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"Future Tense", chapter 6

A/N: Bluugh, once these two got to talking, they just wouldn't shut up. :dies:

...*resists urge to make a pun based on this being chapter sex six* (BESIDES, IT WOULD BE A LIE :P)




Future Tense - Chapter Six

This was the real reason he toed the line with Megatron, back in the day, Skywarp mused, for the umpteenth time. Because hospitals? Really sucked. He had no idea how Screamer had managed to spend even half the time in those various infirmaries without going completely psychotic, after getting himself slagged a million and one times. (Frag, maybe it did explain all the wing commander's neuroses.) As it was, the teleport was debating whether his inability to move very far without going straight on his aft was going to hinder his pulling some kind of prank, just to relieve the mind-numbing boredom.

"Skywarp?"

A hesitant voice prodded him out of his gloom, and Skywarp glanced up to watch a familiar little blue and white figure slip through the privacy screen, with a tall flask of faintly-glowing purple fluid clutched firmly in her small hands. "Hey, Pulse," he greeted, gloomily.

She looked a little different to how he remembered – not quite so pointy-headed, and hey, someone had convinced her to get her arm reattached, at last – but she was still wearing one of those silly gauzy little scarves, looped lightly around her thin neck. He snorted, unable to hide his amusement. All those countless solar rotations later, and she was still wearing the stupid things.

"I-... heard you'd been found," she volunteered, to break the silence, fidgeting with the flask.

"And you wanted to check it out for yourself, huh?" He wrinkled his lip, unenthusiastically. "So you can be one of the gang, and take forever making up your mind if you believe I'm who I say I am?" He managed a sort of unhappy half-smile for her, before letting his gaze drop back to his lap. "You'd think that after a guy's been gone for nearly forty vorns, his best friends would be more pleased to see him," he joked, miserably. "It's like… like I've been away for just a couple of orns. No big deal, eh?"

This small, sad, unfamiliar Skywarp worried her. "I don't think they mean to hurt your feelings. They're just… cautious. You know?" she apologised, hastily.

He just stared at her, for a few moment. "Cautious? What the frig have they got to be cautious about?"

"Well I-I just mean… all this time you've been gone, and-… well, it might not-… even…" Her voice descended into embarrassed, awkward mumblings. She placed the flask down on the little storage unit beside the berth, and fiddled about with its location – anything to avoid looking at him.

"Please, Squeaks, if you know anything, you've gotta tell me," he pleaded, edging closer along the berth a little. "You can't leave me to lurch about in the dark without any maps to help me."

She fidgeted, awkwardly. "I don't really know if I should tell you," she admitted, sadly. "Starscream will probably abuse my audios for being 'woolly' about it, and-" She met his anxious gaze, for all of a second or two. "It-… might give things away. If you're… if you're not you."

"…who else am I gonna be?"

"Well-… this… it might be part of a bigger plan. You know, you might be a, a... spy or something."

"...a spy, Squeaks? Don't you think I'd have picked a better mech to pretend to be?"

The cycle stumbled over her choice of words for a moment or two before finally blurting out; "…I just-... this isn't the first time you've come back."

With his wingmates' creepy discussion of 'facsimiles' flickering immediately to the front of his thoughts, for several long astro-seconds Skywarp could only stare at her. Finally he found the words to adequately sum up his feelings; "….the frag is that supposed to mean, anyway?"

She cast an uneasy glance over her shoulder, at the cubicle doorway.

Skywarp knew what was bothering her . "Please, Pulse. Screamer can go get smelted, the self-righteous old grouch, he's not been gone for half a lifetime. I need to know what's been going on." After another beat of awkward silence, he tried a different tactic; "Besides, if I'm a spy, don't you think I should already know what you're hiding?"

For a former Decepticon, Skywarp could sure pack a lot of 'Essence of Beaten Puppy' in those sad crimson optics; Pulsar's will rapidly crumbled. "All right. But if Screamer even just looks like he might be about to yell, I'm palming him off on you."

One purple hand came up in a shaky sort of salute. "I give my solemn word to take my nagging like a mech."

She gave him a funny look, but let it slide. "You've been gone a long time," she reminded. "A lot's happened. I don't even know where to start."

"Well, I guess Lou's forgiven me for jumping ship on her, seeing as she's already come to maul me." ...must go apologise to the wee brat as soon as they let me out.

"You're the reason she decided to be a paramedic, you know." Pulsar managed a thin smile. "Because she wasn't able to help you, and didn't want to be put in that position any more."

Guilt weighed on his wings like something physical; you put the pair of you into that situation, you giant moron. A noisy little brat with a predisposition to tantrums Footloose may be, but she had a good spark, and it didn't take the greatest brain on Cybertron to imaging she'd probably taken losing her sire pretty hard. "So, uh-... she got out okay, then?"

The policebike nodded. "It took her a couple of orns to find her way up to the surface, but she was just a bit dirty when she got out. They-... we... dug down to where her triangulations said you were pretty much as soon as she appeared. You can still see the borehole. No-one's had the heart to fill it in, yet." She forced a smile. "Took about five orns to dig down through the bedrock, altogether. Found all kinds of little caverns and antiques on the way."

Skywarp snorted. "Bet that pleased Screamer. Didn't waste all that time on a loser like me with nothing to show for it, after all."

Pulsar gave him a little reproachful look. "He was just as worried as TC. He was the one that insisted we got to work digging down to you as soon as Lou appeared, co-ordinated everything..." She quirked one side of her mouth into a half-smile. "We have photographic evidence of him wielding a shovel, if you wanted to see it."

Skywarp snorted an involuntary laugh. "You mean, he actually got his hands dirty? The little tyrant didn't just stand on the edge and yell at everyone?"

"Well, he knows you're not good with little spaces."

Well that was a euphemism if he ever heard one, Skywarp considered, silently.

Pulsar covered his hand with hers. "He wanted to get you out before you burned out too many of your fuses. Never imagined you'd have already vanished." She studied the scratches and rock fragments still trapped in the enamel of his dirty fingers, and recalled that no-one had been that surprised to find the remains of a leg and nothing more. Skywarp's claustrophobia was not a particularly well guarded secret, any more. "Everyone figured you'd got out all right when you weren't there, but then we couldn't actually find you."

"Yeah." Skywarp studied the clashing colours of their fingers, just to avoid meeting her gaze, and watched as she picked a shard of grit from one of the softer joint spaces. "Shoulda known I'd freak out, down there." He sighed, and offered an ironic smile. "Always make an idiot of myself, huh. I should quit trying to prove Screamer wrong."

"It's not your fault. Accidents happen. You didn't know it was going to blow up."

Skywarp pfft-ed. "I didn't have to go underground, either. That was like, tempting fate from the outset."

Annoyingly, he was probably right, too. She squeezed his fingers, hoping to be reassuring. "You made a mistake, Warp. No-one's holding it against you. I mean, we all looked for you for... forever, it felt like. For Vorns, everyone was still hopeful they'd find you – at least, find something – and the bitlets spent all their time in Screamer's lab helping go through geological scans."

"He didn't immediately kick 'em out, huh?"

They shared a sad smile and strained chuckle; as infants, both twins had turned it into a game, seeing how long they could spend in Starscream's lab before he finally spotted their hiding place and booted them out. It exasperated the red Seeker, but it was only when they started helping themselves to his experiments that he put a subspace lock on the room.

"A hemisphere with a radius of two miles is an awful lot of rock to scan through. He needed the help," Pulsar reminded, quietly. "After they'd not been able to find you above ground, it seemed like the only other possible alternative was that you'd entangled yourself with the rocks, somewhere. It took the best part of half a vorn just to do the first quick sweep."

"If I'd done that, I'd have been dead, Pulse," Skywarp reminded.

"I know. We just... wanted closure. You know?" She forced a sad little smile. "Even if it was just digging out a body." She shuffled her feet, dropped her gaze to examine the floor. "It was the whole not knowing that was the worst for all of us. I mean... when were we supposed to decide to stop looking? That 'one more orn' might have been what made all the difference. If we'd kept looking for one more orn, we may have found you."

"So where do these friggin'... clones come in?"

"I'm just getting to that," she soothed. "It was a few orbits shy of a vorn after this all started. We were just gearing up to start a second geological sweep – in case we'd missed anything – when a little group of empties came across from Rustig, on the other side of the rift." She gave him a knowing, slightly chastising look. "They said they'd have come quicker, but someone made the nearest bridge unsafe."

Skywarp muttered something defensively apologetic.

"They brought a Seeker with them. Your colours in all the right places, scorched wings, damaged leg, barely mobile without help, the works. He was delirious, rambling about 'gremlins' – not that he was easy to understand, with a scorched vocaliser. It took… maybe fifteen, twenty orns – most of it spent in hospital, with nurses in the way of getting to talk to him – to work out it wasn't actually you."

Skywarp watched a transient flash of hurt pass through her muted optics, and rotated his hand slightly to return the squeeze.

The little touch bolstered her mood a fraction. "It was just... some poor broken Seeker someone had dug up out the ruins of Vos," she went on. "Repainted, fed up just enough to keep out of stasis, and let loose among the Empties, because they knew word would eventually get back to us. Starscream reckons it was done with the hope we'd be fooled into thinking you'd been there the whole time, be more inclined to trust that it was you."

"…it only took you a few orns to work out it wasn't me?" He sounded like he wasn't sure if he should feel a little flattered or not. "I'm, um... impressed?"

"Well, uh, it wasn't that good a copy." She smiled, painfully, and laughed. "I mean, once they'd fixed 'his' vocaliser? It turned out he was actually a femme, called Upswing. We think someone had tried to patch over her ident with something like yours, force her to become you, but they didn't really know enough about how we work for it to take. Kind of assumed we were easily reprogrammable, like a computer. All the patch did was muddle up what came up on her autonomic identifier."

An involuntary shudder made Skywarp's wings rattle. Not only was someone dabbling their fingers around in his life, they were trying to reprogram folk, too? "What happened to her?" he asked, not really wanting to know. What if he had been abducted and loaded up with alien coding in all those Vorns he was gone? He hastily keyed up a diagnostic, just to check himself over. "How's, uh… how's her coding now?"

Pulsar grimaced. "Panacea checked her all the way down to her most basal protocols. Said it wasn't easy to tell, but once the 'patch' was eradicated, she only managed to find tiny fragments in her surface systems that look alien. Deeper programming was unaffected."

"How d'you know it wasn't just a glitch?" The teleport folded his arms around his broken chassis, defensively, and cast a guarded look around the cubicle.

Shouldn't have indulged him, she scolded herself. If he bolts again, my name will be Mud. "W-we don't, not for definite," she half-lied, hoping to reassure him. "It might have been! Upswing is-... well... difficult to diagnose because she's a little psychiatric anyway. She might have been like it anyway, without someone poking about in her coding."

Skywarp's anxious look had fallen off, but now he wore an arch sneer, lip curled. "You never were a good liar, Autodork."

She huffed, and planted her hands on her hips. "I'm not lying."

"All right, so you're cooking the truth so it tastes better. Come on, gimme some credit, here. I'm not gonna scoot off again." Beat. "Still too friggin depleted, for one." He hunched his shoulders, mantling his wings forwards, uncomfortably. "You're just trying to avoid saying they all think I'm full of alien programming, which is why they're still holding me at arm's length. Just in case I'm another useless copy."

"That wasn't what-"

"Well, I just did a diagnostic, and my programming's fine!"

"Warp…" Pulsar sighed. "I mean it when I say Upswing had problems before she was 'patched'. So far as we've been able to tell, she was carrying her trine's sparkling, and had a few dozen orns left before it was due to be put into its own casing when war was officially declared."

Apparently adding two and two and (for a change) making four, something like understanding was dawning in Skywarp's expression. "…she couldn't eclose it?"

Pulsar nodded agreement. "When Vos was attacked, she ended up trapped under debris. The pressure in her spark chamber forced her sparkling's harmonic to fuse back into her own. It probably saved her life, in a morbid kinda way - pushed her into stasis, which is probably why she got through the war more or less intact."

The teleport narrowed his gaze, suspiciously. "...and that's why they're not sure if she has alien programming in her cortex?" he challenged.

He's right; I'm still a useless liar. Pulsar hastily changed the focus. "Screamer's looked over the diagnostics the medics took before you did a runner, and said there's been no changes made that he can see-"

"How can you be sure, though?" he pushed, looking at the doorway again, as if waiting for someone to pounce and drag him off to have his brain probed. "That-… that I'm ok? No-one's done a deep scan, yet, and what if there's things-"

"Warp-"

"I mean what if they've been practising and now they've got it right, without doing some big deep scan to find hidden things?"

Pulsar caught his hand, attracting his attention back, and blurted out, before she could rein the words back; "an altered ident wasn't all they found on Upswing." She winced, cursing inwardly as his wide-optics and full attention turned squarely back onto her. "S-so I think you're fine. They've scanned you and you're just... you."

"Oh come on! You can't palm me off with that. You've gotta tell me, now you've blabbed!" Skywarp insisted. His fingers had tightened around her hand, almost painfully.

Pulsar fidgeted and averted her gaze. "Winn 'autopsied' her old body, once they'd finished the refit," she explained, feebly. "And, uh, see… There were… well, Winnower found a, a… camera, of some kind."

Skywarp's optics brightened, alarmed. "…the frag?"

Judging by the way his gaze went blank and wandered away, he was running another diagnostic, Pulsar figured. "We don't know how long it was there," she lied, hastily. "It-... could have been there a long time."

Skywarp sighed and let her climb up to sit next to him. He knew he wasn't going to get anything more out of her just yet – dorky Policebot obviously thought she was trying to save him from worrying too much by making unlikely alternate hypotheses for why Upswing was full of alien junk. "That's only one," he pointed out, softly, finally satisfied that there were no exogenous cameras on his person. "Screamer said there was at least two."

Pulsar studied her feet. "Uh-... yeah. It-... that one... well, it wasn't really alive. Certainly not like Upswing. More of a… a puppet? A remote-controlled bunch of dead spares."

Something about her tone of voice made Skywarp immediately leery of asking for the answer. "...so, uh, what happened to that one, then?" he asked, anyway.

Pulsar kept her gaze downcast, for a moment. "I've never seen your brothers quite so psychotic," she admitted. "Not when they worked out they'd been fooled. They, um… dismantled it."

Skywarp knew an euphemism when he heard one. He cringed, involuntarily.

"They haven't talked to anyone about it," she explained, quietly, swinging her legs and nudging the tip of her foot against his. "And nobody's wanted to ask. I mean... seemed imprudent, you know?"

"No."

Pulsar gave him a sidelong glance; he was watching their feet, as though to avoid meeting her gaze. "It seemed unfair to go asking questions when they were still hurting," she explained, carefully, watching for a reaction, but his features were studiously unemotional. "And it took them – took everyone, to be honest – so long to get over it, we just... didn't want to open all those wounds straight back up. Didn't seem worth it, when we all knew neither would talk about it. And not when we all could, uhm... probably guess what had happened."

"Maybe I should go stick my head in the mill now, then," Skywarp commented, glumly. "Save them the job when they get suspicious."

"It wasn't that simple, Warp." She gave him a gentle elbow in the side, which at least roused him partway out of his gloom and got his gaze back on her. "It was a good eighteen, almost nineteen vorns after you'd vanished, and we were all so relieved to have you back, we probably didn't look as closely as we should have. It took... well, just over a hundred orns to work out you weren't you."

"And it wasn't even a good copy. Fantastic." He folded his arms around himself and mantled his wings forwards, almost scooting Pulsar off her perch in the process. "I feel so loved."

"Hey, come on, don't be a wart." The smaller machine wriggled carefully backwards so her seat was more secure, then gathered his hand into her lap again. "The fact it was a puppet doesn't mean it was a bad copy. It fooled all of us." She used her thumb to smooth dust away from the back of his hand. "That was probably what was so... crushing, about it. I've not seen your wingmates so depressed since..." Siphon. "...leaving Earth."

"You mean, they were embarrassed at being tricked."

"There was probably at least an element of that," she admitted, softly. "It was more... I guess anger, that someone had the audacity to use your death to their advantage. We were all trying to grieve, and get on with our lives, and someone had the cheek to try and use that loss to pry their way into our lives – using the thing that made them most vulnerable to try and intrude on what was left of your trine."

Skywarp watched the little yellow fingers carefully picking his hand clean of grit. Hard to imagine what it must have been like, he recognised – bad enough when the guys had been scattered to the winds on Earth, but to be unable to find them? Forced to conclude they were dead? With no outlet to bludgeon until it gave up its secrets? That would have been bad enough, without some impostor coming along and getting him excited that he'd finally got his missing brother back.

"Frag it." Pulsar made her decision. "I believe you. TC's right. There's too much you in there for you to just be another copy." She relaxed into the corner formed by his wings and chassis. "I don't know if I'm grabbing at straws, or spent too long hoping, or just caught your own personal brand of stupid, but there's something about you feels… right." She smiled, lopsidedly. "Your field's prickly in the right places."

Skywarp managed a little snort and bumped his cheek against the top of her helm. Her static envelope was close enough to intersect with his own; it felt familiarly discordant, which always amused him. Even their harmonics tended to fight. "Nice to know the criteria you're basing your judgement on."

"Pssh. Trust you to narrow it all down to just the one comment. I just... want to believe it's you. I mean, really you." She sighed, softly, and he felt her relax ever so slightly against him. "If only so I can fragging kill you for abandoning us to Screamer's mercy for so long." She emphasised the words with a little thump to the least-injured part of his chassis. "You know how grouchy he's been without you around? You're like... his pressure-valve, or something. Without you around, he just... builds up in temper and volume until he explodes at some poor unsuspecting lab-tech."

Skywarp snickered, rudely. "At least he's keeping 'em alert, huh?"

She frowned up at him, lips pursed. "I think the recruiting officer might have something to say about that. It's getting hard to recruit replacements."

For a while, they just sat quietly, enjoying each other's company.

"It'll be all right," Pulsar nudged, gently. "Now you're back."

"I know. I was just... thinking. It's gonna take some getting used to, huh? This whole... future-thing. At least until Screamer sends me back. I mean, even just this – it's kinda weird. You know?" the dark jet admitted, strumming his fingers over her antennae and listening to her hum, appreciatively. "You still barely let me touch you, yesterday."

"I've had over three thousand orbits to get over everything that treacherous bunch of pipes did to me," she reminded.

"And yet you're still wearing these dappy things." He gave her scarf a little tug. "Don't you get tired of having to wash 'em?"

"...I know. It's silly. Sentimental. They just… reminded me of you," she admitted, with an embarrassed little humorous noise. "Because you were always being rude about them."

He didn't respond audibly, but she felt his large fingers carefully smooth out the crease he'd left.

"You've been gone a long time," she reminded, softly. "And I missed you, you dopy air-head."

"We only knew each other for what, a few solar orbits?" he reminded. "Not even a whole vorn, yet. I've been missing for way longer than we were together."

She remained quiet, for a few moments. "…that was what hurt to think about."

"Coulda found someone else. It's not like relationships are forever, huh? I wouldn't have been that offended." Pause. "Well, not after I beat the bolts out of them for nicking my squeaky Policebot while I was out of commission."

Pulsar snorted a quiet laugh. "You got under here," she pointed out, pressing her hand to her chassis. "Didn't matter to me that we'd only known each other such a short time."

A little smile played across his lips. "That does probably count as a record for the both of us, though, huh?"

"Primus only knows what part of you my subconscious fell in love with, you antagonistic fragger, because it sure wasn't your intellect," she growled. Her gaze fell upon the tall flask still sitting unattended on the bedside unit. "Come on, you better drink your energon before Screamer gets on at me for distracting you. He'll probably still yell at me, I was only supposed to bring you this and then leave you in peace, to defragment."

"Pssh." Skywarp accepted the tall brushed silver container, and stared down at the volatile fuel. "It's not like I've got a lot to defrag." Sip. "...I do feel like I just did six rounds with Menasor, though." He picked at the silver brace protecting his injured knee.

"I can leave you in peace if you want to get some rest," she offered, watching him sip uninterestedly at the lilac fuel.

"Small hope of that. Can't get comfortable," he snorted, bleakly. "Wings hurt. Chassis hurts. Can't even recharge standing up."

Pulsar hauled a foam cushion down off the top shelf of the storage unit built into the wall. "How about if I prop your wings up, so your weight isn't on your chassis?"

He swigged back the last dregs of energon and eyed the foam pad. "I guess that could work," he accepted, suspiciously. "The front of my wings aren't so bad."

It took a little awkward juggling of cushions and body parts before Skywarp was even halfway back on his berth. His wings accidentally-on-purpose got in the way, so as he slumped to the berth he caught against Pulsar and dragged her with him. Instead of two cushions, his wings were now supported on one foam and one bike.

She snorted and gave him a shove. "Glitch."

His arm snugged up her back, tucking her against his chassis. "I know. But you're better than a cushion."

"Now I'm stuck," she pointed out, nevertheless not trying to escape. "So much for leaving you in peace."

He arched his brows, smiling. "I know. You're not claustrophobic, are you?"

"Ha ha. No comment."

"So who bullied you into getting this reattached, anyway?" he wondered, giving her right arm a little flick with a stiffened finger. "Obviously someone more important than me."

A transient little flicker of pain creased her face, before she hastily buried it with a forced smile and touched a finger to his lips. "I'll tell you another time, eh?"

"I didn't mean it like that."

"I know. It's just… it's complicated."

"Pssh." He poked his tongue out. "Why do people always say that when they just mean it's embarrassing to talk about?"

Her smile quirked over into a painful lopsided grin. "Semantics. Sounds better." She leaned her forehead against his. "Let's just say some of your former associates had a hand in persuading me, while they were looking for you."

He sighed and bumped cheeks; her field had gone even more prickly than normal against his own, and he guessed it was painful to think about. "I didn't m-"

"Shush. I know." She brushed a kiss against his nose, and snerked as his optics brightened.

"Well, I'm glad you're back in one piece." He stroked his fingers down her arm, amusedly, and added; "Wasn't so much fun, picking on a cripple."

She stuttered a funny involuntary little purr before getting her vocaliser back under conscious control.

His smile took on a lascivious edge. "Anyone would think you've not been touched since I vanished."

"Are you insinuating I have loose coverings?" she sniped back. "Some of us know the meaning of faithful." Her voice softened to a whisper. "I missed you."

"…missed you too, Squeakbot."

"But I haven't been anywhere..."

"Sure you have. There's been some fraidy little glitch-mouse hiding in your plating ever since I went back to Earth, that first time." His lips curved into a little smile. "Tch, look. You've turned me into a sap, you fragger."

"Yeah, it's scaring me a bit."

He snerked and jabbed a finger at a seam he knew was ticklish. "Get you back for that."

"I was counting on it..."

0o0o0o0o0

The sun was just edging its way up over the horizon and giving the district an unrealistically romantic golden glow when Thundercracker touched down in the little yard behind the emergency department. He hoped it was a good sign that he'd not had any reports of Skywarp causing a ruckus, and not that he'd slipped away again when everyone's attention had been elsewhere.

Slipping unobtrusively through the double doors at the side of A&E, he spotted Fine-tune's name still up on the board as the on-call doctor. Primus, was she still at work? A little mint-green flicker in the periphery of his vision attracted his attention, and sure enough, there she was. The little medic caught his eye as she emerged from one of the cubicles, vainly attempting to wipe splashed fuel off her chassis with one hand and straighten her antennae with the other. "Superintendent!" She waved a grimy hand, acknowledging him. "Are you here to see Skywarp?"

"I'll allow you three guesses at the answer," the Seeker replied, dryly, following her to the main desk. "If you need to use more than one of them, then you need to go defragment your stacks a bit."

The small femme ha!-ed nervously, and snatched up a databoard, to hastily re-acquaint herself with her unwilling patient.

"So?" Thundercracker prompted. "How is he?"

Fine-tune's features broke into an exhausted smile. "He's actually been getting some rest," she confirmed, sagging onto a stool behind the nurses' station. "Some company and some painkillers did a wonder."

Thundercracker nodded to himself; Starscream had mentioned Pulsar appeared out of nowhere and offered to take some fuel to the teleport, just as he himself was leaving.

"Speaking of rest," a deep, chastising voice rolled out, behind, "didn't I tell you to get your scrawny aft into a stasis pod for a few breems, if I couldn't bully you into going home, Patches?"

Fine-tune glanced back over her shoulder to find a pinstriped navy-blue giant looming over her. "Yes, matron. I-I was just-"

"If you append anything other than 'going right now' to the end of that sentence, I'll carry you down there myself," the nurse interrupted, demonstrating a stasis mantle.

Fine-tune cast a semi-pleading look at her visitor; Thundercracker put up his hands. "Far be it for me to interfere with the ward manager's decision, she might take a swing at me."

The nurse lifted her chin and smiled, satisfied. "Now, do I have to count to three again...?"

Fine-tune muttered something semi-embarrassed, semi-defensive. "Just let me do handover, then I'll go, all right?" She slunk away before the nurse could catch her.

"Now what did you want, flatterer?" The golden gaze landed on Thundercracker.

"Oh, nothing." The blue jet flattened a modest hand to his chest. "I just know who the real power is, on the wards..."

"Pssh, creep." The nurse grinned. "You want to see your wingmate, right?" At the nod she got in response, she waved an arm at the privacy screen. "Same cubicle, go right on in."

Even before he passed through the forcefield, Thundercracker sensed Skywarp was comfortable – he could hear the faint, snoring buzz of a pinched vocaliser, and couldn't help smiling to himself. At least he'd had company, if the little white blob tucked in close to his dark shoulder was anything to go by. He'd already figured something like this might have happened, when Skyshout reported the gravity-cycle didn't turn up for her shift, and it really wasn't a surprise to find the sergeant tucked up under her Seeker's broad wings. He figured the occasional 'sickie' after countless orbits of faithful service was forgivable.

Thundercracker brushed his fingers over Pulsar's antennae, just hard enough to make them vibrate. "Hey, Pulse. Wakey wakey."

Her optics flickered and she stared muggily up at him for a moment or two until her memory kicked in. "Oh. Hi, TC," she greeted, sleepily. After a long hesitation, she added, somewhat sheepishly; "Um... I missed my shift, didn't I?"

"Skyshout signed you off as 'sick', just this once." Thundercracker held out his hands to help her up, with a knowing smile. "So long as you make the time up later."

Pulsar wriggled her way carefully out from under the dark wings wings; his arm slithered easily to one side, its motors slack in recharge. Skywarp hadn't even stirred; a light buzz came up from his vocaliser, and his lips were open in a slack little oh of sleep.

"You're satisfied he's genuinely him?" the blue jet prompted, as the smaller machine wobbled and recalibrated her gyros.

She nodded. "Genuinely scared, too," she confirmed. "Although he'd never outright say as much." Pause. "He wants to go home."

Thundercracker nodded, glumly. "I know. I don't know if we can. Certainly not unless Starscream can work out how he got here in the first place."

"...does he have any ideas?"

"None he's elected to share with me. I do believe Warp has actually accidentally given him his first genuine scientific challenge in the last few vorns."

Pulsar snorted, exhaustedly. "Well, you know Warp. He tests everything else to destruction, why not the barriers between time and space too?" She glanced up at him. "Are you going to get him refit?"

Thundercracker nodded. "Well, we're going to offer it," he corrected. "And I'd like to be able to get him fixed up, but I've avoided broaching the subject so far, if I'm honest. Hard enough to get him to come back in the first place, I don't think I'd have ever got him off that roof short of sedating him if there'd been the threat of stealing all his mass too."

"I guess it's as good as saying 'you can't go home'," she acknowledged, quietly.

Thundercracker let his hand rest on her shoulder. The intervening vorns since Skywarp had vanished had pulled the small family together – anything to erase the hole in their lives. "How are you holding up?"

"About as well as you guys." Sigh. "I... don't really know how I feel. Like... I'm just waiting for it to fall apart." She smiled, painfully. "I don't know about you guys, but if it happens again-..."

He tightened his fingers, just enough to be felt. "It won't. We'll get to the bottom of it before we let history repeat itself."

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