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Still Breathing

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There’s only so many times you can walk in on the leader of your entire planet talking to himself before you start to worry. And the answer is once. That’s how many times.

You thought that maybe it would get better after a few things got sorted out. You got Superion back on his feet, for one. And there’s plenty of combiners all over the place—way more than you’re really comfortable with, but that’s what Starscream was after, so you think it would make him happy. Right?

Yeah, no. It doesn’t help either that you’re in the perfect position to see how… alone he is. Maybe he spends time with Rattrap, sure, but you’re not sure that’s a significant improvement from spending all your time solo. Used to be he’d at least talk with Bumblebee and Metalhawk, but. That’s not happening anymore. The next closest thing is probably Windblade, ’cept for the way she and Starscream are always at each other’s throats.

And you guess that leaves you.

It’s awkward. Not gonna lie, it’s really awkward. Even before the big mess with Megatron and getting shot and all that, you kinda had your suspicions. And then the way he reacted when you woke up clinched it. No matter how you feel about the matter, you’re pretty sure you’re the best friend he’s got left.

And it’s—It’s not like you’re—Well, you’re not saying you outright hate him, which is more than can be said for most of the ‘bots you know. Like you said way back when, you trust him. Kind of. You’re not dumb, you know that Starscream is always gonna prioritize Starscream. But you do think he’s really, honestly trying to do right by Cybertron at the same time. There’s plenty of selfish mechs out there, but there aren’t really many who are trying to take the steps to put your planet back together.

See though, you don’t even feel like you can say too much about this, or all your other friends will jump right down your throat. Not to be too blunt, but… Megatron is Megatron, and he just got shipped right out of town to go on adventures with Rodimus and company. Starscream put a couple solid years of effort into fixing up Cybertron, and everyone ditched him so hard that he’s left talking to the walls.

So you’re a sucker. But when you go to update him on your engineering projects, maybe you bring him a bottle of engex to split while you talk. Or maybe you grab some energon goodies from town, and hey, these things come in big packages, you’re not gonna finish them all on your own, does he want any?

And it’s really kinda sad the way he latches onto you. You’re a total sap, because he’s all buddy-buddy like you don’t have a couple million ugly years of war between the two of you, and you still can’t bring yourself to pry him off. He’s not clingy so you’d notice, or at least you’re pretty sure that’s what he’s aiming for. It’s a little less subtle than he thinks.

You’ll be telling him about how you’re trying to expand city infrastructure into the suburbs and get it interfaced with Metroplex—kind of a big project, ’specially if you don’t want to kill the big guy by accident. And credit to Starscream, he’s plenty attentive and seems to actually care about getting the city up and running. But the moment you pause or try to change the subject, he’s off about something he saw while he was out flying the other day, or you know he’s been to Caminus and did you know how they do this odd little ritual in their temples, or the Velocitronians have invited him to attend a formal race and do you think he should get this new paint job or that one—You lose track of how many times he asks your opinion about new frames and upgrades. You’d get annoyed, ’cept it’s hard when you’ve got this nagging feeling that he’s mostly hungry for conversation. And for some kind of approval, even if it’s something as unimportant as what his chassis looks like.

So yeah, things are weird. And to give him credit, he’s not just asking you about paint jobs. He asks you about how you think this policy will go over, or do you think that public event will be well-received. You do your best to give him advice, but let’s be real. You’ve never been a politician. You’re an engineer. You might be pulling extra duty as a physicist, chemist, communications officer, basically anything anyone can guilt you into helping out with—but you’ve never been a politician.

Still hard to say no with how grateful Starscream is to have you listen. Not in so many words, but the subtext is pretty obvious. He’s never not happy to see you. Even when you come to visit with Windblade, she says that the talks go better when you’re there in the room. You’re not sure what to do with that. With any of this. It’s not your thing, you’re still not sure how you got boxed into this situation, and even less sure why you haven’t bailed out already. But you keep going back.

Doesn’t help that every so often you still catch him talking to himself. You still dunno what to do about that, so you end up mostly ignoring it. For a while. You know Rattrap is setting you up to catch him at it, sometimes. But there are other times you stumble across him doing it all on your own. And Starscream knows something’s wrong, or else he wouldn’t keep telling you he’s communicating with this ‘bot, or that agent on Earth. You make a habit of scanning the comm frequencies, and sure, once or twice he’s talking to someone real. Not often.

Of course, once you start worrying about that, ain’t like it’s hard to find more things to worry about. You don’t think he’s recharging often—or at least he’s not getting much out of it. Shows up in the optics first. You guess not many people besides you are close enough to see it, but it’s there. Shakes in the hands too.

After a while, you start seeing the first hints of form fatigue, and you realize just how long it’s been since you’ve seen him out for an actual flight. He tells you he has been flying—not that anyone else can confirm, of course. He doesn’t have much of the energon snacks you bring to your meetings anymore, not even when you give in and start shelling out for really good stuff.

And who are you supposed to go to with all this? You don’t have options. Any options. Windblade ain’t gonna give Starscream a fair shake. Rattrap is probably worse. You can’t even tell what’s up with Ironhide these days, but you’d bet all your savings that he doesn’t care what happens to Starscream at all. Jazz, maybe. If he’d stayed. But he’s gone off back to Earth, and you don’t know when (if) he’s supposed to come home.

So you, all on your lonesome, are left to deal with problems you aren’t qualified to handle. Again. Makes you wish you could haul off to Earth with the rest of them. Only then everything you’ve been managing gets handed off to someone even less qualified, and your planet is that much closer to never recovering. So now you’re an engineer slash scientist slash communications officer slash therapist, plus whatever other jobs you’re been failing to keep up with lately. That’s… great. Just great.

On the other hand, you’ve seen how badly a lot of ’bots have been affected by the war. And hey, at the time, it was happening to everyone, what are you going to do? But now the war’s over, things are peaceful. Arguably. Kind of. Point is, you can see mechs recovering left and right. You can see so many people getting better. It’s more painful than you expected having a front row seat to watch Starscream only getting worse. You keep going back to that first time you overheard him. ‘You have absolutely no idea what it’s like to have everybody in the universe despise you.’

So. Here you are. You’ve dropped more money than you meant to on a lot of very nice engex. Blurr thinks you’re just drinking by yourself, and it wasn’t easy getting away from him when he’s trying to persuade you that you should drink here, at Maccadam’s, with everyone else. Makes you feel a little guilty that there’s people trying to help you out when there’s maybe sort of a sign that you might not be doing great, but some mechs don’t have that kind of support. This is going to be so awkward. You stop to grab some imported Camien delicacies on your way up through the city, because hey, you’ve already spent too much money this evening, why stop now?

You do have a meeting with Starscream. You’re not just stopping by with food and booze, just ‘cause. This is already awkward enough without you pulling something like that. Rattrap waves you on up, then goes off to do… whatever he does. And as you head up the stairs, you can hear Starscream arguing. Nobody’s on the comm, what a surprise. You listen for a moment, but you can’t make heads or tails of what he’s talking about. Well. Nothing for it. You’ve already got this planned, no point in bailing out now. You make plenty of noise coming up the last few stairs, but you can still hear Starscream cut himself off mid-argument.

He’s walking over towards you by the time you get to the door, smiling at you with his hands spread wide. “Ahh, Wheeljack, perfect timing. Pardon me, I’ve just wrapped up a call, very important—”

You don’t know if he thinks you believe that lie anymore, but you guess it doesn’t cost you anything to play along. And as soon as he’s made his excuses, he’s all business. You wrote up an agenda for the evening. Sanitation is still a big issue plenty of folks are concerned with and nobody wants to fix. Supply issues are getting tricky as citizens keep flooding in. Still plenty of surplus energon, but you’re having more and more trouble distributing it. Medicine’s getting tough. There aren’t enough neutral doctors coming in with the other neutral citizens to keep up with the population growth—and Autobots and Decepticons have both had too many medic casualties over the years. You’ll need to think about training new doctors, which means you really oughta sort out a whole educational infrastructure—

Now, thing is. These are all important issues. But you laid out the agenda, you picked what points to cover. And it’s real long written out on a datapad, but in terms of talking? You and Starscream fly right through it. Credit to him, he even tries to go above and beyond in a few spots, and you have to pull him back on track. So you wrap up the meeting in half the time you two set aside for it, and what do you know, surprise, surprise, Starscream wants to talk. You hand him a bottle of engex, open up the Camien energon goodies, and settle on in.

It’s nothing that interesting at first. Lots of the time, you get Starscream alone, and there’s a big flood of chatter where he has to update you on everything that’s happened since the last time you saw each other (this morning). It gives you time to look him over a little. You’re not a medic, not really, but even you know enough to see that the color of his optics is off. And from this close, it’s hard to miss the form fatigue starting to show right at the edges of his plates. You ought to tell him to go to see Flatline, but either he’ll push back against you telling him what to do, or he’ll just make Flatline tell him whatever he wants to hear. Fixit probably won’t do any better with him. You really could use more medics.

Starscream barely picks at the energon goodies—which is objectively the wrong decision, because these are delicious—but he sure goes through the engex. He’s polished off a bottle and a half by the time his story finally winds down. You’re barely halfway through yours, and this stuff is strong.

You’re wondering whether you’ll have to watch how much he’s drinking for him when he looks up at you and asks, “…and how was your day?”

It—takes you by surprise. Not the usual Starscream sequence of events. You get it together, though, it’s an easy question. Kind of a boring one. Your day was work, because that’s what you do. It’s pretty much the stuff that you finished talking over with him, because Primus forbid you manage to get even slightly ahead of your workload.

Starscream isn’t acting impatient either, which is throwing you off. You keep things short, but it’s sure not exciting. By the time you wrap it up, he’s still watching you, with his chin propped up on his bottle of engex—his third bottle, he must’ve polished off the second when you weren’t looking.

You hesitate. Because this is definitely uncharted territory. But hey, this is what you’ve been trying to steer towards. Here goes nothing. “You okay?”

Starscream jumps, fumbles the engex, almost knocks it off the table before he just barely manages to catch it. “Of course,” he snaps. “Who’s been spreading rumors? Rattrap? I would have thought he was better than that. I’m surprised you bother to listen to a word he says—”

You wave a hand at him. “Hey, no, calm down.” You lean forward across the table—oh, what’s this, do you have to move the engex to the floor to make room? What a shame. “Nobody’s said anything. ‘Specially not Rattrap.”

“So you just decided I’m incompetent on your own, then.”

“What? No, I never said that. I’m just worried about you. For you.” Well, no turning back now. Deep ventilation. “We’re friends, aren’t we?”

He doesn’t react, but in that way where you can tell he’s holding himself frozen on purpose. His face—you don’t want to look too closely at the expression he’s making. You turn your optics away.

He doesn’t say anything, so after an awkward pause, you try, “So, uh. Yeah. If we are friends, then that’s what I mean when I ask if you’re okay. Nothing about you being a politician or leader or any of that. Just as, y’know. Starscream.”

From the corner of your optics, you can see him start peeling the label off the bottle of engex. He says, “…I’m fine.”

Yeah, that’s not even a half-decent lie. You turn back towards him. Is this the kind of lie where you’re supposed to push through and dig at what’s actually going on? Let’s just work from that assumption. “You sure? You’ve been under plenty of stress. I think anyone would have trouble dealing.”

No proper response this time, just a shrug. He’s still picking at the engex label. This is already just as awkward as you’d expected, so hey, why not go all out? “You know you can talk to me, right?”

You can see the way his mouth twists at that. He turns away, just a little. Takes a nice long drink from the bottle. He still doesn’t say anything.

How uncomfortable can one silence possibly get? You’re breaking new ground in social science here. You try, “Starscream?”

Why,” he snaps, “so you can tell Rattrap? Windblade? Why not just pass it on to Circuit, have him broadcast over the entire planet?”

You hold up your hands, “I’m just—”

“While you’re at it, you might as well feed it to all the colonies too! Let Metroplex know, make that our first point of contact when he finds the next titan! Hello, how are you, been a few million years, have you heard about Starscream? Why not pass it on to Optimus Prime and Megatron? I’m sure they’ll love hearing about how badly I’m doing!”

You stay where you are, your hands still up, until he runs out of momentum. He deflates, leaning on the table. His bottle of engex is empty, but when he tries to move it, it almost goes tipping off the edge of the table. You snag it, put it on the floor. That’s three. If he’s not feeling it yet, he’s really going to be feeling it soon.

Starscream puts his face in his hands and mumbles, “You want to ruin everything.”

Moving real slow and tentative, you reach out. Just watch, this is how you die. Maybe he’s too drunk to remember how to fire his missiles? But when you pat his arm, he doesn’t even move. “I’m just trying to help.”

“Help with what? Help who? Windblade? Optimus Prime? I’d like to think you have better taste than trying to side with Rattrap.”

“What? Where are you getting that from? I’m trying to help you, of course.”

Are not.” A long pause. “And I don’t need help. So there.”

He finally lifts his head from his hands—but only to look for the engex. You kick the other bottles a little further under the table and shove the energon goodies at him instead. “You should eat something or you’ll regret it later. And besides, you just said you were doing badly. That was like a nanoklik ago.”

“Did not. Or that was a, a, you know. Hypothetical.” He picks up one of the goodies, but he just turns it over in his hands, staring dully at it. “You can’t prove anything. And I’m not drunk.”

“Hey, never said you were.” For the record, he is absolutely, definitely, extremely drunk. “So. Speaking hypothetically, same as you. If you had hypothetical difficulties that you wanted to talk about with a hypothetical friend, then maybe that hypothetical friend would be trying to give you a hypothetical opportunity to do that thing. You know, hypothetically.”

His face is totally blank. Does he… not get it? How drunk is he? Eventually, you add, “So, you see, that’s me—”

“What do you want, Wheeljack?”

“Hey, I just—”

“No you don’t. Nobody ever does. I’m not an idiot, you know.” He snaps a tiny corner off the energon goodie. “Everyone thinks I am, but I’m not.”

He isn’t even eating the energon goodie, just breaking it into pieces. “Look, so—Don’t answer any of these. These are just more of those hypotheticals, okay?”

Starscream opens his mouth, but you cut him off. “When’s the last time you refueled properly? Or got a decent night of recharge? Or went out for a flight? I’ll bet it’s been, hmm… at least a lunar cycle since the last time you transformed.”

He leaves the crumbs of the energon goodie on the table and slumps over sideways. He isn’t even looking at you, just at the tiny pieces of goodie scattered in front of his nose. “So you’re spying on me.”

“Really?”

“Well you are,” he mutters.

You rub the bridge of your nose. Either you’re too buzzed for this, or you really need some more engex. “You looked in a mirror lately? Dunno how much people will be able to tell without some medical know-how, but you’ve got some problems starting to show. Optics, for one. Form fatigue at the edges of your big plates. And I’ll bet you’re starting to feel some joint freeze, am I right?”

Starscream sits right up at that, indignant out to the tips of his wings. He touches the edge of his chest, tries to crane his head around to look. “I do not—Perhaps it’s, it’s simply a spot I missed while polishing—”

“Then when’s the last time you polished? And I’m serious about the refueling, I brought plenty of food, real nice stuff, and you’ve barely touched it.”

He just glares at you.

You lift your hands, sitting back in your chair. “If I was gonna tell someone, I would’ve told someone. I just want to know how I can help.”

He slumps again. Picks up another energon goodie. Not to eat of course, that would be silly. He just crumbles it between his fingers.

Finally, he mumbles, “…I’m not hungry. I’m not tired.” He glances at you, then looks away. “And I don’t want to go flying.”

You waver for a moment, wonder if you should push the issue now. But aw, hell, how are you supposed to be tough on him when he’s looking like this? So instead you reach out and take what’s left of the goodie from him. You drop it on the table, and just, y’know. Leave your hand there. In case anyone wanted to do anything with it.

He doesn’t make a move to take, it, just stays right where he is. But he is staring at your hand. It’s hard to read the tangle of emotions on his face.

You wait. It’s officially stopped being even slightly plausible that your outstretched hand isn’t an invitation. But he’s still hesitating. You can practically see the wheels turning as he works to convince himself that he doesn’t want it. But even past everything else, his face is telling you just how badly he does.

So before he can talk himself out of it, you bridge that distance yourself. You reach out that last bit further and cover one of his hands with your own. You can hear his fans stutter. You’re watching his face as close as you can, but his optics are fixed on your hand and he doesn’t so much as glance up at you. After a few long nanokliks, he shifts, and you think for a moment he’s pulling away— But he only turns his hand up under yours, so his fingers curl against your palm. When your fingers brush across his wrist joint and along his hand, you can feel the faintest shiver run through his frame.

You pause again, just before your fingers touch. You don’t want to push him too hard, or too fast. Your optics are still on his face, his on your hands. There’s a quiet moment where you’re both frozen, just looking, and then his fingers move against yours.

It’s slow, both of you moving by inches, and you’re afraid to even ventilate in case you shatter the moment. But your fingers gradually curl around each other’s, until finally, he’s holding your hand, and you’re holding his.

You don’t really want to break the silence, but it has to happen eventually. Quietly, you try, “Is there anything I can do for you?”

Starscream jumps, but his grip on your hand only gets tighter. He steals a quick look up at you and mutters, “I’m not hungry. Or the rest of it.”

Fine, you can let that go for tonight. “A shower, then. Bet you’ll feel better after going through the washrack.” He hesitates, and you brush your thumb across the back of his hand and push, “I know I could use a wash. Been driving all over the city all day, pretty sure I’ve got dirt ground into my circuits.”

There, that decides him. He sighs, “...fine,” like he’s the one doing you a favor, and then he pushes himself to his feet without dropping your hand—Except then you have to let go of his hand to lunge and catch him when he wobbles, staggers, and nearly tips over.

“You poisoned me,” he declares.

You try real hard not to laugh. “I think you’re just drunk.”

He draws himself up all offended, “I am perfectly sober.” But he doesn’t argue when you slip an arm around his waist and carefully lead him over towards the door to his quarters. He leans into your shoulder and sighs. “If I die, they’re going to execute you for treason, you know. Why would you do that? It was Rattrap, wasn’t it.”

“Guess it’s lucky for me the worst thing that’ll happen is you wake up with a dry coolant tank.” Speaking of which, you need to get him some coolant to drink as soon as you’re done in the washrack. “You just downed three whole bottles of quadruple-filtered engex, and I bet you haven’t had any real fuel all day.”

He conveniently ignores that while he tries to type in the access code for his quarters (it takes him three tries), but through it all, he stays where he is, leaned against your side. And even while he’s slowly, gradually sliding his arm around your waist, he says, “It must have been Rattrap.”

“Hmm, ’fraid not,” you tell him. He takes the lead here, even if you’re the one keeping him upright, and leads you off through his quarters, your arms still around each other’s waists. “Don’t really care for the guy. If he was telling me to do something like that, I’m pretty certain he’d be setting me up to take the fall.” You take a risk, and tease, “What, you saying you think I’m that dumb?”

His arm tightens around you, and he leans even harder into your side. You might not hear the laugh, but you can feel it in his frame. Starscream has to let go of you to fit through the door to the washrack, but his hand trails across your back as he steps away.

You follow him inside. He turns to face you, one hand braced on the wall, but he half-reaches out to you with the other before he hesitates. You step in and close that space between you. He reaches up to rest his hand on your shoulder, and it’s too easy to let your hands settle on his hips.

Starscream’s optics are intent on your face for a long moment, and then he turns his head off to the side. “So it must have been Windblade.”

You maybe allow yourself a private sigh. But you leave one hand resting on his waist as you turn to switch on the solvent flow. “Why would you say that? And also, nobody’s poisoned you.”

You snag a cleaning brush and turn back to him. He’s looking at you again, even if he doesn’t seem anything close to convinced. You take a knee in front of him, letting your hand slide down his leg until you can take his foot and carefully lift it into your lap. From this close, even over the noise of the washrack, you can feel the way his fans skip a beat.

Starscream leans back against the wall, his optics locked on you. He opens his mouth, but his vocalizer glitches out twice before he manages actual words. You wait and wash his leg, working the brush carefully into his joints and around the edges of his plates. Finally, Starscream says, “That’s what you’d say if you were following her orders. She could have ordered you to poison me. You like her.”

“Windblade wouldn’ta had me slip you poison.” You bump his standing leg with your elbow. “You know her better than that.”

“She might have,” he says stubbornly. “I’m sure she wants me dead too.”

You look up at him. His arms are crossed tight across his chest and now he’s glaring off at the far corner of the washrack. You tell him, “She doesn’t want anybody dead, near as I can tell. Pretty sure she’s never killed anyone in her whole life.”

That gets one little choked laugh out of Starscream, and you have to smile a little to yourself too. It’s so strange to think of anyone being like that.

“Sorry,” you continue as you switch out his first leg for the other. “I think you’re starting to run short on conspiracy theories. Watch out, or soon you’ll have to admit that I’m here because I want to be.”

And that gets you a bigger laugh. Starscream smirks down at you. “I assure you, I haven’t even begun to tell you all my conspiracy theories.” His arms slowly unfold, and he reaches out a tentative hand to cup around your finial. “Remind me to tell you about the one where you’re a sleeper agent from the DJD, here to assassinate me. Or the one where you only agreed to work with me so you can spy on me for Optimus Prime—That one’s straightforward enough. But you have to hear the one where you’re working against me and him, so you can kill us both, steal what’s left of the Matrix and install Rodimus as the new Prime.”

It’s probably good you don’t have much face for him to read your expression from. As it is, all you can manage is, “...assassin.”

His head tilts back to rest against the wall, but his hand is still against your helmet, thumb stroking over your faceplate. “It makes so much sense.”

Very slowly, very carefully, you put his leg back on the floor. As you get back to your feet, you venture, “That doesn’t sound so healthy.”

He waves his free hand vaguely at you. “Oh, certainly. But when I’m right, you’ll see. I’ll be the one laughing.”

His head is still tipped back, staring up at the ceiling. You snag that free hand of his and start to wash it. His fingers still curl around yours as you scrub at the rest of his arm. Eventually, he turns his head down to watch you work, but he doesn’t say a word. When you’re done with his first arm and move to the other, he stays just as quiet. But again, he holds your hand and watches silently as you wash his arm.

After that—hasn’t been much of a proper shower, but let’s be real, that was never what this was about. You switch off the solvent flow, and before you can second-guess yourself, you say, “How can I convince you I’m genuine?”

Starscream just snorts, which is pretty much what you were expecting.

So you add, “What if I offered you a hardline connection?”

He freezes, except for the way his hand clenches so tight around yours that it makes your fingers ache. You don’t push any harder, keep your body language carefully casual. His optics are flaring bright as he stares at you.

Finally, he whispers, “What are you after?”

“Nothing,” you tell him. He still has one of your hands captured, but you lift the other one. No gun in your hand, no threat, nothing to worry about, honest. “Only what I said before. Just want to prove you can trust me.”

You can see the corner of his mouth turn up. His wings are still flicking uneasily, but he also still has a death grip on your hand.

You add, “Wouldn’t even have to let me in for real. You can shut me out all the way if that’s what you need.”

Starscream doesn’t give you an answer, but he doesn’t drop your hand either. In fact, he keeps hold of you as he leads you out of the washrack—he’s still a little unsteady on his feet—and as he retrieves drying cloths and hands one off to you. He does let go of your hand then, which is good, because you don’t know how you would have done this with just the one hand to work with. But before you can even get a start on things, Starscream steps up in front of you, grabs your arm, and begins briskly drying you off.

It takes you a nanoklik or two to find your bearings again, but you do eventually catch up. You try to reciprocate as best as you can, but you do get the feeling neither of you will be very well dried off by the end of this. Starscream still hasn’t said a word, but given the way he’s glaring at his drying cloth like it personally insulted him, you kinda get the feeling he’s made a decision, even if he hasn’t made his peace with it yet.

After you’re done, he goes right for your hand again. He still isn’t looking up at your face. And then, once your hand is secure in his, he leads you off across his quarters.

When he pulls you into a room, the first thing you notice is, “Your berth?”

He turns that glare on you and snaps, “Unless you’d rather do this on the floor?”

Right, that’s your answer, then. You don’t need to push right now, he can take this at his own pace. He’s watching you helplessly, and when you happen to glance down at your joined hands, he drops yours like it burned him. You can practically taste his nerves.

No rush, no rush. He can have space if that’s what he needs. You spot a coolant dispenser in a corner and head over to pour him a cube. While he's drinking, you turn, taking in the rest of the room. Fairly bare, not much to see. But you spot— You take two steps over to a side table and bend down to look at a little model of a red and white jet.

You get as far as, “Is that—” before Starscream lunges over and snatches the model away. You lift your hands, taking a half step back. No harm intended. You peer as close as you can— It’s hard to tell past his fingers, but, “Is that the frame you were sporting back on Earth?”

He hesitates for a moment, then sets the little jet back down where it was before. “I’m allowed to have it,” he says.

“’Course you are,” you say. And that seems to break the tension.

“Megatron had models of himself,” Starscream says. “Statues. He didn’t even have to commission them. People just gave them to him. Hello, how are you, we melted down the casualties from yesterday’s battle and made a life-size sculpture of you, hope you don’t already have one!” Starscream sets the empty cube on the table and steps up to you again, still just the slightest bit unsteady—you reach for his waist at the same moment he sets a hand on your arm. His voice drops to a conspiratorial whisper. “But he did. He had so many.”

You ask, “Where’d you get it? I didn’t think the city really had much of anything in the way of luxury goods yet.”

Earth.” He smirks. “When we were in that… whatever that city was. There was a building with all sorts of these things lying around. I found one that matched me, and then I just had to have someone paint it right. I kept it in my frame even during—Until we came back to Cybertron.”

You turn your head to examine the model, without making any move to touch it. “It looks good.”

“Of course it does,” he says archly. “It’s me.”

And just like that, he’s at ease again. Your hands are still on his hips, and you can feel the shift of his plating under your fingers as he steps even closer. His hand slides up your arm, tracing once around the curve of your wheel before moving to rest against your collar faring. You feel his other hand settle on your waist, but you can’t look away from his face.

“Yes,” he says.

Starscream steps backwards, and you follow, letting him lead you along to the berth. Neither one of you makes any move to take your hands off the other one until you finally have to. Starscream takes his hands from you first as he lowers himself onto the edge of the berth, and your fingertips glide along his waist as he shifts away from you. You turn and take a seat right beside him. You’re barely even on the berth before he’s already leaning into your shoulder, but the way his wings settle and resettle behind you make it plenty clear he’s not as calm as he's trying to seem.

He’s the first one to reach for his chest and open his port. At first, you fumble as you go for your own port and try to draw your cable out, but then you have to use one of your hands to steady Starscream’s as the two of you join your cables together.

At first, he takes you at your word and blocks you completely out. It’s like stumbling, but in your mind, as your awareness turns all inward and you’re met with a big wall of nothing. You an already feel him rifling through your memories—you’ve blocked off old Autobot war business, and plenty of military tech Starscream doesn’t need to know about. A few bits and pieces of what Windblade’s told you about how Metroplex ticks. But other than that, you don’t really have much to hide.

Grudgingly, Starscream opens up a little for you. You can still feel the wobbly edges of the engex working its way through his systems, but his control is still sharp and crisp. He isn’t showing you much of anything, to be honest, mostly a lot of government meetings where you were there right beside him and have your own memories of what went down. Still interesting to be seeing his side of things and feeling the flavor of his thoughts and feelings that tint the memories.

You—okay, you can tell self-interest is a factor for him, sure, but isn’t that true for everyone? And you’ve been pretty sure that Starscream has genuinely been trying to do right by Cybertron. But despite that, getting that confirmed over the hardline connection is still a bit of a surprise. That gets you a pulse of smug self-satisfaction from him, because of course he’s been been working for the benefit of Cybertron all along. But under that, you can taste the undercurrent of bitterness that there’s nobody out there who’s willing to give him that much credit, not even you. He nudges you off into a different memory before you can respond to that.

Meanwhile, Starscream’s been busy. He’s dug through meetings you’ve had with Windblade, Rattrap, other officials, conversations with the diplomats from the colonies. But now he’s focusing just on today. Tonight. He’s already been through the whole thing, but now he’s going back over it all, slicing your memories finer and finer, as he picks apart everything from the moment you left work for the day up through now. He notices you paying attention to what he’s doing, and with a burst of irritation-embarrassment, he opens up another small set of his memories for you to look through.

And you can look through those just fine, but you don’t lose track of what he’s doing. You follow along with his walks through the city—you note without commenting that they’re all from months or years ago—and more business meetings, representatives from Iacon’s new manufacturing sector, things like that. You keep tabs on what he’s thinking through all that, which mostly boils down to constant stream of ‘what do I need to do next?’ And through this all, he’s digging into every decision you made today, every action you took, demanding ‘why??’ until your memory files provide an answer.

You’re sure some of those answers don’t put you in the best light, but hey, it happens. You can feel muffled shame and unfocused anger as he picks back over your observations of how poorly he’s been doing, but he pushes on. He keeps looking and looking, but you can feel his certainty that there’s something you’re hiding from him starting to wobble. He snaps denial back at you over the hardline connection and digs even deeper. It does take a while, longer than you’d expected, but eventually even Starscream has to admit that ultimately, you’re here because you want to be.

You can feel the turning point across the connection, but it’s confirmed by the way you feel him grope blindly for your hand and the way his fingers lace tight with yours, pressing your hand against his leg. His face turns into your shoulder. He’s choking off as much as he can through the hardline, but little bits and scraps of emotion are still sliding through. Control is tricky when you’re feeling too much, you know it is, so you try to do him the courtesy of not lingering over everything that flashes past you.

Then the connection blooms wide open as as he unlocks huge swathes of memory for you. Still not that much, compared to how long he’s been alive. But compared to what he’s been letting you at, it’s like being swept away by a flood, like the two of you have only just linked up and you’re getting a look at all of him for the first time.

He’s still going back through your other post-war memories, trying to fix on ‘when?’ You don’t rightly know that answer yourself, so you can’t help him there. But he still finds the focus to fuss over everything you’re seeing, nudging you here and there, from an alien landscape, over to a view of Cybertron from orbit, then to his first steps through the rebuilt Iacon.

You find your way into a memory of Starscream arguing with Windblade in his office, both of them facing down, leaned forward over his desk, right on the edge of shouting—Starscream slams that memory shut so hard you stumble, disoriented for a moment. You think that what you’re feeling from him right now is best described as embarrassment

He seems almost shy as he eases you into a memory of flight. You might be happy to stay right where you are on the ground, but you’ve hooked up with enough fliers to know this is a thing of beauty. The skies are crowded, smoke and heat and noise everywhere, weapons firing through the air, but you slip effortlessly through the confusion. A burn on your wing aches, but nobody would know it to watch you fly.

You descend on two other fliers, coming in fast and low, shooting them out of the sky before they even notice you’re there. And you—the actual you—notice the red Autobrands on their wings. You wince just barely before Starscream does, and he shunts you apologetically off into another memory before you can start trying to figure out if you recognize the two downed Autobots. This memory is—just a view of a ceiling, best as you can tell. You’re in your berth, not in recharge, only—and Starscream bumps you off into another memory before you can linger.

You’re left floating through more nondescript government meetings for a few moments until Starscream settles on a memory he likes. It’s flight again, without the chaos of the last memory. There’s sunlight warm on your wings, other fliers off in the distance. And underneath you spreads Cybertron. Old Cybertron, Cybertron before the war. It’s been so long—Pictures don’t do it justice, they really don’t.

And through it all, you’re noticing that it’s new to you, that you’ve never seen this before and you’re taking it in for the first time. Your processor is slow to catch up with how young you are—how young he is. You’re right there with him as he rolls easily in the air, as he dips down low to skim daringly close to the top of the buildings. It’s hard not to lose yourself in the giddy joy of the memory. And millions of years away, back in your body, you feel Starscream lift your hand and press his lips to your fingers.

After all that, it’s hard to disconnect yourselves from each other. It’s easy to decide to do it, the way you’re linked all tight and twined around each other like this. You’re moving and thinking in sync, and your free hands find your joined cables at the same moment. But then you both hesitate over them, pausing and waiting and delaying. When Starscream finally pulls his cable away from yours, breaking the connection, your mind grasps desperately after the lost link until you can recenter yourself in your frame.

Your hand still captured in his, his head still leaned against your shoulder. Those are the first things you’re aware of. And when you get the hang of your optics again and turn to look at Starscream, the first thing you see is the smile on his face. There’s a bit of smugness to it, ‘cause of course there is, this is Starscream. But there’s a lot more to his expression than that. Disbelief. Happiness.

You don’t rightly know what to say to that. But Starscream speaks up first. “It seems I’ve kept you rather past our original meeting time. And it is getting quite late.” He’s not looking up at you, but he’s still smiling and his optics are on your joined hands. “I wouldn’t like to inconvenience you. If you were in need of a place to recharge for the night—?”

You squeeze his hand. “Depends. Who’s offerin’?”

That gets him to lift his optics up to your face. He gives you a flat look and says, “Rattrap, obviously. I’ve seen the way the two of you look at each other.” He turns away and looks around the two of you. He adds, “I do have a large berth.”

“Sure do,” you say agreeably. And you could tease like this for ages, but it is late, and you always forget how exhausting it is, going that deep into the hardline connection, so, “Don’t think I’ll take much persuading.”

It really is a nice, big berth. You and Starscream both fit comfortably on it, with room to spare. It does take both of you a little while to settle in. In some ways, it’s easier to jack into a mech than to share a berth. It’s not the same sort of intimacy, but there, it’s just a cable. Here, you’ve got your two frames together, both aware of each little move the other one makes, getting ready to let yourself go offline with another person right there.

Though it does help when Starscream’s hand finds yours again. That’s probably something you oughta get used to, and you’re sure not going to argue with it. It’s just his hand resting on top of yours at first, but then you shift so his fingers slip in between yours, and your fingers curl around his until they’re tangled all close together.

You look over at Starscream to find him already looking at you, and you have to say that he’s doing a pretty awful job of trying to hide his smile. He’s doing his best, but it’s showing through in every movement of his optics and every twitch of his mouth. As he watches, slowly, deliberately, you dim your optics. Trust. His hand tightens around yours. He’s still awake and watching you, but your hand is still held secure in his and you can feel the comfortable warmth of his frame, and so there, on his berth, you let yourself slip away into recharge.