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The Empty Seat. (Original)

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“Is this seat taken?” Ambulon had to mentally steel himself before approaching Fortress Maximus. His fingers clenched his cube of high grade too tightly for a mech that was comfortable with the situation. 

Fortress Maximus was startled by his appearance. Ambulon hid his cringe well. 

“Uh, no. No it’s not.” 

Pity struck Ambulon. There were trace amounts of happy surprise in Fort Max’s expression.  Did the poor sap honestly think Ambulon was coming over to sit with him?  The larger mech’s face twitched like he was trying to speak again, but it was either anxiety or a silly excitement that kept cutting him off. 

Ambulon just wanted to take the chair and go. 

It was hardly shocking that Fort Max was sitting alone. What was shocking was that he’d managed to brave Swerve’s Bar by himself and was sitting closer to the centre of the room than Ambulon credited him with the confidence for. Which, Ambulon guessed, was probably why all the usual cliques had gathered in the peripherals of the bar - or maybe it was the other way round. Maybe, Fortress Maximus had been forced into the middle of the bar reluctantly because the all the quiet, secluded corners were filled and he didn’t have the gall to impress himself upon mechs that would rather not share his company for the evening. 

Ambulon however had a place among those cliques. He just required a token for entire. In this case it was a chair. And the only free chair in the entire room happened to be opposite Fort Max

He set his Energon cube on the table. Fortress Maximus shuffled back somewhat to allow Ambulon some space. 

His insides squirmed with embarrassment. He hoped he wouldn’t upset Fort Max too much, Ambulon was a medic, it wasn’t in his nature to wound people on purpose but if no one else was making the effort with Fortress Maximus... Ambulon didn’t want to be that person. The one with the reputation, alway eager to help and then taken advantage of. 

The sooner he was out of this situation the better. 

Ambulon pulled on the chair - prepared to move with it but got a sudden and sharp jerk back. 

He could have sworn he heard someone across the room snort. 

Looking down he spotted screws anchoring each slim leg into the floor. Since when?! He thought, wildly. Ambulon was certain he’d seen people rearrange the chairs before. 

  Fort Max was looking at him now, studying Ambulon like he was starting to suspect this wasn’t the friendly gesture he’d interpreted it as. 

Slag, now everyone else was watching him too. Even Cyclonus, who stirred from passive disinterest to impassive interest ... maybe, he might have just been intensely day dreaming.

Just leave. But Ambulon acted against his own instinct. 

He sank into the chair opposite Fort Max and tried to play off his earlier actions as an attempt to just adjust his seat. He shuffled a few more times to authenticate this theory. 

It was a guilty conscious that had put him into the chair, he didn’t bother denying it. But even if this whole evening inevitably transpired into something very awkward at least Ambulon could give the impression that he at least tried to show some compassion. 

How very Autobot of him.

Fortress Maximus was just pleased to have someone to sit with even if they sat there in silence. 

It was a bit pathetic, the larger mech was aware, he didn’t really want company. Nobody aside from Rung (that one time) had bothered to visit him in the Lost Light’s brig. He didn’t blame the crew for that...he didn’t excuse them either. 

Given the choice Maximus would gladly remain confined to his hab suite. But he soon learned he couldn’t stand the loneliness. It had a tendency to worm under his plating and frustrate him - turn him hostile and bitter. Rung had recommended this visit to Swerve’s and had given him instructions to just try and integrate himself - just a little. Nothing strenuous.

But sitting alone in a bar full of happy people with curious, prying staring was a strenuous act in itself. When he walked in the conversation stopped. Completely. It resumed later, in hushed tones to begin with like the crew was frightened of him overhearing their gossip. 

Swerve had brought him a drink. A free drink - just standard energon. It was a peace offering, non-refined because Swerve didn’t want to fuel a fire that could tear apart his bar. 

Now Ambulon was sat opposite him fidgeting and constantly glancing to a point in the bar just behind Max where his friends were gathered: First Aid, Brainstorm, Trailcutter and a few others. 

If he wanted to be with them so badly why didn’t he just go!

Ambulon saw Max’s hands curl into large, potentially lethal, fists and took a long swig of his high grade. 

Over the passing days observing Maximus had become something of a novelty for the crew of the Lost Light. The unofficial, highly disapproved of but never actually deterred “Fort Max blows a gasket” count down clock was engaged and racking up the minutes. Bets had been swapping all week. For a split second, after Ambulon had taken the seat, he could have sworn he saw fists full of credits being swapped beneath tables. Suddenly, Ambulon became aware that he was now a key statistic in several bets and that made him feel awkward. People were anticipating Fort Max snapping and pummeling him into dust and Ambulon himself was beginning to calculate how likely that possibility was. 

He didn’t want to be dust. He hadn’t even finished his first drink. 

“So, how’s your day been?”

It sounded so forced and was so incredibly unexpected that Ambulon’s intake choked on a mouthful of high grade. 

He coughed and wiped the purple spatter off his lips.

“I’m sorry?” He said despite knowing exactly what had been asked. He just needed to buy some time to recover. Fortress Maximus seemed to rethink, a grimace twisted his lips and he avoided looking at Ambulon directly.

“I asked, uh, how your day has been?” 

Ambulon could see the others peeping from behind Max’s enormous treads stifling fits of giggles like they delighted in watching the objects of their focus squirm.

Ambulon sighed, deciding it was best to indulge Max who was obviously trying very hard to remain seated and not bolt for the exit.

“It’s been alright. Just, long...I suppose.” There wasn’t much more to say, unless Max wanted to hear about the many repetitive titrations Ratchet made him perform. Ambulon didn’t think so. But Max nodded along anyway, “Yours?”

Fort Max hesitated. Ambulon did his best not to flinch - Oh Primus, here is comes. He could feel his facial plating tense with the expectation of getting punched. But Fort Max just vented some warm air,

“Better.”

They both drank. The high grade began working its magic and soothed Ambulon. Fort Max didn’t have that benefit and remained rigidly hunched in his chair. 

Ambulon’s head flopped to one side. He tried to think of more to say, helpful conversation to pass the time and ease the pressure baring down on his larger company. But it was a struggle, there had to be boundaries and Ambulon spent longer acknowledging topics that should be avoided than making conversation. 

 

 

By now they were sucking up the dregs of their drinks and Ambulon was feeling generous.

“Would you like another?” He asked as he made to stand.

Fort Max‘ fingers curled round the edging of their table.

“No...I don’t have enough credits.” He muttered. Ambulon missed the depth in his tone, his self-conscious dissection or the muted traces of darker, fouler feelings. It was his mistake to press the matter when it was a tender subject for Max. 

“That’s fine I’ll get it for you.”

“Really, don’t.” Max sensed it was time to go. 

“Honestly I don’t mind, if you want one” - Max was pushing himself up when, without thinking, Ambulon reached out to stop him.

Fort Max jerked back, systems whining like he was frantically stalling defense functions before they could reveal themselves. 

Ambulon retracted his hand immediately. Fort Max briefly looked directly at him and Ambulon saw more than he could comprehend. 

His arm returned to his side and he became very aware of crushing silence spreading a heavy layer round the room.

Then Fort Max left hastily and Ambulon deflated back into his seat.  

     

*

 

“It was useless! I felt like an idiot...you made me look like a fool!”

“You’re not a fool, Maximus. You know stepping back into society isn’t going to be plain sailing. Don’t look at yesterday as a failure, look at it as your first steps.”

“Slag you and your steps!” Rung let Maximus shout. In here, in his office it didn’t matter and it wasn’t like Fort Max had any where else to vent his frustrations. If anyone else heard him speaking so nastily they might misunderstand. 

But Rung understood, as much as Fortress Maximus hated to admit it, no one except Rung had the patience for him, he thought, or would willingly face his mammoth issues head on. But that didn’t mean Fortress Maximus had to agree with what the psychiatrist preached even if it was for his own benefit. 

Rung was quiet, looking down at his notes in his lap. A growl of frustration rushed out of Maximus‘s vents...snapping at Rung was wrong, he was only trying to help. It was more than anyone else could be bothered to do. 

Aggression was quelled by exhausting waves of regret. Max returned to the berth and sat. The hydraulics in his legs heaving hisses. 

“Sorry.” He grunted. Rung gave him the classic, gentle smile of understanding. It was something Max was starting to find annoying because it always came after he’d acted rashly. 

“Why don’t you tell me about the positives?”

“What positives?”

“You said someone came to sit with you.”

“Only because he had no choice.”

“You don’t know that, they might have” - 

“Don’t! Don’t patronize me. It was the only seat  left in the bar.” 

“Okay. Who was it?”

“I dunno. One of the medical staff. One from Delphi.”

“Who?”

“I don’t... Ambulate...I think that’s his name.”

“Ambulon.”

“Yeah, him.”

“Did you know he was part of the team responsible for putting you back together after Garrus-9?”

Fortress Maximus looked mildly surprised...then mortified. 

“He never mentioned...” Something churned his tanks. When he was alone, on occasion, when he wasn’t clutching his helm or reliving nightmares, Fort Max wondered about the medics and doctors who mended him and about what they thought. His body really was a sorry sight back then and that was only on the surface, underneath the armor the real horror lurked. The corruption, the viruses, the... 

A sickness rose up his throat tubing, it tasted of humiliation and he struggled to swallow it. So he stood, again, and tried to pace off his agitation, but the room lacked space, it just made him feel trapped.

“Did you know that he used to be a Decepticon?”

Maximus chuffed.

“Well he definitely didn’t mention that!”       

“But does it matter?”

“Of course it fragging does!”

“What about Overlord?” The glare Max fixed Rung with was livid. Red eyes flared with outrage, how dare he mention that monster - how dare he compare anyone to him! “By the time he arrived at Garrus - 9 there were rumours his affiliation with the Decepticons was waning...does it hurt you more to think the mech who defiled you was doing it all for selfish desires rather than for a cause?” 

Maximus found the door quicker than Rung could protest and swung outside. 

The psychiatrists room was quickly sealed off and Fort Max hung in the corridor, resting his bulk against the adjacent wall. He held his hands in front of him and watched them tremble.
Damn. 

Ambulon didn’t know where to look. He was at the end of the corridor, frozen. He’d heard the shouts made by Max and Rung’s little voice trying to compete with him over the puffs of air dumped by stressed cooling fans. He’d just reached the middle of the junction when Fort Max punched open the door and barreled out now he felt stranded in the centre of no man’s land not sure whether to move forward of backward. 

While he was still deliberating the stillus clipped at the top of the data pad he’d been delivering to Ratchet popped loose. It rolled down the pad and clattered onto the floor with excessive noise. 

Fort Max’s head snapped up. He glared and Ambulon just gaped.