Lair of the Stealth Bunnies
One minute, he was playing tag with the stars.
The next minute, he was dangling by his fingertips from a strut several meters below an overpass.
_Oh, this is going to be a great day._
He craned his neck to look down over his shoulder. The ground was a good two kilometers below him, and the well-placed shot had taken out his right jet engine. And, judging by from pain, a good portion of his wing assembly on that side as well.
There was no smell he hated worse than the smell of his own scorched armor and paint.
He looked up. A few meters never looked so far.
Come to think of it, it was going to be an even longer walk back to the Decepticon camp.
Starscream sighed and began to climb.
It took longer than he had thought it should. He had a bad moment, when the fingers of his right hand refused to close over the next strut. He was able to catch his balance and brace his right foot against a girder. He shook his hand angrily, and something sparked in his shoulder. He ran a quick diagnostic, then sent a little extra energy to the blocked relays. He worked his fingers until they closed and opened more easily. He gazed thoughtfully up at the overpass.
_Not that much farther._
The worse was the tingling of surges up his back, as he kept imagining cross-hairs centered on him.
He made the last couple of meters in much faster time than he had the first few.
He let himself sigh in relief when his hand -- the bad one -- closed over the edge of the overpass. Both feet were braced well, his other hand was locked firmly. All he had to do was swing himself up and over.
_And then, I get a nice, long walk home._
_One thing at a time._
He had levered himself up, one knee braced on the edge, his bad hand clamped around the guard rail, when the muzzle of a rifle appeared in front of his nose.
_Yep. A really wonderful day._
Sometimes, he could buy time out of situations like these, by talking, probing for weaknesses. Autobots were usually willing to debate, to preach, to _convert_. And sometimes, he was able to use this against them.
This wasn’t one of those times. As close as the gun was, he could see the muzzle glow, could see the particles dance in the air around it as the Autobot pulled the trigger.
Screeching, he tried to dodge out of the way. _I might survive the fall. I won’t survive the blast._
A dark shape blurred in the corner of his vision, rocketing against the Autobot. The shot went wild past his shoulder, close enough to singe his face and bubble his paint. He shrieked again, trying to plunge away from the heat, was vaguely aware that there were other screams echoing around him, and his bad hand gave way again. He flailed wildly, trying to catch ahold of _anything_, but his fingers wouldn’t close again, and whatever had been sparking in his shoulder now felt like it was blazing. He was still moving backwards, caught in the reaction of his own dodge, and he felt his full weight pull against his other hand, his fingers uncurling.
A slim hand shot down, fingers wrapping around his wrist. Panicked, he looked up, trying to see who it was, but his optics had overloaded from the sudden flare of the muzzle-flash, and all he could see were patches of bleary light. He frantically tried to yank free, but the fingers remained curled around his wrist, biting in like claws. He fell another meter in a sudden jerk. Surprisingly, it was the familiar feel of free-fall that snapped rational thought past the partial blindness and panic.
Whoever it was, was trying to keep him from falling. And was lightweight enough that he was in danger of pulling them both over.
Which would efficiently end any further chance of help.
He swung for a moment, and above him, there was the squeal of heels being pulled across the ground. He slid a little further, but had slowed enough that his good hand -- thankfully, that was the one that was free -- was able to find purchase. Whoever had his wrist was not strong enough to pull him up, but just the weight was enough to help him keep his balance until he could climb up again.
Solid ground never felt so good under his feet.
He sat still for a moment, breathing in great gulps of air, trying to fight away the light-headed feeling of over-heating. After another moment, he tried opening his optics again. They were still stressed, and his vision was still blurry.
Even with his faulty vision, he could see the crumpled body of the Autobot. He didn’t take the time to trust his legs; he scrambled over, aiming his right laser.
The gun spat a few sparks and fizzled.
He hissed and brought up his left laser, and by that time, the rational thinking part of his circuitry kicked in again, and he realized there were no life signs emanating from the body. He gave it a rough shove and it toppled onto its back.
The Autobot’s throat had been torn open. Energon fluid still bubbled from the severed tubing, sparks fitzing. As Starscream’s vision cleared, he saw arcs of energon sprays across the road surface and decorating the guard rail.
“Well... that’s... unpleasant,” he said uncertainly.
The body fizzled in agreement.
Starscream shrugged. “Then again, it was only an Autobot.” He prodded the Autobot’s chin with the muzzle of his laser, to get a better look at the wound. “Not clean enough to be a blade.” He wiped his laser off against the Autobot’s arm, then sat back on his heels and looked around.
“You can come out, now,” he called.
The night was silent over the normal city sounds.
Starscream nudged the body again. “I don’t know if we’re on the same side or not,” he said, “but we obviously have the same enemies. Are you a Decepticon?”
There was still no sound. Starscream ran a scan of the area. There was a dark corner, not quite an alley, but close to it, where the road passed in the shadow of a building. There was the remains of an energon fountain, dry and crumbling, and life-readings behind it.
Starscream sat in the middle of the road, resting his head on his fist. He wasn’t very good at this. He knew he just wasn’t the type for people to trust at first sight. _Or probably at second or third sight, either,_ he admitted to himself. Soundwave was much better at... coaxing. Starscream never could understand why, since he thought Soundwave was... boring. But he had a way with his creations, a protective gentleness, which sometimes worked major achievements with injured and dying Decepticons.
He was also one hell of a soldier.
_Perhaps I should understand that better. Soundwave was a warrior-turned-scientist. I am a scientist-turned-warrior._
He decided not to follow that line of thought further. He really didn’t like doing the introspective stuff.
_Hell, _Megatron’s_ better at talking down a skittish Transformer, if he doesn’t just lose patience and blow him away._ For all that Megatron could lack patience, his sheer charisma could work wonders. Megatron had gathered his followers through his words.
He kept them through his actions.
_But none of this is helping now._ “Are you hungry?” he asked with sudden inspiration.
The shadow moved slightly.
Encouraged, he opened a compartment in his armor and took out a few energon cubes. He slid one over towards the shadow.
An energon-stained hand flashed out, grabbed the cube and disappeared again.
Starscream smiled and held up another cube in invitation.
The shadow moved again, then part of it separated and stepped out. Even so, the figure moved so cautiously that the darkness seemed to cling in an aura around it. It stopped again, just before the glow from the city lights could touch it.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” Starscream said, trying to lower the pitch of his voice to a more comforting tone. “At least, not unless you give me reason to. And, I think, if you had that in mind, you wouldn’t have helped me, would you?”
A hand pointed at the Autobot.
“He’s quite dead,” Starscream agreed.
“Not in stasis lock?” The voice was rough, the harmonics skipping, but unable to hide that it was a femme’s voice.
Starscream leaned forward curiously. “If so, we can take care of that. How did you kill him?”
The hand clenched in a fist, almost withdrew into the darkness again. Then, slowly, both hands came out, spread open and empty. All fingers ended in steel claw tips.
“Yes, that would do it.” Starscream remembered the feel of those fingers biting into his wrist, and glanced down. The paint was gouged and smears of energon fluid were drying around his wrist. “That explains that, too.”
“I can’t retract them,” she said in a soft wail, almost stepping forward, then catching herself before the light could draw her out.
“The alternative would have been worse.” He smiled again. “Come out, where I can see you.”
She hesitated for such a long moment, that he thought she would bolt. Then, she finally took the last step forward into the light.
And he still couldn’t see much about her, other than her state of disrepair. Her paint was a dark color, but was grimy enough that it was impossible to tell just what color she was. She had a large dent, pitting in her shoulder and crumpling against her throat, which explained the broken harmonics. It all seemed to be surface damage, though. There were no gaping wounds or exposed circuitry, and her movements, except where broken by the shoulder wound, were perfect and flowing. She was smaller than he had expected too, barely reaching his chest.
From what he could tell, there was no insignia on her. “Are you a neutral?” he asked, not bothering to hide his disdain. A neutral would most likely not have weapons like those claw tips. However, a Decepticon would _never_ remove his insignia.
She shook her head, wringing her hands.
“A Decepticon?” he asked, not saying the word “traitor”, but hearing it in his voice.
“I don’t know,” she whimpered. “I can’t remember!”
_Maybe the wounds go deeper than they look. A hit that hard might have rattled her brain circuitry._ “Let me see,” he said, and, forgetting, stood quickly. She shrank away from his hand, spun in another of those gracefully fast moves, then paused.
He understood then. She was terrified... but she really didn’t want to run either.
He settled down on the ground again. “All right. I’ll talk you through it. Can you access your diagnostics?”
She shrugged, then, her injured shoulder making the move difficult. “I turned them off.”
He stared at her. “And you did that, because...?”
Again, the awkward shrug. “The damage that was left --” and her fingers brushed against her throat, “--couldn’t be fixed. And I got sick of the alarms and error messages.”
“How long ago did this happen?”
She held still for a moment, except for her fingers of one hand, each fingertip touching her thumbtip lightly. At first he thought she was actually counting, and he almost shrugged her off as a casualty then, if her CPU had been damaged that badly. But her optics glimmered with intelligence, processing, and he thought that maybe the finger-motion was perhaps merely a mannerism.
Her fist clenched suddenly, then relaxed. “I don’t remember,” she whispered in defeat. “My chronologer is damaged.”
“What do you remember?”
She shook her head absently. “Waking up. Like this.” Her hand touched her throat again, as if the damage to her voice processor distressed her more than the damage to her shoulder. “I don’t know how long ago. Seems like forever. I’ve been alone...” She shuddered, then. “You’re... you’re the first one to speak to me. At least, the first to talk to me in...” She shook her head again. “And longer since anyone’s given me energon.”
Starscream shrugged mentally. Neutrals had it rough, he knew. But they could also join a side, if they didn’t care for the way they lived. Instead, they picked around the edges of the war, little better than scavengers in some areas. He hadn’t come across one yet that didn’t complain, yet refuse to do anything to better their lives. “Are you still hungry?” he asked.
She hesitated, obviously wondering how much weakness she should show, then nodded. “Always.”
He held out a second cube. She stated to reach for it, then hesitated again. “In exchange for what?” she asked in a whisper.
“I am in your debt,” he said, trying for an echo of Megatron’s charm. It seemed to work. She reached again for the cube, gently whisking it from his hand, careful not to actually touch him. He wondered what she had been forced to do, to get energon.
But that was part of war, too.
She sat delicately on the edge of the fountain, sipping at the energon. Such control was not what he expected from someone who was obviously hovering just above starvation. He had planned to keep the third cube for himself, for the long walk back, but he also knew there would be more waiting for him. He placed the third cube on the fountain next to her. “How much of your memory files can you access?”
“Some,” she said in a purposely vague way. “The files are all there. I just can’t access them.
“They’re probably salvageable, then.”
Her optics were haunted. “I don’t think I want to remember,” she whispered to her empty cube. “I think it was real bad.”
Starscream nudged the third cube closer to her. She tensed at the movement, then picked up the cube with a small smile of thanks. She finished it just as delicately. She cupped the empty cube in her hands for a moment, then suddenly stood and strode over to the Autobot. In a quick move, she bent and pushed the body over the edge of the overpass. Surprised, and a little delighted, he joined her just in time to see a small fireball when the body exploded against the ground.
“The only thing I really remember,’ she said in a low voice, almost a growl, “is that I hate Autobots.” She looked at him, then, her optics wistful. “And I don’t even know why.”
“If you can’t remember your reasons, I’m sure we can come up with a few new ones for you,” he said with a smile, not entirely joking.
The fireball burned out down below, and she leaned back on her heels, gazing at the stars for a moment, then looked at him again. “We?” She said it as though the word tasted strangely, and he wondered just how long she had been alone. Her fingers traced the Decepticon symbol in the air in front of his chest, careful again not to touch him.
“Why not?” he said flippantly. “Got any place better to go?” Then, because he heard Megatron’s voice in the back of his mind, (“We are not taking in every homeless Transformer off the street.”), he modified his tone. “Hating Autobots is a good place to start. If you want to join us, you’ll have to prove yourself. What can you do, other than rip throats out?”
“I can survive,” she said evenly.
_Without weapons, damaged, and starving. Oh, yes. A good start indeed._ “Can you transform?”
“I can’t -- I mean, I think it’s the damage.”
“What is your alternate form?”
She gazed at her hands. “I can’t remember.”
“I’m going to hear that a lot, aren’t I?”
She looked up at the sky again. “I think... I think I fly.” Another of her not-quite-smiles softened her face. “I remember touching the stars.”
“I saw you,” she said suddenly, “just before you were shot. You were flying spirals, and I just _knew_ that I had done that, too. I knew the breathless feeling of it, the way the air streaks around me, and the roar of my engines, and the feeling that nothing can catch me. And remembering almost killed me again, because... I can’t...”
“Because you’re grounded,” he said softly. “Oh, yes. You fly. You wouldn’t speak of it like that, if you didn’t. You wouldn’t be able to understand, if it wasn’t your nature.”
“That’s why I helped you,” she said. “Because...” And her hand touched her throat again. “...because I didn’t want you to be like me.”
“A living death.” The fear of being permanently grounded echoed in his nightmares. It was worse for her, than living in the harshness of the back streets. It was seeing the sky and knowing that she once had ultimate freedom and had lost it. He would rather die than face that himself.
But she had survived.
“Come back with me,” he said. “At least, to get yourself repaired. No flier should be crippled.”
Her eyes glowed hungrily then, and she took a step forward. Then she stopped. “In exchange for what?” she asked again.
“Because you helped me. You kept me from becoming like...”
“Like me,” she finished.
“Well... yeah... So call it pay-back, if you’d like. And once you have your memory back --”
She leapt away from him so quickly, that he moved forward, afraid that she was going to fall over the edge. She caught her balance so effortlessly that she looked like she had never lost it to begin with. And perhaps she wouldn’t have, if she hadn’t been damaged. “I don’t want to remember,” she said fiercely, then faltered, pressing her hands against her temples.
He sidled to counter her move. She stepped aside to avoid him again, and in this way, he herded her away from the edge.
She touched her throat again, in a gesture that was beginning to seem as much of a mannerism as her finger-fidgeting had been earlier. “I don’t want to remember what happened,” she said.
“Just like that?” he said in surprise. “We have good medics. I’m sure it can be repaired.”
“I won’t go with you, if you make me remember,” she said in a sudden shrill voice.
_Whatever it was... she’d rather live without flying, than remember._ He couldn’t imagine anything that would make him give up the chance at regaining flight, having been deprived of it for so long.
“All I want,” she said, “is a chance to go on from here.”
He nodded slowly. “I can’t promise anything past the repairs and a meal.”
“Like you said, it’s a start.”
“What’s your name?” Then he caught himself. “Or do you not remember?”
Her face lit up, her optics glowing in the first real smile he had seen from her. “I remember that.” She held her hands out in front of her, palms facing each other, tracing designs with her fingers. Tendrils of energy danced and arced between her two hands. It was a feeble display, with her lack of energy. He wondered how much stronger it would be when she was fully fed.
She grinned at him over the sparking tendrils. “My name is CatsCradle,” she said.
“It was just a simple reconn. A routine mission, just to get you out from underfoot more than anything else. And you limp in here, unable to even transform, bleeding an energon trail behind you, and bringing in a femme who’s in an even worse state of disrepair than you are.” Megatron leaned against the counter behind him, tapping his fingers against the surface, and glowered at Starscream. “Did I leave anything out?”
“I had stopped bleeding long before I set foot on base.” Then, when Megatron closed his optics in an obvious struggle for patience, Starscream shrugged sheepishly. “The rest of it’s pretty much right, though. Except that you left you killing the Autobot.”
“Which, according to your own report, you didn’t even do. And if she’s the one who did it, it must not have been much of an Autobot.”
“Tore his throat out,” Starscream pointed out.
“Again, it must not have been much of an Autobot.” Megatron sighed. “Starscream, you are still young, and you have the potential to rise to sub-commander someday, but you are entirely too impulsive.”
“I’ve heard this lecture before.”
“And you’ll hear it again, until you either straighten up, or you get killed, and I have to go through the hassle of finding another Air Commander.”
“Anything else?” Starscream asked brightly, drumming his heels against the side of the repair bed he was sitting on.
Megatron frowned, and Starscream sensed that he was coming close to crossing the line of his leader’s patience. Megatron tolerated a lot of his attitude, seeming to enjoy bantering with him. But there was a very definitive line limiting how far he could push it. “Sir,” he added quickly.
Megatron’s face relaxed slightly at the honorific, and his voice took on a more companionable tone. “I understand if you want to keep her for the company, although I do think you could have found someone more befitting your rank that some nameless neutral. And certainly someone cleaner.”
“Let me finish. You simply can’t bring in some femme off the streets and insinuate she’s a warrior, no matter how interested you are in her.”
“I’m not interested --” Megatron gave him a skeptical look, and Starscream shrugged again. “All right, I’m not blind.”
“I caught a glimpse of her, and I could debate that.”
“Dirt washes,” Starscream said again. “And she hates Autobots enough to kill one with her bare hands.”
Megatron pushed himself away from the counter. “She’s a damaged neutral that is not functioning rationally, and you presume --”
There was a huge crash, followed by a series of smaller ones, from the next repair bay, where Soundwave had taken CatsCradle. Megatron shot Starscream a “There, you see?” glower and strode into the room. “What in the --”
Starscream peered around him. Soundwave had backed CatsCradle in a corner. He was trying to speak to her soothingly, but her optics were flashing in panic. The heavy examination table was toppled on its side, and several other pieces of furniture were knocked over, leaving a traceable path as CatsCradle had flung them aside in her wake.
Soundwave cast a glance over his shoulder at his leader, and in that instant of distraction, CatsCradle darted forward, her hands blurring as she clawed at his chest. He stepped back, more in surprise than in pain, and she slid forward between his legs and scrambled for the door.
Ravage saw the streaks of energon across his creator’s chestplate and rose out of the corner he had been silently resting in. He snarled and leapt at the femme. In another move that was almost as blurringly fast, she cracked a fist up under the puma’s chin, and his head snapped back, his jaws clicking shut. He fell to all four paws, then lashed out with one, but she was gone again, sprinting past him to the door. Ravage was on her before she had gone two steps, and plowed into her back. She continued with the motion, tucking her head and rolling over, sending Ravage flying over her shoulders before he could grip onto her with his teeth. He regained his balance almost the instant his first foot touched the floor, pivoting towards her. Still on hands and knees, she lashed out with one foot, catching Ravage squarely in the chest.
“Don’t hurt her!” Soundwave called as he tried to maneuver around them.
Ravage shot him an expression that was pure and-what’s-going-to-keep-her- from-hurting-me? CatsCradle was on her feet again and running. Ravage leapt in her path, intending to use his mass to trip her.
She vaulted over him, her hands barely connecting with his shoulders for balance. Ravage rose on his hind legs, twisting and knocking against her back. She hit the floor headlong and rolled over. Triumphantly, Ravage pinned her down, a front paw on each of her shoulders. She feinted at his optics and he snapped at her hand. Her other hand hit his muzzle hard while he was still in mid-snap. Then her feet landed on his stomach, pushing him off and over to one side.
“I was mistaken, Starscream,” Megatron said.
“I saw her first.”
Megatron swatted at him. “Idiot. No, I mean that she’s had training.” They both knew that each had noticed that she was only trying to get free, not to kill.
She rolled and found her feet again. She shot towards the door and saw Megatron too late to stop, rebounding off him. Her surprise robbed her of her agility, and she landed on the floor in a sprawl. Starscream ducked past Megatron. Her gaze fell on him. “I told you, I don’t want to remember,” she gasped out, scrambling backwards out of his reach. Ravage’s jaws closed around her shoulder, pinning, not piercing. Her palm went up, as if to hit the end of the puma’s nose with the heel of her hand, then paused as she looked at Megatron again. The fighting tension eased out of her as she realized his size and saw the fusion cannon on his arm. Her optics darted to each of the four of them, ending on Starscream again. “Don’t make me remember,” she whispered.
“Soundwave, what happened?” Megatron asked.
“I was trying to reconnect the relays to her memory banks,” Soundwave said. “She realized what I was doing and panicked.” He dabbed ruefully at the scratches on his chest plate. “You could have warned me, Starscream.”
Starscream sorted over a variety of answers, then simply shrugged with an unapologetic grin.
Megatron held out his hand. Ravage let go of the femme, and after a moment of gazing at Megatron warily, she took his hand and let him help her to her feet. He studied the unusual claw tips on her fingers. “Why don’t you want to remember?”
Her fingers twitched and she withdrew her hand from his, perfectly aware that he was allowing her to do so. “Because of what I do remember,” she said softly.
“Which is?” he pressed.
She glanced around again, as if seeking another escape route. His hand caught her chin, firmly but gently forcing her to look at him. “Horror,” she said, her optics wide with it. “Paralyzing, engulfing horror. It’s all I can feel, or breathe, or see. It eats everything, leaving no room for anything else. _Please_,” and her hands wrapped around his wrist in appeal, “Don’t make me remember what caused it.”
He glanced at her clawed fingers around his wrist. Both hands barely reached all the way around. He released her and gave her a reassuring smile. “Soundwave, leave her memory alone for now. Repair the rest of the damage.” He frowned at the smudges of dirt on his fingers. “And let her clean up. CatsCradle, it was, wasn’t it?”
“What kind of a name is --” Then as Starscream and CatsCradle both opened their mouths, he waved them away. “Yes, yes, I know. You don’t remember. Still, it is nice to hear respect from someone, even as disreputable as you look. You could learn from that, Starscream.” His optics glinted with amusement, then he nodded to Soundwave and strode out.
CatsCradle stared after him, optics huge in her dark-smudged face, then looked at Starscream with the same expression, as if he’d suddenly taken on Megatron’s personality by sheer proximity. Starscream waved his hand at the door in dismissal. “That’s just the way he is,” he said in explanation.
She didn’t seem reassured. She turned to Soundwave. “You’ll leave my memory alone?”
“Megatron ordered it.” Then he added, “but if I had known, I would have not caused you such distress.” He looked pointedly at Starscream. “And I would not now have to repair my repair bay.”
“Aren’t you supposed to talk to your patients before poking and prodding at them?” Starscream snapped. “Besides, you keep bragging about what a great telepath you are.”
“Telepath?” CatsCradle stared at Soundwave again, even more distressed.
Soundwave glared at Starscream. “If I had probed your mind, I would have known of your reluctance to have your memory repaired,” he said gently. “Since I obviously didn’t, I must not have probed.”
“Or maybe you were just going to do the repairs anyway, regardless of what I wanted.” She took a step towards the door. “I think I should just --”
“I promise to leave your memory relays alone.”
She glanced at Starscream. “But --”
Soundwave glared at him again, this time over her head. Starscream was rather enjoying the telepath’s discomfort, and would have liked to play the scene out further, but CatsCradle was edging to the door again, posed to run. There was no one blocking her this time, and he was fairly certain that once out the door, she’d simply vanish into the streets again.
He remembered how her face lit when she talked of flying.
“Look,” he said softly. “Soundwave’s just about the best we’ve got. You think I’d let him near me otherwise?” It seem to hit the right chord with her, and he could see her relax slightly. “And Megatron’s warned him off your memory.” He smirked at Soundwave, finding some amusement in his own words. “You can trust him.”
Her fingers fidgeted, the thumb touching each clawtip. Otherwise, she was frozen in place. It had been one thing, he realized, for her to decide to come with him, when she still had the opportunity to duck into some dark street and flee. It was another thing entirely for her to allow someone access to her circuitry. “You have to start somewhere,” he said.
Her eyes flicked at him. “Start what?”
“To go forward. You want to be able to touch the stars again, don’t you?”
Her head moved in a slight nod, but she still didn’t seem to be able to step forward.
“Maybe, if you stayed, Starscream...” Soundwave said.
He was surprised at the suggestion. For CatsCradle to be so wary was understandable. She didn’t have any reasons to trust. But for him to stay seemed to be a hint towards fear. For one to be afraid was not necessarily a bad thing. But for one to be unable to control that fear was. As a Decepticon warrior, he didn’t know if he would be doing any favors for her by staying.
But it was rather flattering, to think that she had placed what small amount of trust she had in him.
She was hoping he would stay. He saw in it the way her fingers slowed in their fidgeting. But her optics steadily avoided his. “I don’t need you to stay,” she said clearly, her chin raised in pride.
Whether by observation or by instinct, she had said the right thing. She wasn’t asking him to stay out of her own fear, but letting him volunteer was another thing entirely. It was a fine, but very distinctive line. He shrugged and jerked his chin at Soundwave. “Someone’s gotta make sure he does his job right.” He could tell the glare Soundwave shot him was torn between annoyance and a grudging approval.
Soundwave leaned against the edge of the repair table and started to lever it back to its feet. CatsCradle’s fingers twitched, then she hurried forward to help. Soundwave obviously didn’t need the assistance, but he nodded at her silent apology. He helped her up onto the table. “Let’s see what we can do, here,” he said.
CatsCradle glanced at Starscream again. He nodded comfortingly. She tried to smile and couldn’t quite do it. She was terrified.
She let Soundwave touch her. Starscream knew from experience that his fingers were gentle, but CatsCradle’s hand clenched around the edge of the table, her claws squealing against the metal. Other than that, she didn’t move.
And her optics never left Starscream.
After a while that was obviously an eternity to CatsCradle, Soundwave stepped back. His optics smiled at her. “Everything is repairable. And, yes. You will fly again.”
Relief dashed away the fear. “I will?”
His optics smiled again. “Not right away, but you will fly. The damage is not recent, is it?”
She shook her head. “I don’t think so.”
“Your circuitry has been severely stressed, trying to compensate, and the length of time without repairs has contributed to it.” His fingers traced a path on her shoulders, along the muscular cable system. “Your wings were here. It looks like your self repair systems were able to heal the surface wounds, but there is considerable damage further in.”
“I had wings?”
Soundwave chuckled. “How else would you fly? I can’t replace it all at once, and your body needs to catch up on its healing before you should try transforming, much less flying. First and foremost, we need to get some energon in you.” He touched her face. “You’re going to be spending a lot of time in here.”
Her chin went up. “I can handle it,” she said in answer to his unasked question.
Again, the optical smile. “Of course you can. Come back the day after tomorrow, when you’ve had some rest, and I’ve had time to gather parts.” He helped her off the table. “Starscream will find you quarters and show you where to find energon.” Then, as she rubbed self-consciously at the grime embedded in her paint, he added, “And where you can wash. I think new paint should wait until the repairs are done, though.”
Her smile went first to Starscream. “I’m going to fly again.” Then her joy burst out and she spun in a circle, arms raised and head thrown back, laughing. “I’m going to fly again!” She came out of her spin in front of Starscream, and he automatically caught her shoulders to balance her. It was the first time she had let him touch her, but she was so happy, she didn’t seem to notice.
“Starscream, get her something to eat,” Soundwave said. “And, CatsCradle?”
She turned to him, stepping out of Starscream’s reach. He found himself disappointed and scowled at Soundwave.
Soundwave ignored him. “Don’t let the others get to you,” he said to her.
She grinned, still caught up in emotion. It was a drastic contrast to the femme who had crept out of the shadows of a crumbling energon fountain.
Hope was an amazing thing. He reached out his hand to her, and she took it, her fingers slim and tiny in his. He started to usher her out.
“And, Starscream?” Soundwave called.
He turned back, annoyed. “What?”
“Find her quarters of her own. As in, not yours.”
“You’re not her creator,” he snapped.
“No. I’m her medic.”
Starscream glared at him, then snarled and stalked out.
She put the first one in the repair bay herself.
Starscream had been just outside the dining hall, on his way in with Thundercracker and Skywarp. Thundercracker had just asked how much longer Soundwave was grounding Starscream for the wing injury, when the shouting started. They looked at each other with matching grins, then jostled each other in their eagerness to get through the doors to watch the fight. There was a crowd between them and the actual scene, and they began to push through, using Starscream’s rank as an excuse.
“Serves him right,” one of the spectators in front of them said. “One of these days, someone was going to teach Firespitter that not all femmes are his for the taking.” He snorted a gleeful laugh. “Betcha he didn’t expect it from such a tiny one, huh?”
Starscream knew, then, and pushed the last of the watchers out of his way. He knew Firespitter more by reputation than personal experience. He was huge, almost as heavily armored as Megatron or Shockwave, and he had the blustering, swaggering personality of someone who listened to rank first, size second, and no one else after that.
The smaller, faded-purple, one was, of course, CatsCradle.
Firespitter had claw marks deeply across one side of his face, energon flowing in gouts over the optic. He was bellowing in rage and pain. CatsCradle had had to jump to a table surface to reach his face, and now, she ran along the length of the table, dodging when he swiped blindly at her. He brought both fists down hard on the table, and it flipped up towards him. CatsCradle leapt off, ducking under the table and adding her own weight in a shove, ramming the table into Firespitter’s face. He roared again, and CatsCradle darted behind him, slashing at the back of one of his knees. He stumbled, then gripped the table and swung it at her. She leapt over it, balancing for a quick second on the edge, adding another series of claw marks to his chest, before jumping free again. He threw the table at her. She backstepped to avoid it and tripped over a chair, sprawling to the floor. Her hands danced, tracing energy arcs in a shield in front of her, and the table rebounded off it. The force of it pushed CatsCradle several meters back, and the field’s glow diminished drastically. She still was underfueled. Her optics blazed, but Starscream couldn’t tell if it was with anger at Firespitter or at her own weakness. She snagged the chair she had tripped over and pitched it at Firespitter. Half-blinded, he didn’t see it coming and took it full in the face. He bellowed and drew his flame-thrower.
Fighting was one thing. Megatron’d have a fit if someone burned down the dining hall.
Several hundreds of years of working together had given them an almost instinctual communication. Skywarp and Thundercracker dove at Firespitter, tackling him from opposite angles. Starscream caught CatsCradle in one arm as she dashed past him for Firespitter, the force of her impact swinging him around. She turned on him, blazing anger, then realized who he was. The fury in her optics ebbed.
Firespitter was still roaring, despite Skywarp pinning his arms down and Thundercracker sitting on his chest.
“You couldn’t at least have waited until you were at full strength before picking fights?” Starscream said to CatsCradle with amusement. She glared at him, but didn’t say anything, which was rather refreshing compared with the aftermath of most fights he had broken up. “You going to tell me what happened?” he asked.
She looked away, then, avoiding his optics.
The warrior who had spoken before stepped forward. “She wasn’t the one who started it, sir. Firespitter was being too friendly and not taking no for an answer.” He grinned at CatsCradle. “That was a beaut of a fight, darling. He deserved it.” He shrugged apologetically at Starscream. “Firespitter’s a good soldier, don’t get me wrong, sir. I’d fight ‘Bots by him anytime. But he’s severely lacking in the social graces, if you know what I mean. The only thing he listens to is a clobbering between the optics.” He winked an optic at CatsCradle. “Was a treat to see the little femme give it to him. We need to get you an insignia, hon. Even so, sir, she was trying to ignore him. Wasn’t until he touched her, that she lashed out. And that’s the only thing guys like Firespitter understand.”
Starscream looked down at CatsCradle. She was still standing in the crook of his arm, too distracted to realize he was touching her. After a second’s consideration, he let his arm fall away. She didn’t notice. Starscream thought for a moment and came up with the warrior’s name. Battlescar was older than the majority of the troops, pleased with his status and happiest when active and fighting. He had no reason to act against either CatsCradle or Firespitter in malice, and his version of the fight was probably unbiased.
“Uh, Starscream?” Thundercracker called. “A little help here?”
Firespitter was still trying to pitch them off. Starscream left CatsCradle in Battlescar’s protective aura. The other two jets were having a hard time trying to pin the much heavier warrior down., He was still half-blind from the energon pouring from the claw marks into his optics, and probably couldn’t even tell who had hold of him. He froze, though, first when he felt Starscream’s foot on his throat, then when he saw the muzzle of Starscream’s laser in front of his good eye.
“Are you finished?” Starscream purred. He increased his pressure slightly, not enough to do any damage, but enough that he saw fear in Firespitter’s visible optic. He managed to nod around Starscream’s foot. Starscream eased his weight off and stepped aside. “At least, if you’re going to pick a fight, chose your targets better. You look really impressive, going after a half-starved femme less than half your size. Especially when she was kicking the exhaust out of you. Now, get yourself to the med-bay.”
Firespitter started to sit up, but Starscream pushed him down again. “And if you touch her again,” he snarled, “I’ll rip you apart myself. _If_ there’s anything left of you after _she’s_ done with you.” He stepped aside and nodded at Thundercracker and Skywarp to let the big warrior up. Firespitter climbed to his feet and ducked away from Starscream. He pushed through the crowd, deliberately avoiding looking at CatsCradle.
Thundercracker waved at the crowd. “Go on, all of you,” he said. “Show’s over. Go back to what you were doing.” He grinned at Starscream. “Looks like Screamer’s got a girlfriend,” he chanted softly.
Starscream started to scowl at him, but somehow it turned into a grin of his own. “Jealous?”
“Maybe,” Thundercracker said, uncertain when Starscream didn’t rise to the bait. “If she had a better paint job.”
“She moves real pretty, though,” Skywarp put in.
“You two are hopeless,” he told them and went over to CatsCradle, waving the last of the stragglers away angrily.
“I didn’t need your help,” she said in a low voice. Her harmonics rang close; Soundwave apparently had repaired her vocal components that morning.
“I wasn’t saving you,” he said. “I was saving our dining hall. Trust me, it would be harder to replace.”
She studied him, eyes narrowed, trying to decide if he was joking or not. “Am I in trouble?”
“For fighting?” he chuckled. “I would have been more concerned if you didn’t stand up for yourself. You have to, here, you know.”
She glanced around her. The crown hadn’t dispersed by a strict definition of the term, but they had drawn away enough to be overlooked. She wasn’t overlooking, though. “I’m beginning to realize that.”
“Besides, it made me look good,” he said smugly. “It will do Firespitter good to remember who his superiors are.”
“Show-off,” she said softly.
He was surprised at the note of affection in her voice. “Did you get a chance to eat?” he asked.
She shook her head, and he ushered her to a table, his hand just hovering over the small of her back to guide, but not touching. “Besides,” he said with a swagger in his step, “I don’t need to show off. Everyone knows I’m the best.”
“The best at bragging?” The affectionate teasing was still in her voice.
“Among other things.”
“And it’s fun, too, isn’t it?”
“Is that coming from another show-off?”
“No,” she said, the amusement falling flatly from her voice. She shrugged. Her shoulder was still damaged, so the gesture was awkward in contrast to the fluidity of her other movements. “There was never anyone to show off to.”
He snagged energon for both of them, a slightly larger than normal ration, but glared down the one person who looked like he were forming a protest, and the soldier suddenly had business somewhere else to attend to.
She frowned a little as they sat at a table, noticing the larger amount. “That’s too much.”
He scowled at her. “How’re you going to get your strength back if you don’t refuel? I thought Soundwave was a better medic than that.”
Her optics shimmered in amusement. “My body’s not used to it yet. Soundwave said to work my way up to a normal amount.”
He pushed a cube across the table towards her. “Start with that, then.”
She took the cube with another of her not-quite smiles, that only went as far as her optics. “Wouldn’t have thought you were the fussing type.”
He leaned back in his seat, smirking. “Obviously you listen to the wrong sources.”
“Like almost anyone in the Decepticon army?”
“You limit yourself.”
Her smile grew, and she bent her head over her energon to hide it, and he found himself wishing she hadn’t. He wanted to see her past the careful mask she had imposed on herself, unguarded as she had been in relief at being able to fly again, or even in the fierce burning pride he had seen as she fought. And he really had no idea how to coax that out of her.
He didn’t realize how intently he was studying her until she shifted nervously, her expression going wary and closing off even further. He glanced down at his own energon, unconsciously mimicking her earlier movement. “I’m not any good at this,” he muttered.
Her own gaze was locked on her half-empty cube again. “Good at what?” she asked in a soft voice, as if she didn’t want to know, but felt as if she was supposed to ask.
He had spoken aloud without intending to and looked at her blankly, not knowing what answer to give her. She knew he was looking at her -- he could tell that she missed very little -- but her gaze was still locked on her energon. He reached out and touched her chin with his finger, lifting her head to meet his gaze. Her expression was blank, except for a flicker of resignation, and he realized how she must have gotten at least some of her energon out on the streets.
He also realized that he did not want her to look at him with resignation.
He drew his hand back and was a little surprised when she didn’t look away again. He nodded at her energon, for her to continue with her meal. She watched him for a long moment, then picked up her cube, cradling it in both hands, and sipped at it.
His radio went off, just as Thundercracker came over and clapped his shoulder. “You get those orders?”
Starscream scowled. “I would have, if you hadn’t been talking over them.”
Thundercracker shrugged, unconcerned. He was used to Starscream’s scowls. “We’re being called out. You’re supposed to go get cleared with Soundwave first, then meet the rest of us on the airfield.” He smirked, his optics glinting at CatsCradle. “If you aren’t too busy to join us, that is.”
CatsCradle’s optics flashed a deeper shade of purple. “I don’t need baby-sitting.”
Thundercracker chuckled. “After what I saw, I agree with you.” He nudged Starscream again good-naturedly and moved away through the dining hall. The spectators had drifted to meals and conversations, no longer sparing any attention to the diminutive femme in faded purple.
“I need to go,” Starscream said, just as she said “I’ll be fine.” They both grinned, although hers didn’t go past her optics. “Of course you will,” he said, and because he couldn’t think of anything else to say that wouldn’t make him sound awkward -- him! Awkward! -- he stood and quickly left.
He met Battlescar on the way to the repair bay. The older mech was apparently on his way back from escorting Firespitter. “Hear you’re on your way out on mission,” he said.
Starscream scowled again. The only thing that flew faster than he did, were rumors on a base. He nodded, trying to look as if he had known about it all along instead of just finding out. Then he looked at Battlescar intently. “I don’t suppose...” he started.
Battlescar’s optics glimmered. “That I might keep a watch on a certain new femme warrior?”
Starscream shrugged slightly and nodded again. “Might be best if she didn’t quite realize you were doing that watching,” he added.
Firespitter pushed his way out of the repair bay. The claw gouges had been sealed over, but the paint hadn’t been retouched and the marks were vivid. He stalked by, careful to give Starscream a wide berth, despite his glower.
Starscream smiled. “I think I’ll make your job a little easier,” he purred. “I think I’ll take that one with me.”
It was a year before he saw her again.
All things considering, a year was not a long time for beings that could easily live many millennia. But it was long enough that she had faded from his recent memory, deregulated by missions, battles, and orders to a memory file along with other less-important items.
When he finally did catch a glimpse of a slight form in midnight purple armor across the crowded Polyhex hangar bay one night, it took a few seconds before he realized who it was. He was giving orders to a group of new seekers, all of whom stared at him either blankly or in pure boredom, and the glint of the armor was enough to make him pause. He frowned slightly, realized he had lost his train of thought, and turned his frown firmly onto the rookies. “And remember,” he added, as if the pause had been deliberate, “contrary to past events, the skylights of the main access plaza are _not_ the quickest way to the airfield.” There was another flare of purple heading away, towards the plaza. He waved Thundercracker over. “Take over here.” He started to say something else in the way of instruction, then looked again at the line of rookies. He gave a hopeless shrug and left them to Thundercracker. He strode across the hanger bay and into the plaza. “CatsCradle!”
The purple glint stopped and ducked out of the stream of warriors with the quick movement of someone who was smaller enough than the general population that she had learned any quick stops would get her run over in a crowd. He caught her expression, frozen in a second of surprise, as if hearing someone call her name was a rare occurrence. Her face relaxed in one of her optic-only smiles, and she ducked upstream through the swarm of ‘Cons. No one seemed to even notice her. She fell in step with him and only then did her smile touch her face. “Taking a break from conquering the world?” she asked.
“Hmph. I haven’t taken a break since...” He mock-frowned. “...Since I last saw you.”
She scoffed at him, as he had intended. “Well,” he amended, “Maybe not quite that long.”
“Remind me not to transfer to your division, in either case.”
He studied her. She was different from the standard Seeker design. Her new wings curved around her shoulders, in a shape similar to a half-cloak. Her carried a sword slung over her back, rather than shunted into subspace. A metal sword too, not an electro-blade. She had shed the fearful edge to her that had probably been protective camouflage on the streets, but there was still an ethereal air to her, as if all she’d have to do was shift a step to one side, and she’d disappear into any shadows available. It was a far cry from the prideful stride that most Seekers had. “You’re not exactly like most Seekers,” he said cautiously. “Soundwave must have felt creative doing your repairs.”
She shrugged, her wings gliding fluidly with the movement. “He had to. The damage was too severe. He couldn’t even tell what some of my original wiring had been, because it had been so drastically reworked.”
“Reworked? By who?”
She gave him a sardonic glance.
“Oh, right. Still no memory, huh?”
“Better that way.”
“Yep.” But her jaws were clenched and the word came out short and clipped.
The crowd had pretty much disbursed by now, except for normal daily traffic, and they were able to slow their pace without having ‘Cons ricocheting off them in their rush. CatsCradle shifted nervously though, her fingers running through their familiar fidget. “Are you supposed to be someplace?” he asked. “If you’re late, I’ll speak to your commander.”
She shook her head. “No. No one’s looking for me.”
The way she said it was just as tight as the way she had spoken about memories, and Starscream felt the unfamiliar feeling of floundering that seemed to accompany his conversations with her. He nodded at the sword, desperate for a topic. “That doesn’t look like service issue.”
Her expression lightened, as relieved as he was at the different topic. “’Cause it isn’t.” She drew it and let the lights splash off its surface. “Service issue ones are meant for big lummoxes built like you,” and her optics glinted at him to show she was teasing, “not for someone like me. I had to have this specially made.” As she held the sword, her body language shifted from that strangely ethereal to a blazing presence in the time it took to blink. Her expression went feral, optics blazing amethyst fire, and he knew she’d find a place for herself in the Decepticon army if she had to carve it out, claw and sword. Then her gaze met his over the blade and her expression cooled just as quickly as it had flamed. She sheathed the sword in one of her fluid movements, and without it in her hands, shifted back to the ethereal femme that seemed hardly real.
The contrast was unnerving.
He looked away from her; just as she looked down at her hands, as if she had realized the sudden difference in her, just from holding the sword, as if she had suddenly come alive, then partially died again when she sheathed it. He watched her side-long, as her expression flickered through dismay, then back to her cautiously mild mask.
He could tell when she became aware that he was still watching her, even if not directly. She kept looking at her hands, clawtips rubbing against clawtips, to give herself something to focus on, rather than on him. “I have a message for you.”
He stopped walking then. She went a couple of steps farther, before she caught herself and turned back. He frowned. “Who from?”
“Battlescar,” she said softly. “He was killed a few months ago.” Her optics were even more guarded than normal, and he never would have caught the flicker of grief embedded deep in them if he hadn’t been looking for it. “He said to tell you...” and she paused for a moment to get the words correct. “that ‘she never needed the watching.’” She looked up at him, then, her expression torn between challenging... and a surprise that anyone might give her well-being a second thought.
Starscream nodded gravely. “I’m sure you didn’t,” he said.
She studied him for another long moment, then glanced away again. “Are your missions normally that long?” she asked.
He accepted the deliberate change of subject. “I don’t think there is anything normal about any mission,” he said after a moment’s thought. “This one was longer than most, though, and it wouldn’t have been if Megatron had listened to me at any point during it.” He couldn’t keep the annoyance out of his voice, hearing his tone go harsh before he could modify it, and she looked up at him again, optics startled. He sighed and shook his head. “Nothing for you to worry about, Cats.”
The startled expression stayed, but modified slightly. “Cats?” she echoed.
He grinned. “Why not? It’s certainly more appealing than Screamer.”
Her mouth curved into a smile. “This is true.”
His radio beeped for attention then, and he sighed again. “You’d think I’d at least get a few hours off,” he snarled, the harsh tone back in his voice momentarily before he controlled it again. “I’ll look for you later, all right?”
She started to say something, then stopped as his radio beeped again, and she settled for nodding. “What?” he snapped into his radio, then looked up again. She was gone. The plaza was almost deserted, without even a flash of midnight-purple armor. He had never heard her leave.
As luck would have it, she was shipped out on a mission the next day, before he could catch up with her again. Then he was sent out before she came back, and it was another several months before they ran into each other again. He had just come in from a recon, one wing scorched from a not-so-near-miss and was storming his way to the repair bay, ‘cons ducking out of the way of his thunderous expression. He nearly ran CatsCradle down as she stormed out of the repairbay, with much the same expression on her face. Her optics flashed at him. “I hate new medics, and don’t you even think of sending me back in there,” she snarled at him.
It was enough of a distraction from his own mood, that he blinked and stopped his own storming. “What happened?”
She let out another snarl. “Every new medic thinks they know better and wants to repair the memory relays.”
He leaned past her and looked into the repair bay and the chaos within. “I see you’ve convinced them otherwise.”
She snorted. “Until the next medic comes along and I have to throw them throw a wall, too.”
Starscream couldn’t help it and grinned broadly at her. She glowered at him and he raised his hands to fend off her anger. “No, I won’t send you back in.” He looked critically at the scorch on her arm. “Your own diagnostics should handle that. It doesn’t look that bad.”
“I know how to duck,” she sneered.
He laughed, delighted in the complete absence of her usual careful guarding. “The most useful talent a Decepticon warrior can have. Quick, now, before they come after us and drag us both in.” He remembered not to touch her just as he was reaching to guide her along with him and quickly adjusted the movement to point down the corridor. She shook her head, her optics glinting in amusement in spite of herself and they quickly ducked around the corner. Two corridors later, Starscream looked behind him. “I think we’re safe,” he said in an exaggerated whisper.
She shook her head, still with that bemused expression. “How long are you back for?”
It was a standard, almost ritual question, asked of someone coming in from a mission, but he preened, preferring to think she meant it for him alone, and not just a conversation-filler. “Too long, however long it is.”
She tilted her head to one side, studying him with her slight smile. She was beginning to let more of her emotions touch her face, he realized, rather than the unsmiling mask he remembered mostly on the few occasions when he thought of her. “And here I thought you were one to grab the free moments whenever they came.”
He scowled. “I’m Air Commander, now.”
“Which means... which? That you should be more responsible, or that people should see you as being more responsible?”
His good mood vanished. “What business of it is yours?”
The mask was firmly in place again, and she stepped backwards with a slight bow, the movement not so much of respect as it was to put distance between them. “None, of course, Air Commander.”
He studied her for a long moment, and she withstood the gaze, although her hands clenched tightly with the effort of not bolting, a strange combination of warrior and frightened scavenger. “There will be a time when everyone will have no choice, but to take me seriously. Megatron will see that I deserve more credit than what he gives me. If he had listened to me any of a dozen times, we’d have won the war by now.”
He saw from the blank expression in her optics that she heard the exaggeration for what it was, and it made him angrier. It seemed like no matter how hard he tried for the credit he wanted, it just made him sound like a whining child demanding attention. It only made him angrier at Megatron, who was the worst at making him feel like that. He snarled under his breath and turned on his heel, then whirled back on her again. It was suddenly very important to him that she believed him. “Watch,” he said. “Tomorrow, the Autobots are leaving on a search for a new energy source. We’re going to follow them to it, and you’ll see. I’ll be responsible for bringing energon back and saving Cybertron.” And when her expression still didn’t change, he tried another tactic. “There won’t be anymore like you, lost and starving. Cybertron will be reborn again, and it will all be because of me.”
There was finally a reaction deep in her optics, but not the admiration he was looking for. Instead, it was a type of confusion, as if she had started a conversation with one person, and ended up talking with someone else, and wasn’t sure when the transition happened.
“Just watch,” he said again, and it sounded weak, even to himself. He turned again and stalked away. She made him feel unsure of himself, and he wasn’t even sure how she managed to do it, without a word and a minimal of expressions. He knew where Thundercracker and Skywarp were, and he decided to join them. They made him feel capable, successful even. He didn’t need to prove his worth to a half-starved, half-feral femme. The universe would see it soon, with the end of this next mission. And even Megatron would have to admit it, then. And after that... after that... well, who could tell. After all, Megatron couldn’t live forever, could he? Casualties happen. Accidents happen. Assassinations, even. The entire Decepticon Empire was there, waiting.
He smiled, and there was nothing in it of the Seeker who played tag with the stars.
It was the smile of someone who would crush them.