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"You can't hide in your office all day," said Wheeljack, even though he had to know that Starscream could. There was a comfortable chair in here. A few cubes of energon tucked away in one of the filing cabinets. Starscream could hide in here for a cyberweek.

Wheeljack didn’t give up. "You're going to miss the start of class."

"Good." Starscream fully intended to ignore everything that happened in class today. He regretted even letting Wheeljack into his office, since Wheeljack insisted on reminding him of the horrors that would be perpetuated at Metroplex today. Starscream should have kept the door locked, only Wheeljack had kept knocking and getting more exasperated in that cute way where his finials flashed and his optics darkened...

Starscream scowled. This was what happened when you allowed feelings to interfere with fencing.

"Don't make faces at me." Wheeljack's finials flashed cutely. "This was your idea."

"I was drunk!" Starscream glanced through the big office window, out onto the gym floor. A few fencers from the elite youth class were there early. No sign of the horrors yet. "You were sober. You should have stopped me."

"I thought it was a nice gesture," said Wheeljack. "And a great opportunity for our fencers to learn something new."

"Something," muttered Starscream. "Oh, I'm sure they'll learn all kinds of—"

The horrors arrived. Starscream briefly considered hiding under his desk, but no, he couldn't show weakness. He sat up straight instead, glaring out through the window. He wished he'd insisted on the one-way mirror when they were renovating Metroplex. Rattrap had insisted it would be too expensive, but any expense would have been worth avoiding Prowl's bland gaze.

"Come on." Wheeljack put his hand on Starscream’s shoulder. "Prowl came all this way. Even brought the kids."

"I can't believe they let him onto the planet." Starscream glanced behind Prowl and, yes, there were the infamous triplets. Each was toting a fencing bag taller than they were.

"He's banned from Cybertronian competitions, that's it." Wheeljack sounded like he’d moved beyond exasperated and into resignation. "I know this is a difficult concept for you, but fencing isn't real life."

Starscream turned and stared at Wheeljack until Wheeljack's finials flashed an embarrassed shade of blue.

"Come on, you know what I meant." Wheeljack sighed. "All right, stay in here. I'll go introduce Prowl to the class."

"Oh, no." Starscream scrambled up, beating Wheeljack to the door. "I'll introduce him. Primus knows what you'd say."

---

"This is," Starscream grit his teeth, "Maestro Prowl. Say hello to the Maestro, class."

"Hello!" chorused the elite youth class, with an audial-splitting tone which Starscream could trace to the unfortunate combination of Stageflight’s high-pitched voice and Grill’s low one. Prowl, unphased, dipped his doorwings.

"Prowl was one of the most successful fencers in Cybertronian history, surpassed only by a few of his contemporaries." Starscream looked expectantly at his audience, and was met by incomprehension. "That means other mechs who were fencing at the same time still beat him. Like me. Several times."

"Starscream," muttered Wheeljack. "Can you just—"

"Anyway, Prowl has come all the way from the backwater planet of Tor to visit Metroplex. He will be running classes all cyberweek, and will also be available for lessons during open fencing. If you have any questions at all, about anything Prowl tells you, especially if it sounds odd or a little criminal, you should come to me right away and—"

"Starscream," hissed Wheeljack.

Fine. Prowl wasn't reacting anyway, which took all the fun out of it. Starscream abandoned his attempt to guide the youths and checked the notes on his HUD. "We are also welcoming Sidle, Loiter, and Trundle. They're a little younger than you, but very accomplished. Loiter won the last upper youth grand prix, and Trundle won the last lower youth grand prix. Sidle is recovering from an injury, so she will be taking it easy. Please be gentle with her, if you hellions can manage it. I expect you all to be respectful and ready to share your knowledge and learn from—Stageflight, stop waving for one moment, I'm almost finished."

"But I know them!" chirped Stageflight. "I saw them at the grand prix!"

"Yes," agreed Prowl. "You fenced very well."

Stageflight beamed. The triplets were shyly waving back. Starscream sighed and abandoned any hope of controlling this interaction.

"They're all yours," he told Prowl, and then leaned in to speak in an undertone. "I'll be watching you, don't forget."

"I understand," said Prowl, not even blinking, and Wheeljack caught Starscream's arm and tugged him away.

"We'll start by warming up," Prowl told the class. "Trundle, please lead. Pattern Alpha Delta Four."

Alpha Delta Four. Starscream mouthed it, incredulously, staring at Prowl and willing the mech to look over so he could see just how ridiculous Starscream thought this was.

"I've changed my mind," said Wheeljack. "You can go hide in your office."

"No," said Starscream. "You're not getting rid of me that easy. They're just doing high knees! He could've said 'high knees!'"

"Ready to learn," Wheeljack reminded him.

"I am learning," Starscream assured him. "Learning and judging."

---

Open fencing presented both a reprieve and a vulnerability. On the one hand, Starscream had his own lessons to give and could focus on instilling unadulterated knowledge into his students without worrying about Prowl’s pernicious influence. On the other hand, Prowl was doing the exact same thing on the other side of the gym, and Starscream couldn't do anything about it. Starscream had invited him here. Why had Wheeljack let him get so drunk that being friendly to an unrepentant Autobot had seemed like a good idea?

Windblade thwacked Starscream in the abdomen. He stepped back, presenting a new target, and she thwacked him in the head.

Prowl had restricted his classes to a simple but interesting lesson on the use of half-steps during both attack and defense. He hadn't said 'here's how to undermine the very bedrock of a fencing tournament,' or 'here's how to set up your opponent for an undeserved penalty card,' or 'here's how to get the longest ban Cybertron has ever handed down for dishonorable fencing.' But Starscream had been watching, so of course Prowl wouldn't say anything like that. Now Prowl had Waspinator all alone, foolish impressionable Waspinator, and Starscream was all the way on the other side of the—

Windblade stabbed Starscream in the throat, right under his visor and right above the collar of his coaching armor.

"Oh frag! Oh Primus!" Windblade caught Starscream's shoulder. "I'm so sorry, oh—"

"It's fine," Starscream tried to say. It came out glitched and rasping, so he rubbed at his throat cables and tried again. "I was distracted, I walked into it."

"I'll get Wheeljack," said Windblade, and Starscream caught her shoulder to hold her in place.

"I'm not dying," he forced out. "You're not strong enough to cut my head off. Now get back on guard."

They finished the lesson. It was a terrible lesson—Starscream distracted, Windblade afraid to hit him properly—but the routine was important. And, fortunately enough, this was the last lesson of the night. After they were done, Starscream sat down on one of the benches and drank some coolant, trying to push one of his throat cables back into place.

"That looks nasty," said Prowl, sneaking up out of nowhere. "Should I get Wheeljack?"

"He's not my keeper." Starscream winced at his own voice. That faint gurgling noise couldn't be a good sign.

"Mm. You're lucky."

Starscream waited for Prowl to elaborate, but Prowl didn't seem inclined. He just stood there and watched one of the triplets fence Stageflight. Starscream thought it might be Trundle. He wasn't sure how Prowl told them apart, they were all just oddly fuzzy and uncannily good at fencing.

"Sit down," he told Prowl, then poked Prowl's thigh when Prowl didn't respond. "Sit down, my neck already hurts. I don't want to look up at you."

Prowl sat. His doorwings clacked against Starscream's proper wings, and Starscream fought the urge to flinch back.

"Thank you," said Prowl.

"You don't need to thank me just for sitting."

"For inviting me," clarified Prowl. "I didn't expect to return to Cybertron for at least a vorn."

Starscream shrugged. It seemed cruel to tell Prowl that he'd been completely plastered at the time and regretted it ever since. Starscream could be gracious. Prowl had probably noticed, anyway, especially since Starscream had capped the fateful evening off by climbing into Wheeljack's lap and trying to get his hands under Wheeljack's windshield.

"It's good to get away." Prowl watched as maybe-Trundle pulled distance and let Stageflight's attack miss. "Tarantulas can be a little overbearing. And the triplets are woefully undersocialized."

The bout ended, and the fencers shook hands. Stageflight was grinning, even though she'd lost. Trundle's smile was a little timid, but it broadened as Stageflight kept hold of his hand, babbling something about the last action.

"They're good kids." Starscream looked sidelong at Prowl. Prowl's expression, as always, didn't betray anything. But the metal around his optics looked tight.

Starscream bit his lip. He was sober this time. In complete control of his faculties.

He said it anyway. "If you're interested in a more permanent position, I could—"

"That's very kind," said Prowl. "But I'm content on Tor."

"Are you content being kept?" asked Starscream.

Prowl took his time replying. "I think that it's something I need. For now, at least. It's good to know there's someone who wants to keep me. Someone who wants me for what I am. Tarantulas appreciates my—"

"Please don't give me any details," said Starscream quickly. Oh, he was already imagining possible endings to that sentence. Oh, ugh. Augh.

Prowl actually smiled. "My processor, I was going to say. No need to dive for the gutter. But yes, Tarantulas likes my aft as well."

Starscream gagged, which hurt his throat. Prowl's smile widened.

"I'll keep the offer open," rasped Starscream. "In case your needs change."

Prowl dipped his doorwings, brushing again against Starscream's wing. Starscream didn't feel the urge to flinch this time.

"I'd be interested in another visit," said Prowl. "Or perhaps a camp, next season. I could give you a proposal at the end of the cyberweek—"

Someone screamed. Not a victorious scream, or even a shriek of defeat. It was pained, and it dissolved into confused whimpers.

Prowl sighed and stood up. "Duty calls. Sidle, let Waspinator go! Biting is not a legal action!"

Starscream leaned over, trying to see what the frag was going on. There was a cluster of fencers around the far strip, obscuring his view.

"Don't worry, I always carry anti-venom." Prowl produced a worryingly large syringe. "He'll be fine."

Starscream got up to follow, but Wheeljack appeared and pushed Starscream back down onto the bench.

"You're bleeding," said Wheeljack. "Windblade said she'd maimed you."

"I'm fine." Starscream glanced at his hand and saw a very small amount of energon. "Just a scratch. Is Waspinator dying?"

"Nah." Wheeljack fussed over Starscream's neck. "He was fluttering his wings while he was on guard, you know, like he does with the little kids to see if they get distracted. I think he triggered Sidle's, uh, prey instinct. Or something. You've got a nicked cable, babe. Put pressure on it, okay? I'm gonna get a patch."

Starscream pressed his hand to his throat. Prowl had emerged from the crowd of fencers with an empty syringe and a struggling Sidle under one arm. Waspinator wasn't yelling anymore. Starscream hoped it was because the antivenom had worked. His insurance premiums were already too high, he couldn’t take another maiming.

Wheeljack ignored the commotion as he returned with the first aid kit. He cleaned Starscream’s neck with gentle strokes and muttered something about getting Starscream a steel collar. Starscream hoped he meant as a protective measure, not... Well. They could discuss it.

That was the important thing. They could discuss whatever they needed, even if Starscream hated talking about feelings and Wheeljack was far too accommodating to say what he really thought. They’d work it out. Starscream wasn’t prowl, he didn’t need to be kept, he just wanted…

Sidle was still struggling in Prowl's patient and implacable arms. And she'd bitten Prowl's hand. Prowl calmly took another syringe out of his subspace and jabbed it into his own hip.

"We're never having sparklings," Starscream told Wheeljack, following his brand-new policy of clear communication.

"Yeah, no." Wheeljack smoothed the patch over the nicked cable, hand lingering on Starscream's neck. "I think we’ve got enough to deal with."

Chapter Text

Wheeljack stared into the mirror, angling his jaw to better catch the light. Behind him, Starscream made the grating agonized groan that meant he was remembering that they'd recoded his internal alarm so that he couldn't shut it off until he actually got up.

"I'm thinking about welding on a mustache," said Wheeljack.

"Fraaahghuh," said Starscream.

"You have thirty kliks before we need to be at the venue," said Wheeljack. "Last night you said that was the absolute minimum."

"Ngahh." Starscream rolled over and buried his face in the pillows. "Gwahhk."

Wheeljack sighed and left the mirror. Starscream made a hopeful noise as Wheeljack approached, probably thinking that Wheeljack would shut off the alarm and come back to berth. Instead Wheeljack stripped the covers off Starscream's wings, exposing him to the harsh hotel lights. "Up and at 'em. The tournament waits for no mech. You can help me decide what kind of mustache to get."

"Noooo," whined Starscream, but he turned his helm and onlined one optic. That was a good sign.

"I'm not going to the tournament without you," said Wheeljack, sternly. "I guess I'll just have to comm Stageflight's guardians and tell them she's on her own for pools—"

Starscream swiped at Wheeljack's leg, but either he wasn't awake enough to aim or he wasn't really trying. Starscream made a few more pitiful noises too, rolling over in the berth to try and hide from Wheeljack’s judgment. Finally Starscream gave up on recharge, levered himself upright, and crept over to the washroom. A major concession only ten kliks after his alarm.

Wheeljack would have more sympathy if Starscream hadn't spent most of dinner last night deciding on the absolute latest he could get up. And Starscream could never be rushed—thirty kliks really was the absolute minimum. If Wheeljack stuck to his guns and didn't leave him here, they would be late.

Whatever. They'd make it in time for pools, and Stageflight could be trusted to warm up on her own. Starscream, on the other hand, might still decide that youth competitions were beneath him, especially when they started so early in the morning. It was better for Wheeljack to stick around and help keep him focused.

"Maybe I should do a handlebar mustache," said Wheeljack. "Some of that motorcycle swag."

Starscream spat his oral rinse into the sink. "You don't have a mouth."

"I don't want to keep up with the maintenance." Wheeljack nodded at the various polishes and brushes Starscream kept just for his teeth. "Anyway, I don't need a mouth for a mustache. What about a goatee?"

Starscream shuddered and started brushing his temp paint under his optics. "You can't have a goatee. I'm vetoing it."

"You don't have veto over my face," said Wheeljack.

Starscream smirked at his reflection, apparently aware that he basically did. Wheeljack wasn’t going to just follow his whims anymore, not if they made Starscream even a little less attracted to him.

A weird kind of annoyed fondness settled in Wheeljack’s tank, and he found himself drawing closer to Starscream’s back. Magnetized. He leaned over Starscream's wings and waved a hand between Starscream's face and the mirror. "Stop looking so smug. I'm vetoing that expression."

"Frag off!" Starscream jerked back, wings smacking against Wheeljack's chest. "I'm trying to get ready!"

"All right, all right." Wheeljack dropped his hands to Starscream's waist and let Starscream finish touching up his paint. It didn't take as long as it used to—not as many dull patches or dead nanites. Wheeljack hoped that meant Starscream was recharging more. Wheeljack hadn't been woken up by Starscream last night, but Starscream tried pretty hard not to disturb Wheeljack even if he was feeling restless.

Starscream moved on to rubbing oil into his hands and caught Wheeljack’s optics in the mirror. He was still wearing the smirk. "You're handsome enough. Don't ruin it."

"Horseshoe mustache," said Wheeljack. "Permanently mounted to my face."

Starscream's smirk finally disappeared. "It won't fit under your fencing visor."

"I'll get a new one." Wheeljack sauntered away to pick up their hotel keys. "Ready?"

Starscream wiped the excess oil on a towel. "Yes. We don't have time to fuel. And I won't kiss you with a mustache."

"We all must sacrifice for fashion," Wheeljack waved a hand, mimicking Starscream's airy gestures. "I have a couple ration cubes in my subspace. And some of your mineral jellies."

"It's almost as if you were planning to be late," said Starscream, still playful, but then he was silent all the way out of the door and into the elevator. There were other fencers and fencer-adjacent mechs in the elevator; lots of fencing bags and sleepy optics. Wheeljack could feel Starscream beginning to seethe next to him, spiraling further into irritation the longer they were in the elevator. Starscream even held it in once they were outside and halfway to the venue, finally with some breathing room from the other tournament-goers.

Wheeljack had to say something. If he didn’t say something, Starscream was probably never going to speak again. "Please don't explode. I don't know what I'd tell Windblade. Her fencing coach a mass of spare parts on the sidewalk in Polyhex, all because he wouldn’t tell me what he was thinking about."

"Really a mustache?" demanded Starscream.

"I just want to try it out," said Wheeljack. "Give it a whirl."

"You're jealous of Ultra Magnus," decided Starscream. "You're trying to one-up him."

Wheeljack winced, but he couldn't deny it. "It's not fair that he gets to be tall and short and have a mustache."

"Fine." Starscream sighed. "I don't understand the appeal, but I can understand spite."

Wheeljack held the venue door open for Starscream. "I don't need your permission, but thanks anyway."

Starscream gave Wheeljack a very unamused look, then turned and gave a blinding smile to the little fencer currently barreling across the venue toward him. "Stageflight! I'm so sorry, Wheeljack made us late. They haven't posted pools, have they?"

Wheeljack continued to hold the door, nodding at the fencers and guardians walking in. Another beautiful day in the concrete box, watching this weird made-up wonderful sport.

He'd make the mustache red to match his hood. Starscream would just love that.

Chapter Text

Prowl was still lying on the berth when Tarantulas came home from work. Tarantulas tried not to read too much into it. Perhaps Prowl had gotten up, had breakfast, taken a walk, and had a very full orn. Perhaps he'd only laid down again for a nap just as Tarantulas returned.

"Did you have a good orn?" chirped Tarantulas.

"No," said Prowl, and curled a little tighter around himself.

Tarantulas allowed himself to read more into it.

"Did you get up today?" Tarantulas crept over to the edge of the berth, feeling perversely as if he shouldn't disturb Prowl even as he tried to cajole him upright. "You'll feel better if you move around. Or maybe you could comm someone?"

"No one wants to talk to me," said Prowl.

Tarantulas didn't think that was true, but he didn't know who to suggest. Prowl wouldn't talk about what had happened with the Constructicons. He wouldn't talk about the Autobots. He wouldn't talk about his ban.

He wouldn't talk about why he'd come home to Tarantulas, but Tarantulas liked to think he knew the answer to that.

"You could comm me," suggested Tarantulas.

"You were at work." Prowl turned a little so he could see Tarantulas with his good optic. Tarantulas wished Prowl would let him repair the other one. Prowl wouldn't talk about that, either.

"Work takes up less than twenty percent of my CPU." Tarantulas waved a claw. "Comm me anytime. Really."

Prowl didn't respond, but he did turn fully onto his other side, where he could watch Tarantulas putter around the apartment. A positive sign—Prowl was still showing glimpses of his keen observation and healthy paranoia. Tarantulas cleaned out his subspace, leaving his datapads and physical samples on the kitchen table as a sign of trust. Then he retrieved cubes for them both, setting one down on the side table where Prowl could reach it. Tasks complete, Tarantulas sat down on the berth, in the small space left next to Prowl's curled knees, and sipped from the other cube. He reached one of his primary claws out to Prowl, and Prowl only flinched a little before settling. Tarantulas felt his chelicerae curling in happiness as he gently traced Prowl's doorwing.

"You could go to the club," said Tarantulas. "Fence a little."

Prowl sneered. "That isn't fencing."

Uncharitable, but not untrue. Tor wasn't known for its athletic geniuses. There was the research institute, and the mine, and... not much else. A few recreational fencers like Tarantulas got together once a cyberweek and flailed at each other. Watching that would probably make Prowl feel even worse.

"You could coach," suggested Tarantulas. "Make them better."

"No one wants to learn from me," said Prowl.

Tarantulas set his cube down and wrapped his arms around Prowl, hugging him tight enough that Prowl let out a little gasp. "I do," he murmured, in Prowl's audial. "I want everything from you."

Prowl didn't say anything, just shuddered and gasped some more until his vents finally evened out and his optic dimmed with exhaustion.

This wasn't working. Tarantulas was smart enough to realize that. He could see that the little flashes of the old Prowl were disappearing under a thick dark morass of self-hatred, and there was only one thing that would help. Tarantulas wanted to be whatever Prowl wanted, but he wasn't enough. Prowl needed fencing. He needed fencers.

Tarantulas turned the problem over and over as Prowl slipped back into recharge in the cocoon of Tarantulas' many arms.

---

"What are you doing?" asked Prowl, from the doorway of Tarantulas' home laboratory.

Tarantulas turned and beamed. He hadn't heard Prowl get up, but Prowl was getting up and more and more in recent orns. Perhaps he had intuited that Tarantulas was doing something amazing, something that would make everything better.

"Tarantulas." Ironically, Prowl's voice was wary. "Why do you look like that?"

"Happy?" asked Tarantulas.

"Maniacal." Prowl took a step in to the lab, hesitating as if he weren't sure he should come any closer. Tarantulas darted forward and took Prowl's hand, guiding him over to the table and its beautiful petri dishes of potential.

"Do you remember when I took that CNA sample?" Prowl had been half in recharge and sweetly compliant. Tarantulas had never been so pleased to do a simple cheek swab.

"Vaguely." Prowl peered down at the dishes. "Are you growing something?"

"Yes!" Tarantulas squeezed Prowl's hand. "Soon. With your permission. This is only preliminary work, a proof of concept."

"What concept?" Prowl was beginning to sound exasperated. "What is all this?"

"Sequencing your CNA allowed me to identify the traits which make you such an astonishing fencer." Tarantulas reached over with one of his tarsi and flicked on the viewscreen to display the dozens of immaculate adaptations he'd identified in Prowl's coding and frame. "Your tactical processor, your reaction time, your powerful thighs—all of these things are hardcoded in your CNA and can be replicated!"

Prowl's hand trembled in Tarantulas' grasp. "You're making clones."

"No, no." Tarantulas felt infected by Prowl's mysterious anxiety. "Why would I clone you when you're right here?"

Prowl's expression was blank, but his vents were speeding. "I'm defective. You want to start over. You want someone better, someone—"

"No!" Tarantulas shrunk himself a little, dropping his optics a few microns below Prowl to give him the higher ground. "Prowl, you're perfect the way you are. These are our sparklings."

Prowl's venting stuttered. "Sparklings?"

"If you want them." Tarantulas stroked a claw down Prowl's arm. "Everything that makes you the consummate competitor, with a little dash of my CNA to make them unique. Three sparklings. Enough for a team."

Prowl looked back at the petri dishes. Tarantulas wanted so much to know what he was thinking, but Prowl was even harder to read when Tarantulas was on his blind side. He willed Prowl to understand what he was doing, what this would mean for both of them. He would understand if Prowl didn't want the sparklings yet. But Tarantulas wasn't sure he could bear it if Prowl called them creepy, or a misuse of science, or abominations.

"I wish you'd let me repair your optic," said Tarantulas, trying to distract himself from the spinning in his processor.

"I'll think about it." Prowl's voice was even and measured. Not screaming. Not panicked. So much more than Tarantulas had hoped for.

Tarantulas trailed a paw along Prowl's cheek, and was gratified when Prowl didn't flinch. "And the sparklings?"

"You really want sparklings?" A hint of confusion slipped past Prowl's mask. "With me?"

"Of course." Tarantulas didn't understand why it was a question, but he'd give Prowl all the reassurance he needed. "I told you, I want everything from you."

---

"Did you have a good orn?" asked Prowl.

"Yes," said Tarantulas, though his back ached and his feet were sore from joors spent standing and doing experiments. Every orn was a good one, when he could come home and see Prowl looking like this. Like himself.

Prowl gave Tarantulas a characteristically perceptive glance. Only a glance, and then he came over and put a hand on Tarantulas' back, supporting him on his way into the apartment. He pulled out a chair at the kitchen table and pushed Tarantulas down to sit. He brought Tarantulas a cube of energon, and the supplements that Tarantulas needed for the frames growing inside him.

Prowl was so much better. Tarantulas knew they had made the right decision.

"You look like you're going to burst." Prowl's hand hovered over Tarantulas' full stomach. "You weren't nearly so big this morning. This is really how airchidnas incubate?"

"Arachnids." Tarantulas put his hand over Prowl's and pressed it against his bare protoform, freed from his restrictive plating. "Not... typically. But it seemed best."

Prowl frowned. "I thought you said that this was natural."

"For some species," offered Tarantulas.

"We could have bonded the sparks directly to the frames." Prowl tried to pull his hand away, but Tarantulas held him tight. "Like normal cold-constructed mechs."

"They're not going to be normal." Tarantulas tugged Prowl in, trying to persuade Prowl to sit with him, shifting his mass up to give Prowl a broader, more comfortable lap. "They're going to be special. Constructed warm, their CNA coded by hand and their frames and sparks nestled safely among my organs until they're ready to emerge and face the world."

Prowl wasn't resisting, exactly, but he wasn't sitting either. "How are they going to emerge, again?"

"I'm still working on that," admitted Tarantulas.

"Tarantulas!"

"Don't worry." Tarantulas gave up on convincing Prowl to sit and stroked Prowl's sides instead. "We have three quartex before they're ready. Plenty of time to brainstorm."

That didn't seem to settle Prowl. "You're going to get bigger?"

"I'm not going to burst," said Tarantulas. "I promise I won't."

"This is ridiculous," muttered Prowl. "I can't believe I said yes."

Tarantulas hesitated. He didn't want to offer this, but he knew he had to. "It's not too late to change your mind. If you're not sure. Or if you'd like to wait?"

Prowl looked down at Tarantulas for a long time, with his face blank and his one functioning optic fixed on Tarantulas' belly. Long enough for Tarantulas' processor to turn to worst-case scenarios. He'd have to find a way to remove the frames. He'd have to put them in storage, or find a suitable means of disposal. He'd have to find another way to make Prowl feel better. Perhaps they could move. Find a colony with better fencing and a convenient need for scientists, one that would overlook—

Prowl sat down in Tarantulas' lap. His arms looped around Tarantulas' shoulders, and his face rested against Tarantulas' sternum. Tarantulas could feel Prowl's engine thrumming, pressed tight against Tarantulas' rounded stomach. Tarantulas wrapped his tarsi around Prowl to keep him there.

"Calm down." Prowl's lips moved against Tarantulas' armor. "I want them. It's just strange, that's all."

"It makes me feel closer to you." Tarantulas felt suddenly desperate to explain. "Having them inside of me. It's like you're with me all the time."

Prowl chuckled. "That sounds awful."

"Don't." Tarantulas put one of his primary claws under Prowl's chin, guiding Prowl up so he could look into Prowl's optic with all of his own. "I love you." Prowl tried to pull away, but Tarantulas tightened his grip, firm but careful not to dent. "I love every part of you, and I know you'll love the sparklings just as much when you get to meet them."

Prowl struggled for another moment, then relaxed all at once, his head suddenly held up by only Tarantulas' claw. Tarantulas lowered him, slowly, gently, until Prowl was tucked against Tarantulas' sternum once again.

"Tell me about them?" asked Prowl.

"They'll be fast, and smart, and strong." Tarantulas could imagine them in his processor, and he wanted, he needed Prowl to share his vision. "They'll be covered in fine hair, to improve their cooling efficiency and geospatial orienteering. They'll be able to regrow limbs if needed, although I'm sure they'll never have to."

Prowl chuckled again, but this was a happier sound—he was laughing at Tarantulas, not at the idea that he could be loved.

"They'll be beautiful," said Tarantulas. "Just like you."

"And kind?" asked Prowl.

"And kind," said Tarantulas, although he hadn't actually coded that in. Prowl needed the affirmation more than he needed the truth. "And venomous! The best fencers in the galaxy, with the best coach ever constructed."

"You're too nice to me." Prowl took a deep vent, in through his front and out through his back. Tarantulas could feel the warm air against his tarsi. "I don't deserve it."

"You deserve everything," said Tarantulas. "Including, by the way, a brand-new optic."

"All right," murmured Prowl. "When you have time."

The sparklings inside Tarantulas didn't squirm or kick. They weren't developed enough for that, not yet. But Tarantulas swore that the wave of joy that swept through him was too much to come from only his spark.

"I'll do it now! Right away! How many would you like?"

"Just one." Prowl smiled, actually smiled. "You don't actually have to give me everything. Two optics and three sparklings are more than enough."

Tarantulas wasn't sure he agreed, but it was easy to let it be for now. He had a whole lifetime with Prowl to look forward to. There would always be time for more.

Chapter Text

Bluebottle had refereed for thirteen joors today. Thirteen joors. Upper-level sabre, then upper youth epee, then lower youth sabre. His optics felt like they were going to fall out of his head, and his processor felt like it was made out of liquefying mercury. And Tensile had dragged Bluebottle out to the bar after he'd been released, because she thought Bluebottle didn't hang out with the sabre referees enough. Everyone knew you had to be part of the gang to really get anywhere. Bluebottle had been lucky to escape after only one drink.

The hotel elevator dinged and Bluebottle shuffled through the opening doors. He wanted nothing more than his room and his berth, and he hoped to the pit his roommate wasn't there to chatter at him.

There were two mechlings in the elevator car already, pressed close to each other and whispering. Bluebottle just barely recognized Starscream's student Stageflight—she'd gotten tall since he'd last seen her, stretching out her grounder kibble and making her seeker framing more obvious. She must be just about to age out of youth fencing if she hadn't already. The other kid was shorter and stockier, with an oddly organic softness to her armor that didn't match the steely glare she had trained on Bluebottle.

Bluebottle smiled weakly back. Ten floors and two hallways, and then he could collapse.

"Hey, hold the elevator!" called someone from the lobby. Bluebottle squinted at the control panel and managed to locate the 'open' button just as someone stuck an arm between the closing doors.

"Thanks!" chirped another stocky fuzzy mech, squeezing through the doors as soon as the gap had widened. They were followed by a third identically stocky fuzzy mech, this one carrying something. Bluebottle reset his optics slowly. Maybe he was glitching. Or maybe the duplicates would keep coming, packing the elevator full of short black and white mechlings.

"Hey Sidle!" said one of the new mechs, as the doors finally closed behind them. "Look, Ringaling gave us a whole case of—"

"Shut up!" snapped Sidle, her head jerking towards Bluebottle.

The two new mechs turned in unison to look at Bluebottle, one of them grimacing while the other's mouth dropped open. Bluebottle's own gaze was drawn to the case of triple-filtered engex clutched in the grimacing mech's hands.

"Bluebottle's cool," said Stageflight. Her optics pleaded with Bluebottle to be 'cool.'

"He's a ref," said Sidle. Her optics weren't making any pleas.

"Oh slag!" yelped the gaping mech. "Trundle! He's gonna black card you!"

Trundle flinched back, his arms tightening around the engex.

"He can't black card anyone, Loiter." Sidle swatted the gaping mech on the arm. "We're not at the tournament."

Everyone sighed in relief, Bluebottle included. Thank Primus he wasn't at the tournament.

"It's worse," said Sidle, inexorably. "He's gonna report us."

"Oh slag!" repeated Loiter, their voice rising.

Stageflight's wings flickered in exasperation. "He's not gonna report us."

"Hey." Trundle fumbled with the engex and extracted a gleaming cube. He offered it to Bluebottle. "Hey, take this."

Bluebottle looked at the cube, trying to cudgel his mushy processor into comprehending the last couple kliks. Taking the engex didn't seem like a good idea, but he couldn’t quite remember why.

"Are you bribing a referee?" Loiter put their hands over their mouth in horror. "We're gonna get banned!"

"If he takes it then he's complicit," hissed Trundle. "We can bring him down with us!"

"I'm not involved in this," said Sidle, looking Bluebottle dead in the optic. "I don't know any of these mechs and I don't know anything about their activities."

"Bluebottle, come on," said Stageflight. "Tell them you won't—"

The elevator dinged, opening on the eleventh floor. Bluebottle shuffled out, brushing past Trundle's still out-stretched hand.

"Frag," said Sidle. "All right, it's the only way."

"No, hey—Sidle!"

There was a thumping noise. Bluebottle, despite his misgivings, looked over his shoulder.

Sidle was on the floor, half out of the elevator, her hands reaching out toward Bluebottle and displaying wickedly sharp claws. Stageflight was lying on top of her, pinning Sidle with difficulty as Sidle tried to squirm free. Trundle was still holding the engex. Loiter was starting to hyperventilate. The elevator doors were trying to close and bumping against Stageflight's wings.

Bluebottle turned a corner and let the scene disappear behind him.

---

Swerve was still up and chatty when Bluebottle got back to the hotel room, but for once Bluebottle appreciated it.

"You look half-rusted." Swerve rolled on his berth to watch as Bluebottle cleared out his subspace and wiped off his plating. "So much work today, right? Didn't you do a semi-final in upper-level sabre? Or was it a quarter-final? I saw you were on video, so I thought maybe—"

Bluebottle gave up on waiting for a gap in the flow of words. "Hey, are we mandatory reporters?"

Swerve sat bolt upright. "What happened."

"Nothing bad," said Bluebottle. "Just, you know, some kids in the elevator with a case of engex they probably shouldn't have."

"All kids?" clarified Swerve. "No creepy adults? No one looking uncomfortable or like they were being peer pressurized?"

"I mean, it was a little uncomfortable." Bluebottle allowed himself to sit on his berth. "But only because I was there. It was just Stageflight and some of her friends, I guess, Sidle and—"

Swerve gasped. "Sidle? And Trundle? And Loiter?"

"Yeah." Bluebottle frowned. "Should I know who they are?"

"Should you know who they are?" Swerve gasped in excited disbelief. "They're the monster kids! Prowl's venomous fencing machines! They're already ranked internationally in upper division sabre, and they're still youth-eligible!"

Oh, that made it even worse. "Do I need to tell somebody about this?"

"Yes." Swerve leaned forward. "You need to tell me everything."

"No, I mean someone official—"

"What are you, the fun police?" Swerve's visor flickered a wink. "Now start from the beginning. You were in the elevator..."

---

Bluebottle had an early call to the coliseum the next orn, because why would you allow referees to recharge when you could wring every drop of value out of them instead? Bluebottle woke to Swerve talking at the speed of light, drank half a cube, dragged himself to the venue, refereed two pools back to back, and then sat down and flopped face-first onto a table in the referee corral. He was so glad this was the last orn of the tournament. Why did he keep doing this to himself? Did he like suffering?

"Bluebottle," hissed Starscream.

"Frag off," mumbled Bluebottle.

"Excuse me?" said Starscream, and Bluebottle jerked upright as he realized what he'd just said and who he'd just said it to.

"I didn't mean it!"

"You're a terrible liar." Starscream sat down next to Bluebottle, ignoring the glares of every other referee in the corral. "Now, I've heard that you're the one spreading scurrilous rumors about my charges."

"Your charges?" Bluebottle's processor was finally waking up, aided by the blaring threat alerts. "I don't—"

"Sidle et al." Starscream tapped his talons pointedly on the table, right next to Bluebottle's hand. The tips of the talons looked wickedly sharp. "And Stageflight. You really need better allies, Swerve spilled everything after I only threatened to pull his tongue out through his audials."

Bluebottle pulled his hands under the table and tried to subtly lean away from Starscream. "I didn't—I just—I didn't know what to do!"

"What you should have done was comm me and then kept your mouth shut." Starscream closed the distance again, his talons creeping toward Bluebottle's arm. "If your irresponsible gossip about underage drinking spreads to Prowl, there will be consequences. He entrusted his sparklings to me for this tournament, and if he finds out what a disaster it's been—"

"Oh." Bluebottle realized that Starscream was more anxious than furious. Not that was much better. Starscream could still murder Bluebottle in a fit of anxiety. "They've been giving you trouble?"

Starscream reared back and shot a glare around the corral, sending all of the refs who'd been trying to listen in back to their datapads or their conversations. Oh Primus, he was really going to kill Bluebottle. Right in the middle of the tournament. Bluebottle pulled up Thundercracker's comm, already knowing it was too late for anyone to save him.

Then Starscream deflated and scrubbed a hand over his face. "Stageflight woke me up in the middle of the night. To get some antivenom. Because Sidle had accidentally bitten her. On the mouth."

Bluebottle closed his comm window. After a half a klik, he even dared to pat Starscream's arm. "Doesn't Sidle carry her own anti-venom?"

"Yes," lamented Starscream. "They'd already used all of it up."

Bluebottle couldn't help it—he laughed. And then laughed again at the comically betrayed look on Starscream's face.

"I suppose you'll still be laughing when Prowl decapitates me," said Starscream, dismally.

"Oh, come on," said Bluebottle. "They're having fun. Didn't you do dumb stuff when you were young?"

Starscream recovered himself enough to look offended. "I was constructed in an adult frame."

"Yeah, but you were still young." Bluebottle couldn't actually imagine fresh-faced bright-opticked Starscream, but it must have happened. "I bet you drank too much and showed up to fencing hungover and got weird kissing injuries."

Starscream's attempt to regain his arrogance dissolved into something that Bluebottle didn't quite recognize. Horror tinged with wistfulness, maybe.

"Prowl was never young," said Starscream, at last. "Not even when he was constructed."

"Hopefully he understands by now." Bluebottle patted Starscream again. "How are they fencing?"

"Awfully." Starscream leaned back in his chair. "Trundle purged his tanks after his first pool bout, and now he's wincing at every loud noise. Stageflight's face is swelled up with repair nanites. Loiter is acting like they're worried someone will find out they have a dead body in their fencing bag. Sidle won all her bouts, but she keeps glaring at me."

"She tried to murder me last night," Bluebottle recalled. "Disposing of the witness, I think."

That finally made Starscream smile. "Well, she does have Prowl's coding." He got up, face blanking for a moment as he checked his HUD. "I have to go coach. Do you want to come to team dinner tonight and help me intimidate them? My treat. Bring your scariest referee friends."

"Sure," said Bluebottle. "I'll let you know when I'm released."

Starscream nodded vaguely and stalked away. He'd barely been gone a klik when Tensile flung herself into the vacant chair.

"You know Starscream?" she shrilled. "The Starscream?"

"Uh," said Bluebottle.

"Thundercracker's trine mate?" Tensile leaned forward, all four of her optics widening. "The mech who hosts Prowl's annual tactics clinic? Starscream?"

"He has two galactic championship medals," said Bluebottle, helplessly. Starscream would be livid if he knew his personal accomplishments were being left out. "And he won the planetary championships—"

"You have to introduce me," said Tensile.

"You can come to dinner," offered Bluebottle. Tensile could be pretty scary when she tried. Like right now, for instance, when she squealed and threw her arms around Bluebottle's neck, putting her extremely sharp teeth within biting range.

At least she wasn't venomous.

"Hey, do you know Grimlock?" asked Bluebottle. " We’re supposed to be intimidating mechlings, and I need someone to be captain of the fun police."

"Oh, I can do you better than that." Tensile beamed. "What about Ultra Magnus?"

Bluebottle's spark squeezed a little, imagining what Starscream would do if he brought Ultra Magnus to team dinner. "No, sorry. Starscream hates him."

"Arcee?" suggested Tensile, then winced at the look on Bluebottle's face. "All right, what about Jazz?"

"I think Jazz would be okay," said Bluebottle. "Especially if he does that thing, you know, where he looks at you—"

"—Like he knows everything bad you've ever done and he's not impressed?" Tensile giggled. "I'm comming him right now."

"Sabre referees!" called Thundercracker, from the top of bout committee. "DEs are going out, find your pod captain!"

Tensile grinned at Bluebottle as she waved a hand, gesturing excitedly even though Jazz couldn't see it over the comms. Bluebottle disentangled himself carefully so he could stand up, ready to blow through DEs and get on to the next event. And tonight Bluebottle would get some free energon, with the free entertainment of listening to Starscream pretend to be a responsible mech.

Being a referee really was worth it, every once in a while.

Chapter Text

"You call this a fencing club?"

The voice cut through the din of the bladework drills. It was somehow both high-pitched and rasping, and Megatron glanced away, searching for the paradoxical voice's owner.

Soundwave's sabre smacked Megatron in the helm when Megatron failed to parry.

There were seekers. Three of them, imperfectly identical in a way that only highlighted the constructed nature of their frames. The purple and blue ones were slightly taller than their red and white companion. Manufacturing defect, maybe. Megatron put a hand up to stop Soundwave from striking him again.

"Where," demanded the red seeker, "is Megatron?"

Megatron flipped up his visor and extracted himself from the drilling line. "Here," he said. "Who wants to know?"

"Starscream," said the red seeker, like that was supposed to mean something.

"That's you?" guessed Megatron.

"Yes!" snapped Starscream. "Starscream of the Vosian Academy. I'm ranked twenty-fifth in all of Cybertron!"

"Congratulations," said Megatron, who was currently ranked second. "And you are here for a reason?"

"I saw you fence," said Starscream. "In the finals of the Cybertronian Championship. I want to join the Decepticons."

"I lost that bout." Megatron didn't flinch at the memory, but it didn't bring him any joy. "Don't you want to join the victorious Optimus Prime?"

"If I wanted to fence exactly like everyone has for the last five thousand vorns, I'd stay in Vos." Starscream scoffed. "I want to fence like you."

"You came all the way from Vos for that?"

"Stop asking useless redundant questions!" Starscream glared around the Nemesis. "Of course, I didn't know you fenced in a warehouse full of charity cases."

Megatron followed Starscream's optics. Saw the fencing strips laid down with tape on the rough iron floor, and the flickering lights in the rafters. Bonecrusher, holding his sabre like a toothpick. Rumble and Frenzy bashing each other with their guards instead of following the drill as they ought.

Soundwave watching the newcomers. Watching Megatron.

"Be nice," murmured the blue seeker. "If he kicks us out—"

"He's not going to kick us out," hissed Starscream, too loud to really be a whisper. "He's starving for talent."

"Did you bring your gear?" asked Megatron.

Starscream made an impatient gesture, and the purple seeker held up a fencing bag.

"Fence Soundwave," said Megatron. "And I'll decide if you've earned a place."

"Earn? Excuse me?"

"Starscream," said the purple seeker, but Megatron didn't wait to see whether Starscream's companions could control his behavior. Megatron wasn't interested in wasting his time with someone who needed to be minded.

"If you came here to fence, then fence," he said. "And if you didn't—then leave."

Starscream ripped the fencing bag from the purple seeker's hands and practically tore it open. His companions didn't stoop to helping Starscream with his armor, at least, just stood and watched as Starscream put his caps over his wings and cockpit and clipped his visor to his helm.

"Who's Soundwave?" Starscream asked. His sabre was in his hand, the tip of it trembling against the floor.

Megatron gestured to where Soundwave was waiting, already standing at the on guard line on the central strip. The rest of the Decepticons were crowded on either side, and Megatron had to shove them away to get a gap wide enough to referee the bout.

"On guard," Megatron said, once the fencers were arrayed in front of him. "Ready?"

Starscream leaned forward, just a little. Soundwave held steady.

"Fence," said Megatron, and the bout began.

Starscream was a joy to watch. He glided down the strip, his footwork small and sure, his blade moving in light circles and flicking cuts. He threw himself forward at the slightest hint of hesitation from Soundwave. On defense, Starscream moved in ways you wouldn't expect, using all of the strip, constantly searching for Soundwave's blade.

He was still losing. Soundwave was a masterpiece of a fencer, always a step ahead. As if he could read your processor and counteract your every intention. And there was something wrong about the way Starscream fenced. Something out of place that came and went, a sudden thud to his step, a passing crudeness to his hand.

By the time the bout ended, Megatron understood the problem.

"Bout," said Megatron, raising a hand for the victor. "Soundwave fifteen, Starscream seven."

Starscream ripped his visor off and turned away from Soundwave, ignoring Soundwave's outstretched hand. "Fine," he spat. "I failed your test, is that what you wanted? Skywarp, Thundercracker, let's—"

"You can't fence like me," said Megatron.

Starscream stopped, his mouth open and his optics wide. Megatron found that he liked having Starscream speechless, waiting on Megatron's next word.

Megatron gave it to him. "You're not my height and you don't have my power. It does you no good to fake it."

Starscream's face warped into a disgusted sneer. "I don't need to be tall to be good, you blithering egomaniac. If you want to see power, I'll ram this up your optic!" He brandished his sabre, and Megatron wondered if he really meant to follow through. Megatron wasn't curious enough to allow Starscream the opportunity—he stepped forward and caught the sabre by the blade, holding it fast as Starscream swore and tried to tug it away.

"I can't teach you to fence like me," said Megatron implacably. "You'll have to settle for being better."

Starscream looked up at him, speechless again, and Megatron felt something heavy and warm settle in his spark.

"Better?" Starscream breathed, as astonished as if he'd been handed a galactic medal. "Better than you?"

"We'll try for better than you were, to start. But yes." Megatron let the sabre go and took Starscream's shoulder instead. "I think you could be better than everyone."

"So, uh," said the purple seeker, "does that mean we can stay?"

Megatron had forgotten there were any other mechs in the room. Now that he'd been reminded, sight and sound returned in a rush. The other seekers were huddling together, close enough that their wings clacked irregularly. The Decepticons were murmuring with each other, staring openly at Starscream. Some glaring, some amused, some envious. Soundwave was still standing behind Starscream, waiting for the handshake that ended every bout.

Megatron spread his arms. His hand tingled where he’d touched Starscream’s plating. "Welcome to the Nemesis."

"All three of us?" Starscream glanced at his companions. "Do Thundercracker and Skywarp have to fence one of your goons as well?"

"No," said Megatron. "I'm sure they're adequate."

The blue seeker flinched, and the purple one bristled. Megatron would have to ask later which one was Skywarp and which was Thundercracker. He could already tell that neither had quite as much potential as Starscream.

"How much are membership dues?" A hint of uncertainty entered Starscream's voice. "We don't actually have—"

"Ah." Megatron smiled. "You're charity cases."

Starscream raised his sabre again. "We're not—"

"We operate on a sliding scale. Soundwave handles finances." Megatron nodded behind Starscream. "I suggest you shake his hand."

Starscream whirled, sabre down, hand out, babbling something complimentary about Soundwave's fencing. Megatron's smile stretched wider.

This was the beginning of something, he could tell. Something great, if he was lucky. Success, glory, medals. Respect. Right now, Cybertron regarded Megatron as a miracle, an anomaly, a freak. How amazing it was, that a miner could get a silver medal at championships. How inspiring. A once in a lifetime event.

There were thousands of seekers fencing on Cybertron. Hundreds of them had Starscream's floating grace. Dozens of them were just as hungry to win. But Megatron would take this seeker and make him a champion. It wouldn't be a miracle or a rarity. Everyone would see what Megatron's will could create.

"Get in line for the drill," he said, and Thundercracker and Skywarp scrambled to put on their armor. "We're practicing parries to begin. Fencers on my side, cut to the helm. Fencers opposite parry five. Ready?"

Skywarp and Thundercracker paired with each other. Soundwave stepped back to watch and advise the new fencers. Starscream boldly took Soundwave’s place in the line, pairing with Megatron.

Megatron looked into Starscream's optics, shining through Starscream's crimson visor. I'll make you, Megatron thought. I'll make you mine.

"Begin," he said aloud, and the ring of blade on blade filled the air until it felt like something would burst.

Chapter Text

Metroplex was completely crammed full of mechs. Youth fencers, guardians, coaches, referees... Windblade felt like the walls were closing in on her, adding to the roiling feeling in her fuel tank. Two tiny fencers from Optimus Prime's club were warming up on a strip that also had a guardian taking pictures at one end and a referee talking to a coach at the other. Windblade winced as one of the fencers retreated right into the guardian’s back and almost knocked her over.

"Oh, that face," said Chromia. "Come on, refereeing’s not as bad as that. Your expressive relays will freeze and you'll be stuck in a grimace for the rest of your life."

"They will not." Windblade waved a hand at the fencers, who were now in range of stabbing the referee. "I'm just worried about safety!"

"You're terrified." Chromia reached over and pinched Windblade's cheek, like she was trying to pull the anxiety out of Windblade’s head. "Come on, they're kids. They're not even half as big as you. If they disagree with your call, you can just punt them across the room."

“That’s horrible,” said Windblade. “I'm not scared of them."

"Ahah." Chromia smirked. "First step is admitting you have a problem. Second step is realizing it's a ridiculous problem and you're an amazing referee."

"I'm not that good," said Windblade. "Breakdown—"

Chromia reached for Windblade's face again, and Windblade skipped backwards, out of range of any expression-rearranging. Chromia had a look in her optic that didn’t suggest she was going to let it go that easily, but fortunately Starscream started shouting for Windblade and gave her the perfect excuse to escape.

"You look terrified," said Starscream, once Windblade was in talking range of bout committee instead of yelling range.

"You look exhausted," she said, partly to distract and partly because it was true. Starscream's optics were dim and his hands were shaking as he entered fencer information into the registration datapad.

"About that." Starscream lowered his voice. "I need you to go to my office and get my emergency boosters."

Windblade frowned. Starscream's wings were trembling too, making a light clattering sound just audible underneath the cacophony of a youth tournament. "When was the last time you recharged?"

“I’ve been very busy,” said Starscream. “It’s the first tournament we’ve held this season! There’s Prime kids here! If you were in charge, you wouldn’t be able to sleep either. Just because it’s been four days—”

Four days—”

“Shh.” Starscream held a finger in front of his lips. “Go to the office. The boosters are behind the painting of Vos, there’s a hole in the wall.”

"You could take a nap," suggested Windblade.

Starscream looked disgusted. "Just get the boosters. Wheeljack knows I've hidden them somewhere, so you'll need to be discreet."

Windblade still didn’t feel like she needed to enable this. "Boosters aren't healthy. If you recharged—"

"Boosters are natural code enhancers," snarled Starscream, "and I need to be awake for the triumph of my tournament, all right? Get them!"

"Everything okay?" asked Wheeljack, from right behind Windblade’s wings.

Starscream smiled sweetly at Wheeljack, then glared at Windblade so hard Windblade's fuel pump almost stopped working. "Fine," he said.

"Fine," agreed Windblade, and then felt the need to go on when Wheeljack came around to stand at her side. "Starscream was telling me how to, uh, how to deal with coaches."

"Oh, I've got to hear this." Wheeljack smiled. "What's the secret?"

"Black card," said Starscream. "First time they even speak to you. Get them out of here. The club's too crowded as it is."

Wheeljack laughed. "You'll be fine, Windblade. You're a great referee."

"Breakdown's the great one, I'm just—" Windblade hesitated, watching Starscream mouth 'boosters' at her while Wheeljack wasn't looking. "Anyway. I'll do my best."

"That's all we can ask." Wheeljack put his hand on Starscream's arm. "Babe, how much longer are we going to keep registration open?"

Windblade fled while Starscream was checking his chronometer. She got about five steps before a solid weight hit her back and almost bowled her over.

"Windblade!" Stageflight chirped, right in Windblade's audial. "Are you fencing with us? Aren't you too old?"

"Yeah, I am pretty old." Windblade managed to catch Stageflight by the arms and swing her down to the floor. "I'm refereeing today."

Stageflight's optics widened with excitement. "You're a ref? Can you be my ref?"

"Well, Maestro Starscream and the head referee decide who referees which bouts," began Windblade. "And—"

"Can you tell Maestro to make you my ref?" Stageflight was practically bouncing. "This is going to be so great. You're going to be the best ref ever!"

"I'm, um." Windblade bit her lip. "You know, Breakdown's much better than I—"

"Referee meeting!" called Bluebottle, from across the room. Windblade waved at Stageflight and then rushed to join the dozen mechs clustered in the makeshift referee corral.

"Good morning." Bluebottle smiled at the crowd. "I’m head referee Bluebottle, I think most of you know me. Thank you all for being here. I won't ask what blackmail material Starscream has on you—"

A couple mechs laughed nervously. Besides Windblade, Chromia, Breakdown and Knock Out, there were also a few local referees, a few referees from the planetary circuit, and one very uncomfortable-looking referee that Windblade had seen a few times at galactic events. Krik, Krak, something like that.

"—Be polite to the guardians, be kind to the fencers, and make good calls. Don't let the coaches push you around." Bluebottle clapped his hands. "Good luck out there!"

The referees moved as a pack toward the bout committee, where Starscream had apparently fallen asleep with his head on Wheeljack's shoulder. Windblade lingered, watching as Wheeljack tried to hand out datapads for pools with only one free hand.

"Windblade, right?" Bluebottle leaned into Windblade's field of vision. "Something wrong?"

Windblade bit her lip and finally said the words that had been rattling in her processor since Starscream asked her to referee last week. "What if I don't make good calls?"

"Oh." Bluebottle’s antennae flicked up in sympathy. "Is this your first tournament?"

Windblade nodded. "I referee all the time at practice, but it's not—"

"Not the same, I know." Bluebottle sighed. "All you can do is try. I'll keep an eye on you, but the thing is, I already know you're going to struggle."

Windblade felt her wings lower. "Why?"

"Because I'm going to push you until you struggle," said Bluebottle. "I'll try my best not to let you fail, but we won't know how good you are until you hit your ceiling. And then you have to keep trying, until you get past that and hit the next ceiling instead."

Windblade frowned. "But what if I make a bad call?"

Bluebottle shrugged. "As long as you're trying to make a good one, I'm happy. The kids won't explode or anything. The world won't end. Do you remember the first time I refereed you?"

Windblade waved a hand noncommittally. Bluebottle hadn’t been terrible, but—

"I was terrible," said Bluebottle. "But I got better at refereeing, because I kept trying and because people supported me. Starscream supported me, which is apparently a once in a lifetime event."

"He's not that bad," lied Windblade.

"And now I get to be head referee for a whole tournament," said Bluebottle. "The first time I’ve ever been put in charge, and I already know I’m going to struggle. That's just how you get better."

"Windblade," called Wheeljack, trying to whisper and shout at the same time. "Come get your pool."

"Okay," said Windblade, and managed to smile at Bluebottle. "I'll do my best."

Bluebottle winked. "Me too."

Starscream had slid under the bout committee table by the time Windblade made it over to pick up her datapad. He was curled sideways in his chair, with his head in Wheeljack's lap and only the edge of one wing visible over the table.

"Sorry," murmured Windblade.

"Don't worry about it," said Wheeljack. "And don't be nervous. Now go to strip three, I gave you the fun pool."

Windblade gave Wheeljack a mock salute and then hurried over to strip three, where she was met with an exaggerated gasp.

"Oh wow," said Stageflight, beaming wide enough that Windblade felt about eighty percent of her worries just melt away, "we got the best ref!"

“Absolutely,” said Windblade. “Now get your visors and sabres, kids, I need to check you in.”