Chromedome did not get to sleep in often.
More nights than he would like to admit he was torn from recharge by his own interrupted defragmentation, nightmares of lives he hadn't lost haunting him even now. If he could get through the night without waking up screaming, if he were so fortunate, the odds were more likely than not that Rewind would be the one to wake screaming, dealing with his own ghosts. Both habsuites beside theirs were unoccupied.
It was a rare and fragile gift that they both made it to morning undisturbed, one he was loathe to squander. Chromedome couldn't be moved from his warm berth, snuggled up to his favourite person in the world for a lazy morning in if Unicron himself was pounding at his door.
There was a knock at the door.
He ignored the first volley of knocks, but at the second round he shoved himself up and yelled "What?!" with as much irritation as he could muster.
"You're so grumpy," Rewind laughed at him, stretching.
Finally Chromedome groaned and pushed himself to his pedes, stomped to their door and mashed the doorpad key to open.
"What could possibly be so important?" Chromedome snapped.
"It's Brainstorm," said Perceptor, his single optic full of worry, mouth set into a grim line, "Something is wrong."
Chromedome stopped on a dime, processor chugging backward to catch up, "What do you mean wrong? Like, wrong? Or like, wrong-wrong?"
"You need to come," Perceptor said, succinctly. Chromedome blinked his visor, a cold sense of dread rising up his spinal strut, uncertainly.
"Right," he said, slowly, "Rewind-"
"I'm already up," Rewind said, sharply, appearing beside him, "is he alright?"
"I don't know," Perceptor admitted, "I don't think anyone but Chromedome is qualified to say."
"That doesn't bode well," Rewind mumbled, and keyed the door shut behind them.
Perceptor kept his lips pursed, exuding an uncharacteristic aura of anxiety as he led the way to Brainstorm's habsuite. Chromedome didn't come here often; if he wanted to find Brainstorm, he went to his lab.
"Perceptor! Did you get him? Oh, you got him," said Rodimus, as they rounded the corner. His arms still puffed out smoke and steam, telling a story when combined with the smelted open habsuite doors. Beside him stood Ultra Magnus, and neither of them looked happy. Any situation that Rodimus took seriously was a bad one. They stepped aside, and Chromedome stood in the doorway of his best friend's room, and let out a shaky, horrified exvent.
The light in the room was off, the floor strewn with handwritten notes on actual paper, datapads, schematics. Brainstorm was on his knees on the berth, slumped forward, head down, optics offline, one hand in his lap, the other in the back of his neck, the telltale shimmer of recently built mnemosurgeon needles in his fingertips. Beyond all that, from every joint, every transformation seam, pale blue flowers bloomed, petals creeping along thorny vines that covered his entire frame.
"What… is that?" Chromedome whispered, vocalizer struggling to keep up with what he was seeing.
"It's hanahaki," said Rodimus, "It's some weird organic slag that Whirl brought on board. Him and Cyclonus are still in quarantine boning each other's brains out."
"What is it?" Rewind asked, leaning around Chromedome to peer into Brainstorm's room, "Is it a parasite?"
"Yes," said Perceptor, "and highly contagious. It's a psychic plant that feeds on volatile emotions, specifically, yearning and unrequited love. It nearly killed Whirl after only a few days. I have no idea how he's managed to hide it for two weeks."
"He's good at hiding things," Chromedome murmured, stepping into the room and flipping the light on, side-stepping all of the paperwork on the floor so he could get closer, to inspect his friend's hand in his neck. "Am I going to get it?"
"Yes," Perceptor told him, "If you touch him, certainly. However, if it doesn't have a food source, it won't survive long. So, if you have any unrequited feelings for anyone, you should probably stay back."
Chromedome scoffed, and glanced back at Rewind, lingering by the door, "I think I'm good, then."
He glanced down at all the notes on the floor, picking a few up to skim their contents, and take stock of what exactly it was he was dealing with here.
"Well?" prompted Rodimus, "What's wrong with him?"
"He's clearly tried to alter his own memories," said Chromedome, "but he's run into some kind of issue, either with his hardware or with the data itself. He used to make needles at the New Institute, but that was a long time ago, I have no idea where the issue is- how long has he been like this?"
"I have not seen him in three days," supplied Perceptor, "But he often works atpyical hours in the lab-"
"Yeah, he has a tendency to binge and crash."
"-so one or two days is nothing abnormal, but after three, I came to find him. No response. Rodimus tried the override codes, but he'd changed them."
Chromedome set the paperwork back down and turned back to his friend, motionless.
Clearly he wanted to forget something. Probably something unrequited love related. What Chromedome didn't understand was why he hadn't come to him about it, why he had kept this secret, like all his other secrets, rather than ask him for help. Since the time travel incident, they'd been trying so hard to be more honest with one another- Chromedome had never known who Quark was, and he felt a deep guilt for that, for never noticing the turmoil someone he cares about so much had been in, silently, for so long. He had hoped he had made enough of an effort to convince Brainstorm that he could be trusted with his feelings, but apparently not. He hadn't trusted him enough to ask for help.
"Domey," said Rewind, softly, "Is he going to be alright?"
"Honestly?" said Chromedome, staring at the injection point, "I don't… know. If he hasn't come out on his own after three days, he isn't going to. I can't just pull his hand out, if he's done any damage that will set it in, make it irreparable-"
"You mean you have to go in and fix whatever he's done before you can wake him up," Rewind surmised, and then, with only a little trepidation, left the doorframe and stood beside him.
"I mean, theoretically," Chromedome murmured, rubbing his wrist absently.
"I'm not asking you to do that," Rodimus said, from the doorway, with an unsubtle glance at Rewind, "That's not required."
[Domey,] Rewind said over private comms, turning his face up toward him, visor glinting with concern, [What do you think you should do?]
[Don't worry, I'm not going to inject again,] Chromedome commed back quickly, [I just… I can't think of any other way, yet.]
[I want you to stop injecting because it will kill you one day,] Rewind told him, taking his hand in his own, [And you do it for no good reason. You do it for Rodimus and you don't even like him. This is different. This is Stormy. Don't count it out because you think I'll think poorly of you. Do what you think is right.]
Chromedome turned away, tightening his grip, and regarded his friend's position again. [I think he'll die if I don't.]
[What do you want to do?]
[This isn't like anything you've ever seen me do before,] Chromedome admitted, [This would be really dangerous. I don't know what he's broken in there or how badly. It could be bad enough I can't fix it- it could be bad enough I can't pull out. I don't know. I could die trying to save him.] He paused, casting his gaze away, trying not to let the shame show on his faceplate, [Would you hate me if I said I still wanted to try?]
Rewind leaned forward, beckoning him to turn back toward him and set their foreheads together. [I could never hate you.]
Chromedome stood and crossed to the other end of the berth, sitting face to face with Brainstorm, optics dark. "Alright. I'm going to go in and see if I can't figure out the problem. Unfortunately I'm going to have to go through his optics since he's already in his neck, so don't watch if you're squeamish."
"Ick," said Rodimus, turning away.
"Alright," said Chromedome, steadying himself, and flexed his hand, releasing the needles contained therein with an all too familiar snkt. He lined up and tried not to wince when he broke glass, and really hoped the cognitive delay from improper surgery would prevent him from feeling that too much.
He started in white space.
It wasn't how he usually proceeded, but he was usually trying to keep his presence in a subject's mind somewhat obscured, at least at first. He wasn't here under false pretenses, though, and this was Brainstorm- so he started at the source, with his conscious thought. Or at least, where his conscious thought should have been.
In white space he had everything he needed- he could pull up memories, fragmented or in links, thoughts, collections, and usually, have a conversation with the host. Brainstorm, however, was clearly unresponsive. His avatar, the representation of his own fractured thought structure, sat on his knees, optics offline, covered in flowers, a disturbing gun-metal grey colour. It was a look that Chromedome hoped would not be haunting his nightmares later.
That was a bad indication. If his own self perception was non-responsive, this wasn't a psychosomatic reaction. He must have actually broken something.
"I don't understand why you would even try this on your own," Chromedome said, ostensibly to the thoughtform in front of him, though he knew he couldn't hear him, "Why didn't you ask me for help?"
Brainstorm was silent, the petals that burst forth from his frame shifting gently in some imagined breeze. Chromedome turned away, and inspected what he was left with. Just like the real room they were sitting in was covered in scattered papers, the white space was covered in scattered memories, flickering, hazy moving images that glitched and popped where they lay, discarded. Chromedome let himself drift higher, to a more surreal object plane, where he could see the branching Hydra that was his memory structure.
He picked the most recent one and let it unfurl like the petals of a flower, and the scene around him changed. He was back in Brainstorm's habsuite, pacing fervently, anxiety in his chest, plating flaring and tightening, stressed and irate.
"You need to calm down," he said to himself, as if willpower alone was all that was needed to do so, "You've got this in the bag. How hard can it be, right? If Chromedome can do it, you can do it." He paused. "Well, if you don't, you're dead, so."
He stared down at his hand, needles flared, and felt the burn in his wrist from their recent installation. It ached and throbbed, fresh and painful, and he twitched his fingers, watching the blades reflect the light. From the seamlines of his palm, periwinkle petals poked out, begging for his attention.
He stopped pacing suddenly. "Everybody dies, huh?" he said, with a voice so thick and heavy and betrayed by… something, fear, maybe, or resentment, even, that it surprised him. "May as well be happy at some point before you do, right?" He turned away and knelt on his berth, taking a deep invent.
"Come on. You did your best! You held it for both of you, just like you said you would, for three million years. He doesn't need you to remember anymore. You're both better off not knowing. So just- just get rid of it," he finished, psyching himself up. Brainstorm raised up his hand to the back of his neck, took a deep, steadying invent, and went in.
Chromedome came back down and shifted his focus back to his real body, still sitting on the berth with Rewind.
"I've got good news and bad news," he told him, and anyone else listening from the door, "the good news is I know the problem. The bad news is he's managed to make it harder to fix than it should be somehow."
"But you can fix it?" he was dimly aware of Rewind saying nearby.
"I think so- so, basically, imagine what he's done is sort of pull out a link in a chain, or a block in a Jenga tower- any memory linked to it is corrupted," Chromedome explained, "So, like, if you delete a memory where you learn what a turbofox is, any memory that references that, any other memory where you talk about turbofoxes or see turbofoxes is going to get some level of corruption. Sometimes it's not too bad and you can live with it, but sometimes it leaves the memory broken in the archive, and any memory that references that memory breaks, too. So it becomes this fractal effect where it branches as it breaks. So, usually, what I would do was just fix the memory he broke, and it would fix the rest."
"So why don't you do that?"
"I can't find it," Chromedome admitted, "I have no idea how, but it's sort of… missing, like, it's definitely in here somewhere, but it's… like it's been peeled out of where it's supposed to be and spliced in somewhere else."
"So… what can you do?"
"I'm going to open the most recent file, and then use that to sort of follow the link into an earlier one, and then that back again, and hopefully, if I just follow the links, eventually I'll actually reach the source memory."
"And then he'll be okay?"
"Well, he'll still have hanahaki," Chromedome admitted, "But his brain will hopefully recover. He should boot up again."
"That's great news, then!"
"I can't imagine what it was he deleted that affected this many later memories," Chromedome said, feeling a little daunted, "It had to be something early and so important that it came up a ton of times later."
"Maybe," Chromedome grimaced, "It must have ended poorly."
He sunk back down and opened the top corrupted memory.
"Chromedome!" Brainstorm said, bursting into his room. It was an oddness Chromedome had never grown accustomed to, seeing himself in someone else's memories- uncomfortable, distinctly wrong. It set his spark roiling, fighting it, telling him to run for it, but he ignored that. Past Chromedome looked up, startled.
"Oh, come on, I just changed the passcode again," he complained, "How did you figure it out already?"
"That's a secret for me to know, and you to ruminate on in your dreams, my friend." Actually, now that he was in his thoughts, he realized Brainstorm hadn't been guessing his passcodes at all, he'd simply been bypassing the key code system entirely. Changing the code had been pointless.
"Right. What do you want, then?"
"Yesterday a question popped into my head, and I've been obsessed with answering it," he said, plopping his aft into Chromedome's desk, and Chromedome sighed and leaned back in his chair, ready to accommodate this interruption, since that was the only way the interaction would end, "Now, let's say you're doing mnemosurgery on yourself, yes? And you're using the tantalum coated model, titanium core. Would the eight centimeter key bridged design be riskier than than the six centimeter version?"
"That's such a pointed question," Chromedome answered dryly, "why would you even ask that?"
"Because you would know the answer!" Brainstorm cooed, "And I can't stop thinking about it! My processor is consumed, CD. You know how I get. Sometimes I just need to know things. And I keep thinking that the eight centimeter version works great for autopsies, but surely it's riskier with live reading, right?"
"The eight centimeter version was always riskier for live reading for the subject," Chromedome answered, rolling his optical display, "Much safer for the surgeon. You know that. I guess, if you were both," he sat back with a huff, looking at the ceiling in thought, "The eight centimeter design probably is too risky. The six centimeter model provides its own issues, though. I don't think I either is really optimal. I think the older version, with the serrated edges? I think that might actually work better, as paradoxical as it sounds."
"Really!" Brainstorm leaned forward, optics sparkling with intrigue, "But surely extraction is going to be a nightmare!"
"Yeah, but you're doing your own extraction, so you know not to lean into it. It's a different ball game."
"Fascinating," Brainstorm tapped his faceplate.
Chromedome remembered this conversation. It had gone on for awhile, back and forth, posing hypotheticals, debating theories. Brainstorm often did this, he always wanted to bounce ideas off him, debate concepts, and less than half the time he had any actual desire to pursue the topic further than conversation. He'd spent centuries making needles at the New Institute, it was hardly a new topic. It hadn't even occurred to him at the time there might be any ulterior motivations to the questions.
Guilt prickled along his spinal strut as he sidestepped around himself in the memory, tilting his head as he watched Brainstorm's face move as he explained some new theoretical build. Even now, he couldn't see the deception in it, the secret he was holding in his spark, that this was something he was intending to do to himself. How had he become so good at lying to him? Chromedome had known this mech for millenia, almost the entirety of his life, since the jet was barely a few centuries old, and he could still completely mask himself to him. To everyone.
Chromedome sighed and turned away. He opened the door to the room and stepped out, into the memory linked prior.
A few doors down in the hallway, Brainstorm had one hand on a door's keypad intercom and the other on his hips, an amusingly frustrated position that Chromedome couldn't help but smile to himself at. Positively indignant.
"And you just didn't tell anyone?" Brainstorm complained, "Did you not think your weird problem could become anyone else's problem!?"
"Well, no, but you know I'm not exactly known for thinking too much," Whirl admitted, voice even more garbled by static than usual through the intercom, "Kind of figured I was fucked, sure, didn't think too much past that."
"You know, you could have come to bother your dear friend Brainstorm with your delightful new parasite, you know he loves new scientific anomalies, maybe he could have helped you," Brainstorm huffed, "Maybe he could have come up with a better solution than 'throw a grenade in my crush's hallway.'"
"Will you all stop talking about the grenade I threw in the hallway!" Whirl yelled back, "Come on, it's not a big deal!"
"It was a grenade, Whirl!" Cyclonus's voice snapped through the intercom, and Chromedome felt a little lighter listening to the banter, but Brainstorm groaned and released the intercom button, leaning forward against the wall and shuttering his optics, looking intense and miserable, suddenly.
Whirl and Cyclonus continued to argue through the intercom speaker, but Brainstorm suddenly convulsed and ripped his mouthplate off, before he bent over and purged his tanks all over the floor, one arm on the wall, trembling. Chromedome stared at the fluid coating the floor in horror- half processed energon, flower petals, a slurry of blood and vomit. Brainstorm shook himself and stood again, mashing the intercom button.
"For hypothetical purposes," he said, clearly forcing his voice to steady, though the intercom static would surely hide the tremor in it, "After it reached your fuel tank, what did the parasite target next?"
Chromedome grimaced and moved away when Brainstorm leaned back down to clean up the mess he had made. He passed him down the corridor, looking for another earlier memory and sighed sympathetically as he saw Brainstorm give Whirl a pat on the back as they wandered through the cargo bay when the ship was getting ready to leave. Just bad luck.
Chromedome followed him as he walked, currently totally unaware of what he had just picked up. Who was it his oldest, dearest friend was pining so badly for that he was willing to take the secret to his grave? Certainly not Quark, they already knew about that. He clearly hadn't wanted anyone to know. Brainstorm stopped walking, wings fluttering and optics brightening and he waved, and Chromedome turned to see at whom.
Him and Rewind were stepping back on the ship- Rewind noticed him first and waved back. He'd gotten off easy with data entry and upgrading the organic’s digital systems. Chromedome had drug a tractor around for two days to help some farmers. He'd hated it.
"I can't believe he didn't tell me about this," Chromedome said, mostly to himself, "I can't believe he didn't ask anyone for help."
"You can't?" Rewind responded, back in the real world, "Brainstorm never asks for help when something's really wrong."
"But we talked about that," Chromedome argued, "About Quark, about the time case, about Operation Solar Storm, we talked about this, and I told him he could tell me anything, I told him I'd help him. Did he not believe me? Am I that shitty a friend?"
"Don't beat yourself up. We'll just talk about it again. When you've fixed him."
"Right," Chromedome sighed, and watched the three of them walk off, Brainstorm's wings still fluttering excitedly while he talked about the job he'd been doing, building weapons for the native population to use against the giant predators that hunted them, "When I've fixed him."
He followed them out the door and stepped into an earlier memory.
This one confused him.
Movie night in their room, just the three of them. Chromedome hated this movie- it was grotesque, organic shock and body horror, some weird goopy film called Reanimator. Rewind and Brainstorm, however, loved the wretched thing. Chromedome and Brainstorm were sitting next to each other and Rewind was in Chromedome's lap, his legs tossed onto Brainstorm's carelessly while he rambled on about practical effects and independent funding. Brainstorm was positively enamored with the special effects, what this goo was made of, how they made that tentacle move, and kept prodding Chromedome to make fun of his clear disinterest.
Chromedome wasn't sure why he was here. This memory was definitely corrupted, it was linked to the source memory somehow, and moreso, in the memory he could feel the gentle ache in Brainstorm's spark like it was his own, and he knew this was right, but it didn't make sense for it to be right. What about this was making him feel that way?
Chromedome stood uncomfortably, watching the memory play out, watching the three of them banter. Something wasn't clicking.
He turned and opened the door and stepped into a place that took him a moment to identify- the cold construction hangar from Cybertron's past where Brainstorm had tried to kill Megatron. This was not somewhere he expected to be. He looked around the room, noting how blurry this memory was- the room wasn't particularly well defined, simple shapes and colours around the edges. Well, he'd only been here a little while before he got hit with a grenade. That tended to confuse things.
He located Brainstorm leaning against the wall of a set of stairs, hands behind his back, energon and soot covering his frame like he was painted with it. Chromedome felt his own spark twist in sympathy. This was his best friend at the lowest moment of his life. He looked so defeated, and in the memory, he could feel Brainstorm's misery, his resignation a wire around his throat, choking him. It felt like the world had turned and left him behind, in cloying darkness, cold and alone.
As he stepped around the stairs to be nearer, he found Rewind, leaning over Brainstorm's lap, reaching up to fix his mask before it broke and fell into his lap.
"Chromedome said you helped him," Rewind said, his voice gentle, "I don't care if you're a Decepticon. Thank you."
Brainstorm's optics softened and the feeling of frigid, grasping darkness warmed, became light.
He shook himself back up to reality and focused his optics, staring at Rewind. He seemed to notice immediately that Chromedome had resurfaced and he tilted his visor at him in question.
"It's you ," he said, baffled, even as he said the words himself, "He's in love with you."
"Me?" Rewind balked, "as in me, me?"
"As in you!" Chromedome reasserted, "I mean- I guess now I understand why he didn't… tell me, or you, I guess, but- I don't know where this is coming from. Didn't you used to hate each other?"
"I never hated him!" Rewind gasped, "I just-" he paused, and turned to look at Brainstorm, motionless, "I just get jealous too easily. He's known you longer than I have. You trust him more than me."
"I don't trust him more than you," Chromedome said, hurt, "Do you think that?"
"You do, though," Rewind's visor dimmed and he turned back to him, "but you've been through a lot. I think… maybe that's okay, it's not… a reflection on me. I know I didn't used to think that, but- I want to try and be better. About that. I don't think I was fair to him."
"But since when does he like you?"
"Stormy's always liked me, Domey," Rewind tilted his head to the side, "Even when I didn't like him, he always wanted me to."
Chromedome narrowed his visor and looked down in thought, internalizing that, "I can't believe I didn't notice. I mean… even this, I wish he'd felt like he could tell me about this. About anything. Especially if it was that or die."
Rewind reached forward and put a hand gently on his thigh, "Neither of you are good at trusting people with your secrets. You both need to learn to be better about that."
Chromedome softened. "You're right. I'm sorry."
"I've forgiven you," he said, firmly, "So don't be too hard on him, either, okay?"
"Right," Chromedome nodded, "Okay. Back in."
He shuttered his optics and let himself sink back beneath the waves of an unfamiliar consciousness, a new memory rising up to catch him.
"Come on," Brainstorm said, as Chromedome landed in the hallway between his habsuite and the commissary, "You're alright. Don't stop in the hallway."
Chromedome watched himself stumble and flounder and stall, and he remembered this. This was after Rewind had died, Chromedome hadn't eaten for days, and Brainstorm had come and collected him. He came every day after that, for weeks. The entire memory was laced with an agony , deep and wide and unyielding, and Chromedome found himself shocked by its strength. Especially since it didn't show on him at all, as he hefted past Chromedome's arm over his shoulders and rambled on. He seemed so… fine.
Chromedome turned his head, hearing voices down the hall, and followed them back to his habsuite, where Brainstorm lingered in the doorway. The light from the hall spilled in like an unwelcome guest, the entire room cast in darkness while Chromedome's past self boxed up Rewind's things, turned away from his visitors.
He remembered this, too. This was when Brainstorm told him about Mach, Pivot, and Scattergun. This was when he told him he knew he'd been erasing his own memories. The plating on the back of Chromedome's neck crawled at the thought. He would lie awake at night, even still, haunted by thoughts of how things might have gone, in the aftermath, if he'd chosen differently that day.
Beyond his own rush of anxiety, he could feel… so much. Brainstorm had seemed upset at the time- frustrated, at least, but he hadn't even raised his voice at him.
He was furious.
Chromedome stared at his friend's face, tried to find the anger hiding in it, and even though he could feel it, it didn't seem like it was there. And yet, he could feel it running through the memory, so tangible it threatened the integrity of the memory itself, a white hot anger-betrayal-grief-resentment-disgust that he could barely begin to comprehend. He stumbled back and away, and into another memory.
He was on the deck of the Lost Light, and Brainstorm looked a bit disinterested, clutching his briefcase in one fist at his side and looking across the crowd with clouded optics, disinterested, until he perked, suddenly, wings raising up, and waved. Chromedome didn't have to turn to know who he was waving to- he'd been there.
He left the deck, and in the next room he was back on Kimia.
The place was burning.
Chromedome's fuel tank flipped at the memory. This had been a bad day. This had been a very bad day. Brainstorm and Tripwire ran past him down the corridor, panting in a terrified way, pot shots going off behind him, blowing holes in the facility walls where they barely missed him, or cut through a wing. Chromedome kept up as they turned a corner, just as Tripwire took a bullet to the head, and went down like a stone. Brainstorm skidded to a halt, optics frantic, frenzied like a wild animal's, and then he threw himself on the floor and grabbed what was left of Tripwire, dragging it over top of himself.
A pair of Sweeps followed through and kept going, passing by as Brainstorm played dead beneath his coworker's corpse. Once they had rounded another corner he shoved the body away and scrambled to his pedes, covered in energon now, and ran in the opposite direction.
"Where are you?!" Brainstorm yelled into his comm, voice nearly lost in the blare of the alarm.
"We're barricaded in a storage closet in D-wing," Chromedome heard himself say, "Are you alright?!"
"Fine," Brainstorm said, "Meet me in the shuttle bay."
"CD, the place is gone," Brainstorm barked, "We have to go. "
"The entire layout of the facility is different in this mode!" Chromedome said, "I have no idea how to get to the shuttle bay!"
Brainstorm skidded to a halt, looking down two hallways, both bathed in red light and flames. "Can you get to the deck on E-wing?"
"I think so."
Brainstorm turned and bolted down one of the halls. "Get there, then! I'll come meet you."
Chromedome let him go. He'd seen enough. He knew how this one ended. Brainstorm met him and Rewind, and they'd made their way to the shuttle bay with a few other Autobots- Swerve, Rung, a blur of faces, and escaped, if only barely. A lot of people had died that day.
He let the memory melt away into another one, and was relieved it was something without any death, at least. It was just them together, in Brainstorm's lab on Kimia. They were talking about something, but obviously Brainstorm didn't remember what, since their voices were a wordmush of sounds, but he did remember with perfect clarity a point when Brainstorm made a joke that made Chromedome laugh, a full body thing that had him bending over, shaking with the giggles.
The whole thing was cast in such a strange light with the emotions that surrounded it. It was a confusing slurry of light and warmth and affection and at the same time, debilitating, overwhelming, irrevocable agony. Chromedome could hardly stand it, it was so powerful- like his spark was being shredded, and yet, at the same time, happy. He couldn't understand it, and he could understand even less how Brainstorm seemed so completely unaffected.
The next dozen memories were basically the same. Him, or Rewind, or him and Rewind, and Brainstorm, just talking, meeting for lunch, asking for advice. Warmth and affection and agony. It was incomprehensible in every way.
Chromedome wasn't completely stupid. Obviously Brainstorm's feelings were… more complicated than he'd initially assumed. Walking through these thoughts and feeling the simple joy of connection, Chromedome felt the claws of guilt prickling along his back. He could hardly believe this had gone on so long without his notice, that Brainstorm had been holding these feelings for decades- centuries, even, in silence- and Chromedome had never noticed.
Maybe that was the real reason Brainstorm hadn't trusted him enough to tell him these things. He really was an awful friend. If he survived this, he was going to do everything he could to make it up to him. He was going to learn how to read his friend's suffering, somehow, no matter what.
The next location was a hard one to parse. Memory fatigue had not been kind to it, and the specific type of degradation carried the telltale signs of proximity to mnemosurgery- layered mnemosurgery. The New Institute.
He paused the memory and pulled back, returning to white space so he could skim the archive. Seeing Brainstorm's avatar again, hunched over, motionless, put a pit in Chromedome's spark and he turned away, locating that source location of the memory he'd opened. It branched out in jittered, stilted ways, pieces fractured and then reattached in obvious, incorrect ways. This wasn't corruption. This was modification.
Chromedome had only seen long term alteration to this extent once in one other place; his own memories. Some with his own trademark stitching, but far too many more unfamiliar to him. His superiors had clearly not been singling him out for adjustment.
He looked back at Brainstorm and wondered if he knew, if he had guessed by now the damage done to him. A lingering anxiety crawled into Chromedome's spark and made a home there, that in the misty place that was the forgotten, Chromedome might have been responsible for some of it. He wanted to think he was better than that, but he knew better by now than to make assumptions of the kind of person he couldn't remember being. He hoped he hadn't.
Chromedome reopened the memory, stepping back into his old room. Fractures ran through the walls, betraying the slapdash piecing of it, how fragile the whole thing was.
"So you're going back to work, today?" Brainstorm asked.
"Why wouldn't I?" past Chromedome asked, washing his face in the sink.
"I don't know," said Brainstorm, "Why wouldn't you?"
"You're being weird," Chromedome sighed, grabbing a towel, "Aren't you going to be late?"
Chromedome stopped and looked at him. "Are you alright?"
Brainstorm was not okay. The hurt in his spark was like a dagger made of ice, sharp and strong and jagged, utterly devastating. It was like he'd been impaled.
"Yeah," he lied, "I'm just checking on you."
"Why would you need to check on me?" Chromedome asked.
"No one else is going to," Brainstorm told him, "Not anymore." He turned and left before Chromedome could question him further.
Chromedome looked back at his past self, his old body frame, his tired optics and unpainted corners. Chromedome turned and followed Brainstorm from the room and into the commissary, where his mood had shifted. He waved as he walked through the door, wings fluttering, and Chromedome followed his gaze to see at whom.
Chromedome was sitting at one of the far tables with a mech he didn't recognize at all. Black and gun-metal grey, he looked like he turned into a gattling gun. It was a memorable frame, and they were sitting beside each other- Chromedome was struggling as he tried to place a name to the face- bizarrely, he seemed… familiar, almost, in a way.
"Did you get time to test my new prototype?" Brainstorm beamed, sliding into a seat across from the other two, and immediately stole Chromedome's cube right from his hands.
"Hey," said Chromedome.
"Here, babe," said the black mech, handing Chromedome his own cube, "I did. The kickback was miserable, but wow, it went right through the wall and left the can totally untouched. Absolutely bonkers."
Brainstorm responded, but Chromedome, present day Chromedome, didn't hear it. He was busy staring at the gattling gun, the uncomfortably familiar one, that he felt in his brain was a stranger but in his spark he knew. Gold accents, rife with kibble, a jagged smile through a pointy hatch-plate mouth.
"You're the worst, Scatters," the Chromedome he didn't remember being laughed, "You have to stop encouraging him."
Chromedome didn't want to be here. He didn't want to see this.
He pulled away and spun out of the room, pressing his back to the door and shutting his optics. He didn't want to remember this. Any of this.
"You can't be serious," Brainstorm snarled, and Chromedome looked up at him, "Again? You did this again?"
"I don't know what you're talking about!" past Chromedome yelled back, "What the hell is your problem?"
"What is wrong with you?" Brainstorm had him by the collar plating, optics moist, "I told you! I told you not to!"
"Told me not to what!"
"Not to forget! You promised me, Chromedome! You fucking promised me and you lied!"
Past Chromedome pushed him away and gave him a look of silent bewilderment, but Brainstorm didn't seem interested.
"Pivot was supposed to be different. You were supposed to be better this time," Brainstorm leaned against the door, one hand on a corner table, "I was supposed to be enough to stop you."
"...Who's Pivot?" Chromedome asked.
"Fuck you," he said, and wrenched the table over, throwing it to the floor with a clatter that sent a box of papers flying. "God, what I wouldn't give to hate you."
The room froze and faded, no longer a part of the memory. Chromedome stared at his hands, wondering when he'd lost this memory, too. He'd taken so much, and left Brainstorm to grieve alone. The guilt ate at him, starting from somewhere deep inside his system and growing outward, a gnawing emptiness that prickled all through his pieces. He had been selfish.
All of Brainstorm's memories were so deeply laced with pain. There wasn't one he'd been in so far that wasn't tainted by some unspoken agony so deep and visceral it felt physical, and it never showed on his face. No wonder he kept it to himself. Again and again Chromedome had left him to suffer alone when he should have been suffering with him. In all the years he'd known Brainstorm, he'd been the only friend he ever kept between jobs. He had so few people that appreciated his eccentric behaviour and… sometimes overbearing nature. He should have been better. He needed to have been better.
"I'm sorry, Storm," he said, mostly to himself, "This is my fault."
The next memory faded in around him, stuttering, glitching, coming apart at the seams, fractured all along the edges like glued-together glass. It started in the middle, fizzing and fuzzing, colours bleeding into one another.
"What are you doing?" Brainstorm asked, a silhouette in a doorway. The room was cast in shadow, the rest of it bleeding together in a shapeless slurry of unremembered edges.
"Packing," a younger Chromedome said, his back to the door, as he pulled books down from a shelf and stacked them neatly in a box.
"Mach's things? Already?"
Chromedome didn't turn, simply hummed an affirmative and continued, methodically, like a zombie.
"Do you want any help?"
"I've got it."
"You seem…" Brainstorm trailed off, sagged, then rallied again, "You seem to be taking things… well. Too well. I'm worried about you, CD."
"I'm fine," Chromedome said, flatly, "I have it under control."
"What does that mean?"
"It means, there's perks to the job, Brainstorm. I've got it under control."
Brainstorm stared at him for a moment, as concern became confusion, confusion became icy realization, and icy realization being broiling fury.
"You fucking did it to yourself!" Brainstorm screamed, and Chromedome dropped the box he was holding, startled as he whipped around.
"Nobody did anything to you! You did it! You did it on purpose!" Brainstorm stumbled, leaning against the doorframe, sagging and gasping for air like a dying organic. Chromedome took an uncertain step forward, hands raised.
"Don't touch me!" Brainstorm snarled, "You- you- don't you ever-" he stumbled back and away, into the hallway, and the degradation here was even worse. The emotional state he was in left the memory shaky, wobbling, too bright.
"Brainstorm! What are you-"
"Do whatever you want," Brainstorm snapped, "I don't care. I don't care at all anymore."
He took off down the hall, and in the past, Chromedome watched him, but did not follow.
In the present, Chromedome followed the flickering memory as Brainstorm fled, all the way back to his lab, only to collapse, seething, onto his desk, gripping at his head like he was afraid it would split open.
"Dammit," Brainstorm hissed brokenly, sinking into his arms. He spent a minute just breathing, face buried in darkness, before he moved one hand to pat around the worktable until he found one of the pistols scattered across its surface. Without raising his head up from where it was buried in his elbow, he shifted the handle into his palm, clicked off the safety and set the barrel against his temple.
Chromedome stared at him in horror, frozen solid.
Brainstorm sat like that for ages, silent, gun pressed against the side of his head, before finally his arm collapsed back on the table and he dropped the weapon with a strangled giggle that devolved into a wheezing, wet-sounding laughter.
"I'll hold it for both of us," he sneered, laugh-sobbing, "What a fucking joke."
The memory fizzled and popped and gave out, and then reset, showing him the same room, but during the day, the overhead lights buzzing and Brainstorm enamored with some kind of bubbling liquid in a beaker. He leaned forward, optics glittering as he watched it.
"Well, that's what I wanted to talk to you about," a younger Chromedome said, clearly already in the middle of a conversation.
"I told you, I don't not like him," Brainstorm quipped, without looking up, "I just don't think it's going to last. That's not a bad thing, you know, nothing's wrong with a fling."
"Ugh," Chromedome groaned, "You're making this so much less fun."
"Making what so much less fun? I make everything fun."
"Brainstorm," Chromedome huffed, crossing his arms, "I'm trying to invite you to my Conjunx Endura ceremony."
Brainstorm flinched so hard he smashed his face into the beaker and tipped the whole setup over, glass shattering against the table as the liquid within began to eat through the surface.
"Frag! Your- you- your what?!" Brainstorm stammered, grabbing for a canister of neutralizing agent frantically.
"Me and Mach decided to make it official," Chromedome told him, "and I want you to be there, whether you like him or not."
"That's-" Brainstorm sprayed the damage with foam and then looked up at him, bewildered, "for real?"
"Yes, for real. You might not go on dates, Storm, but that doesn't mean I don't want a future with someone," Chromedome sighed, the way someone who has explained this too many times does.
Brainstorm's spark roiled and burned and cried out in agony in his chest, pleading to be put out of its misery. Brainstorm just kept staring at him.
"I want you to have a future with someone," he said, weakly.
"So you'll come, then?" Chromedome asked, sounding hopeful.
"Of course I'll come," Brainstorm said, while his spark cracked and split open.
The memory fell apart again, flickered back yet further.
"But I'm here," Brainstorm insisted, "I made it back. I don't understand."
"I'm sorry," Chromedome turned, to see himself, hovering uncertainly. He couldn't quite define the room- were they still in Brainstorm's lab? Was this the morgue? "I think you've mistaken me for someone else."
"I could never mistake you for someone else!" Brainstorm insisted, voice raising in pitch and volume, slicing a hand through the air, "Chromedome, it's me. How could you not recognize me? They only held me for two weeks, and I didn't give them anything, they couldn't-" His expression changed, suddenly, "What have they done to you?"
"What have who done to me?" Chromedome balked.
"Them!" Brainstorm yelled, "Trepan! Orbitoclast! Thalamy! Them! They've done something to your memories!"
"That's ridiculous," Chromedome scoffed, "They're my superiors. I work for them. They wouldn't do that."
"They've done it to me," Brainstorm snapped, "I know because you told me they had!"
"Oh, yeah?" Chromedome levied dubiously, "And when did I tell you that?"
"When you read me! You told me that my brain is full of holes! That's why I-" Brainstorm stopped himself, shaking his head. "Primus. No. I'm not supposed to know that, let alone you. Fine. Fine. I can play along. I can be cool."
"What are you talking about?" asked Chromedome, baffled.
"You'll figure it out," Brainstorm said, his voice soft, "Even if you don't remember, you'll just- it'll work. I have to go."
"Um, okay," said past Chromedome, as Brainstorm turned and rushed past him, through a door in the colour plane that had to have been a wall at some point.
Brainstorm made it a few hallways away before he sagged against a wall, trembling.
"Bastards," he murmured, "It's fine. It's fine. It's not fine, but it's fine. You just can't let them know you know, so you can't tell him either. That's fine. That's fine! You can just- you can just start over. This is fine."
Brainstorm shoved himself up and onto one arm, wobbling, before he regained his footing. "He fell in love with you once. He'll just do it again."
"What?" Chromedome gasped, stumbling back out of the memory and into the source memory he had been searching for. The memory Brainstorm had tried to erase that had broken his brain.
It surged up around him, without glitching, without colour bleeding, so frequently revisited the details were preserved, locked in and solidified, an old tree in the shadow of the manganese mountains, the sunset glimmering red-orange across the plains.
Past Chromedome pulled his hand away from Brainstorm's neck and the other mech reached up to rub at the spot.
"You're right," said Chromedome, "They've been changing things."
"I knew it," Brainstorm murmured, "Bastards."
"If you get read again, they're going to wipe this, too," Chromedome said, sitting down next to him. Brainstorm set his head against Chromedome's shoulder with a sigh.
Chromedome wrapped an arm around Brainstorm's shoulder and pulled him closer. "We're probably both fucked, now."
"We've already snuck out for the day. Maybe we could just make a run for it, huh?" Chromedome laughed.
"We wouldn't make it a week," Brainstorm groaned, "We're safer staying than going."
"I think, maybe," Chromedome mumbled, thoughtfully, "I might be able to hide it. Just sort of take this memory and hide it in another one. That way, even if it gets erased, you won't forget the important stuff."
"Oh, yeah?" Brainstorm asked, "What's the important stuff, then?"
"They're fucking with our memories," Chromedome replied, "and I love you."
"I couldn't forget that," Brainstorm shifted, pulling away from Chromedome's shoulder, touching his face with one hand, "There's no way."
"Don't underestimate them," Chromedome warned, "I know better than you do what you can do to a person."
Brainstorm paused. "Can you do it to yourself, too? Hide the memory so you don't forget?"
"Honestly, Storms- I don't know if you can do mnemosurgery on yourself. I've never seen anyone try. I have no idea what would happen."
"Not worth the risk, then," Brainstorm nodded. "Alright. I'll hold it, then, for both of us."
"Be careful, Gen," Chromedome chuckled, anxiously, leaning to press their foreheads together, "you almost sound like you're devoted."
"So what if I am?" Brainstorm wrapped his arms around his shoulders, "You started it. You're the one that gave me a blast mask, of all things."
"Your mouth always tastes like soot because you keep blowing yourself up!" Chromedome laughed, dinking their mouthplates together, "Is that it then? We're doing this?"
"I want to," Brainstorm said, "Do you want to?"
"Of course I want to. You know I want to."
"Alright. Alright, then," Brainstorm nodded, "Conjunx fucking Endura. Couple of cold constructed idiots getting hitched in the middle of a fucking war. We're both dead for sure."
"Come on, everybody dies. May as well be happy at some point before we do."
"Are you happy?"
Chromedome paused. "Today, I'm happy. With you, I'm happy."
"You're so dramatic," Brainstorm laughed, tightening his grip, "We're gonna die, but not today."
"Not today," Chromedome echoed, "Okay, I made a really nice blast mask, but I really want to kiss you now, so-"
"Dramatic and needy!" Brainstorm bubbled with giggles, but he pulled off his faceplate anyway as Chromedome's slid back into his helm, and leaned forward to press their lips together, arms around his neck, the setting sun slipping beyond the skyline leaving them in silhouette against the rust-red sky.
Chromedome wrenched himself out of the memory and stumbled backward into white space, his spark frigid with horror.
"Oh, god, oh fuck," he stammered, his voice shaking, "I fucked up. Oh, god, Brainstorm, I am so sorry-"
"Sorry for what?"
Chromedome spun around.
Brainstorm was awake, his optics online, still covered in flowers.
"Stormy…" Chromedome quavered, unable to say anything else, visor flared as the edges began to brim with optical lubricant.
Brainstorm squinted at him, before he looked around, and his optics shifted in realization. "Ah. I guess I overestimated myself again, after all." He looked back down at Chromedome. "How much did you see?"
Chromedome couldn't find his voice, only shook as tears spilled past his visor and down his faceplate, silent.
Brainstorm sagged. "Right."
"Storms, I don't- I'm so sorry, I-"
"Don't," Brainstorm said, his voice a hoarse whisper, "I don't want to talk about it. I just don't want to die, okay." He stared at the ground. "You're already here. You already know. You may as well finish the job right, since I clearly can't do it on my own."
"I- I can't just fix it," Chromedome stammered, one hand over his mouth plate, trembling, "You- we - it's a tree, Brainstorm, I can't just erase feelings . I'd have to erase me. You wouldn't even know who I was."
Brainstorm didn't look up. He cast his gaze from the floor to one of his thighs, reached down and plucked a blooming hanahaki flower from a thorny vine and held it in his hands.
"That's fine," he said, eventually, "That's best for everyone."
"How could that possibly-"
"I thought, at first," he murmured, rolling the flower between his thumb and forefinger, "That if you'd loved me once, you'd love me again. All I had to do was be there, and one day whatever clicked the first time would click back into place again, and everything would be alright." He crushed the petals, smearing the moisture against his knuckles, "But I could barely get you to tolerate me, let alone care about me. Whatever I did the first time… I couldn't ever do it again."
"It's better to forget, isn't it? That's what you've always done, and it's always worked for you. Remembering has literally never made me happy once in my whole life. You, though? You've been able to move on. You've been happy again, even if you don't remember," Brainstorm set his hands back in his lap. "If I forget, I'll leave you alone. You won't have to worry about me anymore. And then maybe we'll both be happier."
"I wouldn't abandon you just because you don't remember me!" Chromedome cried, "I wouldn't do that!"
"Yes," said Brainstorm, "You would."
Chromedome's knees buckled beneath him and he landed with a thump at optic level.
"I would?" Chromedome repeated, brokenly.
"I know you," Brainstorm whispered, "You won't even miss me."
"That's not true!" Rewind's voice cried, interrupting them both, and Chromedome realized, mortified, that they'd been speaking out loud. He'd overheard everything.
"Chromedome loves you!" Rewind insisted, "He always has! That's why I used to be such a jerk to you- it was so obvious! Stormy, he's- I could never get him to leave you behind. Not even for me."
"You brought Rewind here?" Brainstorm balked.
"I came on my own," Rewind said, "Because I care about you."
"Stop," Brainstorm said, hiking his shoulders up, "Stop trying to make me feel better. I'm going to die if I don't get rid of this parasite and I don't want to die. I've already accepted the way things are, I don't want your pity. I want to live."
Chromedome watched in horror as the vines tightened around Brainstorm's wings, growing and consuming him further, like he might be totally buried in them.
"I won't let you die," Chromedome said, stupidly, as if he had the power to promise such a thing, "We'll figure something out."
"I've figured it out," Brainstorm quavered, his hands sliding to the floor and curling into fists, "It's my love or my life. I've made my choice and I'm asking for your help now." Brainstorm's shoulder hiked up, his head dipping, "When was the last time I asked you for anything? Can't you do this for me, at least?"
"I don't have to, though," Chromedome choked, "It's unrequited love, you- I do love you, you've been my best friend for years, and I-"
"That's not the kind of love I want from you," Brainstorm laughed, wiping at his optics, "It's not going to be enough. It hasn't ever been enough. I'm a selfish bastard, CD, and I want more from you than you're ever going to give me."
"Stormy-" Rewind interjected, and he was crying too, now, "It's not too much. You're loved more than you know."
Chromedome crawled forward and took Brainstorm's face in his hands, even as a vine curled into one of his vents beneath his blast mask.
"Look at me. Look at me," Chromedome insisted, "I do love you. I love you so much, Storm."
"You're married, idiot," Brainstorm spat, "He's right here."
"Yeah, he is!" Chromedome said, nodding fervently, "And I love him too! We talked about this, about love, when we thought we had Dominus back- love isn't finite or so simple and definable and-"
"You can love more than one person in your life, Stormy!" Rewind insisted, "Even at the same time! Chromedome loves you, and I love you, and I won't lose you like this- I've loved and lost before and I won't do it again, let alone make Domey do it."
Brainstorm's optics watered, hands clenched in his lap, face in Chromedome's hands, "You forgot me," he said, and his voice broke.
Chromedome crushed him against his chest, ignoring the way the thorns that covered him bit into his plating, "Things will be different this time. I promise, Storm. I'm going to be the Conjunx you deserve."
Brainstorm choked on a sob. "Really?"
"I love you," Chromedome repeated, voice shaking with conviction, "I promise I do."
"We'll keep you, if you want us," Rewind said.
Brainstorm buried his face in Chromedome's shoulder and finally let his hands rise to accept the embrace, needy and desperate like he was waiting for the rug to pull out beneath him and send the world spinning info anarchy once more, "I want you."
"You have us," Chromedome whispered, his hug equally as tight and desperate.
"Okay," said Brainstorm, sagging, as petals along his frame began to wilt and die.
"I'm going to pull out, okay?" Chromedome said, "I want you to count to ten and then do the same. Will you do that for me?"
"Yeah. I can do that.
"You aren't going to die," Chromedome insisted, firmly, "I'm going to make sure you believe me. You're going to be okay."
"...Okay," Brainstorm nodded. Chromedome took a deep invent, and pulled out.
He immediately lost his sense of gravity and started to fall, before Rewind caught him and helped right him, squeezing his hand, and they looked back at Brainstorm and waited, hoping desperately he didn't try anything else on his own-
Brainstorm pulled his hand away and collapsed, but both of them were waiting to catch him, and he panted, clearly not anticipating the exhaustion.
"I can't see anything," Brainstorm commented, more confused than upset, "Why can't I see?"
"I had to go through the optics," Chromedome admitted apologetically, "Your neck was busy."
"Oh. Gross," Brainstorm said, reaching up to brush his fingers across the broken glass, "Should it hurt more?"
"I turned off your pain receptors before I pulled out," Chromedome admitted, "I'll have to fix that later, but- I felt bad."
"Oh," said Brainstorm, "Thanks."
Rewind wrapped his arms around Brainstorm's midsection and squeezed so hard he grunted an oof .
"Both of you are so stupid," Rewind cried into his plating, "We're going to take care of you, Stormy. Even if you don't trust him, you can trust me, and I promise."
"We have to get you down to medibay," Chromedome said, "They can cut this back. Can you walk?"
"I- I don't know."
"I'll carry you," Chromedome decided, "Rodimus, get out of the doorway if you don't want to join us in quarantine."
"No thank you," Rodimus quipped, dipping away.
"Wait," said Brainstorm, as he was hefted up, bridal style, "Who else is here?"
"Perceptor came to check on you when you didn't show up to your lab," Rewind told him, "Rodimus broke the door down."
"I'm here for moral support," said Ultra Magnus.
"Oh," said Brainstorm, "That's a lot of people. I think I might be experiencing the mortifying ordeal of being known right now."
"Since when do you care what Rodimus thinks of you?" Chromedome scoffed.
"I care what everyone thinks about me," Brainstorm said, matter of factly, "Everyone all the time."
"I think you're brilliant and passionate and loyal beyond comprehension," Chromedome said, hugging him tighter.
"I think you're witty and clever and deeply convicted," Rewind supplied, keeping step.
"Keep the compliments coming," Brainstorm said weakly, with a half-hearted laugh, "It's only feeding my ego."
"And pretty," quipped Rewind.
"And deserving of love," Chromedome said.
"Yeah?" Brainstorm prompted, setting his cheek against Chromedome's chest with a sigh.
"Yeah," said Chromedome and Rewind, together.