” Minimus says, “which it isn’t, it would only occupy him for long enough to discern that Vega isn’t the problem. You would buy perhaps a day or two at the most.” 

Starscream purses his lips. “I could seduce him,” he offers. “That’ll keep him busy for a while.”

Minimus stiffens. “Absolutely not.”

Starscream flares his wings. “You don’t think I could do it?” he says. “You don’t think I’m sexy enough?”

“I don’t--that’s not--” Minimus squeezes his forehead with his fingers. “I’m sure you could , but good people don’t engage in sexual relationships under false pretenses. That is basically the least ethical thing you could do in this situation.” 

“Okay so we have Rodimus seduce him. Rodimus doesn’t care.”

“Who?” Thunderclash says, from the sidelines, and is ignored.

“No one is seducing anyone!” Minimus snaps. “There has to be a way to buy time without lying or harming anyone.” 

“Soooo,” Rodimus says, “does shoving him in a closet for the rest of ever count as either of those things?”

Starscream gnaws a clawtip. “Some kind of wild insecticon chase?” he suggests. “We could sell him on the idea that one of the rocks in the rockery is a coding glitch. Have him sort through all of those for the next couple Bearimies.”

“Maybe it doesn’t need to be that complicated,” Thunderclash interrupts.

They all turn to look at Thunderclash, whose fans click on nervously at the sudden surplus of attention. The topcoat splattered over him is mostly on his face and chestplate, and he wipes at it like he’s only just noticed it’s there.

“Well, it’s just that,” he says, “this neighborhood is glitching on a code level. You know what they tell you when your datapad is glitching. Have we tried turning it off and turning it on again?”

“Turning it off?” Starscream repeats.

Thunderclash nods. “The neighborhood is part of Rung’s essence. If he’s what it’s built from, maybe it’s him who’s having the root problem. Maybe the solution is to reset him somehow.”

Starscream considers it. It’s not a bad thought. Of course it’s not really going to fix the problem, because the problem is him, but it might put them back to baseline. If he can just be very good at his good person lessons, they might be able to skate through. “Alright,” he says. “Votes?”

“I want Rung back,” Rodimus opines. “I was gonna show him this hoverboard trick I came up with last night. Also, I’ve been sober for a week now and it sucks .”

“Right, I’ll take that as a yes,” Starscream says, and turns to Minimus.

“It does seem like the most logical solution,” Minimus says. “I’m a bit ashamed we hadn’t considered it before.”

Starscream turns to Thunderclash.

“I saw Rung do something… strange , the other day,” he says. “I’d like to give the reset a try, even if it doesn’t fix the neighborhood. In case it helps him at all.”

“Okay, that’s a full vote,” Starscream says, and slaps his hands together. “Let’s go do Pharma’s fragging job for him, eh?”

 

 

 

Striding briskly across the riverwalk, Pharma looks almost like he’s trying to shake the tail of Starscream and all his housemates scrambling to keep up with him.

“Oh, it’s possible,” Pharma says, “the thing is, though, that I don’t like to do it. It can cause… damage.”

“Damage worse than the entire neighborhood going bonkers?” Starscream says, then sticks his tongue out. He can’t believe he just unironically used the word ‘bonkers’. This whole ‘no cursing’ is starting to wring his vocabulary dry.

“Well, things can get… fuzzy,” Pharma says, nervously. “Sometimes, it takes two or three tries to get it, er, right. Rung’s coding is a little… unusual, for a baseline system. Normally, I’d suggest you all stay inside for this bit, but, um…” he pauses, chewing on his lip. “I don’t think it’d help,” he says after a moment. “I think Rung knows the neighborhood a little too well for his glitches to stay in one place.”

“Glitches?” Thunderclash calls from behind. He’s scrambling to keep up, which would be funny, if it wasn’t so sad. “What kind of glitches? More sinkholes and things?”

“Mmph,” Pharma says noncommittally, then stops so suddenly that Rodimus slams into his wing and wipes out on the concrete. “You know what? I think you’re all right,” he says, wheeling around and smiling a little too brightly, “so why don’t I just show you what I mean.”

“Show--show us?” Starscream says. His processor is reeling backwards and forwards, trying to make sense of what it is that Pharma’s saying exactly. “So you’re going to do it?”

“Well, I may as well give it the old university try,” Pharma says, and titters this humorless little laugh that sets Starscream’s denta on edge. “Of course, since Rung isn’t responding--I’ll just have to open up a tiny little hole in reality, it won’t take a moment--”

As Starscream looks on in hard-earned amazement, Pharma reaches over into the air and takes hold of something, like he’s grabbing a cabinet handle that no one else can see, and pulls. A tiny door in nothingness opens, something mechanical like a series of areoinstruments on the other side.

“I’m going to have to summon him manually, which is a pain,” Pharma mutters, reaching in, apparently deaf to Thunderclash’s tiny ‘what is that’ and Rodimus’ general exclamations of excitement as he scrambles back to his feet, “since we’re going to have to reboot him physically to start the process… ah, there we are.”

There’s a klunk, and suddenly, Rung is standing there, as immediately and effortlessly as if one of them had called for him. He doesn’t greet any of them--he just stands, staring straight ahead, optics dim.

“Rung!” Rodimus says. “Hey!” Then, “he looks kind of underfilled. Does anybody have some energon they could spare?”

“He doesn’t need to be refueled,” Pharma says impatiently, “he needs to be reset. I suggest you all stand back.”

Starscream takes several large steps back, and is vaguely aware of Thunderclash grabbing Rodimus by the spoiler and dragging him away in his periphery. There’s something about this that he doesn’t like--Pharma seemed scared of this just moments before, but suddenly, he’s the plan’s number one fan. ‘Glitches’, that’s what Pharma had said. Glitches?

“Pharma,” he says, “when you said ‘glitches’...”

Pharma ignores him. Pharma is running elegant hands along the sharp jut of Rung’s little chin, his jaw, up behind his audials and over the back of his helm. With some pressing and fiddling, the petals behind his brows begin to unfurl, the entire back panel of his head opening like an explosion in slow-motion. With the sudden uncomfortable feeling that he’s spying on something intimate, Starscream diverts his gaze.

“Um, Pharma,” Thunderclash pipes up, “far be it from me to tell you how to do your job, but would you mind telling us what it is, exactly, that you’re doing?”

“I’m keeping him vulnerable,” Pharma says, “in the event that he malfunctions and attempts to harm the residents of this neighborhood.”

“Harm us? What does that--”

“There we go,” Pharma interrupts, sounding triumphant, and then there’s a clack, and the lights go out.

Not literally, Starscream reminds himself, as his spark and processor cycle down in pure terror. The entire neighborhood has gone totally black--it’s not just that it’s night, because there are no stars in the sky above them. Underneath them, above them, around them, are racing matrices, white lines forming grids all along the ground, the skybox, mapping out the shapes of objects as they interact with each other. Starscream looks down at his hands and tries to shout in panic as he sees more white lines on a black grid, a skeleton system forming his outline.

“Woah, tight,” Rodimus says, and Starscream tries to yell at him, only to find he can’t make any noise at all, “what’s with the lightshow?”

“This is what the neighborhood looks like, without Rung’s system running,” Pharma says, almost apologetically. “He’s the one who maps color and texture onto the basic format we’ve got here. As you can see, there’s not much to enjoy without his, er, aesthetic discernment. Let’s see. Here we go.”

With another clack, Rung straightens up in Pharma’s arms, his armor freshly glowing a unique teal blue color. “Hello,” he says, “hello, architect.”

The ground shudders under them, and there’s a ripple of growth that blooms out from under Rung’s pedes. The sky flashes through a rotation of colors and settles on a smog-blasted red. Starscream peers up at it. “That’s more like it,” he mutters to himself, “Rung! Can you build some bigger buildings?”

“Don’t confuse him!” Pharma snaps. “Something’s wrong. I think he’s going to--”

With a rattle, Rung’s joints start to separate from each other, his form suspended like a model dummy hanging from a rack in a medical classroom, arm and shoulder and chassis extended and open, biolights flaring. Underneath them, the ground goes green and organic, and Starscream feels his thrusters sinking into wet dirt. He stumbles, arms pinwheeling.

“Pharma!” Minimus Ambus grabs Starscream by the arm, steadying him. He’s already taken a combative battle stance, which seems to be keeping him standing solid on the uneven terrain. “What’s happening?”

“He’s glitching out,” Pharma snaps back, “like I said might happen. This is what I was afraid of! We’re going to have to reboot him again.”

Rung stiffens, as much as he can with his body distended in pieces. “No,” he says, “I don’t want to--let me out--”

“Stop struggling!” Pharma grabs at his helm as Rung’s arm whips back to strike him in the side, “you’re malfunctioning--this is for your own good--”

“--Let me go--”

Clunk.  

Starscream is expecting the matrices this time, and pulls air through his vents. There’s no satisfaction that comes with it--he doesn’t feel overheated or overrun. “What,” he says, having found his voice, “the fuck was that--”

“Starscream!” Thunderclash cries, sounding scandalized. “Language!”

“When Rung’s offline, so is the profanity filter,” Pharma says, warningly. “I suggest you all take a little more care.”

“Be careful? I can finally curse for real again!”

“Don’t get used to it,” Pharma says, “I’m going to try rebooting him again.”

Clack.

“What the frag--oh, frag,” Starscream sighs, staring up at the gently pulsating and totally unfamiliar buildings. They look wet and wobbly, throbbing like something alive.

Minimus makes an interesting little noise. “I hadn’t thought about it because of the filter,” he says, “you really do curse a lot, don’t you?”

“Why is that what you’re focusing on?”

Hello! Says Rung’s voice, echoing from everywhere. His body is limp as a ragdoll in Pharma’s arms, his frame a lovely pale purple, several pairs of glasses stacked up on his head and neck like an eccentric necklace. Hello! Hello! Hell! Hell! Hell! Hello hello hello hello

“What’s happening,” Thunderclash yelps, and grabs Rodimus around the shoulders.

Hello hello hello hello hello

“What do you think is happening?” Pharma snaps, one hand covering one of his audials under the onslaught. “Just let me turn this thing back off--”

Hell hell hell hell hell hell

Clunk. 

“Is it fucked up that I’m starting to prefer this?” Starscream mutters. “At least nothing crazy happens when this whole thing is turned off.”

“Will you please stop cursing,” Thunderclash says, wringing his hands nervously. 

“Relax, you guys,” Pharma says, “I have a good feeling about this next one. I think he’s really going to fall into line.”

Rung’s little form moves in his arms.

“Uh,” Starscream says.

“Pharma,” Rung says, and Pharma startles. “What’s happening? What’s going on?”

“Uh, nothing,” Pharma says, hurriedly. “Nothing’s going on! You’re malfunctioning! Just sit still.”

“Where are we?” Rung asks, audible panic rising in his voice. “We were in the lab. What’s happening? What’s--”

Clunk.

There’s a distant sound of running water, from the little river that slides under the redwood bridge. Underneath them, familiar as anything, the pretty pattern of opal and granite stones. There’s the sound of laughter and conversation coming from the hubbub of the city square, the sound of the fountain. Above them, the sky is a gorgeous blue, streaming through a tasteful cloud cover onto their familiar home. In Pharma’s arms, limp with exhaustion, Rung is his ever-familiar orange, all in one piece. His shoulders are trembling slightly.

“There,” Pharma says, a nervous smile wobbling across his face, “all back to normal!”

“What was all that?” Thunderclash manages, grabbing at Rodimus’ shoulders and holding a little too tightly. “He was talking. I heard him--when he was supposed to be off--”

“That’s entirely normal,” Pharma interrupts, holding a hand up. “Parts of his system were feedbacking into each other! That’s all. It’s absolutely nothing to worry about, Thunderclash. Everything is fine! If you would like to inspect the details of your various homes, I suspect they will now all be perfectly safe to--”

“What’s wrong with Rung?” Rodimus interrupts, pointing at the unconscious form in Pharma’s arms. “Is he hurt?”

“Rung is perfectly fine!” Pharma snaps. “He just needs some time. Rebooting like that takes up a lot of energy. And his data storage might be… damaged.”

“Damaged?”

“Wiped clean,” Pharma admits. “He’s going to have to re-download most of the information that was there before. It’s going to take some time. Please be patient with him.”

Rung straightens up suddenly, and Pharma lets go of him, takes a few steps back. The petals of his head fold closed as his optics brighten, head swiveling back and forth. “Hello, Thunderclash,” he says, and Thunderclash stumbles forward to touch him gently on the shoulder. “You’re ______.”

“Rung? Rung, are you alright?” Thunderclash says. “Oh, we were so worried--”

“Hello!”

Rodimus beams at him. “Hey!”

“Hello!”

“Er, yeah, this can happen,” Pharma says to Starscream, as Rodimus and Rung shoot greetings back and forth at each other. “Since when is Hot Rod so talkative?”

Starscream, thinking fast, decides to shrug noncommittally. 

“Rung,” Pharma says, and Rung disappears from Thunderclash’s grip and appears in front of him.

“Hello, Architect,” he says, and holds up his hand. “Please enter your PIN.”

“Look,” Pharma says to the small gathering, “why don’t you all… go home. I still have a bit of setup work to do with Rung before he’ll be fully operational, but if you need his help, you should be able to call him by the end of the day. I’m going to swing by the restaurant, see if the sinkhole has been fixed, and then… you know, we’ll go from there.”

“Pharma,” Minimus says, “how long do you think it’ll be before we know for sure if this worked?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” the architect says, sighing. “A few days, maybe? A few Jeremys? There’s never been a problem like this in a neighborhood before. I’m not sure what to look for.” He waves his hand in the air. “Just--go home. Find a way to spend the time. I’m sure you’ll all be very happy to have your own space back. I have some things to deal with here.”

 

 

 

This morning, Rodimus is taking down his tarp from where he’s used the outstretched hands of a couple stuffy statues in the garden to hold the corners while it dries. He hasn’t got a clue who these guys are. Friends of Thunderclash’s, maybe? They both look like they’d split their jaws off if they tried to smile. One of them’s got a crown.

It’s been kind of weird around here since they stopped being able to just ask Rung for things and get them, because like--Thunderclash didn’t even know how to mix his own paint when he scraped half his shoulder off trying to fit through that side door, so Rodimus had to show him how to do it or else he would have just walked around all sad and looking like a bigger doofus than usual. Lucky for all of them the kitchen had stayed stocked all week while they were locked in, because Rodimus had never been much good at distilling. His batches have a tendency to catch fire at the halfway mark.

He missed being able to stretch his wheels. First thing he did when the blast shields went up was blow out a tire on the race track out back. He keeps expecting it to still be kind of sore; self healing on rubber moves like lukewarm tar. Blunderclash went totally fritzed about it, which was kind of cute in an annoying way--Rodimus knows how to patch a tire, he’s done it a million times. Not everyone can afford to go out and buy a spare every time they lose a wheel, which is what Thunderclash wanted him to do.

They do have a body shop in town here, and he guesses it’s free. Not totally sure he likes the idea of a bunch of strangers messing around with his frame though. He knew a guy once who blew his winnings on a refit at a cheap pop up shop and came out with his pistons so jacked up he had to go see an actual doctor.

He could use a second pair of hands here, to help him fold this thing back up. He doesn’t really want to call the others out here--Starscream and Little M are having some kind of spark to spark inside, and Thunderclash would probably jump to help, but then he’d hang around afterward, trying to make conversation. Pass. It’s fragging exhausting to have to pay attention to every little bitsy thing that comes out his mouth but if he doesn’t Starscream will go feral on him, so--

He brightens. “Rung!” he shouts, “Rung, are you back--”

Rung pings into existence, but facing the wrong way. 

“Hah, hey,” Rodimus says, and spins him round the right way. “Over here.”

Rung’s gaze wanders for a second before locking onto Rodimus. “Hello!” he says. 

He doesn’t look… right. He’s the right color and all, so that’s fine, but there’s something about the way he’s standing. Or the way he’s holding his head up. Rodimus has seen that look in mechs who blew their circuits out on boosters, and he immediately has to fight to keep the smile from slipping off his face.

He straightens his shoulders. “Hey,” he says, keeping it easy and casual. “Wanna give me a hand with this?”

There’s a pause, and then Rung offers his hand, palm open, like he’s going in for a handshake. 

Rodimus considers this for a moment, and then shrugs. “Okay,” he says. “You just hold your end and I’ll do the other thing.”

He’s not, like, good at folding stuff. Minimus saw him doing it the other day while he was getting his supplies out and nearly blew a fuse, apparently there’s all this stuff about corners and angles and by the time Minimus was done with it, the thing looked as sharp as a jetliner. Rung doesn’t seem to mind he’s just sort of crunching it up, though. 

“So Pharma’s letting you out again, I guess,” he says, as he rolls the last of it into Rung’s arms. 

“The online t-cog ‘one piece’ transplant procedure was outlined by [ ] in cycle [ ] vorn [ ],” Rung replies, brightly, like it’s the answer to any question Rodimus ever asked.

“Ooookay,” Rodimus says. He really doesn’t like the way Rung is looking at him. Or not looking at him, which is the problem.

Rodimus takes the glasses off Rung’s nose and pulls them up onto his helm, examining his eyes. Rung just stands there and lets him do it, which is kind of unnerving, because the last time Rodimus tried to touch his glasses he pinged right out of existence and then said to Never Do That Again. 

“You look okay,” Rodimus says, poking at his faceplate a bit just in case there’s something wrong he’s not seeing on the surface. “You feeling okay?”

“I am omnipresent and impervious to harm.” Rung follows this up by listing so far to the side that Rodimus has to scramble to catch him before he goes down like a demolished building. He settles right into the crook of Rodimus’ arm, and begins patting Rodimus’ face blindly, like he’s fascinated by the texture.

Rodimus whistles. “Dang, that’s some trip you’re on.”

Rung hiccups out a sound that is exactly like a chronometer alarm going off. 

Rodimus makes a face. “You can’t be wandering around like this, you’re gonna get your cog snatched.”

“Though starvation dims your shattered optics, beneath the floating freeways/In that sunless deep, your twin starlight will guide ships,” Rung recites. “Quotation referenced by Photon of Vos in his treatise on the Psychology of the Malcontent, cycle [ ] vorn [ ].”

Rodimus thinks for a second, and then scoops Rung up in his arms. “Okay, first order of business,” he says, “we gotta get you somewhere secure to burn this off. You got a hab?”

“I am omnipresent and impervious to harm,” Rung says, again.

Rodimus taps his pede against the lawn. “I’m not taking you back to Pharma,” he decides. “If he let you wander around like this he’s already on my scrap list.”

He racks his processor for a good place to stash a skiv around here. No decommissioned buildings. No scrap yard. Oh, but Rodimus has his own place, doesn’t he? Or, Thunderclash’s place, anyway. He grins. “Don’t worry, I’ve got this.”

He bundles the tarp up into Rung’s arms and then bundles Rung up into his own arms, and he takes off for the mansion.

“I’ve got you,” Rodimus says. “You stick with me, babe, you’ll be fine.”

 

 

 

Starscream finds Minimus in one of the grand empty rooms that this place is full of, staring up at the gashed open Magnus Suit propped up empty and dead eyed at the back wall. Starscream hesitates in the doorway, with the uncomfortable feeling that he’s about to walk in on someone mourning a dead amica.

“Knock, knock,” he says awkwardly, rapping his hand on the doorframe and cringing at the way Minimus startles. “Can I come in?”

“Oh. Um--yes,” Minimus starts, “right, of course.”

Quietly, Starscream walks in and stands himself next to Minimus. On instinct, he shrugs his wings down for that extra half-inch of space, then remembers that Minimus isn’t anywhere near his wing tips and settles them back into place.

“So,” he says.

“Yes,” Minimus replies, as though agreeing to some vast formal statement.

They stare at the suit a little while longer.

“Are you going to get it repaired?” Starscream asks, because the silence is starting to weigh on him in a way he doesn’t particularly enjoy. “I mean. Can you even get it repaired? Would you need a doctor for that, or a mechanic?”

“Ah. I--that is--” Minimus shifts from one pede to the other. “I’m sure that once Rung is at full operational capacity, he would have no difficulty in repairing it.”

“Oh.”

“If that’s what I wanted to do with it.”

“Oh?” Starscream glances down at him. “So… you aren’t going to get it repaired?”

Minimus sighs. “I don’t know,” he admits. “In light of--recent revelations, both about the structure of the Good Place and what the Magnus suit actually means--what wearing it does to other people’s perception of me, I--it doesn’t seem moral to continue wearing it. If Pharma considers my portrayal of Ultra Magnus to be deceitful, rather than another step in my transitionary… er, transition…” he sighs again and shakes his head. “I don’t know. I don’t know that ‘being’ Ultra Magnus anymore is the morally correct course of action. I don’t know that I can argue to Pharma that I shouldn’t be punished for ‘being’ Ultra Magnus because I didn’t know that it was wrong, and then continue to do it after learning that I was making a mistake.”

Starscream almost wants to laugh. “See, now you get how I feel when I take your classes,” he says, and smiles when Minimus turns to blink up at him. “I used to be proud of blagging my pals into seats at the opera and nicking wallets off drunks and building weapons for… for, uh…” he trails off.

Who did he build weapons for? He can remember building them, but it’s not like he ever knew anybody who needed them.

“For myself,” he says, after a moment’s deliberation, and holds up his null rays. “But all that is wrong, apparently! I never would have guessed.”

“Thank you,” Minimus says dryly, “you have bucked my spirits profoundly.”

“Anyway, what’s even the pro of wearing this thing?” Starscream says, gesturing grandly towards the slightly-too-familiar-looking corpse—suit, it’s a suit. Not a body, not a person he was close to. “On Cybertron, sure, I can get wearing this thing. No lines, for one thing! Super famous mech, super huge—I bet you can get from one place to the other in that in no time. People probably used to clear a path! But if this is the Good Place, why not take leisure time? Slow walks are supposed to be good for your spark.”

Not the mech who held him down and wrapped him up in his berth, flustered and flattered and all too worried about a life Starscream had long since learned to take for granted. Not the mech who hadn’t kissed him in a starlit garden, when the time was right and the night was beautiful. Not the mech with tidy little lines of handwriting, sitting so close that Starscream could feel the heat of his engine pouring out of his vents against the soft protometal of his face.

Not a corpse. Just a suit.

“The suit helps me,” Minimus admits, “with my chronic pain.”

Starscream resets his optics. “Your what?” he says, doing an impressively comical double-take. “Wait, your what? You have what?”

“Sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy, in retrospect,” Minimus barrels on, not even sparing Starscream a glance. “I didn’t have any pain before I started my time piloting the suit. Now, however--well, now I’ve spent decavorns curled up inside it, and my body is… feeling its absence.” He twists his shoulders up. “I’ve run internal diagnostics,” he admits, “and there’s nothing really, deeply wrong with my body. It just hurts. I fear my time in the suit may have done irreparable psychosomatic damage.”

“If we’re in the Good Place, shouldn’t that all go away?” Starscream crosses his arms. “Anyway, who had any business building a suit like that? How were you supposed to live outside of it?”

“I wasn’t,” Minimus says, shrugging. “I was supposed to die in it, remember? I did die in it. I don’t think Tyrest was worried about what my afterlife in it was going to look like.”

Starscream glares up at the big empty shell on the wall. All his mushy feelings for ‘Ultra Magnus’ have completely vanished. Stupid, that’s so--it was Minimus, the whole time. So what, if he’s little, and green, and he doesn’t look anything like the protagonist of a silver screen reel, the type who kicks down a door to carry minibots out of a burning building? He’s the one who took pity on Starscream, he’s the one who wanted to help him be a better person. Ultra Magnus is nothing but chaff.

“I’m going to miss him, though,” Minimus says. “I think--the me that was him, I think that version of myself--I think he was a better person.”

Starscream sneers. “The you that was him,” he says derisively, and Minimus glances up at him, “that was still you, Mins. This piece of slag didn’t make you a different, better person! It just made you--taller. Taller!” He waves his arms in the air. “Like being tall is a sign of--of anything!”

“I appreciate your feelings on the matter,” Minimus says oddly, “but with the desire I had to achieve Magnus’ way of behavior, to further his legacy, I took actions as Magnus that I would never have made by myself.”

“Okay,” Starscream says, “let’s say that’s true. You still weren’t changed by him! You wanted to be more like the other little--loadbearers, the other minibots, who were playing him. He might’ve made you big and brave and heroic, but you already knew those actions were the right ones. Frankly, I think this guy--” he waves a demonstrative hand at the big heap of slag leaned up against the wall, “--is just a scrapyard waiting to get pilfered!”

Minimus narrows his optics. “Are you trying to… cheer me up,” he says, sounding unconvinced. “It’s not working very well.”

Starscream lets loose a cry of utter fury. 

“I’m not trying to do anything!” he shrieks. “I’m having a temper-tantrum! Every which way you turn, every corner you wheel around, every kitchen of some big important bot opening his famous restaurant, and you find us little guys in the back, working and slaving away! Ultra Magnus died thousands of vorns ago, and people still can’t stop sucking his spike! Not even you!” He jabs an accusing finger into Minimus’ chassis. “I mean, what did you work for? What did you slobber and slave at for all that time? The chance to die in an unmarked grave? So people can go on praising some big ugly mech who never did any thing for any one except suck them all up into his cult of personality?”

“Ultra Magnus was instrumental in many--”

“Who cares!” Starscream yelps, and stamps his pedes. He’s really starting to work himself up, a full-blown, dramatic, artistic, theatrical temper-tantrum to sully the ages, the type he did whenever [ ] refused one of his budget requests and told him that he’d been hired to [ ], not to [ ], that he should stick to what he was good at. His fists pump up and down, his wings flap in big exaggerated swoops. “Who cares what he did! He’s dead! He’s dead! We’re dead! I’m sick and tired of getting kicked in the face again and again and again by the memory of dead somebodies and dead so-and-sos and the legacy of corpses! Minimus, aren’t you tired? Doesn’t it make any body else just want! To! Scream!”

“Starscream,” Minimus says, and reaches out to touch his arm. Starscream cries out and jerks away from him.

“Why can’t we get away from it? Why can’t we just get away from dead names and dead mechs and just, be dead on our own, away from everyone else?” He kicks the Magnus’ leg furiously and ineffectively. It hurts his toepedes. “I thought being alone here was so awful,” he says, “without anybody I knew when I was alive here with me. No friends, no trine, nobody I even hated in an interesting way! But this is worse, isn’t it? Heaven’s just strangers and it’s chock full of memories of people who don’t even live here! It’s not enough to be by yourself for eternity, you have to live with this big piece of garbage taking up space in your apartment, in your processor, you have to--”

“Starscream,” Minimus says again, and grabs him firmly by the wing, “you’re not alone here, Starscream. I’m here, too.”

“Gnrh,” Starscream chokes out.

“Starscream,” Minimus says, with his funny little voice that doesn’t sound anything like thunder or drums or the racing music of an overture on the other end of Starscream’s memory, “will you please calm down and open your ventilation system properly?” And his queer little hand, small as a bird in sunlight, runs up his wing and scratches tactile lines against his immaculate paintjob.

“I’m, fine,” Starscream manages. “I don’t need anybody else--I love fake people, I love, games, I love drama--”

“--Music means nothing to you, I know,” Minimus interrupts, and pushes a thumb into his back.

It doesn’t feel... foreign, it doesn’t feel alien, the way hands grabbing at him usually do. He’s had people grab his wings before, wiggle their fingers into the fixtures of his back, out of fascination or perversion or whatever else. This isn’t that. Minimus isn’t grabbing for him--he’s pushing something back into place.

It feels like--so many long nights, crammed between Thundercracker and Skywarp, all three of them insisting it’s about not giving up territory, about being in the one room with the working heater. Hands trailing over anatomy, pretending to be asleep, just looking for that traitorous note of comfort. Something that they can’t trade for, something they can’t give.

“My spinal strut is fine,” he insists, feeling a hole of vulnerability gaping through him.

“You pushed some of these gears out,” Minimus murmurs, “from flapping--do you want me to stop?”

Starscream bites down on his tongue. “Don’t ask me that,” he says, and sighs, and gets down on his knees. “Can you reach it better like that?”

“Yes. Thank you.”

“Just do it quickly,” he mutters. He focuses his gaze very sternly on the Ultra Magnus Corpse’s pedes, which he still wants to stomp on until he gets a yelp out of it. He does not want to focus on the feeling of small, gentle-working hands. “How did you know I was going to say that? About the, uh, music.”

“Oh,” Minimus says. “Well. You said the same thing, when you were--er--” he makes an odd little noise with his voice box, not so much a reboot as a removal protocol. “When you pulled me out,” he mutters, sounding embarrassed.

“You,” Starscream says, “heard all that?”

Minimus doesn’t answer. Then, he says, “there, that looks good,” and removes his hands all at once, takes a few steps back. “I think it should be back in alignment--that is, it looks right--”

All too eager to help Minimus make space between the two of them, Starscream climbs quickly to his feet and wiggles his wings experimentally. “Oh, that’s better,” he says, rolling his shoulders, and watches Minimus in the periphery of his vision relax slightly. “You know, I don’t know why I’m not doing that for you.”

“What?” Minimus waves his hands quickly. “No, I promise you, my scans of my own physiology have been extremely extensive. I try to be meticulous in my studies.”

“I know that,” Starscream says. “Believe me, I think I know you pretty well. But it feels good, even if there’s nothing actually wrong back there, right? Maybe it’ll alleviate some of that, uh, loadbearer stiffness.”

Minimus says nothing. Starscream shifts uneasily from one pede to the other.

“I’m good at it,” he insists, feeling nervous in the silence. “Trust me! I used to do it for, uh, for a friend of mine back on Cybertron. He was first mold, real shiny stuff, but his wings kind of wore him down for a while. It happens to the best of us!”

“I wouldn’t want to disappoint you,” Minimus says, “I don’t think it can be fixed with--with momentary comfort.”

“I know I can’t cure it,” Starscream says, “but I mean--if I can alleviate it for a little while, that would be good, right? It would help.”

Minimus peers up at him, one optic narrowed. “Why are you offering?” he asks. “Is there a hidden benefit in it for you that I’m not seeing?”

Touching you, Starscream almost says, and then pulls it back because like, being seductive is very much not the mood here. “I want to be a good person,” he says, and crosses his arms over his chassis. “I know I’m not, but I’m trying. And I’m--” He wriggles his jaw and resets his voice box, trying to amp himself up. “--I’m sorry,” he spits out, before he can swallow it back down.

“You’re what?”

“For freaking out!” Starscream throws his arms up. “I’m sorry! Okay? Is that what you want to hear? I’m tired of being a pain in everyone else’s aft! I’m sorry I ruined your afterlife, just like everyone did when you were alive! I broke this place and this whole glitch-in-the-system thing is my fault, and you’re covering for me and I’m sorry and I want to help you.” He jerks his leg up to stamp his pede down hard on the ground, then catches himself winding up for another temper-tantrum, and instead sets it delicately back on the marble. He vents deeply. “I hate apologizing,” he adds, miserably.

“I know,” Minimus says, “believe it or not, I think I know you pretty well, too. You don’t have to keep doing it.”

“Keep--I haven’t been doing it!”

“Being nice to me,” Minimus clarifies, “offering me things. Acting angry on my behalf.”

“Acting?”

“Being,” Minimus hurriedly corrects, “being angry on my behalf. I don’t need your penitence. And I don’t want you to think you owe it to me.”

Starscream considers this for a moment. “I don’t think I owe you a backrub,” he says, “but I think you’d like one. I think I’m good at them. I think... if you let me try, it could be... nice. When’s the last time you-- not Magnus, you-- had something nice?”

“All last week. You saved my afterlife.”

“No, that was heroic and beautiful and stunning of me,” Starscream says, holding a finger up. “Bombastic! Artistic! I’m talking nice here, Minnie.”

Minimus makes a face at him. “Please don’t call me small.”

 

 

 

Rodimus gets to throwing open cabinets at random, starting with the ones mounted just behind Pharma’s desk. Seems like the place to go. It’s mostly files, like, hardcopy files? Rodimus pulls those out onto the floor just in case there’s something hidden behind them, but there’s not, so he moves on to the next cabinet. Looks like a bunch of awards and stuff? He pulls those out on the floor too, because he’s already started doing that, so why not.

What ,” says the voice of Pharma, “are you doing?”

Rodimus jumps. Since he’s currently halfway into the cabinet looking for a secret hatch panel, that means his helm whacks the underside of the cabinet top.

“Uh,” Rodimus says. “Scavenger hunt?”

Pharma gives him a once over. “I didn’t organize any scavenger hunts today.”

“Thunderclash,” Rodimus says, immediately. “He wanted to do some dumb bonding activity, so--”

“You’re awfully talkative,” Pharma says, sidling closer. “What happened to your vow?”

“Oh, the vow,” Rodimus says, “the vow of silence that I took, the monk vow, right, that vow. Well, I--so it turns out I checked the monk code and you don’t have to keep doing it after you die! Wild right? Who knew.”

“The monk code,” Pharma repeats.

“I wouldn't expect you to know about it,” Rodimus says, ducking back down inside the cabinet. “Not a monk.”

Pharma watches him silently for a moment. There’s some kind of model organ in here? It’s weirdly wet. He pokes that aside with a finger and keeps digging.

“What are you looking for, on this scavenger hunt?” Pharma asks.

Rodimus congratulates himself on his smooth talking and briefly shakes his own hand. “Fuel for Rung,” he says. “Where do you keep it, I’ve been looking for six hundred years .”

“I don’t keep fuel for Rung in my office,” Pharma says. “Why would I do that?”

“He lives with you, doesn’t he? What kind of fuel does he take. Mid-grade? Low grade?”

“He doesn’t take fuel.”

Rodimus pauses and sits back on his heels. He looks over Pharma’s fancy paint job and his smooth classy lines, and frowns. “You don’t have him on disposable grade, do you?” he says, already calculating how he’s going to flush that arterial blockage out of Rung before it can crystalize his fuel pump solid. It ain’t gonna be pretty. On the other hand, Rung is so out of it, who knows if he’ll even remember afterward. 

They’ll need clean solvent. No problem, Blunderclash has like six washracks in that palace of his. And a hypo, which is gonna be harder to find, but Pharma’s a doctor so maybe if Rodimus can find the right cabinet--

“He doesn’t fuel at all,” Pharma says, sounding impatient.

“You’re not feeding him?” Rodimus demands. “He works for you! I know you’re not giving him money, everyone says there’s no money in the Good Place!”

“He’s not a real person!” Pharma says. “He’s a--a construct, he’s part of the neighborhood, he’s not alive .”

Rodimus squints at Pharma. “So what,” he says, “he’s like an empty or something?”

Pharma’s fancy blue hands twitch. “He’s a construct ,” Pharma says, firmly. “He doesn’t need fuel because he doesn’t burn fuel, because he’s not alive.

Rodimus mentally marks Rung down as extremely nice, for being undead. 

“Look,” Pharma says, in a tone that Rodimus doesn’t really appreciate, “I can see you’re worried about Rung. But you don’t have to be! He just needs a little time to catch up with where he is.” Pharma comes around the side of the desk and pulls Rodimus up to his feet, dusting off his shoulders for him. “Go play with the turbokits in the park, or get a fancy coolant or something. Relax. Rung can take care of himself.” 

“...Cool,” says Rodimus, who is definitely not going to do any of those things.

He leaves the office, irritated but not even remotely surprised. He’s never expected fancy bots like Pharma to be good for anything but having lightweight valuables lying around. Anyway, he’s got a fuel gauge reader in his subspace now, courtesy of Pharma’s cabinets, so he can manage the rest on his own.

Rung is waiting right where he left him, cocooned in thermal sheeting in the beanbag nest Rodimus built him. Rodimus congratulates Rung on staying put while he was gone as he checks Rung over to make sure no mystery dents or sprains happened in his absence. Rung informs him that the half life of Uranium-235 is eleven thousand, seven hundred and thirty three standard kliks. Rodimus says that’s hella, babe, would you pop the cap on your medical port for me?

The gauge pops in and syncs up no problem, which is good, because Rodimus hasn’t ever seen a medical array quite like this one before, and he’s seen his fair share.

“Huh,” Rodimus says. He takes the fuel gauge and shakes it out, pops it back in. The digital readout just blinks an infinity symbol back at him. “Well,” he says. “Guess you’re topped off.”

“In Xanadu did Kublah Khan a stately pleasure dome decree,” Rung says, brightly and nonsensically. “Where Alph the sacred river ran, through caverns measureless to man, down to a sunless sea.”

“At least you’re having a good trip,” Rodimus says, and pats him on the back. “You’re probably due for some coolant, the way your processor is firing.”

While Rung is listing off the periodic table of elements--or at least he thinks that’s what it is, either the periodic table or a roll call of famous scientists--Rodimus digs through his junk to find the coolant he was saving for his next big dross blowout. A thought occurs to him, as he’s ripping the seal off the cube.

“You can’t make stuff yet, can you?” he asks. “Like, you couldn’t magic us up some more coolant, could you?”

Rung presses his palms together and then opens them, revealing the tiniest potted plant of all time. Rodimus isn’t any kind of expert on exotic pets, but it looks kind of fat and green and squishable.

“Not exactly. Try again.”

Two potted plants. Both adorable. Neither remotely drinkable.

“Alright forget that, we’ll make do,” Rodimus says. He tries to get Rung to hold the cube. Fine motor control is still escaping him, apparently. He ends up holding Rung in the crook of one elbow and tipping the coolant into Rung’s mouth. Works well enough. The stuff seems to almost disappear when it hits Rung’s tongue but hey, progress is progress.

“This takes me back,” he tells Rung, who is now examining the cube like he’s never seen one before. “You know what we should do? We should go down to the riverwalk and see if there’s any good junk at the bottom of it. Me and Drift used to do that all the time.”

He takes the two tiny plants and moves them to the top of a stack of old dishes. Rung claps and disperses the cube, which would be totally fine except it’s just a regular plastic cube from the kitchen, and they’re definitely not supposed to do that. Oh well, one less dirty dish for Starscream to complain about, he guesses.

“You better come with me,” he says, “‘cause if you make my stuff disappear while I’m gone, I’m gonna be ticked.”

Rodimus secures Rung in his bundle of sheeting, just in case he decides to get adventurous on the way down, and says, “You can cheer for me when I find something good. In a neighborhood this bougie, there’s got to be some primo trash down there.” 

He tosses Rung over his shoulder. “People this rich,” he says, “heck, they probably throw away whole tables when a leg gets broken.”

 

 

 

Starscream is crossing the bridge over the mercury ponds, on his way to soothe his sparking emotional core processor with the fluffiest coolant whip the barista will give him, when he notices garbage on the pristine lawnscape. His first thought is that he absolutely must deploy this in the most devastating way possible the next time he’s forced to occupy the same room as Pharma. His second thought is that the garbage almost looks like it has a little face.

What?

Starscream comes to a halt in the middle of the bridge, squinting at the shore of the pond.

That’s Rung on the hill down there. Wrapped up like a radioactive power core in shield padding, sure, but that’s definitely his little face. Starscream leans over the railing for a better look, just as the liquid down below splashes open around a red helm. Rodimus surfaces, clinging to a line dropped down from the arch of the bridge.

“Got another one!” he shouts back at the shore.

Rung brightens in his cocoon, goggled optics glowing. There’s some kind of broken up object on the ground next to him, which in retrospect only contributed to his being mistaken for trash.

Starscream leans until one of his thrusters is in the air. “What in the name of Primus’s holy pikesleeve are you doing down there,” he says, which is not what he was trying to say, thank you. He silently laments the return of the profanity filter.

Rodimus blows out his vents, and a cloud of steam billows up around him. “We’re on a date!” he shouts back. 

“You’re on a date with who?” Starscream says, eyeing the water suspiciously. If Thunderclash is going to come popping up out of that like a hungry sharkticon, he wants to be much further away from it all.

“Rung, duh,” Rodimus says, thumbing in the direction of the shore. “I think it’s really going good! Except all I can find in this lame aft holding pond is smashed up pictures of mimes. Who the frag is buying these mimes and then throwing them in the river?” 

Starscream does not grace that with a response. “Why would you want to date Rung?” he says.

“I like the skinny little bots,” Rodimus answers, “they’re always real impressed with my kibble. Do you think Rung likes spoilers? Everyone likes spoilers, what am I talking about.” He turns back to the shore and cups his hands around his mouth. “Rung! Do you like! My spoiler!”

Rung wiggles an arm free and cups his own mouth. “It’s very nice!” he calls back.

Rodimus wriggles up his line a little higher and beams. “Like I said, we’re hitting it off.”

Starscream curls a lip. “Is he even sentient?”

Rodimus opens his mouth, and then he closes it. “Rung! Are you—!”

There’s a chime, and then Rung is sitting on the railing of the bridge, still swaddled up in padding. Starscream staggers back.

 “Hello, Starscream,” he says.

“Babe,” Rodimus says, wriggling towards them, “are you sentiment?”

“I am an autonomous sentient being,” Rung confirms.

Starscream edges back from him, warily. The sky doesn’t do anything weird, but he still hasn’t forgotten Pharma opening up Rung’s helm ‘for their protection’. There’s a reason why everyone has avoided calling on the construct since he was rebooted the other day.

“You seem… talkative, again," he settles on, picking his vocabulary with care.

“He’s been coming down for a while!” Rodimus volunteers. “He’s pretty good except for the words.”

Words,” Starscream repeats.

“Occasionally I have been having problems with ending sentences on the right muffler.”

Starscream stares at him. Starscream presses a finger to either side of his helm and digs in until his claws are threatening to rupture the metal. 

“This is not my problem,” he mutters. “This is not my problem, and I’m going to get a coolant before I overheat and turn into a puddle of sludge. If anyone asks after me, tell them I drowned.”

He gets all the way to the far end of the bridge before he pauses, one pede hovering over the stone walkway.

“Unless it’s Minimus,” he amends. “Then you can tell him I’m at the Cool Cube, getting a frostie.”