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The Best Laid Plans

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The moment Wheeljack comes online he knows something is wrong. It’s sticky, is maybe the best way to put it. Systems misfire and wake all out of sequence. His internal diagnostics are sluggish and unresponsive. He can’t feel… Most of his limbs, actually. It would be alarming, except that nothing is alarming, which is itself alarming—but he recognizes that loop of thought as useless and terminates it before it can take hold. His memories are fragmented: a loud sound, a bright light. When he has enough processing power to register the deadening blanket of medical pain suppressants in his system he thinks, Oh, I blew myself up again.

But, while his most recent memories feature a lot of fire and debris (followed by corruption and static), they lack the usual trappings of a lab. It’s been a while since he’s built weapons, anyway. His current project is figuring out how to retrofit the crumbling bits of an ancient titan, for Primus’ sake. He thinks he was outside? Maybe? He remembers a breeze and Cybertron’s open sky. He’d been headed to meet someone. Then he’d ducked into a building, and boom.

Try as he might, he can’t quite remember who he was meeting; the name hovers on the edge of his thoughts, tangled in all that fire, yellow and red and black.

“You’re awake,” Starscream says.

Wheeljack boots up his optics. They come online uneven and flickering. Starscream watches him from a chair beside the berth, immaculate as ever. When Wheeljack looks down he finds himself lying on a medical slab, hooked up to a variety of diagnostic machinery. Half his torso is covered in scorching, weld marks, and the plain grey of brand-new plating that hasn’t integrated yet. He’s glad he wasn’t awake for that part.

A thermal blanket has been tucked around his legs. It is, for some reason, littered with a rainbow of color-coded datapads. He leaves that mystery for another time. Lifting his hand to his face to rub his optics takes monumental effort, but it helps ground him in the here and now. “What happened?”

“Someone tried to kill you.”

“They—what?

Starscream’s expression is tightly controlled, but his claws flex in and out as if he’s imagining using them. “You were on your way to my office for our meeting about retrofitting Metroplex’s drainage system. You walked right into a bomb.”

Wheeljack scoffs. “Well, they didn’t do a very good job.”

“No. Which is how I knew that either they weren’t trying very hard, or it was one of those neutrals who couldn’t assassinate their way out of a sack. Amateurs.” Starscream’s claws curl into fists. “They didn’t like that you were cooperating with… How did they put it? Starscream’s regime of terror. Not much of a ring to it, is there? But we’ll make them pay.”

The satisfaction in Starscream’s tone sets off all Wheeljack’s alarm bells. If the culprits were still at large, there would be a lot more bared teeth and unfiltered rage. This is quieter. More controlled. Has Starscream already caught the culprits, and if so, what has he done? Wheeljack has been out of commission for a while. Anything could have happened in that time.

“Starscream,” Wheeljack begins, “please tell me you haven’t murdered anyone.”

“I’ve killed a lot of people, Wheeljack.”

“You know what I meant! Please tell me you haven’t murdered anyone on my behalf.”

“Would it be bad if I did?”

Wheeljack glares at him and tries to sit up. It sets off a wave of anxious beeping from the diagnostic leads. Starscream half rises to push him down, but Wheeljack’s own exhaustion gets there first. He slumps back onto the berth, head swimming. He’s in worse shape than he’d thought. Maybe he’ll just… Lie here for a while.

That sounds nice.

“I haven’t killed anyone for you,” Starscream says sulkily. “I know how you Autobots are about murder. No, I hunted down their pathetic little cell and had each of them monitored. As far as they know, you’re dead, their plan succeeded, and my regime of terror is down one Autobot scientist.”

“Why would you do that?”

“Consider it my gift to you. As the wronged party, you’re owed your shot at revenge—though I do of course have suggestions.” Starscream leans over Wheeljack’s legs and taps the nearest datapad. It comes to life jammed with dense text and complicated diagrams. Wheeljack can’t quite read it from here, but makes out insecticons, pit trap, and arson. “Now, from left to right these are ranked on a scale of painful to humiliating. My personal favorite is the one where they’re dropped into a vat of acid before we douse them in low-grade and release the scraplets, which of course will chase them straight to the enforcers, where I’ve set up full-surround cameras to capture the looks on their faces—”

“That’s, uh,” Wheeljack says. “That’s sweet of you.”

“Then, in phase two—” Starscream’s head comes up, wide-opticked. “You really think so?”

“Ssssure.” Wheeljack gestures to the ranks of datapads. There must be at least twenty, and if he knows Starscream, each holds a revenge scenario unique and fiendishly imaginative enough to make a mystery writer faint. “Did you spend the whole time I was out writing these? Don’t you have a city to run?”

“I might have had a few in reserve. And I delegated!”

“You mean Windblade got tired of you muttering to yourself for three straight cycles and kicked you out of your office to rest. Which of course you didn’t do.”

Ridiculous.” Starscream looks anywhere but at Wheeljack. His twitching wingtips are his only tell. There are certain things to get used to when it comes to being around Starscream on a regular basis, and one of them is that he’s easy to read if only you know how to look. Also, his expressions of affection aren’t exactly… Conventional.

Wheeljack wants to pull him closer and hold him still until that tightly wound coil inside him comes loose.

“Please, though,” Wheeljack asks, “just have the enforcers arrest them. I don’t need revenge. It’s fine.”

“It isn’t fine! They tried to kill you, Wheeljack!” Starscream sweeps half the datapads to the floor as he shoots upright. They clatter to the tile around his thrusters unheeded. “We can’t let them get away with—”

“Shh.” Wheeljack catches Starscream’s hand on its next dramatic swoop and holds it. “They didn’t get away with anything. They failed. I’m still here.”

Starscream freezes like it’s him covered in weld marks and hooked to the monitors. Not even his vents flutter. Slowly, he looks down at their joined hands as if their very shape confuses him.

Wheeljack pulls him down until their foreheads touch.

“I’m here,” Wheeljack repeats.

After a moment, Starscream’s optics turn off. He slides further, his face pressed against Wheeljack’s left pauldron. Wheeljack curls a hand around the back of Starscream’s neck.

Starscream takes a shuddering in-vent. “There was a while, at the beginning, when no one… When no one was sure you would…” His grip tightens painfully. “I thought about killing them all, but I knew you wouldn’t like it. If you hadn’t woken up, I might have.”

Wheeljack finds himself oddly charmed. Everyone thinks Starscream is selfish, but that isn’t true: he just keeps other people at a distance. Once he’s decided he likes you, though, there’s no stone he’d leave unturned or throat he wouldn’t cut. It would be more worrying if Wheeljack hadn’t had a kill list to his name nearly as long as Starscream’s. He hadn’t thought himself the type to be interested in grand revenge fantasies, but maybe the war has made them all a little strange.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Wheeljack says. “You think one puny little bomb could stop me? I’ve blown myself up with higher ordinance.”

Starscream laughs against his chassis. It’s a wet sound he’d never allow if either of them were in a position to look the other full in the optics. “You don’t want even one little acid-and-scraplet pit, though?”

Wheeljack thinks of fire blooming bright where just anyone might have walked into it if the assassins’ timing had been off. He thinks of Starscream, even more manic than usual, talking to himself and writing plan after plan long into the night, hoping against hope. He thinks of Starscream waiting patiently by his berthside, plans spread in a glimmering offering, a measure of control in an uncontrollable world, a prayer that Wheeljack would wake up and he wouldn’t be alone again, nothing left but taking cold satisfaction from Wheeljack’s killers.

“Maybe just a small one,” Wheeljack allows.

Starscream grins and squeezes their laced fingers. Wheeljack squeezes back.