“How have you been?”
“How does it look?”
Drift hesitated. He didn’t have to say anything; Rodimus knew what he was thinking. He looked away, took a long swig of engex, and forced himself to smile.
“I’m good. Forget about me. How have you been? I haven’t seen you since…” He trailed off. Nothing he said these days ever came out right, nothing he did. Stupid.
“It’s hard,” Drift admitted, “It was almost impossible at first. There were some days I couldn’t bring myself to get up from my recharge slab. I lost touch with my center, with my aura, I couldn’t…” He sighed. “But I’ve found my way back to the healing energies that have always helped me most. I think about him every day, and it hurts – but the pain isn’t as sharp anymore. I’m…I’m okay. And I’m only getting better.”
“That’s good to hear.” Rodimus stared into his empty glass. He was foggy from the drink, but he felt genuinely concerned for the bot sitting across from him, and he was relieved. There were times when he worried that he was losing the ability to feel things. “I think about him too.”
He glanced up. Drift was watching him, his face gentle and open. Rodimus cleared his throat. “I think about all of them. Skids. Nightbeat. Trailcutter, Ambulon, Shock, Ore, Ten, Pipes… I don’t know. It’s – whatever.”
Drift was silent for a moment, running his finger around the rim of his glass. “Did you know,” he finally said, “that Pipes once tried to proposition me?”
It took a second for this to sink in. “Wait – what?”
Drift grinned, a little sheepishly. “At least, I think that’s what he was trying to do. It was when Swerve had just opened his bar, we were sitting together and he was telling me about how difficult it was to find a romantic partner onboard, and then he asked if I wanted to hang out with him…”
“What?” Rodimus was laughing. The few patrons of the half-empty bar turned to peer curiously in his direction; he didn’t care. “Are you serious? Why did you never tell me?”
“I don’t know, it didn’t seem very important. Besides, I wasn’t sure about his intentions. And then it seemed inappropriate to mention, after…Overlord…”
They fell silent again. Rodimus coughed. “I need another drink. I’m going to get a refill – you want something?”
“No, I’m fine. Um, are you sure about that?”
“Getting another drink.” There was that look again, the soft mouth and uncertain eyes, and Rodimus felt an itch inside, anxious and irritable and panicky. He wanted to scratch through his chassis; he wanted to excuse himself and climb out a back window and drive far, far away before Drift even noticed he was gone. He couldn’t stand that look. He couldn’t stand being pitied. “Weren’t you already drinking when I got here?”
“So? Do I have something I’ve got to be sober for?” He lurched from his seat, walked purposefully to the bar, and demanded another engex. He didn’t look back at Drift until he was in his seat again. He grinned, wide and brilliant, and took a big gulp. “What else is new, then?”
“Rodimus, are you sure everything’s okay?”
“Primus! I told you, I’m good. I should be asking you that, you’re the one who lost your conjunx.” Drift didn’t look convinced. “Look, I like being on the Exitus. Is Thunderclash still a sanctimonious prick? Of course, but I’ve gotten used to it. This is what I’m meant to be doing! Traveling through space, going anywhere and everywhere, having the time of my life.”
His words sounded hollow even to his own ears. Nothing he said came out right, nothing he did. He took another gulp and accidentally slammed down the glass; engex slopped over his hand. Stupid.
“It’s hard,” Drift said quietly, “I get it. But you have to move on.”
His façade was crumbling. Rodimus had worked so hard to build this face, this persona, carefree charming foolhardy bot with the flames. It only took one meeting with his old best friend to lose it all. The anger he’d been trying to suppress bubbled forth. “No, you don’t get it. You don’t understand. You had your religion, you had Ratchet –”
“Oh, come on, Rod. You’re not some inscrutable enigma. You think I, of all people, can’t understand you?” Rodimus tried to speak, but Drift cut him off again. “You were born for the Lost Light. You were at your best in life-and-death situations, with the fate of the world in your hands. And now you’ve lost that. There’s no – no purpose anymore. I get it. But you can’t keep trying to crawl back to that past purpose. You have to try to make something new. It’s all made up, don’t you see? Nothing is permanent; everything leaves you eventually, and you can either spend all your time trying to get it back, even though you can never get it back, or you can try to – to find your next reason to live…”
Drift’s glass clattered between his hands. He was shaking, Rodimus suddenly realized, his eyes pulsing with bright and unsteady light. He reached across the table, placed his hand on Drift’s arm.
“I miss him.” Drift’s voice was so quiet Rodimus could hardly hear him. “Yes, the loss isn’t new anymore, and yes, it doesn’t hurt as much, but it still hurts. I’m trying, though. I don’t want to be stuck thinking about what was. He would hate that.”
“You know…” Rodimus wavered for a moment, but the engex cloud had torn away all his inhibitions, and he barreled forward. “You two are probably still together. In the other world, I mean. Right now, in the other world, you guys are probably happy.”
“I –” Drift’s words caught in his throat. He stared down at the table, and Rodimus watched as he closed his eyes and collected himself. “I do think about that, sometimes. Maybe Ratchet’s still alive there, and we’re happy. But maybe he’s alive, and we’re not happy. Maybe he’s alive, and I’m dead. Maybe the other world doesn’t even exist.”
“We don’t know –”
“It doesn’t matter, Rodimus. I don’t care anymore. If the experiment did work, that’s amazing, but it doesn’t do anything for me in this world, or Ratchet in this world. Or you. You’ve got to stop thinking about what’s already happened, or what might be happening somewhere else. What do you want to do now?”
“I – I don’t –” There was anger, a flash of frustration and injustice and rage, and then it was over, and Rodimus was cold. “I don’t know.” But he did know. He wanted to be someone again. On the Lost Light, he had mattered. Hated or loved, he’d been important, and he’d been known.
“I…don’t think I’m good at this,” he said, haltingly. He stared up at the ceiling, cleared his throat. “Being on my own, I mean. I have the crew of the Exitus, but it’s not – at the end of the day, it’s still just me. I don’t know if I can make anything new. I don’t think I’m that sort of bot.”
“So don’t do it on your own.” Rodimus dared to look back at Drift. Inexplicably, he was smiling. “You should have come to see me earlier. I thought I was your second-in-command.”
“You were. And more than that.” Rodimus toyed with his glass. Maybe it wasn’t the right time to bring it up, but he didn’t care anymore. “I wasn’t the greatest friend back then, was I? I kind of took you for granted. Kind of used you. I’m sorry about that, by the way. You…you deserved better.” He laughed, even though it wasn’t funny. “It’s a good thing you found Ratchet, isn’t it? Imagine if we’d kept going. We would have been terrible together.”
“You’re not wrong. But...well, we’re not the same bots we used to be. I mean, I’ve changed. I don’t think we could go back to our old ways even if we wanted to.” Drift took a considered sip of his drink before he continued. “You don’t have to do this alone, Rod. I don’t want you to. We could make something new.”
“Huh.” Rodimus wasn’t sure what to say. He tried to think of how he could joke his way out of the rest of this conversation, but he was too drunk, too far gone. “What would that look like, then?”
“Whatever we wanted it to, I suppose. However much or however little we needed from each other.”
Drift was watching with concern and acceptance; no one had looked at him that way in ages. He didn’t have the energy for anything but the truth. “Yeah. Okay.”
“You mean it?”
“I think I do.” For the first time since he’d left his beloved ship, Rodimus felt the weight lift from his chest. Maybe he’d be happy again. Maybe he’d get worse. Maybe nothing would change. Maybe everything would change, so much that he would no longer be able to recognize himself. Whatever the case, he would have his second-in-command back at his side. His second-in-command, and so much more than that. For the first time since he’d left his ship, Rodimus could feel the presence of possibility – not in another world, but here, now.
He lifted his glass and clinked it against Drift’s. “To something new.”
Drift smiled, reached across the table, rested his hand in Rodimus’s outstretched palm. “To something new, whatever that might be.”