Bulkhead found them about where he’d expected to; alongside what had once been one of the Iacon exit highways but was now only a ribbon of somewhat less rubble cutting through its ruined surroundings. They’d set up camp in one of the smaller buildings that was still standing, although one wall was torn away and the roof sagged ominously downward without it. Someone had put up support beams to reinforce it, but daylight still shone through the gaps in dappled shafts; the missing wall was partially blocked by a slab of roof from some other building leaning against it.
“What do you want,” was the first thing Knock Out said to him, hard and flinty.
Bulkhead had to take a moment to think, upon hearing that. He didn’t really know himself. He’d been helping another group of returning stragglers get established, conscripting those who could help with the construction onto his team and sending those who couldn’t to those buildings that had already been safely rebuilt, when one of them had mentioned having a run-in with a couple of stragglers over spare supplies. A blue utility type and a red speedster, she’d said. Not very friendly. Red one said they used to work with Megatron, like he was bragging—she and her team would have jumped them for that if they’d been combat models. Bulkhead had asked her about where the encounter had taken place, thanked her, shown her to her new quarters, and then taken off as soon as everyone had been properly established. But he hadn’t really been thinking about what he’d do when he got there. Settle scores with Breakdown, might have been the vague impulse he was working with, but having Knock Out be the bot that came out to meet him had thrown that train of thought for a loop and now he wasn’t really sure what he was doing here.
“Where’s Breakdown,” he said.
“Inside,” said Knock Out, shoulders hitching a little higher, almost defensively. “What do you want?”
Bulkhead thought a moment, then leaned over to look past Knock Out, into the dimness of the makeshift shelter. It took a nanosecond for his optics to adjust for the comparative darkness inside, but he was just able to make out a bulky shape lying on the ground before Knock Out moved back in front of him, blocking his vision. “I’m right here,” he said testily, clearly nervous.
Bulkhead’s processor was still extracting data from the snapshot he’d managed to catch even after it had been obscured. Breakdown’s silhouette—lying down? He hadn’t come out to meet Bulkhead head-on, the way he was always raring to?
“What’s wrong with him?” asked Bulkhead, and wasn’t sure whether it was hope or concern he was feeling. An odd mix of both. “Is he hurt?”
“He’s recovering,” said Knock Out, bristling at him, body language doing everything short of physically reaching out and shoving him away. “You can go back to your happy little clique now. Leave us alone.”
Bulkhead thought a moment more, then stepped forward, muscling past Knock Out and ignoring his squawk of protest. It was cool inside the shelter, and dark. Breakdown was lying on the ground, an improvised brace wrapped like a claw around his leg, holding freshly welded scars together and keeping him from bending his knee joint. He lifted his head as Bulkhead approached, and bared his teeth in a half-snarl half-grin. That was familiar enough, but there was much more strain in it than usual.
“Hey, Bulkhead,” he rasped, sounding like speaking was an effort. “Long time no see, huh?”
Bulkhead should have been glad to see his enemy laid low like this. No, he was glad. Except he also wasn’t. It was all really complicated. His processor pulsed with the dull throb of contradictions it wasn’t designed for.
He turned to face Knock Out and was met with a full-on glare. Knock Out’s arms were crossed, with no trace of his usual fake charm, eyes boring holes in Bulkhead’s plating. “Go on, then. Gloat.” He snapped the T at the end of it like the click of a gun cocking.
Bulkhead suddenly felt very tired. He’d been working on reconstruction all day, but more than that, he’d just come out of a war so long only a small fraction of his life had been lived before it. That was exhausting. He was tired of it. “I’m not gonna gloat,” he told Knock Out. Turning back to Breakdown, he said, “What happened?”
“He’ll be fine,” said Knock Out, imposing himself between Breakdown and Bulkhead and bristling at him some more. He only came up to either of their chests; Bulkhead thought of a cat defending a bear. “I told you, he’s recovering. Go on. Shoo.”
A point of confusion occurred to Bulkhead, he tilted his head. “I heard you guys were getting into fights a few days ago,” he said. “And now he can’t walk? How’s that recovering?”
Knock Out glared at him, then ground out, “If you really must know—he had a problem that was getting worse. Bone strut bent out of shape punctured an energon line and it was corroding the metal around it. He was deteriorating but I found the problem and fixed it and now he’ll be fine with a few days’ rest. Any other details you want to demand, Herr Kommandant?”
Bulkhead stared at them both some more. Breakdown was watching him, yellow eyes glowing faintly in the dimness, but didn’t seem to have the energy to speak. It was unnerving, seeing him so silent and still, when usually he’d be raring for a fight; Bulkhead didn’t like it. Knock Out looked weird too, different from usual, and it took Bulkhead a moment to realize that he was sporting the wear and tear of life in the aftermath of a war, when normally such little scratches and imperfections would have been meticulously buffed out.
“Ratchet can send supplies,” he said. He didn’t really intend to say it, it just came out of him.
“Is your language processor damaged?” demanded Knock Out. “I just told you he’ll be fine. What could Ratchet have to offer?”
Bulkhead felt a hot flare of irritation. He was trying to help, damn it, and Knock Out was just being a pain in the ass about it for absolutely no reason. That was Decepticons for you—always making things as difficult as possible. “What if something goes wrong? You’re telling me you have the medical supplies to deal with that in a place like this?”
“And what business of yours is that?”
The irritation burned higher. “Stop being stupid,” said Bulkhead, “I’m trying to be nice to you Pit-damned Cons for once. You two can go die of—of rust poisoning if you’re going to be like that about it, for all I care.”
Knock Out sniffed disdainfully. “Rust poisoning only occurs in wounds that have been severely exposed to the elements, not in cases like this one—”
“Shut up,” interrupted Breakdown, voice creaking and heavy. “Both of you.”
Knock Out subsided, glancing anxiously at his wounded partner. Breakdown coughed, a weary resetting of his vocalizer, and shifted where he lay, adjusting his position. Bulkhead waited for him to speak—to accept or reject the offer of help—but all he said was, “I’m trying to get some recharge over here.”
“You heard him,” hissed Knock Out, though at least at a much quieter volume than before, and started crowding Bulkhead out of the space they shared again, once more pushing at him without physically shoving. “He needs rest. You’re slowing his recovery by causing such a disruption, if you’re going to be so concerned about how we’re doing.”
“Cause you seem so concerned about how he’s doing,” retorted Bulkhead, “not even accepting help on his behalf,” and Knock Out’s eyes went very wide and his mouth became a thin small line and Bulkhead was halfway to wondering how on earth this much smaller bot planned to take him in a fight when Breakdown sat up with a laborious clank.
“Stop it,” he said wearily. “Both of you.” He swayed on the arm propping him up, eyes focusing blearily. “Bulkhead—I think you should leave. Before the two of you start breaking things.”
So Bulkhead left. No sense in trying to be nice to a couple of Cons who wouldn’t accept it and didn’t even deserve it. He spent the rest of the day helping with rebuilding, and then the whole day after that, plunging into deep and satisfying recharge every time from the exertion of all the work he was doing. Then the third day an impulse came over him that wouldn’t leave him alone, and with a deep and resigned thought of Ah, slag it, he went into Ratchet’s workshop.
“Um,” he said. “Ratchet.”
Ratchet had just finished reinforcing someone’s fuel pump, and was cleaning off his tools under the little high-pressure solvent tap on the corner. There was a long line of patients waiting by the door. “What,” he snapped.
“What would I need to give someone who was recovering from…” He groped in his memory for the words. “From a punctured energon line that messed with the stuff around it?”
Ratchet’s eyes sharpened. “Have they had the surgery fixing the problem?”
Bulkhead shrugged. It had sounded like it. “Sure, I think.”
“I’d give them fuel purifiers,” said Ratchet, “because as the metal corrodes, particles from it can find its way into your fuelstream, and that can cause problems. And some iron and mineral supplements to mix into their energon to help give the body the raw materials it needs to rebuild the area. And, make sure they are getting enough energon.” Bulkhead felt an unpleasant swoop deep in his fuel tanks, thinking of the battered hideout, the getting into fights over supplies. He was suddenly quite sure neither Knock Out nor Breakdown was getting enough energon at all. “Is there someone you need me to come take a look at?”
“No,” said Bulkhead, too quickly. He was pretty sure he didn’t want Ratchet there. Number one, while the war was over, and it wasn’t a crime to help out another bot, the question of why he was helping their former enemies might still raise some eyebrows among their allies. Also, he knew Breakdown. Centuries of dedicated enmity would do that. He was quite sure Breakdown would hate having a total stranger barge in on vulnerable situation, possibly even more than his sworn enemy.
“If you’re sure,” said Ratchet, eyebrows raising slowly.
“But can I, um, take some of the stuff you mentioned?”
“Once I have a moment,” said Ratchet, gesturing to the line of patients. “I need to be there to make sure you’re not taking more than my rations can handle. Sorry for the wait,” he said to the line, and went back to work while Bulkhead loitered outside, and afterwards Bulkhead got to pick out an armful of medical supplies, feeling vaguely guilty for taking precious resources, and still vaguely confused at what he was doing. These bots were, after all, the enemy.
But nonetheless he found himself driving down the winding road out from Iacon, daylight warming his outer plating and the supplies weighing down his trunk. They wouldn’t be pleased to see him, he knew. On top of Knock Out’s little display the other day, Breakdown was a proud mech, and he didn’t like being the subject of anything he saw as pity.
“What are you doing here,” said Knock Out when he pulled up, and without a word Bulkhead transformed and let the various supplies tumble out of his subspace. Hopefully none of them were fragile, oops. Knock Out’s eyes went wide and he said, “I told you, we don’t need—” but Breakdown limped out of the shelter before he could finish, injured leg dragging heavily behind him.
“He’s already brought the stuff,” he said tiredly, “might as well,” and directed at Bulkhead an unreadable, searching look, sitting heavily down on a crumbled portion of wall. “So what’s the big idea here, huh?”
Bulkhead didn’t really know what to say to that. “The war’s over,” was what he settled on saying.
“You hate my guts,” Breakdown reminded him, and his lip lifted just a bit.
“Yeah, well,” said Bulkhead awkwardly, shrugging, “war’s over.”
Knock Out was sorting through the pile of supplies. “We don’t need this,” he was muttering under his breath, “this one, well, maybe… this is… Extra energon rations?” His voice raised; he lifted his head to look at Bulkhead. “What do you think you’re playing at?”
Bulkhead shrugged again. “Shouldn’t he be more healed by now?” He wasn’t a doctor, but having been a soldier who got injured a lot he also knew the basics of how things worked. Energon deprivation slowed healing, that was elementary.
“You seem to be under the impression we can’t even feed ourselves,” said Knock Out sharply. “Do you think we need your pity? Do you think Breakdown needs your pity—”
“Knock Out,” said Breakdown heavily.
Knock Out stopped talking, looking over at his partner.
“Maybe… we do need it,” said Breakdown quietly. “Or at least, I do.”
“Are you sure?” said Knock Out, also quietly. Breakdown hesitated, then nodded. Knock Out looked back down at the pile of supplies, contemplated them for a moment, then started stacking them into his arms with brisk, efficient motions.
“I’ll go put these away, then,” he said, straightening back up with his arms full. “Try not to kill each other while my back is turned, all right?” And he disappeared into the shelter, leaving Breakdown and Bulkhead to look at each other.
“Huh,” said Bulkhead. “He actually listens to you.”
“Yeah,” said Breakdown, “why wouldn’t he?”
Bulkhead shrugged. Something to do with that insufferably smug attitude. “I thought you were his assistant.”
“Nah,” said Breakdown, stretching his wounded leg out in front of him with a grunt, “he just says that cause I help him out with his medical stuff. Easiest way not to get reassigned to two different planets, if the higher-ups think he needs me around to get stuff done.”
“Huh,” said Bulkhead, who hadn’t thought of it that way.
A clatter from inside, as several energon cubes were deposited unceremoniously on the same surface.
“Where are you gonna go?” said Bulkhead, watching Knock Out’s shadow cross the gap in the wall of the shelter. “You can’t stay here forever.”
Breakdown bared his teeth, but it was halfhearted. “Why do you want to know? So you can come after us and give us trouble?”
“I might if you keep up that attitude,” grumbled Bulkhead, and then Knock Out reemerged, holding one of the cans of fuel purifier and a battered length of tubing.
“Open up,” he said to Breakdown, and then when Breakdown made a grab for the canister snatched it back. “No—you don’t take it orally, or your fuel processor will neutralize the active ingredient before it even reaches your fuel stream. Here, give me your arm—”
Breakdown held out his arm, and Knock Out popped open the inner elbow access panel with the dexterity of experience before screwing the metal ring of the tube into one of the ports there and hooking up the canister to the other end, pumping the solution into Breakdown’s fuel lines with a rhythmic squeal of metal. Breakdown made a face, one that intensified in discomfort as the procedure continued. “Hrgh… Man, that feels bad.”
“That means it’s working,” said Knock Out tersely. “The more impurities in your fuel stream, the more you’ll feel it when the solution binds them. At least you’ll feel a lot better when it’s done.”
“Grrk,” said Breakdown, one hand scrubbing involuntarily at the wall he was sitting on in discomfort. “Didn’t you already do this?”
“With a substitute I tried to synthesize from what we had lying around, yes,” said Knock Out, busily unscrewing the canister from the tubing, and then the tubing from Breakdown’s arm, capping it off. “This should be far more efficient.”
You’re welcome, thought Bulkhead grumpily. Knock Out set the empty canister down on the wall where Breakdown was sitting, told him, “I’ll need to run a second one sometime in the next cycle to make sure it’s gotten all of them,” then turned to Bulkhead and put a hand on his hip. “Well? Did you have anything else to share, or are you just hanging around for no reason?”
“A little thank you would be nice,” grumbled Bulkhead, and Knock Out cocked an insolent eyebrow at him for a moment before turning back to Breakdown and holding out a hand to help him up from his seat. Bulkhead took the hint and transformed, speeding off while allowing himself a little moment to stew. Not even a hint of gratitude! After he’d come all this way to help them, the enemy, who he was perfectly within his rights not to help! Who did they think they were?
Decepticons, that was who. Why did he even bother.
As it turned out, he was still bothering enough to head back there a couple days later, grumbling a little at himself but not as much as he might once have. After all, it might be worth it to check if they’d decided to wreak havoc on their surroundings, and also the war was over. Whatever that meant, these days. Like all the rules for who to trust and how to act had dissolved, leaving only murky uncertainty in their place. It was dusk this time, the purple of Cybertronian twilight still a little unfamiliar after the orange-into-blue he’d gotten used to on Earth.
When he found them they were both sitting on the wall outside, heads inclined intently towards each other. There was the glow of a little fire burning nearby, and it put Bulkhead in mind of an Earth campfire, the thought filling him with a wistful nostalgia. As he got closer he could make out that this fire was of course not burning organic wood, but energon processing runoff, and it was heating a little pot of what must have been nanite-compatible welding metal, because Knock Out was carefully welding back together another surgical incision on Breakdown’s leg, precise and neat as though he knew he wouldn’t be needing to make another one.
Breakdown was the first to look up as Bulkhead approached, and Knock Out’s head followed his motion. A couple words were exchanged, too low for Bulkhead to hear, and then Knock Out got up, stretching his wrists and rolling his neck as he made his way over to Bulkhead.
“Well, if it isn’t the annoyingly sticky Autobot,” he drawled. “What is it you want this time?”
He looked neater, now, scratches buffed out and plating back to its usual obnoxious shine; something about the nervous tension Bulkhead had seen in him before seemed to have left him as well, his usual smooth charm building itself back up over it. Clearly, they’d been able to go out for supplies a little more, trade for some wax and polish, probably get enough energon to actually fuel them properly on top of what Bulkhead had already brought him.
Which meant they were doing fine. The question that had been bugging at him had been answered. Bulkhead could just go back to Iacon now and get some rest.
“I came to see how you guys were doing,” he said, and Knock Out lifted an eyebrow.
“Well, isn’t that sweet of you,” he said, amused. “We’re doing quite well, thank you. You can get out of our hair now.”
Bulkhead refrained from pointing out that Knock Out’s excessive adoption of Earth idioms probably wasn’t going to endear him to the reintegrating Cybertronians, especially those who might manage to figure out that it meant he’d been on the front lines right under Megatron. There was still something else he was wondering. “Where are you two going to go?” he said.
“I fail to see how that’s any of your business,” said Knock Out dismissively, which was about the same answer he’d gotten from Breakdown, but Bulkhead pushed this time.
“You guys were important Decepticons,” he said. “If two of the bots who were serving right under Megatron disappear out from under our noses, that’s going to look kind of suspicious.”
“And you say the war’s over,” murmured Knock Out, rolling his eyes theatrically. “I don’t fancy having a whole congregation of Autobots breathing down my neck, thank you.”
“Maybe I’m trying to keep you from getting in trouble,” snapped Bulkhead, before he could think about what he was saying. “Keep you guys from acting in ways that could make you seem more suspicious, huh?”
Was he trying to keep Knock Out and Breakdown from getting in trouble? The thought gave him pause. He certainly didn’t like them, didn’t owe it to them to—to help them get off scot-free or something, hell no. But the idea of them getting dragged in front of an Autobot tribunal, or put on some kind of watchlist—Primus forbid they end up developing a watchlist, just like the pre-war Senate—brought him no joy. He was tired. Dragging out the conflict held no appeal for him.
“If the Autobots think we’re suspicious, that’s their business,” said Breakdown, appearing over Knock Out’s shoulder, and Knock Out tsked in dismay.
“Your leg,” he said, “you’re supposed to wait until the welding has cooled before moving it.”
“It has cooled,” said Breakdown, sticking out the limb in front of him, “see?”
Knock Out squatted to examine it, then said grudgingly, “Well, I suppose so… but go see if we have any cooling packs left, all right? Stick in on there a bit to make sure it crystallizes.”
“In a moment,” said Breakdown, then addressed Bulkhead. “I appreciate it. You not wanting to get us in trouble. And I don’t plan on making any trouble, either, you think the war was fun for us? But I’m not gonna bow my head to any Autobots who are going to find something suspicious in any little thing I do. We’re going to live our lives and if anyone has a problem with us just doing that, that’s on them.”
“Breakdown,” said Knock Out, hovering at Breakdown’s elbow, “the cooling pack.”
“Fine,” said Breakdown, and turned and loped off into the shelter, walking awkwardly to keep from moving his knee joint. Left behind, Bulkhead and Knock Out looked at each other.
“If you try to take us in,” said Knock Out, “we’ll resist.”
“You couldn’t take me,” was Bulkhead’s first instinctual reply, then, “I won’t.”
“Hmm,” said Knock Out neutrally. His red plating was a dark purple-gray in the gathering dusk. Bulkhead had a vivid mental image of the last time he and this particular bot had faced each other on Cybertron; Knock Out holding out the cylinder that held Miko in it, threatening to expose her fragile human lungs to the atmosphere that would collapse them like a wet sponge, and making a taunting little joke out of it. You first, big boy. He would have killed the human that had become like a daughter to Bulkhead without any hesitation or regret, and never given it a second thought. No, Bulkhead did not like him, at all.
Yet here they were.
There was a clatter from inside, then Breakdown’s voice called out, “Where are the cooling packs?”
“I put them under the extra insulator blankets to keep them at equilibrium,” Knock Out called back, and Breakdown replied, “Well, they’re not under there,” and Knock Out said, “I don’t know, then,” and Breakdown made a noise of frustration and, by the sound of it, kept digging. Knock Out turned back to Bulkhead, and said, “Want a drink?”
“What?” said Bulkhead, stupefied.
Knock Out shrugged and said, “We managed to get some extra filtered energon from some people we met the other day, but one of them has thorium flakes added, which Breakdown is allergic to and I can’t stand the taste. Seems a waste to just throw it out, though, wouldn’t you agree?”
“If you’re trying to poison me,” said Bulkhead suspiciously, but Knock Out was already un-subspacing a battered can, holding it out with a winning smile.
“Why would I do that?” he said. “The war’s over.”
Funny enough, Bulkhead believed him. Knock Out was petty and ruthless, but he was also lazy and self-serving. There was no way he’d have enough remaining loyalty to the defeated Decepticon cause to try to poison an Autobot just for some kind of revenge; it wasn’t his style. Bulkhead popped the ring off the top of the can and drank.
Stale. But he’d definitely had worse during millennia of war.
“I don’t like you,” he warned Knock Out, as much as a reminder to himself as to the other bot. The war might be over, but you had to draw the line before things started getting muddy and confusing. “One bit.”
“Of course you don’t,” said Knock Out, sleek and self-assured as a cat. “And I don’t like you either. Congratulations, you’ve got a handle on basic facts.”
There wasn’t much else to say after that. Bulkhead drank his stale filtered energon and watched the stars come out, the pattern of them deeply familiar—although their positions had shifted somewhat, during the millennia of the war. The constellation that had been named for Onyx and Quintus Prime’s battle against the Seething Dark, whose naming ceremony Bulkhead had been conscripted to build the platform for, was squashed into near-unrecognizability. The platform itself was probably long gone.
“Breakdown thinks very highly of you, you know,” said Knock Out, breaking the silence.
“What,” said Bulkhead, completely nonplussed.
“Oh, not that he likes you or anything,” said Knock Out, waving a hand, “he still wants you dead someday, or at least he thinks he does. But he respects you a lot. He likes fighting you, always looks forward to it. He knows you’ve got honor and he appreciates it, even if he thinks you’re way too soft about it.” A little shrug. “Then again, I already think he’s too soft for buying into that honor business in the first place, so what do I know.”
“Huh,” said Bulkhead, still flabbergasted, but he couldn’t deny that it made sense. He supposed he felt the same way, really, when he thought about it. Breakdown was a good opponent. A fair sport, even if he was a Decepticon. Bulkhead was probably never going to forgive him for his betrayal of the Wreckers, but... he respected him too, ultimately.
“Don’t tell him I told you,” said Knock Out, with a catlike little smile. “He has an image to maintain.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” grumbled Bulkhead.
“Don’t tell me you told him what?” said Breakdown, emerging.
“That you squeaked like a mechavole the first time a spaceship you were on entered interstellar jump mode,” said Knock Out. “You found the cooling pack?”
“Yeah, it was under the compressed energon rations,” said Breakdown, extending his leg where the cooling pack was strapped on. “I don’t think I even need it, the welding’s probably solidified by now.”
“Keep it on there just to make sure it crystallizes all the way,” said Knock Out, crouching down to adjust the fasteners holding it on, and Breakdown looked over at Bulkhead.
“You’re still here?” It wasn’t a negative reaction, just an observation.
“Your friend’s pretty chatty,” said Bulkhead in response, and Knock Out’s hands stilled on the cord for just a single moment.
“Heh, that he is,” said Breakdown, grinning. “Wanna fight?” When Bulkhead looked at him, not thoroughly processing, he added, “You know, for old times’ sake. Have one last go at settling the score.”
“Absolutely not,” said Knock Out, standing back up with his hands on his hips. “You may be cleared to walk, but if you do anything strenuous I’m going to have to redo the last stage of repair all over again and neither of us want that. Save your sprocket-measuring contest for some other time.”
Bulkhead had the sudden distinct feeling that there wasn’t going to be some other time. “Hey,” he said, “wanna go for a walk?”
Breakdown looked over at Knock Out.
“Sure,” said Knock Out, “just don’t put too much pressure on the leg.” He snatched up a rod of piping from among the ancient debris of war scattered along the ground. “Here, use this to support your weight. And don’t kill each other,” he added as an afterthought.
“I’ll try not to,” grunted Breakdown, and they both set off, a leisurely pace, the improvised walking stuck ringing with a hollow thunk against the ground with each step. It was almost fully dark by now, the light from the little fire by the shelter glowing faintly behind them.
“Thanks,” said Breakdown, breaking the silence first. “For the stuff. Appreciate it.”
“Welcome,” grunted Bulkhead, caught off guard. It was the first time one of them had thanked him. Well, about time.
“Just don’t go helping us any more,” continued Breakdown. “That was a special circumstance. But we can manage fine on our own.”
“Hrm,” said Bulkhead. “Why do I get the feeling even if I wanted to help you I wouldn’t be able to track you down?”
Breakdown chuckled. “Yeah, that’s probably true. I don’t think even we know where we’re gonna go from here.”
That sort of answered Bulkhead’s earlier questions. He’d kinda suspected that. “Cybertron’s a big place,” he said, “I’m sure you’ll find something,” and he didn’t quite manage to make it sound disapproving.
“Yeah, probably.” They’d encountered another low wall where the highway turned a curve, with a wall around the outer bend to keep fast-driving altmodes from flipping off. Bulkhead had been so disoriented when he’d seen similar barriers on Earth and learned that those measures were in place to protect the fleshlings driving the cars, rather than the metal flesh of the vehicles themselves. This wall was, like everything around it, partially crumbled; by unspoken agreement, they both stopped and leaned against one of the more solid-looking parts. Breakdown stuck out a hand. “Give me some of that.”
“I thought you were allergic.”
“If I only drink a little I’ll be fine,” said Breakdown. “Just don’t tell Knock Out.”
Bulkhead handed it over. How odd it was, to be sharing a drink with his oldest enemy. “He get on your case a lot?”
“Like nobody’s business,” snorted Breakdown. “I guess it’s kind of sweet, in a way. Back on the Nemesis it was quantity over quality when it came to medical treatment for soldiers, but he’d always nag at me to make sure everything healed properly.” He caught Bulkhead’s expression. “What? We were managing an army, you think we had the time or the resources to patch up every little booboo?”
Bulkhead had to admit it made practical sense, but that didn’t mean he liked it. That was Decepticons for you—ruthlessly utilitarian. “Just doesn’t sit right with me you’d treat mechs as disposable,” he said grimly.
“Trying to get as many mechs back on their feet as fast as possible is not calling them disposable,” said Breakdown, jabbing a finger at Bulkhead around the dented can. “And what about the people you fought for, huh? What do you think was going on in the society they were defe—”
They both stopped at the same time. The ruins of Cybertron, with millions of years of dust settled on top of them, stretched far and away around them.
“Ahh, forget it,” sighed Breakdown. “’S all over now, anyway.”
“War’s over,” offered Bulkhead. It had become something of a refrain, a shorthand, among the survivors in the past few weeks; an offhand way of summarizing how different the world was now.
“Yeah, that and the scrap we fought it over hasn’t mattered for millennia.” Breakdown settled his weight on top of the wall. “Still gonna kick your afterburner for good someday though,” he added. It wasn’t very convincing.
“Sure,” said Bulkhead. Breakdown stretched his legs gingerly out in front of him, propping the injured one on the ground with a weighty thunk, and took a swig of the filtered energon. “How’d you hurt your leg, anyway?”
“The Nemesis escape pod landed hard, it must have happened then,” said Breakdown. “I felt it was bashed in pretty hard, but we fixed up the surface damage and thought that was that. Didn’t notice the punctured vein until things started getting worse a while later.” He gave an amused snort. “You should have seen Knock Out. He got scratched up and dented a fair amount in the landing and he wouldn’t let me hear the end of it for days.”
Bulkhead shared in the amused snort; that sounded about right. “You two a couple?”
He hadn’t really meant to say it, although it was something he’d wondered about over the years. Breakdown paused, looking down at his drink. “You know, I’m not so sure myself,” he said, swirling it meditatively around even as a fond smile began to break out over his face. “Some days it really feels like it, though. I guess that’s something to figure out now, with the war being over and all.”
“Yeah,” offered Bulkhead, already feeling embarrassed at the level of personal information he’d just been made privy to. Breakdown seemed to realize the same thing, he cleared his vocalizer and agreed, “Yeah,” before taking another swig of the filtered energon. “You know, this isn’t that good.”
Bulkhead took it back and drank as well. Breakdown was right, it wasn’t that good, but might as well finish it off. He poured the last dregs of it down his pipes and then crumpled the can, stowing it in subspace. “Good talk,” he said, because the conversation didn’t seem to be going anywhere else, and the contemplative quiet of the evening was starting to weigh on him.
“Good talk,” agreed Breakdown, pushing up off the wall and grabbing his improvised walking stick. “Next time we’ll have that rematch my leg didn’t let us have this time, eh?”
“You betcha,” said Bulkhead, even though he still wasn’t sure there was ever going to be a next time, and he didn’t know that Breakdown was sure either. “You… take care, all right?”
It came out awkward and fumbled—to be issuing that kind of parting to his greatest enemy—but Breakdown only took it in stride. “Heh,” he said, “you too,” and turned and started back towards the shelter, where Knock Out’s red plating was just visible moving around like a muffled beacon in the dusk.
Bulkhead watched him go, long enough for Breakdown to reach Knock Out’s side. They were talking, too low and distant for him to hear; the little fire for the welding metal reflected off them both. No sense sticking around. Bulkhead turned, transformed, and left, the silhouettes of the two Decepticons growing smaller and smaller behind him in the dusk, surrounded on all sides by lone and level ruin. His processor felt weighted down and tangled, in a quiet thoughtful way like the twilight deepening around him.
Arcee was waiting for him when he got back to base. “So,” she said, slipping into step beside him as soon as he transformed, “how was Breakdown doing?”
Bulkhead started, guilty. “You could tell?”
“Had a hunch,” said Arcee, flashing him a sideways smile. “You just confirmed it.”
Bulkhead grumbled a bit at that. “He’s doing fine,” he said, not sure how he felt about that. “He’s with Knock Out.”
“No surprise there,” said Arcee, as they passed under one of the main rebuilt arches into Iacon—welcoming newcomers, stragglers, those trickling back in after the war. “Do they look like they’re gearing up to cause any trouble?”
“Nah, don’t think so,” said Bulkhead heavily.
Arcee hummed in thought. “Yeah, they don’t strike me as the type to put in that kind of effort. Not the most committed Decepticons I’ve ever met.”
“I think they just want to be done with the whole thing,” said Bulkhead, and Arcee said, “Don’t we all,” and Bulkhead privately thought that that pretty much summed it all up. Everyone just wanted to put it all behind them. Hell, even Megatron had come to the same conclusion.
They’d almost made it back to the main building, the windows glowing a with comfortable welcoming light in the gathering night, when Arcee broke the silence. “So are they an item or what? I could never tell.”
“Oh man, don’t start,” groaned Bulkhead, and Arcee laughed a little. He hadn’t often heard her laugh before.
The next day he went back, early in the morning when the metal of the planet was still warming up from where it had cooled during the night. Somehow, he wasn’t surprised to find the shelter empty. Most of what had been in it had been packed up, but there were a few odds and ends lying around that they’d evidently decided they didn’t need; Bulkhead loaded them into his subspace to bring back to headquarters. Every little bit counted.
In the dust of the road, the accumulated tiny fragments of bombed buildings and street ground down by feet and wheels, were two parallel sets of tire tracks, the treads still recognizable as Earth vehicle modes. Stretching away from Iacon, off into the boundless distance.
Cybertron was a big place. They’d find something.
“Good luck,” said Bulkhead quietly to the two sets of tracks, and the startling thing was that he meant it. A moment later he shook his head, embarrassed at talking to himself. There was nothing to stick around here for. He transformed and headed back the way he came, towards the reconstruction-in-progress of Iacon, his own Earth tires kicking up dust of an old war up behind him as he went.