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Screaming Blue Murder, Chapter 30

A/N: Today, I have no witty comments. :) Whee.

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Screaming Blue Murder
Chapter 30

It took some time to make their way back indoors, after Skywarp had finally (unsteadily) landed – although it would probably have been quicker had one or the other not decided to attempt to even the score every few steps (albeit only half-heartedly from the smaller party). A trail of paint transfers followed them all the way, on walls and buildings and benches and refuse carts and-…

They sneaked in through the back doors, snickering nervously like misbehaving schoolchildren, hoping to skirt unnoticed past most optics that might be watching. Walking in through the front doors together would be tempting fate just a little too comprehensively, especially if Whisper was on duty at the desk. Trying to swear him to secrecy would be the biggest exercise in futility ever.

Nightsun was just coming back from the cell block - probably assessing whether he thought Whitesides was a suitable candidate for decontamination - when they finally got through the doors. “Oh. Hello, you two,” he greeted, looking a little perplexed. “I hadn’t realised you were both up and about again. Feeling better, I assume?”

They just swapped looks and laughed nervously.

Nightsun arched a brow, then something apparently clicked and he rolled his optics, instead. “By the way, Pulse…” He gently steered the constable round in a half-circle, so her back was to the mirrored door. “You might want to take a little trip to the washracks before you do anything else,” he suggested, with an amused smile, watching as her optics flushed a vivid embarrassed cyan at seeing the purple smudges at the small of her back. “Before anyone asks you any difficult questions!”

“You git!” she rounded on Skywarp. “You did that on purpose!”

Skywarp was the very picture of innocence. “Oh, come now. Would I do such a thing?” He looked openly shocked at the insinuation.

“Yes, you would!”

His expression became more than a little lascivious. “I tell you what, how about I help you polish them out?”

She gave him a shove. “How about no thanks?” she snapped, although a little voice inside her disagreed. Oh Primus, please. “You’ve done more than enough for one day.”

“Ha. See you ’round, then, Squeaky.” He thumbed his nose at her and waggled his fingers, before sauntering away in the opposite direction.

She watched him go, wistfully. Should have said yes. That would have got them all talking…!

“You be careful how you play this, Pulse,” a voice said gently into her audio, and she glanced sideways to find Nightsun watching her with soft, concerned optics. “Don’t let yourself forget what he is.”

“I haven’t forgotten,” she reassured, trying to ignore the reluctance deep inside her. She hadn’t forgotten, although she wanted to. “He’s… well, he’s just-… ” She waved a hand, trying to conjure up the description she wanted.

“He’s still a Decepticon,” Nightsun filled in the blanks for her. “The fact he’s too busy with Blue right now to fight us doesn’t mean he’s renounced his faction altogether. Once this is over, we may all have to beat a hasty retreat.”

“Do you think it’s a bad thing?” she wondered, quietly. “To wish he was one of us?”

“A bad thing?” Nightsun echoed. “I don’t think so. A little optimism didn’t hurt anyone, and who knows what the future will bring.” He lifted a cautionary finger. “Whether it’s healthy to get too hung up on the idea is another matter entirely.”

She looked askance at him, then back at the floor. “Voice of sanity, as ever,” she grumbled, without much conviction. “I guess I’ll go get myself cleaned up before the rampaging masses want to fight me for the washracks.”

“Sounds like a good idea.” He gave her shoulder an affectionate pat. “You’ll have a little privacy for a while, your roommates are all still busy clearing out the remainder of Cali’s leaving presents.”

As Nightsun had suggested, her shared room in the dormitory block was empty. She’d never been quite so relieved to get her head under the shower before… a bit of solvent loosened the surface dust, and the sonic agitator vibrated off the rest of the stuck-on dirt from her derma and the seams between her plating. A quick spritz of water and most of the grit was safely down the drains.

The paint transfers were going to be trickier – she’d spent all her time wracking her brain for a good non-incriminating excuse and really couldn’t come up with anything that wouldn’t get people looking at her strangely, so the smudges all had to come out. He so did that on purpose! A bit of abrasive powder then re-polishing would do it-

Her insides were still all kinked up in their self-protective layouts, but she wasn’t really sure whether it had been him or those unbelievable heights that had done it. She leaned harder against the polishing wheel, and tried to use the sensation to buff the knots out of her insides as well; it didn’t take too much to imagine it wasn't just an inanimate tool but someone's hands-… Primus, you can cut that out! she scolded, inwardly. Irrepressible letch-

The flurry of banging disturbed her daydreams. “Hey, Glitchy, are you gonna come out of there this vorn, or what?” a voice demanded, through the door. “Some of us have been doing some actual work all day and kinda want to get cleaned up!”

Peace: shattered. She sighed and cast her gaze skywards. Like Whitesides, Longbeam was another of her dorm-mates, who she’d shared with since college. Unlike Whitesides, she’d never been particularly close to her fellow femme – too close in personality, which had always led to dramatic clashes of opinion – and Longbeam was as pure-sparked as they came, so she’d be pretty guaranteed to disapprove of this latest… Seeker-based… development. Speaking of which, what was she even supposed to call this mess? Certainly wasn’t anything particularly normal

Stepping out of the washroom was almost like walking into a mirror – Longbeam was standing just outside the door, her arms folded and her head canted over to one side with an impatient glower crimping her lips into a pout. She was the same model as Pulsar, and identical except for the paler face and yellow cheek-flashes, and slightly leggier build – actually a fault, but something which she was ridiculously proud of, because it made her a little different to everyone else. “You sure took your sweet time in there,” she griped, pushing past and leaving dirty fingermarks on the doorframe. “What were you doing, anyway, getting a whole new paintjob?” The door clunked closed behind her. “You better not have pinched the last of the detergent either,” the accusation filtered mutedly through the heavy alloy, but thankfully that was the last comment.

Pulsar ignored her friend’s griping and briefly examined her back in the mirror – not as shiny as she'd have liked, but the last of the incriminating smudges were gone, so it'd have to do – then boosted herself up to her bunk. She didn’t so much feel depleted as running on vapours… Battling for aerial supremacy obviously required more energy than anyone let on.

She ran her thumb over the little damson-coloured scuffmark on the back of her wrist, contemplatively. Nightsun’s right. This can’t end well. We all know it. So why can’t I stop thinking about him?

0o0o0o0o0

“I thought I told you,” Starscream rounded on him the instant a drowsy Skywarp appeared in the doorway, “to come and report to me the very instant you were done?”

Skywarp jumped back away from his bristly wingmate, startling awake. “I-… er, forgot?” he tried, vainly.

“So you’re claiming the cortex which in several thousand vorns has never betrayed you by forgetting anything has now become as reliable as the soggy programming a Squishy might have?”

“Errr… yes? Maybe it’s a residual fault from being on the mainframe!” Skywarp lied, frantically, bumping against the wall. “You said yourself you didn’t know what sort of after-effects it might have.”

“Oh for goodness-… Just… get over here,” Starscream stabbed a finger at the unoccupied stool next to the workbench, giving the teleport a martyred look. “The sooner I get a look in your brain the sooner I can confirm you’re back to your normal self.” He narrowed his optics, and added, just loudly enough to hear, “more’s the pity.”

Skywarp settled on the stool, wearing his best whipped-puppy expression, and let Starscream place the neural hood down over the back of his helm. “Sorry, Screamer,” he said, quietly, hunching his shoulders. “I was kinda… distracted. Didn’t mean to nark you off. I mean-… I didn’t think I was ever going to be cured, and your silly box actually worked.”

Starscream hmm-ed warningly, but seemed mollified by the apology. “All right, sit tight a minute. The less you’re doing, the quicker I’ll get an accurate reading…”

Skywarp watched remarkably quietly as the screen filled with colours – this time, lacking the fungating growth of Blue fractals. “That’s a good sign, isn’t it?” he commented, once the readout had flashed green lights and the little clockface had finished rotating.

“It’s a good sign,” Starscream confirmed, nodding. “It means the only faults now are pre-existing ones.”

“Hey, I didn’t have any pre-existing faults!”

That is entirely a matter of opinion.”

“Skywarp?” All three Seekers looked up to find Boxer in the doorway. “Are you fully recovered?”

Skywarp gave him a wary look from under his wiry hairpiece. “…mayybe.”

“Good.” The superintendent inclined his head. “There’s going to be a meeting of senior officers in the main conference room in three breems time. We’ll need your debriefing.”

“My what?!” Skywarp demanded, the instant the Policebot was gone. “Since when do I have to do them?! I don’t have anything useful to tell them!”

“Heh, you know, I kinda agree with you,” Thundercracker quipped. “But that’s just because you never have anything useful to say.”

“Guys, seriously. We’ve got to get back to the Nemesis,” Skywarp groaned, sinking down in his seat and resting his head in his arms. “Megatron never asks me for anything, except to get out of the damn way.” He finished with a melodramatic but passable mimic of the tyrant’s gravelly tones.

Thundercracker chuckled and patted his wings. “Cheer up, Warp. He’ll only ask for you to fill everyone in about Cali and her operation, not to go into details about your own personal virility.”

One optic turned his way, burning a murderous crimson. “And what is that supposed to mean?” Although if his voice was anything to go by, he already knew exactly what Thundercracker meant.

“Let me put it this way. I don’t know if you’ve been here so long you’ve forgotten how the chain of command works,” Starscream growled, “but where I come from, if a commanding officer gives an order, it’s usually accepted that the order will be followed. And if it isn’t, someone will take steps to find out why.”

“What order was that?” Skywarp quirked his head over to one side.

“The one that said come and find me, once you’d satisfied yourself you were cured.”

“Ohh, is that what you meant?” Skywarp wondered, busily trying to culture an air of I’m stupid, remember? “You said to go find you when I was done, well, I wasn’t done.”

“I meant done finishing your energon, not done getting your end away with Squeaky,” Starscream gave him a shove. “And you know that was what I meant.”

“Yeah, but-…” Skywarp’s optics narrowed. “Hang on, wait, wait-…” He waved his hands, realising something. “How did you two know-” His face visibly fell. “Aw, no, don’t tell me you fol-… You fragging well followed me?!”

Blue and crimson optics exchanged a look, and both Skywarp’s trine-mates nodded in unison.

“Of course we did, after Screamer came to find you and found out you’d fragged off somewhere. I mean, to start with, that femme’s still an Autobot,” Thundercracker reminded. “The pair of you could have been up to anything. You might even have gone back to Cali! So if you’re going to abduct officers-”

“Or vanish off without telling anyone where you’re going when your commanding officer quite explicitly told you to report in before you did anything,” Starscream added.

“-expect to have one or two optics turned in your direction, just to make sure you’re not up to anything inappropriate,” Thundercracker finished.

“So, uh-… what exactly, uh… did you see?” Skywarp’s wings had already begun to drift lower.

Thundercracker swapped a look with Starscream. “Pretty much all of it, wouldn’t you say, Screamer?” he lied. “Quite a show the pair of you put on.”

Starscream pursed his lips, thoughtfully, and nodded. “I’d figure,” he agreed, watching as Skywarp’s wings gradually sagged despairingly lower and lower. “I never knew you had such energy in you, Warp! Surprised you were still standing after.”

Skywarp’s optics blazed angrily, and more than a little embarrassedly. “Bunch of voyeurs! I should disown the lot of you!” he snapped, hunching his shoulders and trying to hike his dejected wings back up.

“You don’t think we were the only mechs watching, do you? Come on, Warp, we’re still Decepticons, they still don’t trust us. I bet Boxer sent half a dozen of his little corkscrews after you with cameras to make sure you weren’t doing anything you shouldn’t, once he realised the pair of you had fragged off somewhere.”

Skywarp’s jaw visibly sagged, in the clearest expression of oh shit they’d seen so far, and he spluttered wordlessly for a second before noticing Thundercracker’s lips twitch. He was trying desperately hard not to lose control of his straight face and give it away with a smirk. Starscream hastily averted his gaze and scratched behind an audio vent when the accusing crimson stare landed on him, and the game was up.

You half-smelted bastards!” Skywarp leaped at Thundercracker, who just happened to be closest. “You’re lying to me again!”

The other two finally lost the battle against their badly-disguised amusement; even having Skywarp square on his chest and trying to use his head to make a hole in the floor didn’t stop Thundercracker’s great peals of laughter, and after a second or two Skywarp finally saw the funny side and cracked a tired smile of his own.

“Don’t you think I’m gonna forgive you for that, you pair of fraggers,” the teleport scolded, trying (but failing) to turn his grin into a sneer and giving Thundercracker one last wallop for luck before getting off him. “It was a mean trick to play. And you’re only jealous that I was getting some.”

“Jealous? Hardly. We figured that since you’d become such a master at hiding stuff from us, we’d never get the truth if we just asked you. We reasoned that if you thought we’d seen, you’d confirm it for us – and you did,” Starscream snerked. “You’re far too gullible, sometimes.”

“I guess at least it proved one thing,” Thundercracker reminded, cheekily, not bothering to get up. “Our little Warpy’s still got it where it counts.”

Skywarp pfft-ed and took refuge in the flask of energon Starscream had slid under his nose, but couldn’t quite hide the sly, satisfied glint in his optics.

0o0o0o0o0

“I thought you’d tear me a new one,” Skywarp confided, quietly, as he and Starscream followed Thundercracker to the briefing room. “I wasn’t planning on it, you know. It just… well… happened.”

Starscream shrugged, pursing his lips dismissively. “I can’t say I particularly approve,” he replied, dryly, “buut… like you’re so fond of telling us, you’re not a little lost sparkling who needs his hand held every step of the way. You’re more than big enough and ugly enough to make your own decisions, however stupid they may be. Just let me say this now, before there can be any possible misinterpretation!” He wagged a finger. “If Megatron gets wind of it, I knew nothing, and you’re fielding his ‘questions’ on your own!”

Skywarp’s features creased in a little nose-wrinkled frown. “Hn,” he grumbled, non-committally. “You think he’ll find out?”

“From me or TC? No. You know us better than that,” Starscream reassured, and watched as the dark helm of their blue wingmate nodded in agreement. “But Shockwave has eyes and ears everywhere, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if he found out and passed that little gem of information on.”

“…how about a little pre-emptive strike?” Skywarp wondered, with a wan smile. “If we kick his aft really well…”

“…then he’ll definitely pass on anything he knows. Face it, Warp, you’ll probably be getting some very difficult questions when we get home. For that matter…” Starscream winced, and tapped at Thundercracker’s wings, indicating the chequered Police piping all three still wore. “Perhaps I should revise that and say we all will.”

“Oh, you’ll be able to spin it to our advantage,” Thundercracker glanced back over his shoulder, and smiled, lopsidedly, nudging the door to the briefing room open. “That’s your speciality, right, Screamer?”

Starscream snorted softly, non-committally, and followed him in.

Skywarp dithered in the doorway for a minute before finally slinking in. He looked supremely uncomfortable at having so many expectant pairs of optics on him – under normal circumstances, this much Autobot attention was usually as good an indicator of about-to-get-shot-at as any – but took his seat at the opposite end of the table to Boxer, and squared his shoulders as best he could.

“All right, I think that’s everyone,” the superintendent confirmed, and inclined his head. “Let’s get started. Skywarp? We need to know exactly what we might be dealing with, here. Did you get a very good look at the plant?”

“Parts of it,” Skywarp agreed, shifting awkwardly in his seat. “I didn’t have much opportunity to look over a whole lot of it. I’m not sure whether any of it’s useful.”

Boxed inclined his head, patiently. “Well, we’ll decide that in due course,” he suggested. “What do you have?”

“Er, okay, uhm… Well, I’m not sure if it’s new – I mean, it sure looks new – but she’s got this big-aft wall around the whole thing. She’s started replacing the refinery pipelines inside with defensive emplacements, as well.” Skywarp had been studying his fingers, but now he glanced up, a little more sure of himself. “It’s huuge in there,” he said, grimly, spreading his palms for emphasis.

“The Codustral plant has always been quite a dominant presence in the district,” Hardline confirmed. “My first patrol used to go by there, and it’d take a few breems just to make it along the front. They used to just have a chainlink fence and some laser-wire, though, and a lot of the ground was empty storage space.”

“There’s still some big empty bits,” Skywarp agreed. “I figure maybe she’s gonna put refinery towers in, they’re all mapped out with circles, now.”

“Will it be easy to gain entry?” Prowl wondered, from his seat opposite Celerity. “It’ll make most sense to take the fight to her. If we wait for her to call the shots, she has the advantage.”

“Ehh, well, the place is getting pretty well defended,” Skywarp explained, grimly. “I saw some heavily reinforced gates, which looked pretty well staffed, and an electronic field baffle in place which’ll stop anyone getting in over the wall. I had to wait for them to let me out, last time I visited.”

“What sort of baffle? A forcefield?”

“Iii… don’t really know what it is,” Skywarp admitted. “It’s not like anything I’ve seen before. It’s kinda like a big EM field, I guess, although it looks like it stops remote surveillance as well, makes it look like just any old chemicals refinery – like those portable baffles her goons wear, you know?” He spread his hands. “Still, it’s designed to stop machines getting in. She told me if I flew through it, it’d paralyse every signal in my mainframe, leave me helpless on the ground.”

“And you trust her?”

Skywarp wrinkled his nose. “Didn’t feel like experimenting, to be honest,” he said, dryly. “I saw one of her technicians fall off where he was working and clip an arm against it. Lots of sparks, looked almost like he was having a fit. Didn’t look like a happy mech, y’know?”

“Speaking of technicians, how many enemy operatives are we looking at?” Boxer wondered.

“Um, again, not sure,” Skywarp apologised. “In terms of her more loyal operatives, there’s only a very small number.” He lowered his voice, and muttered, quietly, “like that big fragger of a tractor.”

“Just the three we know from the news report, or are there more?”

“A few more, but not many. I don’t think she trusts enough people to have more of them very close to her. I bet there’s plenty of addicts willing to fight for her, though, so long as she keeps ‘em well supplied with Blue. There could be a couple of hundred of them.”

“So how are we going to get in? Engage in some sort of full-frontal assault?” Boxer looked sorely displeased at the idea. “We could spend orns doing that, if she’s that well defended, and we’ve not got so many operatives, ourselves.”

Skywarp shrugged, offhand. “Well, I can get in with no problems,” he reminded, lifting a finger. “She probably expects me to go back at some point, if I’m somehow not dead. I just don’t know how easy it’ll be to get anyone else in.”

“What?” Several pairs of optics lined back up on him. “What do you mean, you can get in?”

“I’m a teleport, remember? Duh,” the dark Seeker reminded, spreading his hands.

Next to him, Starscream laughed out loud. “Ha! Because you’ve done it before, as well! I wasn’t sure if you’d get through her baffle, the way you described it.”

“It disrupts signals, but it doesn’t extend far enough into subspace to mess my triangulation up. I can see where I’m going just fine,” Skywarp agreed, nodding. “I just…” He paused and grumbled quietly under his breath. “I don’t know what the field generator will look like. I can get in, but I won’t be able to let you guys in unless I can kill the baffle. I’m sure as Pit not taking you all one-by-one, and – no offence, Hardline, but some of you are just too fat.”

The riot tank cracked a smile, and let the insult pass. “Fair comment.”

“How about you give me a lift?” Jazz wondered, leaning his head onto his hand. “I’m a saboteur, remember? I’m sure the generator won’t be that hard to find. Probably pretty central, and I bet it’ll look like any other forcefield generator – might be an exotic field, but I’d be surprised if it has to be projected any other way than normal. Just get me in there, and I’ll do my stuff while you do yours.”

Boxer nodded. “That sounds like we might almost have a plan forming, here,” he mused, satisfied. “Once Skywarp gets himself and Jazz into the plant, we can sit and wait for the go-ahead to hit the gates. I realise it may be tempting fate to say this, but I’m willing to bet that any addicts she ropes in to help will be poorly armed and poorly organised. If you can keep her distracted, Skywarp, we’ll be inside before she realises we’re there and can raise the alarm.”

“Just one problem.” Skywarp gave Starscream a reluctant glance. “She wants one of your null-rays, or she won’t let me near her.”

“What does she want one of them for?” Starscream pouted, irritably. “You can just go get smelted, Warp. I’m not ripping my weapons off for this. We can do without it.”

“We don’t have to give her a real one,” Thundercracker spoke up, softly. “She won’t have it for long, if all goes to plan. Maybe not even long enough to work out we switched it. Do you think you could rig a passable fake, Winn?”

Winnower nodded. “Not me personally, but I know a mech who can.”

“That’s settled, then,” Boxer inclined his heavy head. “Everyone better ensure they get well rested. Once we engage gears and start this thing moving, we’re going to need to be at peak capacity.”

“Figure we should roll out this time tomorrow?” Hardline suggested.

Boxer nodded. “Tomorrow will give us time to brief the staff and ensure everyone knows their role. Celerity, you’d better get the inspectorate together and organise your teams. The rest of you, dismissed. Get a good night’s rest, because you’re going to need it.”

0o0o0o0o0

Starscream’s trine had retreated back to his lab when Winnower’s colleague finally brought the required supplies along.

“Here you are, gents,” the technician greeted, waving the replica weapon in one hand. “One duplicate, inactive null-ray, as ordered. It’s not much more than a shell with a few broken components and a couple of focussing crystals, but I guess it’ll fool her for a while, right?”

“Ooh, that matches up nice,” Skywarp observed, holding it up next to Starscream’s actual cannons, half-listening as the technician headed away down the corridor to help Jazz construct a small, lightweight set of explosives. “Still needs a liiiittle bit of work though…” He dropped the replica to the floor, considered it for a moment… then stomped on it.

“What are you doing, Skywarp?!” Starscream leaped to snatch the replica out from under his thrusters, but Thundercracker caught him before he got there. “Do you want to sabotage us before we even leave the building?!”

Skywarp pulled a face, and spread his hands. “Come on, she’ll never fall for it if we give her a pristine replica,” he argued, reminding them he wasn’t always so stupid as he sometimes acted. “Oh, Starscream, would you please be a nice chap and give me one of your weapons so I can help our enemy take over the world? Why yes Skywarp, I’d be delighted to, here you are…” He snorted. “Got to look like I had to give poor Screamer a walloping to get it.”

“I wonder exactly why she wants a null-ray?” Thundercracker mused, thoughtfully, watching as Skywarp added his artful destruction to the fake weapon. “It’s not like there’s a deficit of weaponry in the district, she could have her pick of devices with the money she’s got.”

“Well, null-rays aren’t lethal,” Starscream reminded. “Takeover via non-lethal means seems to be her modus operandi, even if her merry band of idiots don’t always play by the same rulebook.”

“They tried to kill you…”

“Hm. I wonder if that was her intention, or she originally planned to try and draw me into the team once I had no memory?”

“Huh. If you ask me,” Skywarp interrupted, straightening with his well-dented replica null-ray, “she’s just scared.” At their puzzled looks, he elaborated; “well, think about it. She’s a tiny, skinny protoform who doesn’t even like going out into the streets alone, right? And everything she’s done so far…” He clawed his fingertips down the barrel of the cannon and left some dramatic purple streaks. “…has been to make the place quiet, and safe. Blue makes you too sleepy to want to fight – look what it did to me and Squeaky! And null rays will let her defend herself without killing anyone. She’s probably just… gone off the rails, y’know? Power’s gone to her head. She can’t see her original aim any more.”

“Wow, Skywarp.” Thundercracker sounded genuinely impressed. “That’s really deep, for you…”

Skywarp poked out his tongue, but looked pleased with the praise.

Starscream was nodding. “Nonlethal weapons, chemical persuasion… it’s almost like she’s trying to turn the place into some sort of sleepy dictatorship, where she can live without being in fear for her life. I have to agree, in a way – I wouldn’t want to be a small, unarmed protoform in the middle of a warzone.”

“You almost sound like you want to forgive her,” Skywarp jeered, and pulled a stupid face at him.

Starscream glared back. “Hardly,” he replied, witheringly. “I was just observing that it made sense.”

Skywarp and Thundercracker exchanged looks and nodded meaningfully at each other.

“Oh for goodness-… let’s go and get a drink,” Starscream half-despaired. “I know you’re being quite one-track right now, Skywarp, but not everyone has their thoughts on nothing but sparking off with the ladies.”

Skywarp approximated a raspberry, and made blah-blah faces behind his back; Thundercracker swatted him lightly around the back of the helm, and scolded amusedly.

The main galley was relatively deserted, when they arrived – there were a couple of off-duty constables finishing their rations, and an inspector who’d let himself slip into recharge in the corner, head on folded arms, but it was empty otherwise. Everyone else probably had more sense and was getting a proper night’s charge, Thundercracker had mused, drolly, as the trine settled in their usual corner.

“Hope neither of you two have forgotten how to seriously kick tailfin, with all this cohabiting with the sentimental Auto-dorks,” Skywarp commented, sleepily, resting his chin in his hands.

“Hope your little bondmate won’t mind you doing a bit of aft-kicking,” Thundercracker shot back, and Skywarp pushed his elbow off the table, almost knocking the blue Seeker right over. “Well, it’s a fair point! She might not want you setting a bad example for the potential sparklings!”

Even Starscream cracked a smile at that. “The resident ladies’ mech will stand a better chance at getting close to Cali, I imagine, as well,” he observed, dryly. “He does seem to have a way with the fairer sex, right now. How many times has she forgiven you and let you have one last chance, now?”

Thundercracker smiled lazily. “Yeah, War-py’s her fa-avourite,” he sing-songed. “She asked you to take her ‘flying’ yet, Warp?”

“What?!” Skywarp straightened up and stiffened, optics wide in horror. It was tempting to imagine that his pale face had drained even further of colour. “You think she might?!”

“Ooh, that’s a ‘yes’ if ever I heard one.”

“You two are so unfair,” Skywarp huffed, and sulked into folded arms, although his face hadn't quite lost that look of semi-despair. “And you wonder why I tried to keep it a secret!” There was a little friendly jostling of wings, and Skywarp’s scowl relaxed into a disgruntled little half-hearted pout. “Pair of fraggers.”

“More seriously, we ought to get our own heads down for the evening,” Starscream suggested, relaxing back in his seat, and added, for Skywarp’s benefit; “in our own bunks.”

Skywarp poked out his tongue.

“Tomorrow is going to be hard work. We’re going to go in fast, hot, and accurate,” Starscream went on, cautioningly, waving a finger to underline the last word. “I expect everyone’s weaponry to be as finely attenuated as you can get your collimators to go. We’ll be so surgically precise, even Forceps will be envious. Right?”

“Right.” Thundercracker nodded his agreement. “We’ve got our entire faction to represent, here.”

“Well, fair enough, but why the big deal over precision, for once?” Skywarp groused. “If it gets the job done, does it matter? We can still look impressive.”

“It matters because right this second, we’re free agents. We’re acting under our own direction, out from under Megatron’s so-called control,” Starscream replied, sneering at the tyrant’s name. “We are going to show everyone that we’re not a trio of air-heads who like to make a fuss. We’re going to show everyone why we’re still the best.”

“I still don’t see why I have to be precise over it.” Skywarp wrinkled his nose. “Precision isn’t exactly my speciality.”

“Look, if I have to bribe you to at least try, I will,” Starscream commented, dryly, leaning down to the small case he’d brought with him. “To which end... I thought we could do with a celebratory drink, in anticipation.”

“But we haven’t done anything, yet.”

“You passing up the opportunity to drink all Screamer’s credits away, Warp? Don’t you feel well?” Thundercracker placed a palm flat on the teleport’s forehead, as if to check his temperature.

“You’ll forgive me for pointing out that me and strange fuels haven’t had the best working relationship, these past few orns,” Skywarp reminded, softly, giving Thundercracker a look but not pushing him away. “What you got there, anyway, Screamer?”

The red Seeker smiled, sneakily, and brought out three little twinkling cubes of starlight. “A little superior grade. I smuggled it all the way from the Flywheel a dozen orns ago, I just haven’t had the opportunity to drink it.” He pushed one cube towards each of his wing-mates. “I thought my ‘brothers’ deserved a little payment for good work in hard conditions, for a change.”

“Ooh.” Skywarp sat up and examined it, curiously. “This looks a whole lot nicer than that muddy blue rubbish. You got any more, in there?”

“Yes, but if you see me going to fetch another round you have my permission to hit me,” Starscream offered, unexpectedly. “I have no intention of enacting a repeat of that night it all went so horribly wrong.”

“Yeah, but if it hadn’t gone wrong, we three wouldn’t be here and soon to be engaging in such a royal aft-kicking, would we?” Skywarp pointed out, with a grin.

“Probably not.” Starscream accepted, then smirked, and lifted his cube. “To us. Still the best, most deadly fliers Cybertron has to offer.”

“To us,” came the agreement from his two wingmates, and as one the trine upped cubes and (bravely) downed the contents in one.

…a breem later, Skywarp was the only one who’d managed to stop spluttering.

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