casusfere: (Burny)
[personal profile] casusfere
Title: Collars
Chapter: Combaticon Defection
Rating: PG-13
Warnings: This fic contains Vortex being a manipulative bastard, dark humor, regular humor, Vortex's glue gun, serious ethical dilemmas, and non-explicit references to the horrible things Vortex did in previous fics
Series: Warden (knowledge of previous fics not required)
Universe: G1
Summary: After the Combaticon's second attempt to overthrow the Decepticon leadership, Megatron had Shockwave insert a "Loyalty program" into their code to insure their continued obedience. When Onslaught is captured in battle, the Autobots discover the program. Now, for the first time since the Detention Center, the Combaticons may have a say in their own fate - provided Onslaught can keep Vortex on a leash, stop Swindle from selling the minibots on the black market, prevent any Brawl-related explosions, and keep Blast Off from shooting all these Autobots who won't stop talking to him.

Previous: Chapter 1
On AO3



First Aid shifted, shooting a look across Skyfire's hold as Onslaught stepped in, once again bristling with weaponry.

“You don't need to come,” Ratchet said quietly, laying a soothing hand on the young medic's shoulder. “I can take Hoist-”

“I'm fine,” First Aid said, shaking his head. Bare metal glinted from the pair of deep scratches Onlsaught's attack had left in his battlemask. “I can do this,” he said, softer, almost to himself.

Ratchet had to smile. “I'm proud of you, Aid,” he said.

First Aid glanced up at him, but his reply was cut off by Smokescreen's arrival. The tactician trotted up the ramp and gave Skyfire a pat on a bulkhead. “You're good to go, buddy.” Officially, Smokescreen was along as Prime's representative. Unofficially, he was there to act as backup if something went wrong with the ever-unpredictable Combaticons. Between him and Skyfire's cannons, Ratchet felt decently secure.

Skyfire rumbled an acknowledgment and started up his primary engines. The deafening howl dropped to a deep thrum as the cargo doors sealed, all exterior sounds dampened by the shuttle's armored hull. Ratchet barely felt the shift as the shuttle took off.

Ratchet stole a glance at Onslaught, but the Decepticon's - former Decepticon, he reminded himself- stance gave away nothing. He stood at an easy parade rest, braced against non-existent turbulence.

Good thing it's a short ride by shuttle, Ratchet thought with some humor. This could become awkward very fast.

Smokescreen apparently thought so as well. “Think they'll show?” he asked.

“They will,” Onslaught confirmed, but didn't elaborate.

“Always nice to see a commander have confidence in his troops,” Smokescreen commented, glancing over at Ratchet.

Onslaught snorted. “I know my people. Brawl and Blast Off will come because I told them to. Vortex will come because I've been missing for a local day and he's more curious than a turbofox in a bearing factory, and Swindle...” The Combaticon made an amused rumble. “Swindle will come because I informed them that Megatron was in danger, and Swindle has never been fond of pain.”

“...I'm not sure if I should be admiring or horrified,” Smokescreen said thoughtfully.

“One breem to target,” Skyfire said, cutting short the conversation before it could go any further downhill. “I have one contact on scanners – Blast Off is in a holding pattern in high atmosphere.”

“Land us,” Onslaught ordered. Ratchet frowned at his tone, but Skyfire acknowledged him and brought them in for a barely-felt touch down.

The cargo door cycled open, letting in a brief blast of white alkali dust and deafening engine howl. The engines quickly wound down, and the small party stepped out into the glare.

“Where's Blast Off?” Ratchet asked, cycling his optics in the brightness.

“Circling down and away from us,” Skyfire said.

“That's not a good sign,” First Aid said, giving Onslaught's back a wary look.

“Stay close to Skyfire,” Ratchet told him, voice low. Onslaught looked unconcerned, but Ratchet didn't find that very comforting.

Skyfire waited for them to stand clear, then transformed and stepped back to keep from looming over the group. “Ah. I think we're about to have company.”

“Blast Off?” Ratchet guessed.

“No,” Onslaught rumbled, just before Ratchet caught the whump-whump of rotors. “He's the curious one,” he finished, tone dry.

“Hey, Boss! We rescuin' you or pickin' up prisoners?” Vortex called out, sounding equally cheerful about either prospect.

“Neither. We're defecting.” Onslaught managed to sound matter-of-fact about it.

Vortex lost a few feet of altitude in surprise before he caught himself. “Hey, when'd you get the humor upgrade?”

“I didn't. And land already. This organic dirt is bad enough without you kicking up more,” Onslaught growled, brushing ineffectually at the clinging white dust already coating his armor.

“Whatever you say, Dead End,” Vortex answered blithely, but he turned in place, seeming to consider the situation for a moment before he transformed and dropped the rest of the distance to the ground. “So, defecting?”

“Why isn't the program affecting him?” First Aid muttered to Ratchet, voicing exactly what the CMO himself had been wondering.

“It is,” Onslaught growled over his shoulder. “He just has a higher pain tolerance than most.”

Vortex gave them a cheery bob of a rotor.

Apparently, the lack of gunfire was the cue for the rest of the Combaticons to approach, landing and fanning out with weapons at ready.

“Hey Ons, what's up?” Swindle asked casually, optics – and gun – focused on Smokescreen. Brawl and Blast Off sighted in on Skyfire.

“We're defecting!” Vortex chirped happily.

The other Combaticons flinched, Swindle grabbing at his head. “Arg! Don't do that, you fraggin' glitch!”

“Just repeatin' what I heard,” Vortex said with a shake of his rotors, unfazed by Swindle's snarl.

“Stand down,” Onslaught rumbled. The other Combaticons looked incredulous. “Vortex is correct.”

Brawl shuffled. “Uh Boss? You forget about the thingy?” He pointed at his helm with his rifle.

Blast Off huffed at the tank. “Stop that before you blow a hole in your own thick head. Lack-witted imbecile.

“Who you callin' a … a lack uh...”

“A what?” Blast Off snapped, icy.

“Knock it off, both of you,” Onslaught interrupted. He waited for them to look at him again – Ratchet noticed that he'd lost Vortex's attention in the meantime, but Onslaught continued anyway. Ratchet rather wished he wouldn't; being the focus of the helicopter's stare was frankly disturbing. “The code can be changed.”

Swindle squirmed. “We're not really... Ons, we can't.”

“So what, they remove it, we join them?” Vortex asked, visor finally tilting away from the medics.

“No. The code can't be removed.”

Swindle hissed, but Brawl just looked confused. “So we ain't defectin'?”

“They want to make us loyal to Prime,” Blast Off corrected, with only the rigidity of his stance and the clipped words betraying the pain he had to be in.

Swindle's vocalizer made a soft keening noise.

“Huh.” Vortex turned his attention back to Ratchet. “Okay,” he said, shrugging his rotors.

“Just like that?” Blast Off snapped.

“Yeah, sure. What, you think it's gonna feel better if you whine about it for a while first?” The helicopter's attention wasn't really on him, Ratchet realized, but on the Protectobot standing by his shoulder. Ratchet scowled at Vortex, getting an almost-friendly rotor wiggle in return.

“Why should we?” Blast Off demanded. “What can they offer us?”

“Immunity to prosecution, a clean slate... and never having to listen to Megatron again,” Smokescreen answered. “The team stays together, you fight for us, you obey our rules. Pretty sweet deal, if I do say so myself.”

“Stop talkin', yer makin' my head hurt.” Brawl looked torn between cradling his head and hitting someone.

Blast Off was silent, body language unreadable. “Very well,” he said eventually, a shudder running through his frame.

Onslaught looked to Swindle. Swindle gulped. “Ons, I...” he trailed off with a whine. “Frag it, Ons, it hurts...” The jeep shivered, backing up a step. “I can't do this.”

“Hey,” Vortex said, sidestepping to sling an arm over Swindle's shoulders. “It's alright-” the friendly movement changed into a grab, pulling the jeep up against Vortex's chest and pinning his arms. “Easy, Swin. We're all just gonna go back to the Nemesis and everything's gonna be fine. C'mon, say it.”

“We're goin' back to the Nemesis,” Swindle muttered in a small voice, fans hitching. “Going back to the Nemesis-”

Vortex shifted one arm, grabbing Swindle by the back of the neck and jabbing fingers up under the helm in a well-practiced gesture. “Aaaand stasis lock,” he said cheerfully as Swindle went limp in his arms.

“Wait, we're goin' back to the Nemesis?” Brawl asked, confused. “Then why'd I havta get this fraggin' headache?”

Onslaught sighed, and Vortex laughed. “I'll explain later, Brawlie,” the helicopter said, shifting Swindle's weight higher.

“Are we going to have trouble with him when he wakes up?” Ratchet nodded toward the unconscious jeep.

“Nope,” Vortex said. “He knows what's up. But if you think real hard on things like that it confuses the program, makes the pain subside a bit, y'know.” He jerked a thumb at Brawl. “Him, on the other hand, he actually believes it.”

“Who believes what?” Brawl demanded, suspiciously.

“Transport will be more comfortable in stasis lock,” Ratchet said, choosing to ignore Brawl for the moment and instead approaching Blast Off, waiting for the shuttle's permission.

Blast Off hesitated. “You will be staying awake?” he asked, looking from Onslaught to Vortex. Onslaught nodded, and Vortex shrugged. “Very well. Let's get this indignity over with.”

x-x-x


First Aid watched as Ratchet snapped the covers back over Blast Off's primary medical port. “Alright, start him up.” The chief medical officer spared a glance at the helicopter perched a berth out of the way. “You're next.”

“Really? I woulda figured it was the other guy,” Vortex said cheerfully. He was, of course, the last Combaticon to go under for the programming switch.

“Smart aft,” Ratchet muttered. “Just what we need.” First Aid glanced up from the monitors, but didn't comment. Personally, he wasn't sure if it was obnoxiousness or bravado that made the helicopter so mouthy.

Blast Off came online quietly, optics lighting behind his visor. The shuttle turned his head, taking in the scene and presumably running through his diagnostics.

“Hiya Thrusters!” Vortex called. “How's the plot against Megatron going?”

“Megatron can go smelt himself,” Blast Off said flatly, and sat up, swinging his legs off the edge of the berth.

“Well, that's a good sign,” First Aid said. “Any residual pain?”

“No.” Blast Off didn't seem inclined to idle chit chat, answering the rest of First Aid's diagnostic questions with monosyllables. When First Aid was satisfied, he looked to Ratchet for confirmation, then stepped back to let Blast Off up. The shuttle tilted his head toward Vortex, apparently engaged in a private conversation over their comms for a brief moment. Vortex shrugged a shoulder, letting his rotors fan behind him. Blast Off nodded and stood.

“You've been assigned temporary rooms,” Ratchet said, handing Blast Off a data crystal. “And security codes. Your access to the Ark is limited until Optimus talks Red Alert around, but a map of the areas you're allowed is on there.”

Blast Off took the crystal, tucking it under the heat shield on his forearm and headed for the door without saying a word.

“...Friendly,” First Aid muttered as the door closed.

“Thrusters? He's just like that.” Vortex meandered over and hopped up onto the berth, sprawling out comfortably on his front with his head propped up on his arms.

First Aid shook his head, focusing on the task at hand. “This will be more comfortable for you in stasis,” he said, reaching out.

Vortex pulled away, shaking his head. “No. Don't like bein' in stasis.”

“Are you sure? The procedure is likely to cause a significant amount of pain when the programming attempts to stop its alteration-”

“It already is,” Vortex said, and this close, First Aid could see the quiver of his rotors. “Go ahead, 'm fine.” The helicopter fell silent for a moment. “Just... talk to me?” he asked, plaintive.

First Aid looked over to his mentor. Ratchet was frowning, but he nodded.

“What would you like to talk about?” First Aid asked.

A rotor lifted, then fell. “Anything.”

“If you won't let us put you into stasis,” Ratchet said, no inflection to his voice. “We will have to immobilize you.”

“I suppose promisin' to not wiggle ain't gonna cut it,” he said, resigned.

“No, I'm sorry,” First Aid answered as Ratchet opened his medical port. The rotors spasmed, then went completely still as Ratchet cut power to the major motor relays.

“Alright there?” First Aid asked gently.

Vortex vented air, about as much movement as he had left. “Yeah,” he said roughly. “You're...” His voice hitched. “You're First Aid, right?”

Ratchet scowled at the helicopter, but to First Aid, the question seemed harmless enough. “Yes, I am,” he said.

“You've got the helicopter on your team,” Vortex asked, sounding almost... anxious?

First Aid's fingers paused in activating the monitoring systems. “Yes, Blades,” First Aid said, wondering where this was going.

“Haven't seen another 'copter since before we went in the Detention Center,” Vortex said wistfully.

Oh. First Aid couldn't help but feel sympathy for the Combaticon. He knew Blades had it hard enough, being the only helicopter in the Autobot forces on Earth, but Blades hadn't ever had contact with others of his frame type. To have lived with other rotories, only to wake up in a world where no one really understood your frame type... well, he could see why Vortex might feel lonely.

“I'm sure Blades will be happy to meet you,” First Aid said. He gave Ratchet another uncertain look, but his mentor was already deep in Vortex's systems, and unable to hear them.

“Would he?” Vortex wondered. “So, what's he like?”

“Blades, he's a goody guy.” First Aid frowned, wondering what he should say. Blades was Blades, his brother, his gestalt mate. “It's hard to put into words. He's loyal, a little overprotective... he's...” First Aid trailed off. “He's Blades.”

“I guess it ain't the best question-” Vortex cut off, fans stuttering. “Frag,” he muttered, voice strained.

First Aid checked the monitors, registering a spike in pain receptors. “Stay focused on me, Vortex. I know it hurts.”

“'M okay,” Vortex managed. His cooling systems clicked and reset, coming back on at a more even pace. “Just keep talkin'. I like your voice,” he added.

“I'm sorry, I just really don't know what to say,” First Aid said helplessly. He hated this, seeing a mech in pain with no real way to help.

“Anything. Ever go flyin' with your 'copter?”

“Well, not really, except for training for rescues.”

“Don't like flyin'?” Vortex asked. There was a burr of static to his vocalizer, and First Aid flinched, watching the pain indicators climbing.

“It's not my favorite activity,” First Aid admitted. He reached out, letting his hand rest on Vortex's arm. “Tell me about your team?”

“Whatcha want to know?” Vortex's voice had roughened.

“Do you get along?” First Aid hesitated. “I mean, when I've seen you, you guys seem to be fighting a lot-”

Vortex gave a short, strained laugh. “Hey, we're military builds. 'Course we fight. Mostly we get along pretty good, but fightin' core programmin' for most of us, so it's kinda unavoidable.”

“Really?” First Aid's optics brightened in surprise.

“Yeah. 'Sall part of the culture thingy, y'know. Autobots get passive-aggressive, Decepticons punch. Works out well enough for us.” Vortex paused, venting. “Gets it all out on the table, and then we move on. We weren't built to be a team, after all. Bound to get friction every once in a while. Y'know, this seemed to go so much faster when it weren't me.”

First Aid smiled faintly, giving Vortex's arm a comforting squeeze. “I can imagine. You're almost done. Just a little bit further. So, you like your team mates?”

“Yeah, sure,” Vortex said. His visor dimmed briefly. “Ons ain't bad for a commander, and Brawlie's fun. Thruster's a bit standoffish, but he grows on you. And Stumpy, well, Swindle's Swindle.”

“You're pretty close,” First Aid guessed.

“Eh, you could say that, I suppose.”

First Aid glanced at the monitor. “Why do you call Blast Off 'Thrusters'?” he asked, just for something to say.

Vortex snorted. “Cuz he has them, and it annoys the frag out of him,” he said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. “He puts up with it because he likes 'Thrusters' more than 'Blasty'.” Vortex chuckled. “Or he doesn't put up with it, and decides to shoot me, but hey, what's life without risk.”

First Aid stared. “He... shoots you?”

“Only a little.” Vortex's visor brightened, and First Aid got the impression the helicopter was watching him out of the corner of his optics.

“You're joking,” First Aid said, not at all certain of it.

“Maybe,” Vortex chuckled. “Oh. Ow. This hurts. Tell me we're done.”

First Aid checked the progress on the monitors. “Not quite.”

“Oh, goody.” Vortex fell silent, fans laboring.

“So,” First Aid said with forced lightness. “'Ons,' huh?”

“Or 'Onsies' or 'Onsipoo' or 'Mommy', and variations thereof. Can't let him think we're getting' too efficient. Keeps him honest.” Vortex chuckled again. “Otherwise we end up wantin' to belt his erudite aft.”

First Aid laughed, surprised. “You're a lot more educated than you let on, aren't you?”

“Shh. Don't tell no one. They might try to make me responsible for somethin'.” he said, voice faint. “Or somethin' like that.”

The pain indicators continued to climb. “What about 'Stumpy'?” First Aid asked.

“He's short,” was the simple answer.

“Earlier, you said most of you were military,” First Aid said, thumb rubbing soothingly over plating. “Is Swindle-”

“Blast Off,” Vortex said shortly. His vocalizer reset. “Stumpy's as military as the rest of us, just don't act like it. Funny, eh?”

“So how'd you end up as a team?” First Aid hazarded, casting for anything to keep Vortex talking and distracted.

“Ons,” Vortex said, and didn't elaborate.

First Aid opened his mouth and closed it again, unable to think of what else to say. Beside him, the indicators rose another notch. What could he-

He was saved by the harsh blat of the progress monitor. Process complete. Ratchet shifted, coming back to himself.

“You're done,” Ratchet said. “I want you to stay for a few breems for monitoring. Your systems just went through a good deal of stress.”

Vortex flicked his rotors as power returned to his relays. “'Mkay,” he said, distracted. He tested each rotor individually, then stretched on the berth.

First Aid was so engrossed in checking the readouts that he jumped when a rotor fanned out to smack him in the hip. “Oh!”

Vortex tilted his head, and First Aid got the impression he was grinning. “Thanks,” the helicopter said.

“I didn't really do anything,” First Aid said, ducking his head. “Ratchet did the hard part.”

“Don't sell yourself short,” Ratchet said from the other side of Vortex. “Alright you're good-”

“-I know, but it's nice t'be acknowledged,” Vortex interjected.

Ratchet snorted, unhooking the monitoring cables. “Great. A comedian. You've been assigned-”

“Rooms, temporary security codes, don't wander where you aren't wanted, don't hug the security bot or he'll spring a leak,” Vortex finished for him, taking the data crystal offered and plugging it in immediately. He was the only Combaticon who had, First Aid noted with surprise. The others had taken the crystal with them, presumably to scan for viruses or trackers. He wasn't sure what to make of that. Vortex ejected the datacrystal and handed it back. “I gots it, Doc.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Ratchet grumped. “Get out of my medbay.”

Vortex hopped to his feet and obeyed, giving First Aid a parting jaunty wave of a rotor.

“Well.” First Aid didn't really know where to start. “That was... interesting.”

Ratchet snorted. “You could call it that.” He gave his student a serious look. “Be careful around them, Aid. They're old, and they've been Decepticons for a very long time.”

“They didn't seem that bad,” First Aid said mildly.

“That is exactly what worries me,” Ratchet muttered. “Let's get this cleaned up.”

x-x-x


Vortex was the last to arrive, meandering into the quarters assigned to Onslaught and poking at Swindle until the other mech moved over to give him a spot on the berth. Onslaught remained standing, Brawl perched on the desk and Blast Off in the only chair.

“Alright, what the frag are we doing here?” Swindle muttered. “Us? Autobots? This is never going to work.”

Vortex patted him absently, getting a glare in return.

“Enough,” Onslaught rumbled. “We are here, and that's enough. We will survive, we will adapt-”

“We will take over the world!” Vortex broke in with a patently fake cackle.

“Vortex, shut up,” Onslaught said without breaking stride. “We will turn this to our advantage. We are not Autobots, we are Combaticons. Failure is not an option. We will operate by Autobot rules, at least on the surface, and work toward the destruction of our enemies.” Onslaught looked down at his troops, and realized that the only one paying attention was Brawl. Blast Off had zoned out, bored. Swindle and Vortex were exchanging looks and hand gestures that fairly screamed that they were plotting over private encryption.

Insubordinate glitches, Onslaught thought in irritation. His engine growled, and the two plotters looked up, Swindle beaming and Vortex fanning rotors innocently. “Pay attention,” he snapped. “Swindle, you will refrain from any dealings that may jeopardize our standing here. Brawl, no fighting. Blast Off, no shooting. Vortex-” He glared at the helicopter. “I'll make a list.”

Vortex waggled his rotors.

Onslaught turned his glare to the rest of his team, who, for once, seemed to be paying attention, however briefly. “Get out of my sight. Vortex, stay.”

This time it was Swindle giving Vortex the fake-sympathy pat on the head as the others filed out.

“Soooo...” Vortex stretched out after the door closed behind his teammates, flopping across the berth.

“I need you to take this seriously,” Onslaught growled. “The Autobots are familiar with your... proclivities. One screw up from you can be the catalyst that sends all of us back to the Detention Center. The Autobots will not forgive you inflicting your particular amusements on one of their own.”

“I got it, Ons,” Vortex said easily. “Ain't half so stupid as to not notice that. But you're wrong, y'know.”

Onslaught's visor darkened. “Am I?” he asked, voice dangerously soft.

Vortex seemed utterly unconcerned by the warning sound. “They don't really know much 'bout my activities,” he said. “All they got is rumor and a few accounts outta Freemark, maybe a bit from me tossin' them around the field. Sure, they're scared of me and suspect me of bein' such a bad, bad mech, but they ain't got an inch of experience with what I really do. The people who do are kinda dead.”

Onslaught absorbed that, fists loosening. “What are you suggesting?”

“Just leave it to me,” Vortex said cheerfully. “Me 'n Stumpy'll have 'em eatin' outta our hands. You keep on makin' nice up in the top ranks, we'll get the lower ranks turned round.” Vortex cocked his head thoughtfully. “Won't hurt if you start showin' a fierce protective side, neither. Since we're such a tight-knit family and all just doin' such bad things to survive, but secretly noble, honorable soldiers who were punished for speakin' out against the tyrannical excesses of Megatron and Shockwave.”

Onslaught stared. “We're... what?”

“Honorable soldiers trapped in a horrible situation,” Vortex confirmed happily. Fragger was enjoying the whole thing. “Remember, protective.” Vortex wiggled a rotor tip at him. “Cuz you love us.”

“Don't push it,” Onslaught growled.

“So... suggestin' you seduce Prime is out, too?”

“Vortex...” Onslaught felt his servos tightening again.

“Just sayin', it'd be helpful. 'Bots get all affectionate when they 'face with someone. 'Sides, I think you'd be his type-”

Vortex!


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