They had stayed in the xenobiology lab because they felt it best not to move Rattrap too much and because it was closer to everything than his quarters were. Rhinox had been standing vigil for the last six hours, refusing to leave his friend's side. Tigatron had dropped in an hour ago, at the end of the fourth shift. He hadn't seen anyone since. It was to be expected - everyone who wasn't on monitor duty slept during the midnight shift.
Except Rhinox, or so he tried. He was so exhausted that he hadn't realised he'd fallen asleep until someone shook his shoulder. It was a large hand, using only the fingertips, unused to the broad tactile gestures of the Maximals. Rhinox sat up from where he'd slumped across the table but didn't release Rattrap's hand. "Mph. Dinobot?"
Dinobot stood at the head of the table, looking down at them - Rhinox, seated next to the table; Rattrap, lying prone on it, covered by a blanket and almost seeming to sleep peacefully if one ignored the lines of tension on his face. Dinobot snatched his hand back as soon as Rhinox moved. His other hand was braced on the table next to his datapad. He looked a bit odd and it took Rhinox a few seconds to realise that it was because Dinobot's hair was damp and he was clean. It took being covered in a comrade's blood to get the warrior into the shower. "Go on," Dinobot said, harsher and brusquer than usual in his deafness. "You'll be no good to anyone if you wear yourself out."
Rhinox rubbed his eyes with his free hand. "And you'll be no good to anyone if you don't let yourself heal. What time is it?"
"Midnight," said Dinobot, picking up the datapad so he could follow the conversation.
No wonder I fell asleep. "You can barely walk." It wasn't due to his shrapnel wounds - those were painful but generally shallow. For some reason Dinobot's sense of balance had gone awry and he could only stay upright if he held onto something. Rattrap had the same problem, those times he was conscious. "You need to rest."
"I can rest here," said Dinobot. "You can barely stay awake."
"I was sleeping before you came in."
"A fine guard you make."
The insulting tone may or may not have been on purpose and annoyed Rhinox anyway. "Against what?" he demanded. "The Preds aren't going to do anything to him, not after all the work Megatron and Tarantulas put in."
"Do not let Megatron lull you into a false sense of security," Dinobot rumbled.
Rattrap shifted in his sleep, probably trying to find a more comfortable position but instead just pulling on his wounds. He cried out without waking and Rhinox stroked his hair and neck until he calmed down. Rhinox sighed and looked back at the warrior. "He doesn't need protection, Dinobot. He ..."
They both noticed Dinobot's hand at the same time. Dinobot drew it back almost guiltily though he had done nothing more than set down his datapad so he could reach forward, just a little. It was a perfectly reasonable gesture - hesitant, wanting to help but being uncertain how - but Dinobot jumped back like he'd been caught doing something wrong.
Rhinox suddenly felt angry - not at Dinobot but at the culture that programmed him to think that compassion was something to be ashamed of. "Can we cut out the macho posturing for a minute?" he demanded. "You want to do something for him. You want to help but all you can do is keep watch. Right now it's all that anyone can do."
"Anyone?" Dinobot asked, picking up his datapad again. Deaf, in pain, with a too-open organic face, Dinobot couldn't mask himself and one word became a whole argument: Anyone? You could do more. You always have a solution. I'm jealous that you can do more and I cannot.
Honesty for honesty, then, even if Dinobot didn't intend to let so much slip: "I can't. Everyone turns to me like I can make everything better and this time I can't."
Dinobot tightened his grip on the datapad and the muscles bulged along his arm. "I ... understand."
"Here we are," said Rhinox quietly, "the two strongest Maximals, and all our strength is useless. There's nothing you can fight, nothing I can build, just an injured organic." He sighed, stroking the back of Rattrap's hand with his thumb. "He's not in any danger now but he nearly died and he's in a lot of pain. He's vulnerable right now and I don't think he'd want you to see him like this."
"I need to do something."
Rhinox glanced over at Rattrap before turning back to Dinobot. "If it was you who took the worst of the blast, if you were the helpless one, would you want him there?"
The reply was automatic: "I am a warrior. I do not need anyone to watch over me."
"I didn't say 'need'."
This time, Dinobot paused, visibly turning the thought over in his mind. He closed his eyes and turned his head away. After a minute he took a deep breath and grated out a word: "Yes."
Rhinox nodded and stood up. Dinobot found it difficult to lie outright but this struggle wasn't to speak a lie, it was to bite back his pride and programming long enough to tell the truth. "All right. If you can say it, he probably feels the same way about you. Come over here. If he needs something he'll tell you himself, but he gets panicky if he only half wakes up and thinks he's alone. Since he can't hear, holding his hand reassures him."
"Sentinel only transcribes words. If he just whimpers or screams, you won't know."
Dinobot opened his mouth to speak, then closed it. The expression was enough. He hadn't realised. He couldn't hear Rattrap screaming and he never cried out in pain himself, so he just assumed Rattrap didn't either. But the dismay was only a flicker, quickly replaced by resolve. Dinobot said he would stand vigil, so he would.
We've finally found something we can agree on. He moved aside so that Dinobot could sit down, and Rattrap didn't seem to notice when his hand was moved from the engineer's large hand to the warrior's larger one.
Rhinox reached over and clasped Dinobot's shoulder. The warrior didn't pull away. "Thank you, Dinobot."
"Go on." But Dinobot's voice was quieter this time.
"I thought Tigatron had fifth shift tonight."
Optimus looked up to see Rhinox just inside the door to the control room. "She took over the Predacon Megacycle for Dinobot so I took over the midnight shift for her. How's Rattrap?"
Rhinox padded over, walking slowly like his feet were too heavy. "Sleeping, like you should be."
The Maximal commander shrugged. "I tried for a while last shift, then gave up. I should be exhausted enough by the end of this one. I'm surprised you're taking a break."
The engineer shook his head and settled his hand on Optimus' shoulder. "I'm going to bed. Dinobot's looking after Rattrap."
"Dinobot can barely look after himself right now."
"He'd just be pacing his quarters otherwise," said Rhinox. "Rattrap mostly needs company. The explosion shook him up worse than he'll admit. If there's a real emergency, Dinobot has enough sense to call for help." He shook his head. "But for more minor things, see if you can get people to drop in every so often to check on Rattrap."
"Not Di ..." Optimus trailed off with a smile. "Of course not Dinobot. A warrior doesn't need help. To offer it is an attack on his dignity."
Rhinox chuckled and took his hand back. "But if people just happen to drop in and just happen to insist on helping both of them, they're just being nosey Maximal busybodies. Dinobot will be annoyed but not resentful. He means well, he's just not physically capable of much right now." He sobered quickly. "He needs to feel useful. Dinobot's standing guard against nothing but he feels like he's doing something. It's the only way he'll rest."
"What about you?"
The engineer shrugged. "I can try. Maybe I'll come up with something in the morning."
"A way to damp Rattrap's pain receptors," said Rhinox. "Figure out why Dinobot lost his sense of balance. Fix their hearing. Something. Anything. It's up to me - the Preds lost interest after the blood was cleaned up."
"Up to us," Optimus corrected, reaching up to pat Rhinox's forearm, then sighed. "I wish someone had told me that biology would be important some day." He and Rhinox could have patched up Rattrap on their own ... if his wounds weren't so severe that speed was of the essence. And while they might have thought of the idea of a blood transfusion, they would have never known there were different blood types without Tarantulas. The realisation that they could have killed their friend by accident was one of the reasons Optimus hadn't been able to sleep.
"Anyway, I'm off. See you in the morning." Rhinox started to leave, paused at the door, then looked back. "I didn't tell you earlier because it was a bad time, but there's never going to be a good time for it. Dinobot told me something strange this afternoon. He said the Preds never fired on the warship that was chasing them. They were just trying to outrun it."
Optimus frowned. "He's sure?"
"Who do you think was on tactical?"
"That's ... I don't even know what to make of that," said Optimus. "Why would the warship claim the Predacons damaged its scanning array?"
"I've been asking myself that all day. I don't know."
"'... Here comes the good Macduff. How goes the world, sir, now?'" said Dinobot, reciting to himself in an attempt to stay awake. It wouldn't do to fall asleep on his watch, not after he'd sent Rhinox away for that very reason. He found himself going back to Macbeth - the play had been on his mind all day.
"'Why, see you not?'" he replied, not bothering to mark the change of speaker. "'Is't known who did this more than bloody deed? Those that Macbeth hath slain.'" It wasn't as if he was performing or even reading to someone else. He did it for himself and he knew who was saying which lines.
He sat with his back to the table, datapad in his left hand, resting on his thigh. Watching his words appear on the screen helped - it was a way to check that, deaf and tired, he was enunciating properly. His right arm was stretched back along the table so his hand could cover Rattrap's. Rattrap twitched occasionally and had thrashed once, without regaining consciousness. Dinobot couldn't bring himself to pet Rattrap like Rhinox had so he had just squeezed his hand and hoped it was enough.
"'Alas the day! What good could they pretend? ...'" Dinobot continued, and startled when the next line on the screen wasn't, They were suborn'd, but, Optimus Primal: How are you holding up, Dinobot?
Dinobot's head snapped up to look at the door but it was closed and no one was there. After another second he realised what that meant - Optimus was speaking through the intercom. He looked back down at the datapad. "Do not concern yourself for me. Should you be on shift?"
Optimus Primal: Probably not. Who are you going to report me to?
"I should have told Rhinox to put you over his shoulder." Dinobot paused. "You knew I was here, not Rhinox."
Optimus Primal: He stopped in to say goodnight.
And this room has cameras now, Dinobot remembered. Optimus just saw me jump like a fool. At least Optimus had the tact not to mention it. And, knowing he was being watched, it took an effort of will for Dinobot to keep his hand on Rattrap's instead of snatching it back. Maximals were tactile - touch was so much a part of their interactions that Optimus wouldn't even notice the gesture unless Dinobot drew attention to it. Predacons had different rules and Dinobot couldn't help feeling that he was at best performing a breach of etiquette. He changed the subject: "You have been active for twenty-two megacycles. After all that has happened ..."
You've been active for eighteen and took an arm and a leg full of shrapnel, wrote the screen. Besides, I may as well get used to being awake now. I'm thinking of taking over this shift permanently. It's at an awkward time so it'd be easier if one person always ran it. The others complain that it's boring. I find it peaceful.
It makes you feel protective, thought Dinobot, then realised he said it aloud when the words appeared on the screen, followed by, Optimus Primal: So I worry about everyone.
"You do realise that the biggest threats are in here with us."
Sentinel didn't transcribe laughter but Dinobot could imagine the quiet chuckle before the reply: Everyone, Dinobot. Even the Predacons. After a moment, he asked, How's Rattrap?
"The same," said Dinobot, glancing back at the sleeping Maximal. "He has not awakened since I arrived."
Optimus Primal: Good. At least I hope that's good. If this organic unconsciousness is like stasis, it means his energies are directed inward. There was a brief pause, then, Rhinox told me you said you didn't fire on the warship that was chasing you.
Dinobot been expecting the question; perhaps not now but he knew it would come. Rhinox had seemed agitated enough by the information that it was unsurprising he'd talked to Optimus about it. "We never fired on it," he repeated.
Expecting an 'are you sure?', he got instead, Did you happen to see the condition of their scanning array?
"I was paying attention to their weapons and defences, not their sensors," said Dinobot. "Though ... we would have been scanning the warship. There might be a record in the Predacon base's logs. Do not hold out much hope, though - both ships were putting out jamming fields in an attempt to prevent target locks." That and Waspinator's erratic piloting had kept them from being destroyed outright - they never fired on the warship but the warship certainly fired at them.
Optimus Primal: I'll ask Megatron about it in the morning. Thanks. Look after yourself.
"Be sure to do the same."
Dinobot waited a few minutes to make certain Optimus had withdrawn, then continued: "'They were suborn'd: Malcolm and Donalbain, the king's two sons ...'"
It wasn't that Rattrap didn't feel pain when he was asleep, it was that he could ignore it. He couldn't ignore thirst. The scratchy feeling in his throat nagged at him until he gave in and opened his eyes.
Usually when Rattrap woke up he'd give Rhinox's hand a squeeze, just a way to verify that his friend was there and real. He couldn't this time because his hand was lying palm-down on the table, covered by Rhinox's larger one. But Rhinox was still there, which meant Rattrap was alive so that was all right.
Rattrap frowned, trying to pull himself to full consciousness. It wasn't Rhinox's hand. Rhinox had heavy, broad hands - this one was longer with more pronounced joints. Longer nails. Skin a little lighter with a reddish tinge. Light brown stripe curving up from under the wrist. Tidy little gray patches like rubber. Rattrap turned his head to follow the sprawled arm and found the rest of Dinobot slouched back against the table.
When wiggling his fingers didn't get a response, Rattrap slipped his hand free, then carefully pushed himself up onto his knees. It made him dizzy but kneeling was the closest thing he'd found to a comfortable sitting position if he didn't sit back on his heels - he wasn't damaged below the knees. He moved down the table a bit so he could see Dinobot's face.
Rattrap chuckled - the warrior was asleep, chin on his chest and, more interestingly, an active datapad on his lap. Rattrap's own was off. He reached down cautiously and snagged Dinobot's, only bumping into the warrior's shoulder once. Dinobot didn't react. Rattrap settled himself on his side with a wince and pulled the blanket back up to his chest. His right side wasn't as badly damaged as his left, though it still hurt to lie on his injuries. However, it was that or cramp up from lying on his front too long. He tapped a few keys on the datapad. Maybe it'll say why chopperface is here instead of big green.
He read the last few lines on the screen twice, trying to make sense of them: This, and what needful else that calls upon us, by the grace of grace, we will perform in measure, time and place. So, thanks to all at once and to each one, whom we invite to see us crowned at scone.
Maybe I'm just not thinkin' straight. Rattrap could believe that. Even patched up, his shrapnel wounds still burned and throbbed, making it hard to think about anything else. He frowned at the words for a while longer. No, I'm pretty sure I'm fine, it's the datapad that's messed up.
He scrolled up a little. Apparently Dinobot talked to himself. Cheese, there's a lot here. Chopperface must've been talkin' the whole time. And it's all nonsense! Sometimes there would be an interesting phrase - "I have no words, my voice is in my sword," sounded like something Dinobot might say - but most of it was a jumble, like Dinobot was arguing with himself.
Or tellin' a story, Rattrap realised. Like readin' dialogue off a script. He continued scrolling up, trying to find the beginning of it.
The datapad was snatched out of his hand. He didn't need to hear the snarl to catch the meaning: Mine!
"Fine, fine, yours, sheesh," Rattrap grumbled as Dinobot sat down again, this time facing the table.
Dinobot said something, then grabbed Rattrap's datapad, activated it, shoved it into his hand, and spoke again. You're awake.
"Full marks for observation." Rattrap set the datapad down in front of himself and propped his chin on his fist. "Not for long, I hope."
Rattrap reached down the table for the canteen but it was a few centimetres out of range of his fingertips. Dinobot pushed it into his grasp before Rattrap had to move to reach it. Then it was an awkward angle to drink from, but he managed it. When he was done, Rattrap gestured with the canteen. "I thought you'd left," he said for something to say. "Earlier, I mean."
The warrior shrugged. I came back. You are - slight pause for that weird reverse-sigh he did when he was thinking about what word to use next when a normal person would have said 'um' - disliked by the Predacons. I thought it prudent to keep watch.
"After all the work Megs put into me? Pretty sure he wants me alive," Rattrap teased. "What'd you do with Rhinox?"
Dinobot: He needed to sleep. I convinced him to leave.
Caught off-guard, Rattrap took a moment to respond. "Thanks. He hasn't caught a break since the explosion." No use telling Dinobot he was in even worse shape - he'd just act offended. And giving Rhinox a break had been such a surprisingly nice thing for Dinobot to do that Rattrap couldn't goad him for it. Enh, he's probably up to something. He set the canteen aside and settled back down on his front.
Dinobot: You will sleep again?
"That's the intent. I just woke up 'cause I was thirsty," said Rattrap, shrugging the blanket over his shoulders. Nngh. This ain't the right body for this position. What I wouldn't give to be able to lie on my back for a while. He tucked his less-damaged right arm under his head, stretched out the left, and realised something else: Oh, slag. I either gotta stay awake until someone else comes or admit to slaggin' dinobutt that I've been havin' panic attacks.
It turned out to be a moot point as Dinobot's hand engulfed his again. Rattrap looked back in surprise - the first time might have been an accident, a random sprawl as he slept, but twice was deliberate. The warrior's expression was neutral as he settled himself more comfortably at the table, leaning his free arm on it and arranging his datapad like he planned to spend the next while reading. Rhinox insisted.
Good old Rhinox. Rattrap regarded the dark hand covering his. Not properly holding, just resting on top. Oddly tense, like Dinobot was embarrassed or just not used to the gesture or both. "This ain't the Pred idea of a vigil, is it?"
Dinobot shrugged. You are a Maximal. His expression became stern. Now rest. Heal. I have no desire to do this any longer than I have to.
Rattrap chuckled, recognising that he was being baited but lacking the energy to pick up the argument. Poor petulant Pred, cruelly forced to make nice. Besides, he didn't want to risk annoying Dinobot too badly, not now. He might let go.
To be continued ...
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