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Future Tense, Chapter 11

Disclaimer: As ever, author neither claims nor intentionally implies ownership of the 'Transformers' brand, or any canon character or concept herein, who are copyright 1984-present Hasbro/etc and used with much love and respect to their creators.

A/N: Sorry again for the delay, haha. I just thought I’d got my groove back… and my PC decided it wasn’t going to play by the rules. (To the extent that I had to buy a whole new damn PC before I could get on with writing. Argh.)

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     Not wanting the little paramedic to either come and jump on him – or worse, run even further away – Skywarp elected not to ping Footloose for a location, after all. Instead, he followed his maps and ambled his way across the district to the paramedic’s station, trying to look casual, keeping his fingers crossed that if she wasn’t there she would at least end up there at some point.

     The walk gave him time to rehearse his words in his head – what in Pit was he supposed to say to her, anyway? Sorry I thought you were an imposter. I know you’ve been waiting for me to come home for a whole lifetime, and were… I guess, understandably excited when you found out I was here. Frag, I’d probably have jumped on the guys, too, if they’d been gone as long! I just figured it was a stupid big wind-up, to get back at me for freaking out underground. Big bad ex-Con, running away from a cave. How humiliating. But ha ha, no harm done, eh?

     He found his hands had already curled into fists, down by his sides, without any conscious input. He carefully unclenched them, peeling back one finger at a time. At least try not to look like you’re a fraction of a breem away from punching someone.

     The paramedics’ station wasn’t especially difficult to find – a small but functional office tacked onto the west side of Deixar General’s back yard, ambulance staff apparently sharing the outside space with hospital employees.

     Right now, a small sea of dark green bodies filled the area outside the depot, all looking intently up at the office, where Braze stood on a little flight of steps, evidently giving a briefing of some sort. Footloose was easy to spot – among the various shapes and sizes of crewmates, bikes and trucks and all-terrain vehicles, there was only one set of wings, mostly buried away at the centre front of the huddle. Skywarp could just see the gentle curve of a leading edge, poking out from behind the giant Flatliner.

     The teleport retreated back half a step, so the pillar supporting the gate partially blocked him from view, watching and waiting, not entirely sure if it was unease or alarm or just plain embarrassment making him reluctant to enter the yard (because it sure wasn’t out of a desire to be polite). He knew they’d all stare at him, and he didn’t especially fancy having an audience while he stumbled his way across an apology – not exactly his forte in the first place. Last thing he wanted was to have to then apologise for starting a brawl as well.

     At last, Braze spotted him, and tailed off midsentence, unintentionally advertising Skywarp’s presence to everyone. As a collective, the entire mass of green turned to look at what had attracted his attention. A murmur of curiosity rose from the little assembly.

     Skywarp pursed his lips with a glare and folded his arms, puffing himself up, affecting his best “torqued Decepticon” posture until they all found somewhere better to look. -don’t mind waiting- he pinged at Braze. -lemme know when done-

     Braze shook his head and flicked an encouraging hand. -nah, s’aright. pretty much done. come on in-

     While her friends dispersed from their huddle, Footloose remained stubbornly where she was, arms folded, wings mantling subtly forwards, lips pursed and a small glower furrowing her brow. Frightened hostility fairly oozed off her – even at this distance, several paces away, Skywarp could feel her static field intersecting with his own, a storm of electric fireflies. He saw a very definite echo of himself in the smaller femme, reflecting back at him as clear as looking into a mirror.

     Skywarp knew she was aware of him – just… studiously ignoring him. If she’d not picked up his name in the murmured comments, she’d have certainly picked up his ident signal at this close range. He put a hand on her shoulder, hesitantly. “Uh-… Footloose?”

     She managed a small grunt. “What.” Her gaze never flickered from the spot. “Come to shout at me some more?”

     “I-… no?” Thrown by the accusation, he had to work hard to keep from responding in kind, swallowing a snap. “You kinda startled me. Wasn’t expecting anyone to come jump on me-!”

     Footloose muttered something barely intelligible and kept her gaze fixed on the same pebble in the composite stone steps, hunching one shoulder in a shrug. “S’only pleased to see you.”

     “I know, I-… listen-…” Skywarp rubbed the back of his helm with one hand, frustrated. “Didn’t mean to yell at you, Button. I’d barely been out of the garbage for a couple of breems. I had no idea that anything had even happened. I…” He threw up his hands, palms up, in an expansive shrug. “I thought it was just a big dumb wind-up to get back at me for freaking out.”

     Stop making excuses, you dumb turkey, his conscience chided. Just say you’re sorry. You could apologise to Megatron, but not your own sparkling?

     Yeah, but that was only to keep him from slagging me, he defended himself, determined to at least get the last word in.

     He vented uncomfortable warm air from his core, and took a moment to rehearse things in his head, and even then, the words threatened to stall in his vocaliser. “…I’m sorry.”

     It was like flicking a switch. Footloose twisted around on the spot, somehow miraculously avoiding smacking him with her wings, and jammed her head up under his chin, just like she used to do as an infant. He could feel her trembling where she clung to him, her exterior plating vibrating subtly under his fingers. After a second of startled hesitation, he let his arms drift stiffly around her.

     “I didn’t mean to scare you.” The words flowed out of her in one long barely-punctuated sentence. “I just I was so pleased to see you, I assumed you’d be just as excited to be back from wherever you’d been, I never thought you might not even know where you were or not realise you’d been anywhere. And then I was a bit scared that you weren’t you, again, because you yelled at me and that was the only reason I could think of that you’d not be happy to see me after all that long time, unless you were angry with us for not finding you sooner because it had been a really long time and you were probably lonely-” She hesitated for a microsecond, to allow a new thought to process. “You’re not angry, are you?”

     “Nah.” He couldn’t help smiling, just a little, running his fingers over the leading edge of her wings. At least her bristly field had begun to smooth. “Just wondering if I’ll be able to get a word in edgeways in a moment?”

     “Oh-! I’m sorry, I just-”

     He covered her mouth with the flat of his palm. “Will you stop apologising about nothing?”

     “Sor-…” She dithered for a very long second or two and finally came up with; “…all right?”

     “Better.” He waggled a finger. “Now since when did you get smart enough to be a doctor?” He tapped the finger against the emblem of the medical services inscribed on her shoulder, just above the glyphs that spelled out paramedic. “I always figured you’d end up being a courier or something. Any excuse to fly around the world, double-quick.”

     She smiled, shyly. “I’m not really smart. Auntie Sepp says I’m a welding iron with wings. That and I’m pretty good at finding people. I always get to them quickest. I keep an ear on all the emergency radio chatter. It was how I figured out, uh-… about, I mean… I spied on Whites.” She sighed stale air, quietly, and managed a small laugh. “Every time they found a new flier, I’d come check it out. Just in case. Used to drive Starscream bonkers, at the start. Every time Acid Storm paged him with a new discovery, there I was, getting in the way.”

     “And then you really did find me, and I just yelled. Welcome home, huh.” He leaned his cheek against her smooth helm. “I thought I’d made you angry, when you never came back – you never used to let things drop so easily.”

     Footloose fidgeted and used a thruster to draw awkward semicircles on the dusty ground. “Well, I talked to Ama after she’d come and seen you. She said her and Dack thought you were really you this time, and I-I would have come back to see you in hospital, I just-…” She cringed a little in apology. “…I figured you were probably already pretty freaked out, I didn’t want to make it even worse and scare you more.”

     “Understatement of the vorn, or what.” Skywarp actually snorted a laugh. “There’s more though, isn’t there? Come on, Button. Out with it.”

     Footloose mumbled her answer at the ground, reluctantly. “Kinda didn’t want you to yell at me again, either. It’d been so long since we last saw you, and I never figured you would have been so angry over-… I didn’t even know what. You were just back, and I’d missed you so much, and you were yelling at me like it was still my fault.”

     “…your fault for what?”

     She refused to meet his gaze. “Not getting you out. Leaving you alone in the dark.”

     Silently, Skywarp watched her for a second or two. “…the guys better not have given you a hard time about it.”

     Footloose let her head bonk softly back down against his chest. “I gave me a hard time. I would never have left you on your own if I’d known all this was gonna happen. We could have stayed there, scared but together, until the guys rescued us.”

     “You were only doing what I told you, for a change.” He listened to her chuckle, quietly, and patted her helm. “Then you decided to go off and be an ambulance. What have I done to you, huh? Turned you all weird.”

     “…weird? What’s weird about it?” Footloose looked up to meet his gaze, her head quirked to one side.

     “Me and your ama, a thug and a cop. How does that lead to someone going round fixing people?” He lowered his voice and added, honestly; “…totally impressed, though. Seriously. Never thought someone who got a bunch of her coding from me would ever have the smarts to make it in medicine.”

     The smaller machine couldn’t help preening a little, flattered. “Well, I figured… if I’d known how to fix you, or-or… do anything to help, really… maybe I could have helped get you out, and we’d have been safe and you wouldn’t have die-… disappeared.” She corrected the slip just too late to cover it. Her gaze drifted to her feet, guiltily. “We looked for you forever. Stopping looking meant you were dead and we didn’t want to think about that. We’d probably still be looking now, except they all said me and Seem had to stop. Grieve, accept you were gone, and move on, before it drove us mad.” She sucked in another of those stabilising pulses of cold air. “But if I’d been able to get your leg off safely? It would have all been fine. We wouldn’t have lost you.”

     “Can you imagine how long it’d have taken them to dig down to us, through all that rock? Ugh.

     “You could have teleported us…”

     Skywarp managed a half-smile. “You know all that woulda happened is that we both teleported into the future. Can you imagine how bad Seem would have been without you there to keep him on his toes?”

     Her smile wavered, subtly. “Have you been to see him yet?”

     Skywarp caught it – that small flicker of unease in her manner. He shook his head. “No. And going by what Ama says, I figure he’s avoiding me.”

     “Uh. Probably. Kinda.” Footloose offered an apologetic pout. “Overwound little workaholic. Needs that stick yanking out from his exhaust.”

     “Ama said he works hard…”

     “Work is ALL he does. Boring little glitch.” The smaller jet snorted, melodramatically. “He’s no fun, any more, always hanging around with his stupid roomies. Thinks he can singlehandedly remove all crime, from all of Deixar, forever.”

     “So, you’re trying to fix everyone, and he’s trying to arrest them all? Nice to see you both found healthy outlets for your frustration.”

     Footloose laughed and butted heads. “You’re being silly.”

     “And you’re turning into Ramjet.” Skywarp tried for a wan smile. “…I… sorry I screwed up, Bit.”

     Footloose rested her head back against him. “It’ll be all right,” she murmured – quietly, as though scared to tempt fate, “because now you’re back.”

o0o0o0o0o0o

     Starscream’s oh-so-terrible morning hadn’t apparently made too great an impact on his overall mental health. Not only had he taken over the best chair in the corner of the superintendent’s office, he was now also comfortably dormant, thrusters resting on a stray crate, head tilted back, fingers laced over his canopy glass, fans humming peacefully.

     Chin propped on the back of his knuckles, Thundercracker sat and watched him for a moment or two before shaking his head, amused, and going back to the mountain of reports needing his attention. The pads seemed to be breeding all on their own, because he was sure he’d have noticed someone sneaking in to add this many more to the pile. Where did they all come from, anyway.

     The door creaked softly into his attention, and he glanced up.

     “…guys?” An uneasy face peeked around the doorway, then smiled in recognition. “Oh, hey. Yeah, found ’em.” With a final thanks, Lars at someone out in the main office, Skywarp invited himself in.

     In his corner, Starscream onlined an optic and arched a brow, but otherwise remained as he was.

     Likewise, Thundercracker watched his friend make his wary way across the room. “I was expecting you ages ago, Warp.”

     Skywarp eased onto a convenient chair, straddling it and folding his arms against the backrest. “Yeah, I know. I was busy.”

     “Is that the same sort of ‘busy’ that used to need me to go and apologise to someone for you?”

     “You’re such a comedic genius, TC.” The teleport flicked his wings and made himself comfortable. “Nah, I went to see Footloose.”

     “…she all right?”

     “Shouldn’t she be?”

     Thundercracker spread his hands and inclined his head. “You’ve talked to her. What do you think?”

     “Mm. Point.” Skywarp’s lips quirked into a lopsided, somewhat embarrassed smile, and he found an interesting spot on the ceiling to examine. “She looks okay. Now, I mean.” He lowered his voice and mumbled something Thundercracker didn’t quite catch about why did apologising in public have to be so difficult? “She seems to have forgiven me – I think. I hope?” Another mutter followed – now I just gotta work on the other one.

     Thundercracker politely pretended not to have heard. “Productive morning, then?”

     Skywarp tore his gaze from the ceiling. “Yeah, it was, actually.” He sounded strangely surprised. “Listen, Screamer? I got something I wanted you to take a look at.”

     Starscream swapped a guarded look with Thundercracker, but otherwise kept quiet, watching as Skywarp produced a small clear glass jar from his subspace, containing what appeared to be a mouldy tribble.

     The scarlet jet narrowed his optics, suspiciously, trying not to recoil too obviously in disgust. “What is that?”

     “I don’t know.” Skywarp held his jar up in front of his face, as though seeing the hairy mass for the first time, and gave it a little shake. “S’why I brought it here for you to look at.”

     “Did you get that jar out of my lab?”

     “It didn’t have anything-… oh, yeah, the ‘keep out’ thing.” Skywarp gave a casual flip of a hand, waving away the simmering irritation directed at him. “It’s all right, I didn’t knock anything over.”

     Starscream gave him a dirty look, but didn’t chase it, instead sitting forwards and holding out a wary hand for the object. He gave it a brief but intense visual once-over, close up.

     Skywarp watched, intently. “So? What is it?”

     “Fluff, so far as I can tell.”

     The teleport curled his lip and glared. “That’s what Pulse said. I kinda hoped The Expert would be able to explain it maybe just a little bit better.”

     “Have you ever heard of Occam’s razor?” Starscream carefully unscrewed the lid and poked the fibres with a finger, grimacing as they adhered to his plating.

     Skywarp looked back, blankly. “…Occam’s what?”

     “Have you considered that maybe it is just fluff?” Starscream gave up his futile attempt at wiping the strands from his fingers against the smooth surface of the seat. “TC, do you have a rag somewhere over there…?”

     Skywarp groaned and sagged against his chair, letting his arms dangle and bonking his forehead down on the backrest, dramatically. “It came from somewhere, guys. Fluff doesn’t just appear out of subspace, all on its own.”

     Crimson optics delivered a well-practised withering glare. “If you maybe gave me a bit more information than here’s some fluff to look at, I might stand a chance at figuring it out. Where did you even find it?”

     “Down by your borehole at the Rift.”

     Starscream gave him an unexpectedly hard look, pausing mid-clean. “You went down the Rift?”

     “Well, sure. Just to get a look-”

     Starscream cut him off, curtly. “After everything that’s happened, and you went down the Rift already? You’re barely out of hospital!”

     Skywarp straightened, insulted, folding his arms. “I’m sorry, I forgot I was supposed to ask your permission to go look at a bunch of rocks.”

     “Did the concept even once flash through your processors that maybe the Rift is a source of some pretty hideous memories, for most of us? And that you… tramping off down there the instant we got you back, like you don’t have a care in the world, could be maybe a bit of a fragging… insensitive damn thing to do?”

     “Oh, like you’re the master of tact!”

     “Tact has nothing to do with it.” Starscream only just managed to rein in the urge to hurl the jar of fluff at Skywarp’s head. “First we nearly lost Thundercracker after that useless pipeline’s meddling, then the pair of you had danced a fine line above self-destruct after we got back to Cybertron… then you vanished completely! Do you know how traumatic it was? For everyone involved?”

     “Do you know how traumatic it was for me, finding out I’ve been in limbo for half my life-?!”

     “It was hardly half-

     “Well, how about you go hibernate for a few vorns. Then you can get back to me on how I should be responding to it!” Skywarp bounced to his thrusters, fists balled. “In fact, lemme help. Stand still and let me clock you one on the helm!”

     Both mechs were now on their feet, barely more than arm’s length apart, wings hiked, glaring. Chin still resting in both palms, Thundercracker watched them posture and gesticulate, and wondered if he could be bothered to get up and separate them. His sense of self-preservation suggested waiting for them to yell themselves out would be less damaging on his paintwork; he agreed with it.

     “Do you know what it was like for your little brats, digging down to you and finding a half a shredded leg from where you couldn’t be patient?” Starscream waved an arm, as though torn between gesturing and hitting. “I had the pair of them hanging off my thrusters for-for… several entire solar orbits, at least! Like they couldn’t bear to let either of us out of their visual range, just in case we vanished as well.”

     “Nice to see what you really mean, there, Starscream. Primus forbid you have to look after a couple of scared sparklings. You’re more worried about what it’s all doing to your reputation – like you’ve got one of them, any more.”

     “That is not what I meant and you know it-!”

     “Guys, guys. Please.” Thundercracker groaned into his hands. “Does everything have to be an argument? You know Warp didn’t go down there to intentionally be insensitive-…”

     “Don’t make excuses for him-!”

     “…-and you know that if you were in Warp’s place, the first thing you’d have done after getting out of hospital would have been to go down the Rift to check things out. He needs to know what happened, just like we do.”

     “Except I wouldn’t have got into Skywarp’s situation in the first place.”

     Skywarp pitched a convenient datapad across the office at him, bouncing it off his helm. “How about you come over here and say that?”

     Starscream smiled back, with that gritted-teeth sort of sickly sweetness that was the usual precursor to a mech getting shot at, and with a quick flick of the wrist, threw the pad back. Skywarp ducked, but not quite fast enough to avoid the projectile – Thundercracker hastily rescued it. “How about, you follow a direct instruction just once in your life, and I’ll think about it?”

     Skywarp rubbed his head, sulkily. “I was only looking for you. Figures that it’s too much to ask you to be interested in helping me”

     “You’re missing the point-”

     “You’re not helping me not-miss-it!”

     In his head, Thundercracker counted slowly to ten. “Please, Starscream. Just humour us for once. I want to know what that nasty stuff is, as well – if only so I know to put funds aside for a huge vacuum cleaner.”

     Starscream vented hot air, huffily, and after shooting horrible glares at both hecklers, turned his attention back on the fluff. “It’s biological,” he confirmed, at last. “That’s about as much as I’m willing to say at this juncture, without running a proper analysis on it.”

     “Is it off your stupid trees?”

     Starscream looked across the room and met Skywarp’s woebegone expression; he swallowed the urge to snap a request for Pit sake could people stop calling them stupid, all the time. “I don’t think so. It’s got a similar structure to the biological materials we’ve found on, ah-… other things.”

     Skywarp spread his hands, encouragingly. “…you gonna elaborate?” he prompted.

     “At the moment, no. Not until I’m sure.” Starscream palmed the jar carefully into his subspace, for safekeeping. “I’ll need to cross-reference it against the samples I have in storage. It could be nothing. Is probably nothing.”

     “You are gonna find out what it is for me, then?”

     Starscream’s brow furrowed into a tired glare. “Well, if I’m going to go feeding your nonsensical conspiracy theories?” A long-suffering sigh. “I want to know that I’m doing it for a good reason. And not just to get you to be quiet about it.”

     Skywarp remained quiet, although it looked mainly like he wasn’t entirely sure if his friend was just being rude about him, and was thinking up an appropriate response.

     Thundercracker caught his attention before things could devolve to another argument. “What are you going to do now, Warp?”

     “Iunno. You all right if I go get a look around maybe?” Skywarp jerked a thumb at the door through to the offices. “Just get my maps up to date, y’know. And, uh. See if I can snag Seem, who is clearly avoiding me.”

     The glances swapped between his wingmates were subtle, but Skywarp didn’t miss them. Thanks for confirming it, guys. Not sure I wanna find him, any more.

     “Since when do you ask my permission to go snoop around somewhere?” Thundercracker joked.

     Skywarp shrugged one shoulder. “Well, you guys are both cops, I’m just a lazy bum. You might not want me causing chaos where it should be ‘staff only’.”

     The blue Seeker smiled, patiently. “Even if we said you couldn’t go wandering, Warp, are you telling me you’d break the habit of a lifetime and not invite yourself in anyway? It’s not like we can put a subspace lock on the entire building.”

     “…fair point.”

     Once the door had closed, and Skywarp’s signal faded away, Thundercracker turned to Starscream, and did that face at him; the one that said he was waiting for his wingmate to elaborate on what he was thinking.

     “This time? No.” Starscream shook his head, firmly. “Not until I’ve investigated the angles I’m concerned about. Then, I’ll talk to you. I don’t want anyone jumping to conclusions – yet.”

o0o0o0o0o0o

     As it turned out, Skywarp’s maps didn’t need a whole lot of updating. Meandering through the warren of corridors, he found the downstairs offices spookily familiar. A fresh coat of paint and few new computer terminals, but that was about the limit of the changes. The usual chaos of half-finished work, official supplies and personal belongings turned the place into the same comfortable warzone he remembered from before falling off the planet.

     Right now, the offices were mostly deserted. Open plan and covered in workstations of various sizes, only a few officers were actually at their desks. After a brief glance up to see who it was, most politely ignored the teleport as he edged his cautious way in.

     Slipstream was conspicuous in his absence, but then Skywarp hadn’t expected him to be easy to track down. Instead, he followed a familiar signal towards a far corner, furthest from the door and near a big expanse of window.

     Hidden behind a partition, Whitesides had zoned out at his desk, sprawled out on his chassis in a muddle of empty fuel cartons, bright cellophane candy wrappers and half-written reports. Optics dark, his head lay pillowed against one arm, the other dangling off the desk. If the hum of his air conditioners were anything to go by, he was fine, albeit in a very dormant state. The station joker had apparently been past, too, because each of the bike’s long aerials wore an empty candy wrapper, twisted carefully around the stem like a decorative scrunch of ribbon – he had to be pretty deep in recharge for it to have not woken him.

     Well, he always said he liked a challenge. Skywarp swallowed a smirk, then curled a finger and gave the bike a stern little flick! on one antenna.

     Whitesides sat bolt upright with a start and a noise of surprise, and promptly fell off his seat. “What’s-what-… what happened?” Hazy blue optics finally got the big expanse of black plating to come into focus. “Oh. S-sir. Uh. Did-… did you need something?”

     Skywarp folded his arms and arched both brows, dramatically. “Who’s been keeping you awake when you should be recharging, hmm?” he joked.

     The constable produced a wavery smile for him. “Oh, no – n-nothing like that. Just… more depleted than I thought I was, today, heh.” He straightened his antennae, brushing off the scrunches of cellophane. “Looking after little sparks really takes it out of you, doesn’t it?”

     Sounded far too convenient, Skywarp considered, but nodded anyway and offered a hand to help him up. “I guess.”

     “So, uhm, can-… can I help?” Whitesides settled uneasily back on his seat, sweeping some of his muddle into the corners of his desk so he could get back to work (or get back to napping).

     “I just...” Skywarp offered a shrug. “Honestly? I was actually looking for Slipstream, but seeing as you were here, I wanted to say thanks.”

     “Uh… right?”

     “I mean, if your little one hadn’t spotted me, I’d probably still be out there in the dump, wondering where the frag everyone was and why they were ignoring me.” Skywarp poked out his tongue. “Thanks for sounding so suspicious, by the way.”

     Whitesides twittered an uneasy little laugh, and changed the subject. “You said you were looking for Seem? Can’t you just ping him?”

     “Uh, well.” Skywarp rubbed the back of his head. “I kinda… don’t have his frequency, any more? He’s changed his signal since I got lost.”

     “Oh.” Whitesides’ optics flickered briefly to one side, apparently comm’ing for a location. “He’s down in the galley with the other two from his dorm. Probably spouting politics again.” He studied his cluttered desk with a strange intensity, avoiding meeting Skywarp’s gaze in favour of his reports. “Now is probably a good time to catch him. Once he’s off on his beat, you won’t see him for dust.”

     The little flicker of uneasy fireflies in the smaller mech’s field piqued Skywarp’s curiosity. According to Thundercracker, Whitesides had helped out a lot when it had come to dragging the twins up to be responsible adults – which meant the idea that the bike was scared of the youngling was pretty… mystifying. Something about the thought had made him uncomfortable, though. Maybe it was the idea of politics that made him twitchy.

     Recognising that he’d no doubt find out in time, Skywarp gave the bike a friendly slap on the shoulder that almost knocked him clean out of his chair again. “Thanks. Guess I better go see if he’ll talk to me.” He cycled cool air, squared his wings, and strode determinedly for the door. “Maybe I just need to corner him or something…”

     The hollow tramp of walking thrusters dwindled down the corridor for a moment or two, then paused… then grew louder again, and Skywarp poked his head back around the door. “You might wanna get them paint transfers looked at, next time you’re down the washracks. People might start asking questions.”

o0o0o0o0o0o

     Finding the officer’s mess was the easy part. Picking Slipstream out from the crowd of assorted machines was going to be harder, since none of them resembled the little dark blue bike he remembered. Skywarp hovered in the doorway and frowned at the assembly.

     What had Whitesides said – probably spouting politics with the other two from his dorm? Well, three mechs held court in one corner of the hall – compact, powerful machines, midway in size between a bike and a truck – surrounded by a small group of other officers. What they were talking about was impossible to tell, at this distance and over the general hubbub, but they looked fairly animated about it. Maybe that was “politics”.

     Correction; two of them were fairly animated. The third – an extremely scruffy silver mech with mismatched optics and wonky antennae – had his feet on the table, chair rocked back against the wall, drawing seriously on a flashstick and paying little attention to his comrades. Twinkling coolant vapours curled up from his torso venting. Skywarp crossed his fingers that Slipstream hadn’t “let himself go” to quite such a dramatic degree. Plus, he looked far too chilled for a youngling with a stick up his exhaust.

     The other two – the two who looked a little more alert and awake – could nearly have been twins. A vivid blue, boldly marked with high-visibility yellow chequers, they were indistinguishable save for the little green lightning bolts inscribed onto the seated one’s shoulders. Great. Who should he poke first?

     It was the seated mech that first noticed Skywarp’s cautious approach, and answered the question for him. “Eh, Scoobs,” he drawled, and gestured idly with the corner of a datapad. “Someone here to see you.”

     The standing blue one turned to glance over his shoulder, and an unfamiliarly intense, near-crimson purple glare met Skywarp’s.

     “Pit-… I am not doing this here,” the mech snapped, in a voice that couldn’t belong to anyone but Slipstream, and twisted abruptly out of view with a hostile slap of collapsing air.

     Startled (and only just succeeding in hiding it), for a moment or two Skywarp just glared at the empty space his sparkling had just occupied, until a chit of positioning data stung his firewalls. Figuring it was a request – Pit, an order – to follow him, Skywarp did as asked, and chased the co-ordinates.

     Slipstream was already pacing when he arrived, out in the empty training yard behind the station, away from prying optics. The excited, happy little mech getting used to his first upgrade had been replaced by a hard-eyed, cynical adult, impatient and hostile – but not with the frightened, defensive sort of aggression that had made Footloose’s field so prickly. Slipstream was a spikey ball of good old simple belligerence – if he had been looking at anyone else, Skywarp would have happily pegged them as spoiling for a fight. The meticulous polish and touched-up enamel couldn’t quite hide the liberal covering of little dents and scrapes to his armour – a hundred and one battle-wounds, scarred into his exterior like badges of honour. Pulsar had said the little mech worked hard – apparently it involved getting smashed around on a regular basis.

     “I really don’t have anything to talk to you about,” Slipstream greeted, immediately on the defensive, glaring. “So say your piece and leave me alone.”

     “My-… what?” The little red face inscribed high on the right side of the younger mech’s chest was very clear, and very hard to ignore. Skywarp barely got the words out. “Autobot, Seem?”

     “After what the Cons did to us, after you vanished into the ether?” Slipstream folded his arms. “You bet I was going to join up. I wanted to make it crystal clear that we wouldn’t stand back and let them roll over us, that we weren’t just a bunch of woolly neutrals that’d crumble as soon as they waved a gun.”

     Skywarp had to work hard at keeping his temper level. “‘Woolly neutrals’? TC and Starscream seem to have coped okay with it.”

     “Now, maybe.” The smaller machine lifted his chin, arrogantly. “It was different, back then, not that you’d know anything about it.”

     “A little blob of tin whose age is barely into double figures is telling me what war feels like-?!”

     “-I was scared, and I was angry, and I felt like I couldn’t make any kind of difference. I couldn’t think of a better way of saying how much I hated what they stood for, what they were willing to do to us.”

     “You didn’t have to sign up as a friggin’ Autobot-!”

     “I wanted to make a point. That we weren’t scared of them. That I wasn’t scared of them.” One scuffed blue arm waved in the rough direction of Deixar’s hospital. “They’d already landed TC and Starscream in the emergency department. They came looking for you next. Apparently, Shockwave hadn’t bother telling Megatron and his cronies that you were probably buried under half a planet. Since they had a score to settle with your whole trine? Letting you hide away somewhere and get out of retribution wasn’t an option. They didn’t care who they had to go through to get to you.”

     Skywarp remained quiet, digesting the information.

     Slipstream carried on in the silence. “Anyone with half a logic relay knew about you and Ama.” He curled his lip, scornfully. “Want to find Skywarp? Go ‘ask’ his femme. Even if she doesn’t tell you where he is, it’ll get back to him, and he’ll come looking for you anyway. Especially if you roughed her up a bit in the process, because Primus forbid anyone scuffs his property around without permission.”

     Skywarp felt his hands close into tight, painful fists, down at his sides, but somehow he managed to keep them there. All out punching his own offspring, however disrespectful the little brat may be, wasn’t precisely going to patch things over between them.

     “They didn’t believe her when she said you were lost.” Slipstream resumed pacing, awkwardly. “Skywarp? Skywarp NEVER gets lost. You might wanna start squeaking, Squeaky, or we oil that squeak forever.” He folded his arms, although it looked more like a protective self-hug than a hostile front. “They didn’t want it getting straight back to you that they were looking for you, so they ran her through a recycling mill when they were done with her. If I’d taken a breem longer to find her, I’d have found a corpse.” He pressed the back of his knuckles against his lips, and Skywarp could see him trembling, ever so slightly. “As it was, she spent orns in intensive care. Everything was either crushed, or broken. They pretty much had to rebuild her from the spark up.”

     Suddenly, Pulsar’s comment about Slipstream having issues made sense. If the youngster had found her, broken beyond recognition, bleeding out and dying in a rubbish dump? Small wonder that he’d pinned full blame on the absent parent that had been the real target all along.

     Slipstream saw the hurt flash across Skywarp’s face. “So, she didn’t tell you that, either? No surprise there. I wouldn’t trust you not to over-react, either.”

     “Seem-” Skywarp shuffled his thrusters, flexed his fingers, and threw his hands up in the air with a despairing huff of hot air. “Look, I’m sorry, all right? What precisely do you want from me? It’s not like I got sucked into a forty-vorn hole in time and space on purpose. You think I wanted to vanish from all your lives? Frag. If I could go back in time and fix all this, I would, without question-”

     “It’s a little late for apologies, don’t you think?” Slipstream cut in, quietly. “Now if you’ll excuse me. Some of us have work to do.” He crossed an arm over his chest in a mocking salute, inclined his head, and headed for the street exit without another word.

     Skywarp just… watched him go.

o0o0o0o0o0o

     Deixar Central’s active evidence store sprawled over most of the two basement levels underneath the station. Behind the reception desk, the officer on duty was busy taking in something in lots of individual bags from pair of constables. Starscream swallowed a sigh of hot air. There would undoubtedly be an endless pile of documentation to fill in before all the bags were safely stowed away and the clerk could dedicate his attention to the forensics lead, tapping an impatient thruster behind the chattering bikes.

     Not wanting to waste time waiting around for him, the red jet just hopped neatly over the desk, avoiding clipping anything with a wingtip with a long-practiced familiarity.

     The clerk jumped, as though physically prodded with his own stylus, and held out a hand in a clear wait!-gesture. “Um, sir? You-you can’t just go in there, you haven’t filled out the form-”

     The red Seeker skewered him on a glare that spoke volumes about his opinion of said forms, daring the smaller mech to finish his sentence.

     The sergeant looked like he’d very nearly swallowed his vocaliser. “Never mind.”

     The evidence store might only contain items for recent and active cases, it was still always full to overflowing. Starscream made his way down one of the long narrow aisles, towards the rear of the evidence store, turned sideways so his wings didn’t sweep anything off the over-filled shelves. Right in the back, close to the refrigerant vent, was the locked shelf he had long ago claimed for his own personal use. A little island of space and tidiness in the stuffed warehouse.

     After a brief question/answer session with the lock, the clear door clicked open with a soft hush of cold air and a little cloud of vapour. The seeker selected a small jar from the shelf, and held it up in front of his face, next to Skywarp’s disgusting ‘gift’. The writing on the label had gone dull, after an eternity of sitting near an air-conditioning vent, but was clear enough to identify the contents: biological residue retained from autopsy AM25.334.23G4K

     Dark lips compressed to a hard, hurt line. Winnower had carefully saved this all up from the autopsy he’d conducted on the second facsimile, after the two remaining Seekers had-… after it had been dealt with. At the time, Starscream hadn’t felt personally up to analysing all the remains, trusting the smaller scientist to bring anything of importance to his attention.

     Thundercracker’s accusation that he’d sneaked the report onto the server a half a vorn late had stung, and granted, he probably had been feeling a little petty at the time, but-… it had taken him a good portion of that time to write the thing. Lots of small sessions, analysing a couple of sets of information at a time, to keep his anger at how DARE they use their dead wingmate to try and infiltrate their broken trine under control.

     Starscream banished the thought before he could get too hung up on it. He turned his attention back on his samples; the two small bottles of sticky, fluffy residue were fairly identical, except in volume, and age. The jar containing the smaller quantity was a good nineteen vorns older than Skywarp’s collection.

     Starscream’s optics narrowed to fine crimson lines of wary suspicion.

     So. There was something here.

     He palmed both containers into his subspace, and headed off to evict Winnower from the forensics suite.

o0o0o0o0o0o

     “How dare he talk to me like that!”

     Here we go again. Same old problems, just a different coloured Seeker. Thundercracker rested his head on one hand, trying not to look as tired as he felt, and watched Skywarp pace back and forth across his office. It was a small wonder he’d not dug a trench in the floor, so far. He’d certainly left a furore of purple scuffmarks on the old tiles, which Thundercracker wasn’t holding out much hope of being able to polish out very easily.

     “How dare he talk to me like that!” Skywarp stabbed a finger in a point, for emphasis, using the finger something like a weapon. “I used to be one of Megatron’s elite. Disrespectful little brat! Should fragging well be scared of me. How dare he treat me like that!”

     Thundercracker didn’t even lift his head. “Is that really what you want, Warp? Him cowering at the very sight of you?” he wondered, patiently.

     “A little friggin respect isn’t too much to ask for-!”

     “True, but-… you’ve gotta earn it, mech. He’s gone most of his life without you, and all he remembers is a mech that was consistently either thinking up practical jokes, who couldn’t be serious, or was spoiling for a fight with someone.” Thundercracker finally lifted his head, spreading his hands. “Sure, he’s a sullen, radicalised little glitch half the time, but he’s still a good spark, and a good officer. He just needs you to be someone he can re-learn to respect. And he does still love you – you’re still family. He missed you just like everyone else.”

     “Sure. Believable.” Skywarp muttered something ugly and scuffed his toes against a black streak his turbines had left on the floor.

     A dark face appeared in the doorway. “T-… sir?”

     “Pulsar, just the person.” Thundercracker smiled in that tired way he did when at the end of his patience. “Would you take Warp away for something cool and restorative, so I can see about waxing his footmarks off my floor?”

     “And don’t you treat me like some damn sparkling, either.” Skywarp turned his frustration onto Thundercracker. “Since when did you get so fraggin’ sanctimonious?”

     “Skywarp-… Please. Just go.”

     As requested, Pulsar directed a prickly, silent Skywarp down to a small but pleasantly busy café on the old waterfront, looking out over what remained of the old harbour. Her three siblings were already there, perched on high stools close to the bar – Whitesides still looked half-asleep, and Surefire leaned around Longbeam to wiggle her fingers at them in a cheery wave, but otherwise they kept to themselves. Pulsar shooed her teleport into a corner, where people wouldn’t be so likely to walk into his wings, and fetched two cubes of fuel from the cheerful server behind the counter.

     “You could have told me that when you said Seem had issues, you meant he’s turned into an obnoxious, over-wound, purge-retentive little glitch,” Skywarp groused, softly, finally emerging from his sullen silence. “Even Starscream isn’t such an angry baggage. And when were you going to tell me he’s an Autobot, huh? Way to kick a guy when he’s down. Your brat’s defected to the enemy, oh and by the way, he hates the very sight you, but we thought we’d let you figure that out for yourself. Welcome home!”

     Pulsar stayed quiet, for several long seconds, trying to figure out what to say. “…sorry,” she managed, at last. “Guess I… didn’t really know how to say it. It’s been a long time. I thought he’d got over it.”

     Large purple fingers brushed very lightly against the small femme’s right shoulder guard. “You could have told me about this, too,” he reminded, quietly. “I didn’t realise when you said my former associates had helped persuade you, you meant they’d done it with a garbage compactor.”

     “I was going to.” She tried for a smile but it came out more as an awkward little frown. “Just trying to figure out how. I don’t really like to think about it.”

     “…I know I don’t do well with TC’s sort of emotional claptrap, but I wouldn’t have over-reacted.”

     “I know. I was more worried about how I’d have dealt with telling you.” Her lips spread in a sad smile, trying to lighten the mood. “For the record, I wasn’t worried you were going to have a breakdown. I just know how territorial you Seekers get. I didn’t want you to leave hospital, and fly straight off to claim your righteous vengeance.”

     He pursed his lips in a little pout of annoyance, and glared down into his half-empty flask. “Well also for the record, I don’t think of you as property, Pulse,” he pointed out, quietly. “It’s nothing to do with territory.” His voice descended into mutterings that sounded like long-dead Vosian curses.

     The building suddenly went strangely hushed – as though a storm was building somewhere on the horizon. Skywarp looked up from his cube to find a big, unfamiliar machine framed in the doorway, staring at him with chin lifted and lip curled, as though a source of noxious vapours was hanging somewhere at chest level.

     Skywarp didn’t really need to chase for an ident, but pinged him anyway; Waveguide. Just the person he needed to help complete today’s trifecta of failure.

     The boat wasn’t the small mech with a Napoleon complex that he’d imagined. Nor was he the slow, heavy barge he sounded from the way everyone described him. For a boat, he was… attractive, Skywarp had to admit, reluctantly. Tall, sleek, hydrodynamic, mostly silver and pale blue with crisp azure detailing, and intense pale yellow optics. The silver giant had obviously at one point been a surveyor, because he still bristled with analytical equipment.

     Waveguide looked away first, with a little sneer, resuming his journey to the counter. Smaller machines moved out of his way, like ice around the prow of an icebreaker. Appropriate.

     “Your usual, councillor?”

     “Thank you, yes…”

     Skywarp watched him, for a while, optics blazing, listening with only half an audio as Pulsar chattered inanely to him about all the other things that had been going on in their lives lately, trying vainly to fill the uncomfortable quiet and distract him from his black mood – he’d review it later, when he was feeling a bit less narked. The bulk of his attention remained on Waveguide, suspicious hostility making his wings bristle.

     Although he wasn’t specifically directing the words at his eavesdropper, Waveguide didn’t bother lowering his volume to a more private level as he spoke to the uncomfortable group at the bar. “Either time has finally driven them crazy enough to open their arms to yet another puppet in their hive, or this genuinely is the moron himself, finally back.” He smirked and spread his hands, as though torn between amusement and anger. “I’m not sure which sounds like the better option.”

     “I don’t know. I trust what they’re saying,” Whitesides murmured, sleepily, from the end of the long table. “They have good evidence this time. And they know him pretty well. We were there the last time they worked it out, I know they wouldn’t let themselves be tricked again.”

     “And precisely what makes this different to last time? When they, ah, ‘had evidence’ that supposedly proved the identity of that puppet?” Waveguide even drew the little air-quotes. “How many days did it take before they worked it out? Longer than, ah, ‘Skywarp’ has been back so far this time, that’s for sure.”

     “I’m sure if you asked, Thundercracker would let you read Starscream’s autopsy report. They were thorough, they’ve analysed everything and-… we all think he’s him.”

     “Because he’s sitting behind you, and you’re putting on a good show of unthinking trust and dedication to your masters? How touchingly noble.”

     Skywarp wasn’t sure if he was meant to have overheard, but Waveguide’s stage whisper was clearly intended to shame the constable into silence. The former surveyor lowered his voice to a scornful murmur, and spoke very close to the smaller mech’s ear; “I hardly think you’ll charm your way into his berth that way.”

     Whitesides pursed his lips, embarrassed, and found something interesting to study in his flask.

     Skywarp elbowed Pulsar gently in the side. “Aren’t you gonna say anything?” he asked, quietly. “That’s your bro he’s talking to.”

     Pulsar watched her former roomie’s back for a few moments, sombrely. “It’s all right. We’re used to it. He’s a mouthy glitch, we just had to get used to letting it roll off us. It’s not worth unbalancing things in favour of an argument.”

     “Surely you’re not afraid of that half-clocked old barge?”

     “Not precisely afraid of him, but what he can do,” Pulsar agreed. “Afraid that if we upset him, he’ll cut our budget again. We’re stripped back to the minimum we can operate on, at the moment; if he agrees to lower our funding again at senate, we’ll have to start cutting services.”

     Skywarp straightened, slightly, and elevated his voice just enough to be heard. “So what precisely is his malfunction? Running an underground crime syndicate or something?”

     “I wish it was that simple, because we could justify arresting him. No, TC still hasn’t quite persuaded him that he and Starscream aren’t secretly trying to turn the constabulary into a replacement Decepticon army to overthrow him.”

     Skywarp couldn’t help the little snerk. “He has seen you guys in action, right? Less effective army would be hard to find.”

     Frustrated, she punched his arm. “I thought you were being serious?”

     “That was serious.”

     Pulsar lowered her voice to a whisper, almost inaudible even to Skywarp – he had to retune his audios to pick it up. “It probably didn’t help that for a while, there was a… well, it was meant to be secret, but everyone knew about it.” She winced into her cube. “Whisper had a betting pool going about whether Blink’s sire was Boxer, or Starscream.”

     Skywarp’s brows shot up and he promptly sucked energon into the wrong intake. “Uh-… And who was it?” he wheezed, once he’d got his fans back under control.

     “Whites still hasn’t told anyone, not even his doctor. He’s sticking with his story that he got careless with a prostitute, even though he knows no-one believes him. A very rich prostitute that bought him an apartment in exchange for him keeping quiet about the affair.”

     “Huh. If Screamer can’t recruit new allies, he’ll just… breed them, is that it? Ew.” Skywarp curled his lip. After a thoughtful sip of energon, he added, with an artful innocence; “Anyone checked the wee bit ain’t Waveguide’s?”

     Now was Pulsar’s turn to splutter into her energon. “That’s not funny.”

     “Not laughing. It’d explain why he’s got himself in such a snit about you guys though. Bad enough getting a cop sparked – but a cop who works for your worst enemy, too? Pit. Ouch. I’d wanna sweep that under the carpet pretty quick if I was in his place, too.”

     Pulsar gave him another punch in the arm.

     “It figures that violence works best at getting a point across to him,” he heard Waveguide comment, somewhere in the distance, and sat on the urge to throw something at him. “Maybe without it, you can’t smack a point into that thick helm.”

     The two glared at each other across the room, for a while, until Waveguide lost interest and went back to his politics. (Trapped in the small serving area and pressed into service as an unwilling sounding board, the bartender couldn’t help looking awkwardly discomfited, trying not to cringe too obviously.)

     Lips pursed and brows knitted into a scowl, Skywarp slowly turned his empty flask between thumb and fingers. The councillor had clearly grown comfortable with the idea of depressed, defeated, mourning Seekers, too distracted to put him in his place. Well, this Seeker wasn’t depressed, defeated, or mourning, and perfectly happy to remind him exactly who he was dealing with.

     “I’m not gonna sit here and listen to this old slag for one astro-second longer,” he growled, quietly. The stool scooted away behind him, squealing against the floor and attracting the attention of at least half the café. “If no-one else is gonna shut him up? I’m happy to offer.”

     “What?!” Pulsar waved her hands frantically, mouthing no, no no! at him.

     Skywarp gave her his most glowingly mischievous grin, balled a fist and pressed it to his opposing palm.

     Then stepped around his table, and tapped the boat on the shoulder. “Ex-cuuse me…”

(Edit: argh, autocorrect. It's councillor.)

Crossposted. This entry was originally posted at http://keaalu.dreamwidth.org/22092.html.

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