Cybertron had always had its share of supernatural creatures hunting its cold nights, but as the tensions leading up to the Third Great War increased, so did its otherworldly population. No one was entirely sure why, though theories abounded, from mortal Cybertronians having lost the favour of Primus to breeding programs and experiments carried out in secret. Whatever the cause the result was undeniable, and more and more supernatural entities roamed Cybertron. Those that were sapient wound up, in many cases, pledging allegiance to either the Autobot or Decepticon causes. Most of the outright supernatural entities such as vampires, aligned themselves with the Decepticons, largely attracted by the promise of violence and destruction. Those less obviously supernatural, or with psionic abilities such as divination, tended to join the Autobots. Outnumbered by the supernaturals in the Decepticon ranks the Autobots fought back, literally, with sacred artifacts, blessed ammunition, and their own supernatural forces.
Jazz, the head of Autobot Special Operations, was one of the very rare vampires who had joined the Autobots. If anyone knew why the vampire had chosen the side he did, they hadn't let it slip to the general population.
Jazz's vampire senses gave him the ability to sense the sacred artifacts the Autobots needed, but his vampiric nature also meant he couldn't touch them. That meant that when Jazz was sent on artifact-retrieval missions, he needed a partner who could. Prowl, the Autobot's Chief Tactical Officer had the best grasp on what objects would be of the most strategic value and had twice been assigned on such a mission with Jazz.
Prowl had not been entirely comfortable, that first mission, with the idea of being alone with Jazz. Jazz had made several attempts at seducing Prowl, either into interfacing or into letting Jazz bite him. Prowl wasn't entirely sure which one it was, and, as he had absolutely no interest in engaging in either one with Jazz, he did not care. There had been a great deal of tension between the two of them until Prowl had finally gotten across that Jazz's attentions were unwelcome.
On their first mission together they had had to separate and while on his own Prowl had been attacked by an Underground creature of unknown origin and type. The creature had pinned Prowl and had obviously had every intention of killing him when Jazz had intervened, killing the creature instead. Jazz had also, immediately before attacking, referred to the tactician as 'mine.' Jazz had later explained that he'd meant Prowl was 'his' in the context of being a member of his enclave, something like a vampire's family or clan. Prowl wasn't convinced at the time – and wasn't convinced now – that Jazz's desire to bite him, frag him or both had disappeared. If they had not then at least the vampire respected Prowl's lack of reciprocal interest and was no longer expressing them. They could now work together peacefully. They were even friends, now, as strange as that thought would have been to Prowl even half a stellar-cycle ago.
Jazz and Prowl's most recent mission together had been to the vaults under the abandoned Polyhex Cathedral. Prowl was pleased with the outcome from both a personal and strategic standpoint. They had retrieved many sacred objects that would be useful against the supernatural beings that had sided with the Decepticons and a refugee, Mirage of Vespertine Blue, would be a valuable asset if he chose to join. Mirage had trained as a priest, though he'd not yet taken the sacraments, and was also possessed of a Sigma ability.
Mecha with Sigma abilities, known as 'outliers' were not regarded as supernatural, even though some abilities seemed to straddle the line between technological ability and magic. They were valuable assets to either side in the civil war. Mirage's Sigma ability let him turn invisible, making him a prime candidate for Spec Ops if he joined the Autobots. Jazz and Prowl were both in agreement on that and Jazz was already making plans to coax Mirage into the Autobot fold.
On their return to Autobase Iacon from their second mission Prowl and Jazz's debriefing, with Optimus Prime, took place after they had ceded Mirage in Ratchet's gruff care, completed their medical exams, and deposited the artifacts with the resident priests. When the two Autobots had encountered him, Mirage had a bite on one forearm that had had a rust infection and was showing the effects of prolonged under-fueling, but neither was anything the Autobot CMO couldn't fix. Once Ratchet gave Mirage the all-clear, Bumblebee would help him find housing, see if any of his accounts were retrievable, and get him set up with fuel rations.
Bumblebee – bright, cheerful Bumblebee, whom everyone liked – would also carefully evaluate Mirage as a potential Decepticon infiltrator or other threat. The scout's findings would be reported back to Prowl and Jazz and appropriate action, if necessary, taken.
"And there were no incidents this time?" Optimus asked the mecha seated on the other side of his desk carefully, once they'd given their reports. Given that their previous mission together had ended with Jazz being struck and restrained by Prowl after the vampire had gone feral, it was an extremely relevant question. Both Jazz and Prowl responded in the negative.
"The only unexpected development was the retrieval of an outlier, one Mirage of Vespertine Blue, the Crystal City refugee found in the catacombs," Prowl, sitting at attention, explained. "His assistance meant we could return with more artifacts than anticipated, and Mirage himself will make an excellent resource for Special Operations should he choose to enlist."
"I'm really hoping he will," Jazz, lounging comfortably in the chair next to Prowl's, added. "He's priest-trained, can turn invisible, managed to survive this long in the Underground without any training – my team could use a mech like that. He'd be a hell of an asset once he'd been trained up."
"Indeed," Optimus agreed. "His training as a priest wouldn't be an issue for you, Jazz?"
Jazz shrugged. "I can handle it. It gets easier with exposure, and I've been exposed to more sacred objects and blessed stuff since I signed up than most vampires survive in a lifetime. We need more people trained up like that anyway."
Prowl immediately set processing threads to analyze the information that supernatural beings could gain an immunity of sorts to exposure to holy items. Blessed ammunition gave the Autobots an edge, but it could and did run out. Sacred artifacts could only be in one place at a time, and there weren't enough for any but the most vital installations to have more than a few. Priests were required to create both blessed ammunition and sacred items and thus were a priority target for both sides. If the Decepticon's supernatural members were to gain immunity to those tools, it would create a new host of problems.
"We could always use more priests," Optimus agreed. "I imagine having a priest assigned directly to your team would be useful as well. Do you think Mirage would be willing to accept the sacraments?" Optimus wanted to know.
"I don't think he'd be willing to work as a priest in a temple, if that's what you're asking," Jazz replied, "but getting priest-ified as part of a tool in his arsenal? Can't say but I think maybe it's more likely than the other. 'Course, that's if he even wanted to be a priest in the first place. Might've been something his House wanted him to do, especially since he had an older sibling who would've wound up with the estates. Some houses do it because it's tradition, second creation goes to the Church. Some of 'em funnel creations who're outliers into it to keep them out of the limelight. I don't know which one it is with Mirage here."
During their initial meeting with Mirage, Jazz teasing his story out of him while Prowl tended his wound, Jazz had displayed an unexpected knowledge of mecha with Sigma abilities. Jazz shouldn't have known Mirage had a Sigma ability, much less what it was, and there had been an edge to the vampire's voice when he spoke of it. Jazz had deflected when Prowl asked about that knowledge, suggesting the reason was a painful one. Prowl was reasonably certain that he knew at least some of it but he also knew that if he pushed it would drive Jazz away.
"No matter what Mirage chooses, at least he's no longer in the Underground," Optimus said. "His experiences have to have affected him deeply. Hopefully, we'll be able to help him."
"Perhaps you should visit him, Optimus," Prowl suggested. "I believe he carries a great deal of survivor's guilt and, if Jazz's suggestion is correct, it may be worsened by any resentment he had toward his House for pushing him to the priesthood. Past interactions between you and other survivors suggest he is likely to find your presence reassuring."
Optimus nodded. "An excellent suggestion, Prowl. Did Ratchet say how long he was going to keep Mirage in Medical?"
"No," Prowl answered, "but it will likely be at least overnight. Longer, depending on the time Bumblebee requires to find him accommodation."
"Getting him a place won't take long," Jazz said confidently. ""Bee's good. He'll have him a place and do a little additional vetting before the end of the shift. Think they'll get along pretty good. I might team them up for training later."
"Mirage may not choose to join the Autobots, Jazz," Optimus reminded him gently.
Jazz shrugged. "Time's coming there's only going to be Autobots and Decepticons left on Cybertron and the 'cons destroyed his whole life. Where else is he gonna go?"
Mirage lay on the narrow, too-soft hospital bed in the room to which he'd been assigned and tried to recharge. He should have been able to sleep; he hadn't gotten a decent rest since he'd come out of stasis and escaped the ruins of his former home. There had been no going back, once he dropped into the Underground through the floor of the decaying chapel and that had been the last place he'd felt safe enough to power down. Last night, when he'd recharged near to the Autobots who'd found him, he had only been able to shut down due to pure exhaustion and the demands of his self-repair systems. He hadn't dreamed, for which he'd been grateful. There were only two things he could think he'd dream about: being trapped in the chapel when his Tower had collapsed, or his family. He knew he didn't want the first and wasn't sure if he was ready to dream about the second.
Mirage missed his home and family deeply. He'd felt oppressed by the strictures and demands of his House when living there, true, but there was a lot of it he missed. He missed warmth, security, and being fully fuelled. He missed his Sator speaking the prayers at worship or giving the nightly invocation against creatures of the dark, Eidolon's perfectly tuned, cultured, voice rising and falling as he requested the blessings of Primus. He missed his Creator, Chimera, flighty but affectionate, and his sibling, even though Shade had been much, much older and they hadn't been close. Knowing that he could no longer enter a room and find one of them, or comm one whenever he chose…it hurt. Mirage didn’t know if dreaming about them would make it worse, or better.
The door to his room slid open, but the mech outside still knocked softly on the jamb. Surprised, Mirage sat up and looked at them.
"Hello," offered a soft-voiced red-and-white mech with a visor and face mask. "Ratchet told me your name is Mirage. I'm First Aid, one of the doctors here."
"Hello, First Aid," Mirage said, inclining his head at the proper angle to greet a…it didn't matter anymore, did it? None of it, not one bit of his social training from home was important any longer. "I don't believe I require further medical attention at this time. Is there something else?"
"Oh, no, I'm not here to check on your repairs, though it's good that you're stable," First Aid said, and Mirage could tell he truly meant it. "Actually, I came to see if you're up to a visitor. If you're not, that's alright. I don't want you to feel pressured."
A visitor? Ratchet had said that he'd meet someone named 'Bumblebee' tomorrow if he met Ratchet's criteria for release, but it was still too early. One of his rescuers – Prowl, or maybe Jazz? Even if anyone he knew from…before was in Iacon, it was still too early for the word of his arrival to have gotten out.
"I suppose I'm up to a brief visit," Mirage hedged, though he couldn't think who it would be. "Who has come calling?"
First Aid seemed to take Mirage's willingness to talk and ask questions as permission to come in and walked over to him to pat his hand gently. "Now, remember, it's your right to accept or turn away visitors, no matter who they are, so even though Optimus Prime asked to talk with you - "
Mirage was startled into interrupting, belatedly hoped he could blame such rudeness on his condition. "The Prime is here?"
"Yes, but you don't need to see him if you don't want to," First Aid said soothingly, probably misreading Mirage's reaction. "He might be Prime, but this is Medical, and I outrank him."
"That's close to blasphemy," Mirage said automatically, and immediately apologized. Not everyone was - had been as strict about religion and Primus' name as his Sator, not even in the Towers. Mirage knew he would have to watch himself and be sure he didn't say such things in future. He was alone, and he could not afford to alienate anyone here.
First Aid chuckled softly, seeming to be unoffended. "Maybe in the teachings of the Church of Primus but here we follow the Book of Ratchet. Even the Prime does, when he walks through those doors."
Mirage pictured Ratchet, who had been kind enough to him but clearly took no nonsense from anyone. Mirage could see Ratchet extending his rules to Primes quite easily.
Mirage also pictured his Sator's reaction if he were to turn down an audience with the Prime, especially one that hadn't even had to be petitioned for. Mirage had lived under his Sator's influence for a long time, certainly longer than he'd lived under Ratchet's, and what he thought his Sator would have wanted had much more sway. One did not turn down the Matrix Bearer, ever, no matter how one was feeling.
"I would be honoured to speak with the Prime, of course," Mirage said, bowing his head as if he were addressing an acolyte rather than a medic. Were there still acolytes, he wondered. If there was a Prime, surely he had attendant priests?
"Alright, I'll let him in. But if you get tired or you need anything, use the call button. Okay, Mirage?" First Aid patted his hand again – the contact, especially after so long alone, really was soothing – and waited until Mirage had confirmed he would call if he needed anything.
Then First Aid left, and Optimus Prime entered.
Mirage hadn't seen a Prime in the metal before, but he had known, intellectually, that they were larger and stronger than the average mech. He hadn't entirely been prepared for the reality of meeting one in the metal. Mirage's height was on the high end of average, and if he had been on his feet (as you should be, his training as both noble and priest whispered, never mind he was so tired), he would have come to the Prime's chest. He supposed he should have expected that much of a difference, but it could be hard to judge size from images and video alone. Mirage had never met a Prime, but he had seen plenty of pictures and video of Optimus' predecessor, Sentinel, and he thought they were roughly the same size. Their bearing and attitude seemed entirely different, even before the current Prime spoke. Mirage was sure the previous Prime's optics hadn't been anywhere near so kind.
Of course, considering what had come out before the destruction of Crystal City about the previous Prime and the actions of the Senate, that wasn't so surprising anymore.
Optimus Prime had brought a chair in with him, which told Mirage that if he did have attendant priests, they weren't here, and carried it over.
"Hello, Mirage," he said genially, taking a seat. "I am Optimus Prime. I understand you've had quite an ordeal getting to us. Would you like to talk about it?"
That was not the introduction Mirage had expected, should he meet a Prime – far more casual, for one – and a confused burst of responses and impulses went through his mind instead of the ones he'd been taught were correct. When he went through the memory again later, he was unsurprised to find that a formal, if minimally adequate, response of not wanting to burden the Prime with his problems came last in the queue to the impulse to say 'yes.' After all, that was what he had done. He'd spilled out his entire story to the Prime, every moment of terror, sorrow, and horror, starting with the destruction of his Tower and ending with the horrible crush of hope when Prowl and Jazz had brought him to safety under the Cathedral. Horrible and crushing because it might be snatched away and he didn't think he could bear up under any more if that happened. Hopeful because he might, at last, get to safety and fuel and light.
Optimus wound up sitting on the bed, facing him, instead of in the chair. Mirage wound up leaning into the Prime's chest, optics off, and the bigger mech's arms around him like a creator comforting a juvenile. Mirage was well beyond his juvenile years and had just met the Prime, and yet he didn't feel embarrassed or awkward. He felt…better, in much the same way he had when Prowl had cleaned dirt and debris out of his wound. The root of the problem, like the rust infection he'd had, had still been there but much of what had been layered atop it adding to his misery had been relieved.
"I grieve for your losses, Mirage," Prime said, voice rumbling through his chest. He didn't seem to care that a complete stranger was halfway into his lap. "For all that you've suffered."
"Thank you, Prime," Mirage whispered. From someone else, the words could have been mere platitudes, but when Optimus Prime spoke them, Mirage believed him.
Mirage brought his optics online and he could see some of his reflection in Prime's windshields, Mirage had been given use of a wash rack and had a fresh coat of polish laden with repair nanites on but he was certainly not up to the standards his House would have expected for such a meeting. He wasn't even up to their standards for leaving his chambers. He also knew, instinctively, that this Prime didn't care. That it wouldn't have mattered if Mirage was the highest-ranked priest on all of Cybertron or the lowliest Disposable. He would have done this for them anyway and asked nothing in return.
"Would you like to hear a little bit about my family, Prime?" Mirage offered, drawing back a little. "Maybe some…some happy memories, instead?" He'd talked about dark things enough, he wanted to think of something else. He wanted Prime to know something about his life that wasn't awful.
"Do you want to talk about them?" Prime countered calmly.
"For a little bit," Mirage said slowly. "I don’t know for how long I'll be able to speak about them, but I do want to, at least for a short time. I want to remember something else."
"Then I would like to listen," Prime said gently, and Mirage began.
In the mess hall Jazz dropped lightly down in the seat on Bumblebee's right, managing to lounge on the uncomfortable one-size-fits-most chair.
"Hey, 'Bee," the vampire said casually, looking over the room to see if anyone had the red band around their wrist that said they were okay with being bitten today. Processed energon would do, but nothing ever quite beat the real deal from a mech's lines. Sometimes there wasn't anyone available, but it never hurt to look. "Heard you might have a new pigeonoid you've got to find a roost for."
"Not yet, Jazz, but I'm hoping it'll be soon," Bumblebee replied, waving to a friend as they left – Cliffjumper, not on the list of bite-ables ever as Jazz had so bluntly been informed quite early on. Not that he'd ever been tempted. "They're being released tomorrow. I'm thinking of putting them in the loft over on the east side of the base while I see how they adapt. Sound good?"
"Mm, I was thinking they'd be more suited to the shady side of the place," Jazz said, looking over a new arrival to the mess. Were they…?
Nope, Bluestreak wasn't wearing a band – and anyway, he was off-limits because there was no way Prowl wouldn't read stuff into it. Oh, I can't bite you, I'll just go snack on your cousin who looks so much like you, but it's not a substitute for you, Prowlster, really, and honestly, it isn't! Whether it was true or not - and if Jazz was being honest with himself, it fell on the 'not' end - didn’t matter. Jazz didn't want to jeopardize his friendship with the strict tactician. That last part surprised him; Prowl smelled incredibly good, he practically screamed 'tasty prey' and the vampire should have wanted to bite and feed on him. But the more time Jazz spent with him, the more the desire to taste him was overwritten with the recognition of Prowl as 'enclave' and therefore someone not to be put in danger. Not that you never drank fuel from your enclave members, but that was different. That wasn't feeding, that was for a whole host of other reasons, ones Jazz wouldn't mind biting Prowl for either. That beautiful throat arching back in trust, exposing the primary energon lines, for the acceptance of protection or the promise of fuel, freely given…
The algorithm Jazz had written to stop and delete any and all of his processing threads related to Prowl's tastiness, metaphorical or otherwise, ran. Good. Jazz knew what was off limits and he knew Prowl would rather Jazz didn't even think about biting him.
"Oh yeah?" Bumblebee asked. "Well, usually I like to get a feel for how my new pigeonoid is going to fly before I really settle on a place for them. But if you think they'll be better off in the shade…"
"Sure do," Jazz said, still looking around the room. Ooh, Trailbreaker! Advertising his willingness to be bitten via the red wristband and so big and robust and climbable. Just the main course Jazz was looking for. "Up to you, 'course, but that's just my two centi-shanix."
"Yeah, but you've got some good instincts when it comes to this. You're a real pigeonoid fancier, Jazz." Bumblebee grinned knowingly. "But I think you're fancying something else right now?"
Jazz grinned back. "I sure am. Good luck with your new bird, 'Bee."
Bumblebee waved him off as he got up. "With yours, too, Jazz."
"Thanks!" Jazz headed off to begin the climbing of Trailbreaker and spotted another red band as he did so. Maybe he'd have some Beachcomber for dessert.
FFID: Friend/Foe Identification
It was a few mega-cycles after their return from Polyhex before Prowl saw Mirage again. The displaced noble had not yet enlisted with the Autobots, though Prowl was aware that both Bumblebee and Jazz were courting him for Special Operations. Mirage had been moved, by Bumblebee, into private civilian quarters not far from where Jazz's Special Operations team were quartered. Finding a spare habsuite hadn't been difficult: civilians were becoming thin on the ground these days. Most of them had fled, joined one side or the other, or been killed during the long vorns of the relentless civil war. The few that were left would most likely experience one of the latter two fates: no civilian ships were leaving the planet, and Cybertron was not a safe place for neutrals. Not anymore.
Even so, there were a few civilian businesses gamely struggling to survive in what was left of functional Iacon, crowded close to the Autobase. One such was a café that Prowl visited when he had the time and the inclination to treat himself to something other than commissary-fare. It was that impulse that had brought him out of the command area and into the more recreational areas of the base. Mirage was seated at one of the tables, alone, but Prowl was still pleased to see that he was willing and able to be up and about rather than secluding himself in his habsuite. Mirage's solitude Prowl attributed to the fact that he couldn't have met many people yet and it was unlikely anyone he'd known before the war broke out was present in Iacon.
Prowl was less pleased once he got closer. Mirage was, just slightly, leaning away from the rest of the mecha in the room and not looking at anyone. Specifically, he was avoiding a table of Autobots who were providing a deliberate, unflattering, running commentary on the upper castes. It was clear at whom their words were aimed, and Prowl frowned as he pinged their FFID broadcasts, which would automatically respond to an officer, for their designations and ranks. Dressing them down in public would likely cause trouble for Mirage down the line as the Autobots in question acted out later in embarrassment. But, there were other ways to handle such things.
Prowl took his energon – warmed mid-grade with thallium on top, today – and crossed the room to Mirage's table.
"May I join you?" Prowl asked, making sure his voice carried even if it wasn't loud. Perhaps the presence of an officer would be a sufficient deterrent.
If Mirage was startled by Prowl's arrival, he hid it well – Towers training, no doubt. He might have been in a formal receiving room for all his voice gave away, even if he'd let control of his body language slip somewhat. "But of course, Commander."
Prowl had been right; the voices died down into mutters. Prowl would deal with that without a direct confrontation at this time. Ultra Magnus preferred to deal with such issues as conduct unbecoming an Autobot anyway, and Prowl preferred, in this instance, to let him. Prowl accessed the Autobot DataNet, filled in an incident report, and submitted it, receiving an automated acknowledgement ping from Magnus's inbox two nano-kliks later. Excellent. Prowl was confident the issue would be dealt with shortly.
Prowl and Mirage briefly exchanged pleasantries, and then a silence fell between them. It was not precisely awkward, but nor was it entirely comfortable.
"I admit to not being terribly good at small talk," Prowl admitted after a few nano-kliks of that strange silence.
Mirage managed a small smile that didn't reach his optics. "I spent long cycles being trained to excel at small talk, yet now I can't think of a single thing to say. Those lessons, that time – much of it seems so trite, now. That society no longer exists." Prowl nearly missed the quick glance toward the table of hecklers. "Perhaps it's for the best."
"Mirage, I…" Prowl trailed off. Something should be said here, he was sure, but he didn't know what that should be.
"They're not entirely wrong, Prowl," Mirage said quietly. "I don't enjoy hearing it, and yes, I do wish I was back hunting turbo-foxes with my friends. I still long for my old life and I expect I always will, but while I know that Megatron may have started the war, he wasn't the only one who set the stage."
"That is true, yes, but you were not personally responsible for that, and you couldn't have undone it – not all of it," Prowl pointed out.
"I suppose not." Mirage did not sound convinced of his own words.
Now was the moment Prowl knew Jazz would want him to try and convince Mirage to enlist with the Autobots. Enlistment was the first step to getting him into Special Operations, where he would be an excellent asset. Prowl understood how Spec Ops could use Mirage and in fact already had several tactical plans modified to take advantage of his presence on the team. Now that he was speaking with him, Prowl wasn't sure if Mirage was psychologically ready to enlist, let alone take on the demands of Special Operations. That, of course, was not up to Prowl. Mirage's recent history alone meant he would be required to pass a psychological evaluation before he could be sent out on missions.
So, Prowl didn't mention enlistment. Not as such, anyway. Instead, he suggested, "perhaps there is some task you could undertake that would help alleviate your feelings of," he hesitated briefly, but there was no better word, "guilt."
"An act of penance, you mean," Mirage said. "Everyone I knew always donated to the Temples as their means of penance. I always wondered if the money ever went where it was intended or if it found its way to someone else's subspace pocket. Even if I could ensure it here, it isn't possible right now. I-I have a small stipend, as a refugee, but there is…there has been some trouble locating and releasing my accounts, apparently."
There should have been no problems with his accounts at all. Mirage had been declared dead after the fall of Crystal City, but as his body hadn't been found, his accounts had been frozen for fifty vorn. The records of the former noble's accounts wouldn't have been located only in the Crystal City banks. There should have been copies of all his information centralized in Cybertron's archives. Once his survival had been confirmed, which it had per a CNA match, his accounts should have been released. Prowl detected the invisible touch of Jazz; finances made an excellent lever. Mirage's banking information would undoubtedly miraculously appear shortly after his enlistment and assignment to Spec Ops.
"Perhaps you cannot donate money, but is there anything else you can think of? Charity work, for instance?" Prowl suggested.
"For other refugees, you mean?" Mirage asked. "I've thought of it. Working amongst Iacon's poor, taking the sacraments so I can offer comfort as a priest…I've thought of that. They're all worthy pursuits but…they're not for me. They don't have enough weight, I-" He broke off and gave a short, bitter, laugh. "I do apologize, Prowl. I don't mean to lay all my burdens on you."
Prowl reached out, letting his hand lie palm-up on the table as an invitation for Mirage to take it if he wanted comfort. The gesture was not entirely calculated.
"No need to apologize," Prowl said, and this was not calculated at all but genuine. "I'm happy to be a sympathetic audial. It sounds as if you need one."
"Yes," Mirage murmured. He didn't take Prowl's hand but brushed their fingers together in a gesture of acknowledgement. "Thank you. You've been very kind. Here, and – when we met."
Mecha had used many words to describe Prowl but, so far as he could recall, 'kind' had never before been one of them. Prowl did not think of his own actions as kind but as appropriate and necessary. He had provided aid to one who needed it and prevented someone from being harassed. He had done these things partly out of altruism, yes, but he had also done them with an optic on bringing Mirage into the Autobot fold. That work would be undone if he pointed those things out to Mirage, so he did not.
"I couldn't have left you the way we found you," Prowl replied, "and no one should be subjected to harassment, especially not by Autobots. It will be handled, I assure you."
"And if there are retaliatory incidents? It will be obvious where the report came from, especially since you were seen to sit down with me," Mirage pointed out. "No one will believe I didn't ask a favour from you."
"Any mecha who are aware of my reputation will know I don't do 'favours' of that nature, nor do I need to be asked to report any inappropriate behaviour I may witness. Retaliatory incidents will be dealt with accordingly," Prowl said firmly. Up to and including Optimus Prime's 'very disappointed' speech, if necessary. "You deserve to be safe, Mirage, and I will do my utmost to ensure you are safe while you are here."
Mirage looked like he had a half-dozen things he wanted to say. Instead of speaking, however, he looked down into his drink and murmured a 'thank you.' Three nano-kliks passed then Mirage spoke again, directing the conversation into less weighted topics. Prowl permitted the diversion and responded appropriately where required.
Prowl left the café sometime later with the sense that Mirage might be a step or two closer to joining the Autobots. Jazz, he thought, would be pleased. Prowl, having enjoyed himself after the awkward and unfortunate start to his afternoon, was not displeased with the results of the day himself.
Jazz frowned at the pang of jealousy he felt on learning Prowl had spent an afternoon chatting with Mirage. It was irrational, and he knew it. Prowl didn't want him and had made it very clear that he never would. Jazz resolutely dismissed the feelings of envy, reminding himself that he and Prowl were friends and that was it. What was more important was what Jazz could get out of Prowl's conversation with the refugee noble. It sounded like Mirage had a whole lot of guilt and wanted revenge for his lost former life as well. One of those on its own would have made good leverage, and with both together Jazz was pretty sure he'd have a new agent within the stellar-cycle.
Just to be sure, he'd let Hound and Tracks know they should use that as they worked on bringing the priest-noble into the Spec Ops fold. Hound was friendly and could make anyone feel at ease and Tracks was an excellent way to show Mirage that someone from the upper-crust could be an Autobot. Oh, sure, Jazz would make a more formal offer once Mirage had been out of the hospital a while so he could see what his life would be like in Iacon. Planting the seed crystals now would just make it more likely that Mirage would accept once Jazz offered to bring him on board.
Jazz didn't report things quite that way when Mirage and his rescue were brought up during that deca-cycle's officer's meeting, of course. He made sure it was a comprehensive report even so, and no one asked any questions. Of course, they might've also kept quiet because Red Alert was obviously about to start sparking with anxiety over something. Inferno, cleared to be present because he could keep Red relatively calm, had a hand on his shoulder but it wasn't quite working. Optimus gave Ratchet, who should have gone next, a questioning look and the CMO waved a hand in a 'go ahead' gesture. Ratchet was the one who'd have to fix burnt internals if, and more likely when, Red shorted something from anxiety.
"Red Alert, you have something you want to report?" Prime prompted.
"Yes!" Red Alert exclaimed, practically vibrating in his seat. "There have been four separate attacks on civilians in the past four mega-cycles! Highwire of Uraya, Waverunner of Prysmos, Thunderbolt of Mebion, and Crosstalk of Ibex were all found dead outside the base walls. The victims all had their protective etchings damaged, and they were found hics away from their habsuites, dead, at the bottom of a chasm created when the city was bombed during the First Siege of Iacon. There's clearly a supernatural predator loose, and we must find it before we all become victims!"
"While this is tragic," Prime said gravely, "I see in your report that all four victims were relative newcomers to Iacon."
"Exactly! The perfect victims, they wouldn't be missed!"
Prime continued. "Is it possible they simply became lost and their etchings were damaged when they fell?"
"No rational mechanism would be able to get that lost," Red Alert returned. "The areas one would have to travel through to reach the chasm are clearly not habitable areas! There's nothing out there but-but creatures and murderers in the rubble!"
"Red's got a good point there," Jazz pointed out. "There are lots of ways to get out there, but they're all pretty wrecked up, not easy to get through. It's not someplace a mech would go unless they had a reason. Don't know about a supernatural predator instead of a regular serial killer, but it's something weird for sure."
Red Alert was looking at Jazz like he hadn't expected anyone to agree with him. Inferno was looking at Jazz with a mix of that and maybe frustration. Yeah, yeah, 'cause Jazz was feeding into Red's paranoia – 'cept, it wasn't paranoia if it was real and Jazz had seen weirder things turn out to be true.
Jazz stopped himself from touching his throat.
"We should increase security at all the exits to the uninhabited areas – or-or close them off entirely! And institute a curfew and a nightly count of each citizen!" Red Alert declared.
Prime, thankfully, shook his head. Jazz had lived through one Clampdown, he didn't want or need to see another one.
"While I agree that security should be increased to prevent our citizens from wandering, I can't condone a curfew and a nightly census at this time," Prime said, diplomatically not pointing out he'd most likely never condone them. "I don't want to close off the exits to the uninhabited areas yet either – we may need them for evacuation or, more hopefully, reconstruction crews when we bring about an end to the war. I will agree to more patrols, some additional guard points, and increased surveillance of the perimeter, however. Send a proposal to Prowl and Jazz as soon as possible. Jazz, Prowl, please review Red Alert's suggestions and make approvals as you see fit."
Tone them down, so they didn't turn the Autobase and the surrounding remains of the city into a prison, he meant. Jazz nodded. "Will do, boss."
Red Alert must have hoped Prime would agree to at least some of his suggestions because his proposal for the new measures landed in Jazz's inbox a full nano-klik before Jazz had even finished speaking. Prowl's meeting request came in not long after. Jazz swore the mech just queued up meeting requests for whatever free time he had, then customized and sent them out as needed. He probably had a script written for it. He probably had one written to access and analyze Jazz's public calendar, too, because it was a rare thing that Jazz wasn't able to accept a meeting request due to conflicts. Prowl could be just as sneaky and crafty as Jazz when he wanted to be.
Of course, Jazz had built himself an algorithm that ran whenever he thought about how tasty Prowl was/must be, so it wasn't like he had room to talk about what code people wrote for themselves.
Jazz ran a script to search through Red Alert's report and pick out any key terms and phrases to examine in depth later and settled in to listen to Ratchet's report.
Upon returning to his office, Prowl not only reviewed Red Alert's report on the incident but the Enforcers' and the civilian coroner's as well. The coroner concurred with Prime's theory that the victims' protective etchings had been damaged during the fall but did not agree that the fall had killed them. Instead, the coroner's ruling was that they had all died of massive systemic shock resulting from a disruption in spark containment. The coroner could not determine the cause or nature of the interruption in containment though they speculated it was due to some type of energy weapon. There were no entry wounds or burns on the bodies. Red Alert's conclusion that the deaths were due to a supernatural predator made more sense in light of that, but Prowl was not yet convinced.
Prowl sent the coroner's report and the images of the bodies, scenes and morgue both, to Ratchet for a second opinion. Prowl analyzed both the still photos and the video recordings of the scenes where the bodies had been found, extrapolating data where necessary. All it told him was where the mecha had fallen, been pushed, or been thrown from. The location was not the same for each victim, but it was close enough Prowl found it unlikely four separate mecha would have accidentally wandered out there. Based on the routes each victim could have taken from their last known location, a regular Cybertronian killer would likely have shown up on sensor scans, if not video surveillance. That increased the probability of a supernatural perpetrator.
During their meeting Jazz and Prowl toned down or removed may of Red Alert's suggestions – a mech didn't have to be a vampire to dislike having to swear on a sacred object before being allowed to enter and leave a sector, for instance – but kept the surveillance recommendations. Now Prowl wanted additional data to refine the security measures, if possible and he wanted to have some idea of what to scan for. They needed to find a balance between casting too wide a net and eliminating what they were searching for by having overly narrow parameters.
"A mortal serial killer would most likely have appeared on surveillance, and certainly will with the new additions," Prowl told Jazz during their meeting. "I believe a supernatural entity is a more likely culprit. We need to determine what creatures are capable of luring someone away without the victim questioning them." Prowl said during their meeting. They had already toned down or removed may of Red Alert's suggestions – a mech didn't have to be a vampire to dislike having to swear on a sacred object before being allowed to enter and leave a sector, for instance – but kept the surveillance recommendations. Now Prowl wanted additional data to refine the security measures, if possible.
Jazz, sprawled in the chair on the other side of Prowl's desk, sighed. "Yeah, but it ain't gonna be easy. Might not even be looking for something that's on record. There's a whole lot out there, and more coming up from the Underground. Food must be getting scarce down there. It ain't just natural critters we've gotta worry about, either – like the one that tried to eat you under the Pavilions. That one was way too smart for one of the Underground's creatures."
Prowl remembered the creature that had attacked him during his first mission with Jazz well. He was unlikely to forget the feel of the creature's claws scoring deliberately through his etchings and destroying their protective ability. Prowl had since had those etchings restored, and sealed below a blessed coating that ought to burn anything supernatural trying to damage them. As a further precaution, he'd had engravings added to the underside of his armour, as priests did, where an attacker could not see them.
"So, even if it is a creature we may not be able to rely on existing data," Prowl concluded, displeased, though not with Jazz. "There may still be a weapon involved. I'm waiting on Ratchet's review of both the coroner's report and the photos from the scene. "
"Yeah," Jazz agreed, thoughtfully, paging through the database of supernatural creatures while they spoke. "Hey, here's something. Ever heard of fool's lights? Their fancy name's ignus fatuus."
Prowl had not, but he did a quick search of the same database. He found information, but little data on how to scan for this particular phenomenon.
"Phantom lights that mislead unwary travellers," Prowl mused. "That does correlate with the victims being in an area they otherwise had no reason to be. I see nothing about their being the cause of those traveller's deaths. And, the medical report says that the four victims' protective etchings were damaged in the fall, not before death. Unless they gave their killer permission to touch them, they should have been safe from anything supernatural."
"These victims were only found because a patrol flew over the area," Jazz pointed out. "If it is the lights, they could be responsible for plenty of missing mecha over the Ages, and we'd never know about it. As far as permission goes, 'it's tricky here, let me take your hand to guide you' is enough for some things to get past your wards. Gotta be careful with your wording with the stuff that haunts the night, Prowlster."
That was all true, unfortunately. Prowl sighed. "I'd hoped to reduce the possibilities."
There had been a victim each night for four successive mega-cycles, assuming all existing victims had been found. It would be reasonable to expect another attack tonight. Placing surveillance at the location of the murder, or at least the body disposal, was simple enough. It didn't mean the killer couldn't kill and dispose of their victims elsewhere. Preventing a victim from being taken would be ideal, but the victims' habsuites had been in four separate areas, meaning surveillance couldn't be focused on any one area. Prowl felt that increased patrols and a warning to the public were their best options.
"Very well, let us increase patrols throughout and alert mecha that they should travel in pairs, at minimum, for safety until the threat has been eliminated."
Jazz raised an optic ridge. "Worth the risk of panic?"
"Worth not having another victim," Prowl corrected. "Word of four explained deaths in as many mega-cycles will likely get out regardless of our actions, resulting in rumour and potentially panic. There is a sixty percent chance that some manner of official word may ameliorate that."
"Mm. I suppose." Jazz didn't sound convinced, but neither did he argue. "Think I'm gonna head out tonight, do a round of the place, see what I can see."
"Jazz," Prowl said firmly, "the 'travel in pairs' rule applies to you, too."
"I – " Jazz started to argue then thought better of it. Other predators tended to give vampires a wide berth and Jazz would probably be safe. But if word got around that a member of Command wasn't following the rules set out for everyone else it'd look bad. "I'll take 'Bee with me, have him stick to the shadows." If the killer went after 'Bee, then Jazz would be close enough to get to them. "That work?"
"Yes, thank you. I'll continue analyzing the existing data and try to determine any commonalities or patterns that may be useful." Prowl stood, concluding this meeting and preparing to head to another one. "And Jazz? Please be careful."
Jazz, not standing, flickered half his visor in a wink and grinned. "For you, Prowlster? 'Course."
Halfway through the route he'd chosen for his patrol that night, Jazz thought idly that he didn't have to worry about being careful, he had to worry about being bored. Prowl's warning hadn't resulted in mecha travelling in pairs, it had resulted in no mecha travelling at all. That should've made at least Bumblebee a tastier target, but either scout wasn't on the menu tonight, Jazz's presence was scaring them away, or they were in the wrong place. Jazz didn't see, smell, sense, or hear a thing beyond some turbo-rats and glitch-mice scurrying in the spaces between buildings.
'Have you got anything, Meister?' Bumblebee asked via encrypted comms, using Jazz's most common code-name out of habit.
'Not a one, Shadow. You?'
'Just a whole lot of nothing. Maybe you should make some noise, try to draw the target out?'
'Yeah, okay.' Jazz made some more noise as he walked, occasionally scuffing his feet or kicking debris out of his way when he found some on the street. He managed to keep a deeply dented and very rusty can that had once held oil going for three blocks before losing it down a storm drain. Nothing else happened.
'Do you want to try again?' Bumblebee asked doubtfully as they finished the route.
'Nah. Get the feeling we're not gonna have any luck. Time to head back in, Shadow.'
'Sure thing, Meister. See you in there.'
Jazz headed back in the nearest entrance then pinged 'Bee to let him know he was in and safe and got one in return. Not anything Jazz didn't know this time, but it didn't do to get sloppy. Jazz headed to the rec area to see who was there, hang out a bit. He passed the officer's club on the way and poked his head in just to see who was around. Ironhide was always good for a story or two, and sometimes he'd let Jazz feed from him a little bit.
To Jazz's great surprise, Prowl was in the officer's club. That was more than a little unusual. Prowl was usually back in his (secure, warded) quarters by this time of night, doing whatever Prowl did when he was alone. Tonight, Prowl was not in his quarters, and he wasn't alone, either. He was with Mirage, and the noblemech was leaning back with a drink in one hand and smiling at something Prowl said. Their free hands were on the table, Mirage's lying atop Prowl's – and Prowl was permitting it.
Mine! Jazz thought, gripping the doorframe tight and just barely stopping himself from walking in. He pushed the thought away, shoved the possessive vampire instincts down. No, Prowl was not his, not like that. Prowl was a friend, Prowl was an enclave member, and Prowl would not be either of those things if Jazz got possessive. A friend of mine. Part of my enclave. He forced his grip on the doorframe to relax. Not to frag. Not to bite. He took a step backward. Not to interrupt right now.
Jazz made himself turn and keep going to the rec area.
The next mega-cycle there was no indication there had been a fifth victim the night of Jazz's patrol. No one was reported missing from either the civilian or Autobot populations. Unless a fifth victim from outside the monitored community hadn't been found, the increased surveillance and patrols appeared to have worked.
"It's possible the new security measures worked, reduced as they are from my original plan," Red Alert said during the command review that mega-cycle. He was relatively calm right now, though he did spin a stylus between his fingers as he spoke. "It could still be a serial killer, one that's entered their cooling-off period."
That was plausible. Prowl voiced agreement.
"I went out last night with Bumblebee as a shadow," Jazz said. "Walked around, looking like I was alone, made some noise, didn't pick up a thing. Did a circuit of the outside of the base, figured security and the Enforcers were okay for the rest."
"What if it's something you can't sense?" Red Alert fretted. "What if it's something we've never encountered before and have no data on?"
Prowl didn't like to feed into Red's paranoia, but… "It is a possibility we must consider. Jazz suggested that these events could, at least in part, be the actions of a creature known colloquially as 'fool's lights,'" Prowl told the room and sent the data out on the command chat frequency. "This does make sense because fool's lights lure people from safe routes, and the victims were each found in locations they had no reason to visit. While there is no record of fool's lights causing the deaths of their victims, it is possible, as Jazz said, that their victims have simply never been found. Fool's lights are normally found in rural, sparsely populated areas, so that is possible. There could also be another entity taking advantage of the presence of the light's victims."
"Another thing we must consider," Ultra Magnus said slowly, "is the refugee Prowl and Jazz brought back. I understand he relayed a story about surviving in the ruins of Crystal City in stasis lock before attempting to make his way to Iacon, and that he had been bitten by something before they met him. It seems unlikely that a noble would have the training necessary to successfully navigate the underground for all that time."
"He can turn invisible," Jazz pointed out.
"An ability reliant on being sufficiently fueled," Ultra Magnus countered. "He can't have used it constantly."
"He did tell us that he didn't," Prowl said slowly. An uncomfortable feeling was growing in the bottom of his spark chamber. He enjoyed Mirage's company and he and the noblemech were attracted to each other. But Ultra Magnus' suggestion was reasonable, and the timeline of the murders did line up with Mirage's release from Medical into the less-heavily monitored civilian area.
"I didn't detect anything resulting from that bite except a rust infection," Ratchet added. "He's not a were-anything, so far as every scan I ran can tell. Besides, didn't he train as a priest? That should have given him immunity, shouldn't it?"
"He hasn't taken the sacraments," Prowl said, his uncomfortable feeling increasing. "He doesn't have the same immunity as a sanctified priest has."
"I spoke with Mirage at length while he was in Medical," Optimus told them, deep voice calm and sure. "He had no negative reaction to the presence of the Matrix."
"It's possible for a supernatural entity to develop immunity to sacred objects if they encounter them enough," Prowl said quietly and unhappily. Mirage was not someone Prowl who wanted to be suspected, much less guilty, of anything. "He was trained as a priest, proximity to the relics in Polyhex Cathedral where we have only his word that he stayed briefly." Prowl hated this line of thought, but it had to be considered, no matter his personal feelings. "An immunity could possibly be developed under those circumstances. The research into the matter is incomplete."
"He's a civilian, my tracking of them isn't as complete as it is of the Autobots." Red Alert pulled something up on his terminal; Prowl concluded he must be searching through records. "I must find out where he was for those four nights!"
Prowl looked at the wall, focusing on a small imperfection in the metal. "I don't know where Mirage was on the nights of the murders," he said carefully. "But last night he was with me, in the officer's lounge."
"For what it's worth, I don't pick up anything other than 'mech' when I'm near him," Jazz put in. "'Sides, there's lots of mecha who got here pretty recently. Some things just feed at certain times, could be that or it could just be bad luck."
Prowl gave him a quick, grateful, look.
"Look into Mirage, by all means, Red Alert," Optimus said, clearly bringing the discussion to a close. "But as difficult to quantify as an opinion may be, I don't believe Mirage is our killer."
"I hope you're right, Optimus," Red Alert said without looking at him, searching rapidly through something on his terminal. "I do hope you're right."
Jazz was stopped by Prowl as the meeting broke up for the day. The tactician waited until everyone else had left before he spoke. "Thank you for speaking up for Mirage."
"No problem," Jazz lied. He still had the impulse to get Mirage away from Prowl, but Prowl would find out, or suspect, and be hurt. You didn't hurt enclave, Jazz told himself, they came first, always. "I gotta support my enclave, right? 'Sides," Jazz continued, "if he gets arrested, it'll probably hurt my chances of getting him on my team."
"I see," Prowl said neutrally, obviously not totally believing him. "You don't view him as a rival, then?"
Frag. Prowl knew him way too well. He hadn't wanted to get into this, really hadn't, but – Jazz sighed. There wasn't a good way around it and the past stellar-cycle had taught him Prowl preferred honesty.
"Okay, look. This'll probably come out at the wrong time or in the wrong way and make things weird, so I'll just tell you now. I saw you two last night in the officer's club, saw you were holding hands, and yeah, I got jealous but –" Jazz looked away. This was hard. It would've been easier to give in to the vampire and try seduction again only Prowl had been very, very clear: he did not want Jazz like that. "You're my friend, Prowl, you're part of my enclave, and I know you don't want anything else. I get pushy, and you won't be either of those anymore, and I don't want that to happen. I figured it'd look bad if I came in and talked to you right then, like I was trying to wreck the moment, so I turned around and left."
Prowl watched him for a long few nano-kliks. Jazz forced himself not to squirm and wouldn't let himself look at Prowl in case he fixed on his throat again.
"I see," Prowl said finally. "Yes, it would have been awkward if you'd come in. I appreciate your discretion. And your honesty."
Jazz knew that Prowl had to realize it wasn't precisely discretion that had made him leave but still. He looked away. "Yeah, I – you know."
"Yes," Prowl said, not unkindly. "I know."
The command staff were not the only ones that had seen the correlation between Mirage's arrival and the murders. Mirage became aware of it when he was roaming the small marketplace that was all that remained of Iacon's once-large shopping districts. He wasn't interested in buying anything, even if he'd had the money, but the shift he'd taken volunteering at the Temple charity was over and he didn't feel like going home yet. As he'd told Prowl, charity work didn't feel like sufficient penance but at the same time it was better than doing nothing.
Mirage heard the whispers as he walked, that he'd shown up around the time people started dying, and immediately went on alert. He could feel optics tracking him and, feeling anxiety spike as it had those times he'd found himself being stalked in the tunnels, ducked into the first secluded spot he could find and went invisible. It probably wouldn't help in the long run, he knew, but at that moment it meant he could get back to his habsuite and safety, and that was all he was thinking of.
It was only when he locked his door behind him that Mirage realized that had been the worst decision he could possibly have made. Not only had he appeared to run, if mecha were being lured off and murdered by an unknown, who better to blame than an invisible or supernatural assailant? He'd just heard the whispers, felt the fear of believing a predator was nearby and panicked. He'd fled, found a place to hide, just as he had during his time in the Underground. He should have stayed visible and calmly walked back home, instead. He'd dealt with a certain amount of rumour and bullying while coming to maturity in the Towers, of course, but he'd also felt safe there. He did not feel safe in Iacon. Mirage thought it might be a while before he felt safe anywhere. The Underground was going to be with him for a long time.
Mirage had hoped that, his misstep aside, things would remain at the level of rumour and would die down shortly. He checked the local social and news sites on the DataNet and saw that there had been no murder the previous night. It should have made him feel better but, of course, he had been with Prowl last night. It didn't prove anything and might even make it worse. He had not been with anyone on the nights of the murders, he had been in his habsuite, alone. Sheltered Towerling or not, Mirage knew that was a terrible alibi. What he didn't know was what he ought to do if this were to become official in any way. He had no experience with such things, no experience dealing with Enforcers…
…although, he did know a former Enforcer, didn't he? Contacting him seemed like a reasonable place to start figuring this out. Relieved that they had exchanged private frequencies, Mirage commed Prowl and was able to get hold of him. He'd been afraid Prowl might be in a meeting or training, or someplace else where he couldn't answer Mirage's call.
Prowl's level voice had an immediate calming effect. 'Hello, Mirage.'
'Hello, Prowl.' Mirage paused for a nano-klik. 'My apologies for interrupting you at work but I wonder if I could trouble you for some assistance.'
'It's no trouble,' Prowl assured him. 'How may I help you?'
Mirage explained what had happened in the marketplace, what he'd heard about the murders, how he knew how it must look, and how he didn't know what to do to prove his innocence.
'I understand. While the similarities between your arrival and the beginning of the attacks have been noted,' Prowl began, 'you are not yet at the point of having to prove anything. Does your habsuite track when you enter and exit?'
'I don't know.' The household staff had taken care of such things when he'd last had a home. It wasn't the first time Mirage had found himself regrettably ignorant of how to care for himself or a household in the past four mega-cycles either.
Prowl didn't pause. 'It's easy enough to determine. No one saw you on the nights of the murders?'
'Were you active on the DataNet at all? Reading, watching a vid, anything of that nature? Something interactive would be best.'
'I-I think so, at least one night. I know I put on a movie one of the nights in question, but I didn't really watch it.' Mirage had been curled up on the couch, and the longer he spoke with Prowl, the more he relaxed. 'It was just for background noise, I-I'm don't particularly care for the quiet anymore.'
'That's fine. Again, that is easy enough to determine.'
'Should I go to the Enforcers myself?' Mirage wanted to know.
'No. It would look as if you're attempting to insert yourself into the investigation. Will you give me access to your habsuite's logs?'
'Of course.' Mirage gave Prowl his login credentials to the habsuite's systems. If he were to become a suspect, surely the systems would be accessed via warrant anyway. 'Prowl, I truly do appreciate your help. I-I didn't know who else to call.'
'You did the right thing in asking for my assistance. The Autobots also want to determine the identity of the unknown subject.' Prowl's tone gentled, became more personal and less professional. 'Mirage. Will you be alright?'
'I think so. Just talking to you was helpful.' Mirage wanted to stay on the line with Prowl longer but it was mid-shift, and he knew Prowl had to be busy. 'Thank you, Prowl.'
'You're welcome, Mirage.'
Prowl closed the comm to Mirage and messaged Red Alert. As much as Prowl wanted to log in to Mirage's habsuite's systems, retrieve and examine the logs, and prove the noblemech's potential guilt or his innocence, having a separate witness there when he did so would be useful. It would help allay any accusations of having tampered with the records. Tampering could be proved or disproved but best to avoid any question arising in the first place.
Red Alert's response came so quickly Prowl was sure he had sent it before even reading the message. Red was available immediately, while Prowl was technically not but his next meeting was moveable, and he did move it. Prowl wanted to ease his own concerns, as well as Red's paranoia, or discover the truth, whichever it might be.
Whatever else one might say about Red Alert, the Security Director was punctual. Prowl accessed the private housing network and logged in to Mirage's account. A cursory look through it revealed nothing abnormal, and then Prowl opened the logs.
Apart from the night he'd been with Prowl at the officer's club, Mirage's habsuite had logged him as not having left all night. His DataNet records showed a minimum of activity, movies or music as Mirage had said. Mirage it seemed, had a tendency to put on long videos or playlists and just let them run through to the end.
"But is he invisible to motion sensors? If so, he could still have put them on play, left, and committed the murders," Red Alert pointed out. "This only shows when the habsuite registers Mirage passing the door sensors, it doesn't register when the door opens and closes. If he opened the door manually it would have bypassed the sensors. He could easily have left the habsuite without being detected, so long as no surveillance is pointed at the door."
The door bypass was wholly mechanical, meant to be operated it the event of an emergency such as a systems failure or power outage. There was nothing in the bypass or the habsuite's systems that recorded its use, an oversight in design, Prowl thought. Examining the bypass would probably not be useful. The system was not new, Mirage was not the first resident of that habsuite, and there had been power outages and system failures in that area before. It was entirely possible the system had been used before.
"I don't know if he can be detected by sensors when invisible," Prowl replied. "I can simply ask Mirage. He gave me access to his habsuite's data, he wants to prove he's innocent."
Jazz might know as well, Prowl thought. Jazz's surprising knowledge of Sigma abilities meant he might know more about the nature of Mirage's talent. Prowl didn't like Red Alert's theory about Mirage and sensors but he had to admit it was a good question. It would be prudent to double-check Mirage's answer. To that end, Prowl brought Jazz with him to ask Mirage about his invisibility, hoping that the vampire's knowledge of Mirage's outlier ability would come in useful.
"Yeah, there wasn't as much about Mirage as there was on most in the Sigma files I got," Jazz admitted when Prowl explained in more detail what he wanted. They were having a quick meeting in Prowl's office before heading to Mirage's habsuite. "I'm guessing his House paid for more than just keeping word he's an outlier down. I'd say they got him outta some of the testings, too. Can't say if door sensors will pick him up or not."
Prowl frowned. "My sensors certainly didn't when he approached under the Cathedral, but I had hoped it was a matter of not being calibrated to do so or having a door between us. You didn't pick him up either, you only heard a noise as he approached?"
"Right." Jazz looked a touch wistful. "Any word on whether he'll enlist or not? Mech would be such an asset."
"Not yet." Prowl rose from his seat. "Nor can he enlist while he's under suspicion such as this, and while there is no word from the Iacon Mechaforensics Division," what was left of it, "on whether he is or not, I expect he will become one. There is, unfortunately, no way to determine how long that suspicion would last, save for another murder for which he has an alibi. I don't suppose, in light of that, you'd be willing to release his accounts?"
"Hey, I'm not the bank," Jazz protested. Prowl levelled a look at him. Oh, hey, another debate Jazz wasn't going to win. "Okay, okay. I'll see what I can do."
"I'm sure you'll turn it to your advantage," Prowl said drily.
Jazz grinned and bowed Prowl out the door. "You know me."
"Domestic sensors like the habsuite's won't pick me up," Mirage said when asked. He'd given his guests the couch and was seated on the mismatched chair in his small living room. "I would have to open the door manually to go through. I don't know about military or industrial ones, though I expect it's the same. I'm willing to let you run tests to find out if you wish. Just as long as you don't try to take me apart."
Mirage's words were meant to be a joke, but it fell flat. Jazz's expression went carefully neutral at the suggestion of experimentation.
"Prowl, I mean it," Mirage pressed on, "whatever you need."
As it turned out, door sensors couldn't pick up Mirage when he was invisible. This boded well for Jazz, still courting Mirage for Spec Ops, but not so much for Mirage who had by this time attracted the attention of the Iacon Mechaforensics Division. Prowl had turned over the data he and Red Alert had collected to the IMD, and they had pointed out the same possibility Red had, that Mirage had set media to play then left, undetected, to commit the murders. Prowl could not refute this, much as he wanted to.
There had been no further murders since surveillance and patrols had been increased. Since Mirage had come under direct scrutiny, Red Alert, paranoid and damnably right, pointed out. Prowl didn't want there to be another murder, of course, but he did want Mirage cleared.
The rumour mill had, of course, made up its mind. There were no actual incidents, but whispers increased whenever Mirage was out in public, and he was given a wide berth. Mirage went out more and more rarely, but he at least had protection when he did: Prowl or a member of Spec Ops was either with him or in his vicinity when the noblemech was out in public.
"I'll volunteer to be bait if it will help this end," Mirage said morosely to Prowl one night, a few mega-cycles in. They were in one of the public civilian areas, the remnants of a park that was enclosed on three sides by the military infrastructure that had become more important than leisure. Jazz, sprawled with deceptive carelessness on a nearby bench, kept a lookout for trouble.
"Either there's gonna be another murder, or there'll be another Decepticon attack on Iacon and that'll give everyone something else to yap about," Jazz said, artfully not-watching a trio walking by. "They can't talk about you forever."
"Neither option particularly appeals." Mirage sighed. "I'd move, at least, had I anywhere to go."
"Getting tired of civilian digs?" Jazz asked casually. "Could always move into an Autobot pad."
Mirage glanced over at Prowl, who was trying to figure out how to respond. Mirage cohabiting with Prowl likely hadn't been what Jazz meant, given the vampire's possibly suppressed feelings about Prowl, but Mirage didn't know that. Never mind that they were nowhere near that point in their slowly developing relationship yet. After spending so long isolated and touch-starved in the Underground, Mirage had a fair bit to work through before anything could happen.
"Even if you don't wanna enlist," Jazz continued, "we got a few civilian positions in stores and the like. Gets you quarters on base."
A group of mecha passing by the entrance looked in, saw Mirage, and slowed, murmuring among themselves. Jazz grinned at them, flashing fang, and they quickly moved on.
"I can't enlist while I'm under suspicion," Mirage countered. "Perhaps simply moving to another section of the city would suffice. I can't be infamous everywhere in Iacon, after all."
'Don't offer,' Jazz instantly said to Prowl over private comms. 'I had 'Bee put him where he is for a reason.'
Yes, so Mirage was near Jazz's personnel and would see them frequently, an attempt at encouraging enlistment through familiarity. 'I'm certain you can adapt.' Aloud, Prowl said, "we may be able to accommodate you if you truly feel unsafe."
"I have felt less safe," Mirage pointed out. "It isn't my physical safety that feels under threat so much as…well. It's wearing, being the subject of so much suspicion and gossip. I suspect I'll not truly be free until the murderer is caught."
Prowl could not discuss the case, of course, and had to be careful about how public his relationship with Mirage was. Prowl no longer worked for the IMD and Autobot Security hadn't formally named Mirage as a suspect, so it wasn't technically inappropriate, but the perception of impropriety could be equally as damaging. Hence the presence of Jazz as a chaperone of sorts and only spending time together in public areas.
"The IMD is doing all it can," Prowl reassured him. "As is Autobot Security. Unfortunately, without a better idea of what, or who, they're looking for, there's little more they can do at this time."
Mirage sighed. "I don't wish for another murder, certainly not. But I do wish this was over."
Prowl put his hand briefly over Mirage's; the noble turned his own hand palm-up and gripped it lightly.
"We will find the killer," Prowl promised, aware even as he spoke that his phrasing did not preclude Mirage being the killer. "Whoever or whatever it is."
"Thank you, Prowl," Mirage said quietly.
Red Alert was worrying out loud as he paced up and down his office, but not speaking too rapidly, which Inferno took as a sign he was staying in the realm of professional paranoia. Quick speech and sudden movements were signs his anxiety was spiking, and he was about to become irrationally paranoid.
"Mirage is the only suspect, but there's no proof," Red Alert fretted. "There was no murder on the night he was with Prowl, but that could mean nothing. If it is Mirage, we'll never know so long as he can use his ability and we can't have that blocked unless we have proof!"
"Prowl says Mirage wants to cooperate," Inferno pointed out, standing just close enough to calm Red Alert if he needed it but far enough from the security director that he didn't get in the way. 'You could just ask him to let us lock it down. He already knows he's a suspect."
Red Alert calmed some. "Yes, yes, that could work. But it's only proof if there's another murder of the same type. And we don't know when that will be – how long would Mirage be willing to have his ability blocked? If only we knew when to expect the next strike!"
"You could always ask the Temple soothsayer, see if they can help?" Inferno suggested. "I know it ain't exactly proper procedure, but what've you got to lose?"
Red Alert abruptly stopped pacing. "Of course! Why didn't I think of it earlier? Inferno, you are a genius!"
Inferno smiled at him, pleased to see his partner's anxiety easing. "Thanks, Red. I just hope you get something you can use."
Red Alert sobered, looking calm now. "So do I, Inferno."
Prowl was not able to rearrange his schedule to accompany the investigators to the temple soothsayer, so Red Alert brought Flatfoot, from the IMD, to get the reading instead. The soothsayer's name was Perihelion, painted in neutral colours like a monk. Perihelion listened to Red Alert's request and pulled a prosaic-looking datapad and stylus out of her subspace. She took the victim's names and the GPS coordinates of where their bodies had been found. That gave her a series of numbers which she used to select flat little glyph-stones she scattered across the surface of a table that had been inlaid with a grid, then studied intently.
"Well?" said Flatfoot impatiently after a klik or so of her study. "What do you have?"
"I don't have as much as I would have liked," Perihelion said in her soft voice. "I can tell you it's a supernatural creature that lures its victims, though I think you already suspected that. As for the timeline, you can expect another quartet of attacks, beginning the next time Luna-1 is in its dark phase over Iacon while Luna-2 is not in the sky."
"None of this makes sense!" Flatfoot complained as they left the temple. " Invisible murderers, soothsayers, the dark of the moons…"
"At least it told us one thing," Red Alert said, mind already racing ahead with plans. "When the next attack will allegedly occur. We can further increase patrols and issue new warnings on those nights. Additional warnings will have to be issued as well. We don't know where the killer will try to find their next victim!"
And, Red Alert thought to himself, he could make sure that Mirage was secured and under surveillance all four nights, though he was well aware it the former noble would not be absolved unless the killer was captured or there was a fifth murder while he had a clear alibi.
"Fine, of course," Flatfoot grudgingly agreed. "I'll select some officers to patrol with you." The IMD head huffed in annoyance. "As if a planet-wide civil war destroying everything wasn't bad enough. Do you know how many more occult crimes we've had to deal with each meta-cycle since this started?"
"Yes. There were seven more than average in the first meta-cycle following the onset of hostilities, with a steady five-point-eight-eight-two-nine percent increase in each succeeding meta-cycle," Red Alert rattled off, to Flatfoot's evident surprise. "Yes, I know. It's getting worse. Much worse. But this one we may be able to do something about."
"I still don't like having to wait for the moons to align, or whatever it was," Flatfoot groused. "But I suppose we don't have much choice."
Red Alert could do nothing but agree.
Perihelion is actually canon and is the leader of a subgroup called the Mystibots. No, really. The only parts I made up are the soothsayer part and the paint job. God, I love Transformers.
Note: Here be the flashback chapter. Skip the bit between 'The last time he'd heard a sound like that' and 'Once the patrols returned' if this isn't for you.
Waiting for the next group of attacks to occur – or not occur – was nerve-wracking for Mirage. He had eventually decided against petitioning for new quarters, worried that doing so might make him appear more guilty in the optics of his neighbours. Such a reaction would be irrational but fear never led to rational decisions, and his fellow mecha were afraid. Besides, his current habsuite was close to where Jazz's team was quartered, and that meant people he knew were close if there was trouble. So he stayed in his quarters, no longer volunteered, and rarely ventured out except in the company of Prowl, Bumblebee, Jazz, or Hound. Once, Mirage had had a much larger circle of friends, had lived a more social life despite his duty to his family to train for the priesthood. His destiny, they had claimed, to guide worshippers and serve Primus for his entire life, however long that might be.
Mirage had felt something for that destiny, once. His Sator would have said that what he'd been through since the fall of the Towers was a trial to be passed, a forging and annealing meant to make him a stronger, better servant of their god. His Sator had also never gone a night without a roof over his head and energon at his beck and call, making Mirage wonder what, if anything, he'd known of living through such a trial.
While Mirage would concede that he felt something in common with metal hammered on an anvil, he didn't feel stronger for his ordeal. Quite the opposite, in fact. During his sojourn in the Underground Mirage had reassured himself that once he got to Iacon, it would all be over, he would have fuel, a place to sleep, he would be safe, and he would feel as he had before. True, he had fuel and a place to sleep now, but rest was difficult to come by and was frequently interrupted by nightmares. He was surrounded by walls and security systems and nearly always accompanied by an Autobot, but Mirage didn't feel safe. The feeling of never quite being alone, of something, or perhaps more appropriately some thing, always lurking in the shadows, in the dark area around the corner, wouldn't leave him. He had been doing better, he had, until the-the incident in the marketplace. The feeling of being stalked had returned then, and it never had entirely left him. He always felt on alert, still had to be aware of where everyone was in the room at any given time. The only time he felt close to entirely safe was when Prowl was present, of course, or – oddly - Jazz, whether he was guarding Mirage or only nearby. The vampire was not someone whom Mirage would call a friend, exactly, but vampires were among the strongest predators that haunted Cybertron's nights. Mirage suspected his feelings of safety came from that: while Jazz was around, there was little that would be willing to threaten him.
Of course, Jazz and Prowl couldn't be around all the time. No one could. They were busy mecha and besides, Mirage still had to bathe, and sleep, and he naturally performed those activities in the privacy of his habsuite. Even though the door was locked and secure, even though he knew he was surrounded by other mecha, he was still on edge. Not as much as he had been in the Underground, thank Primus, but even so, he could not shake the feeling of being a potential target.
"I wouldn't expect anything if you asked me to stay the night," Prowl told him when Mirage spoke to him of this. They were sitting side by side in their usual corner in the officer's club, the security cameras silent, ever-present, chaperones. "If you wanted me there to make you feel secure. I could take the couch."
Mirage hesitated, tempted. But, finally, he shook his head. "No. No, you can't do that while the investigation is ongoing," he said. "I'll have to learn to cope with it. I have to."
"Yes," Prowl said, taking Mirage's hands in his. "But not alone."
"No," Mirage said gratefully. "Not alone." Prowl was so wonderfully supportive. Coping wasn't the only thing Mirage was learning to do. He managed a smile. "I'd ask you to kiss me, but I'm afraid it would shock Red Alert terribly."
"You needn't be concerned. Red Alert sees worse," Prowl assured him.
Mirage wondered what Red Alert had seen, but it wasn't the time or place to ask even if Prowl could tell him. "I'm sure. Then…?"
Prowl leaned in closer. "Yes."
Whatever it was Red Alert thought about their kisses in the officer's club, Mirage never found out.
The projected dates of the next attack arrived. Security was increased, and the civilian and Autobot populations were cautioned about venturing outside alone at night. Groups of IMD Enforcers and Autobot Security members were sent out on patrols in hopes of preventing another death. Jazz brought Mirage along with his group, wanting the mech within sight in case anyone got any wrongheaded ideas about 'prevention' – and as a sort of preliminary field test. Prowl remained in Ops to coordinate everyone. Prowl had extracted a potential sensory profile for fool's lights from what little data was available and the teams were now able to scan for them as well as other, better known, entities.
Mirage had not wanted to come out at night, much less hunt, but he understood the value of having mecha around him for an alibi if anything did happen, Primus forbid. He didn't trust any of his neighbours, which was mutual, and he wasn't cleared to be on the base proper with Prowl or any of the other Autobots he knew well. So he agreed to come out as part of a patrol, knowing all he had to do was stay visible and stay in sight of Jazz and the rest of the patrol.
Mirage tried, he did, but as his patrol got further out into the outskirts of the city, things became more difficult. Debris and partially-collapsed buildings meant that the patrol members occasionally had to go single-file or, more rarely, spread out when not every mech could fit through a given space. They wanted to keep a relatively straight search line, which meant that the whole patrol couldn't divert. Jazz stayed with Mirage, forging ahead – though never far – whenever they had to scout their own path through the rubble of debris and bombed-out buildings. The wreckage became more unstable the further from the city perimeter they got as the damage became greater. Finally, inevitably, a section of the building Mirage and Jazz were trying to navigate proved too unstable and came down, separating them.
The last time he'd heard a sound like that, his Tower had been coming down above his helm and for a handful of nano-kliks Mirage was there again, in the chapel, hearing it, seeing it. He started backward from the sudden noise and falling debris, instinctively searching for a place to hide. Once he stopped seeing the chapel, he could only think of the Underground. In the tunnels, loud noises meant danger and invisibility meant safety. Invisibility also meant he no longer registered on Jazz's sensors, but Mirage didn't think of that till he'd found a safe-looking bolt-hole in the debris. The half-slagged remains of a terminal and desk suggested it had been an office sometime in the past. Mirage found a protected corner and only then realized that Prowl and Jazz were both urgently trying to contact him on private channels and had been for some time. Shaking, he dropped his invisibility and replied to them both.
'I'm – I'm,' alright would have been a lie, 'safe. I'm safe. I – the building – it came down, I thought…'
'Later,' Jazz said curtly over Prowl's attempt at reassurance. 'Mirage. Stay put. I'm coming to retrieve you. Do not go invisible and stay on an open channel. Repeat that back.'
'Stay put,' Mirage recited. 'Do not turn invisible and stay on an open channel.'
'Right. Good. I'll be there as soon as possible. Okay?'
Mirage stayed on the open channel, sending locator pings to and from Jazz to help the vampire locate him. Prowl opened a separate, private, channel, though he could not talk long.
'Mirage. What happened?' Prowl's voice was calm, level, soothing.
'The noise – when the building fell – the Towers sounded like that when they fell. In-in the tunnels a noise like that meant danger.' Mirage wrapped his arms around himself. 'For a short time, I-I thought I was back in the chapel, during the attack.'
'You had a flashback,' Prowl said matter-of-factly. 'That's not surprising and wanting to get somewhere safe after such a reminder is completely normal. You're safe now, Mirage. Jazz is en route, and he'll bring you back to base straight away.'
'What about the patrols?'
Prowl was silent for just a fraction of a nano-klik too long. 'The patrols are being recalled. They're no longer needed tonight.'
'Oh.' It was thoroughly inadequate, especially as a response to someone's death, but Mirage couldn't think of anything else to say.
'Yes.' Apparently, neither could Prowl. 'Mirage, I'm afraid I must coordinate the recall now, and analyze what information the scans picked up. Come back to base with Jazz, and I will see you soon.'
Mirage sagged back against the wall. He wanted to ask Prowl to stay on the channel with him but understood. 'Just – one question. Did the murder occur during the time I was separated from Jazz, or after?'
'During. I'm sorry.' There was a longer pause, as if Prowl were speaking with someone else. 'Mirage, I apologize, I have to go.'
'I-I know.' He did, even if he didn't like it. 'I'll see you later, alright?'
'Yes,' Prowl said firmly. 'And Mirage? I'm sorry.'
"So am I," Mirage whispered.
It was only a few kliks more – how far and how fast had he run, Mirage wondered – before he got a short verbal message from Jazz.
'Almost there. Be visible and do not move. I had to go vamp to find you, and you do not want to set off those instincts.'
Mirage just pinged him an acknowledgement, not having anything to say in response. He tried to use the time to compose himself, to use a calming meditation meant to prepare priests to guide worshipers in prayer. He could not compose himself enough for it to work, though. Every sound, no matter how small, made him jump, and he still could not shake the feeling that the walls would shift and fall at the slightest provocation.
'Coming in, Mirage.' Jazz appeared around the corner, optics the hunting-orange of glowing embers and his fangs and claws transformed out. Despite knowing that locking himself down had been a wise precaution, Mirage felt nothing but relief at the sight of the vampire.
"Are you hurt?" Jazz asked. His optics shaded back to blue and his fangs and claws transformed away again. Mirage unlocked his joints and shook his head. "What happened?"
"Prowl said it was a flashback," Mirage said in a low voice. "I saw the chapel - the passageway was like the tunnels, the noise…I-I – "
"Yeah," Jazz said, sounding unusually sympathetic. "Yeah, makes sense. So you went invisible and found someplace to wait out the danger, huh?"
Mirage looked away. "Yes."
"Yeah, well, you aren't the first, and you're not gonna be the last either." Coming from the vampire that was practically cuddling Mirage to comfort him.
"How-how do you deal with it?" Mirage wanted to know.
"Time," Jazz said. "Lotta people go for therapy though Spec Ops training worked better for me. Not the time to talk about whether you'd wanna be part of my team, though."
"No," Mirage agreed. "Even if I weren't a suspect and could enlist and that – "
"Yeah." Jazz made an irritated sound, though Mirage didn't think it was directed at him. "And you did go off sensors and out of sight for just enough kliks tonight, of all nights, to cause a problem, and there's gonna be questions need answering about that."
Mirage knew that, but hearing it spoke aloud shot a fresh shock of dread through his spark. What if everything matched up? What if he could not prove he hadn't committed the murder?
"Don't gotta answer them now, though," Jazz continued. "I've just gotta get you back to base. That's all you gotta worry about right now, sticking with me. You ready?"
Mirage nodded, silently, and let Jazz escort him back to light and safety and Prowl.
Once the patrols had all returned, and Prowl's reports were filed, he handed over tactical command of the next shift to its commander and went to see Mirage. There was not much time, as he still had to collate and analyze the data the patrols had brought back, but it was important for Prowl to see Mirage. He had heard from both Mirage and Jazz on their return, but it wasn't the same as seeing for himself that the noble was alright.
Jazz had taken Mirage to Medical, though more for Ratchet to check the usage logs from Mirage's comm systems than because Mirage was injured it turned out. Prowl had been the one to send the request for that check, as much to prove Mirage's innocence as to see if he could be guilty.
Ratchet caught Prowl almost as soon as he entered Medical. "I hope you're not here for the scan results already," he said.
"No." Prowl shook his head. "I'm looking for Mirage."
"Ah." Ratchet's expression softened. "He's in treatment area three. I think you know where it is."
Prowl did, of course, and he nodded gratitude to Ratchet and went to the treatment area, which was not in a room but a curtained-off stall with a medical bed and some equipment in it. First Aid was using a tool to pull dents from one of Mirage's arms. Prowl concluded that he must have injured himself during his flight and was pleased to see that there was very little physical damage.
"Prowl," Mirage said, sounding relieved, when the tactician entered. "I-I would say I hope I didn't take you away from your work, but it would be untrue. I am very, very glad to see you."
"I'm happy to see you, too." Prowl came closer and gave Mirage a more in-depth look over. "You're not badly hurt?"
"Just some dents and scratches," Mirage assured him. "I'll be healed before tomorrow."
"I'm almost done," First Aid said. "Just one more…there! Mirage, I want you to stay here for a bit, just to make sure you're alright. You had a few symptoms of shock when Jazz brought you in. If you relapse it's better if you're here."
"Of course," Mirage said. "Thank you, First Aid."
Prowl waited until First Aid had left and closed the curtain behind him. It wasn't perfect privacy, certainly not soundproof, but it was enough Prowl was willing to risk an embrace. Mirage let his head rest on Prowl's chest.
"I was worried," Prowl murmured. "Your comm went silent, and you were off sensors. I didn't know why."
"I'm not upset," Prowl assured him. "I was worried, and things became clear when I learned you'd had a flashback." He stroked Mirage's helm. "Do you want to talk about it?"
Mirage was silent for a moment. "Not yet. Can you stay long?"
"I have to begin analysis of the patrol data soon and – " Prowl caught himself. Mirage wouldn't want an exact breakdown of the time required. "I can stay for a little while."
Mirage relaxed, fractionally. "Thank you."
"Five murders," Prowl said, staring at the IMD's report of the previous night's events at the command meeting early the next morning. The patrols had been fast, but not fast enough to prevent another death. Worse, whoever, whatever, it was had somehow managed to evade all their security and actually make off with a member of one of the patrols, Hammerstrike of the First City. The rest of the dead mech's patrol group said he had gotten separated from them for only a klik, but apparently, that was enough for their killer to lure him away.
Hammerstrike's disappearance corresponded with the time Mirage had been out of Jazz's sights and off sensors because the noble was invisible. Mirage's comm systems and sensor-logs had been checked by Ratchet, personally. The medic hadn't found any evidence he had communicated with anyone other than the patrol, Prowl, or Jazz, or had travelled anywhere that didn't correspond with reports.
"Mirage didn't have time to get to the patrol, lure the mech out to that construction site, kill 'em, and get back," Jazz pointed out during the discussion of Mirage's location during the sensor blackout. "He's fast, but he ain't that fast."
"Jazz, for the record, you're absolutely certain there's nothing supernatural about him that would explain how he could have done it?" Optimus Prime asked.
"Nah." Jazz shook his head. "I went full vamp to hunt Mirage down when I realized he was outta sensor range. I would've known if anything supernatural was hanging around. It was just a bunch of mecha and me in that area. I thought maybe he could've been working with someone else, but if Ratchet says his comms weren't used for anything we didn't already know about I don't see how."
"The data brought back by the patrol scans is still being analyzed," Prowl put in. He hadn't liked having to put the analysis on hold to attend a meeting, but he had orders from Prime. "While the standard sensors did not detect anything around the base during the previous attack, they have since been upgraded to scan for previously unconsidered entities and phenomena. This includes entities such as the fool's lights suggested in a previous briefing that were not considered threats before."
"Makes sense," Jazz said, nodding. "Game's getting scarce on the ground out there, so to speak, and it has been for a while now. Things could be getting desperate. Plus, we know Shockwave's been doing experiments. No way of telling what might've gotten loose from his labs. Senate was into some dodgy stuff, too and what didn't die when their labs got shut down, destroyed, or abandoned escaped who knows where."
"The fallout from any Senate experiments is a problem for another time. For now, let us hope the improved sensors yielded some information that will help us catch this killer," Optimus said gravely. "Prowl, advise us when analysis of the sensor data is complete, and we will reconvene."
Prowl nodded. "Yes, Prime."
"Dismissed." Prime raised a hand as the officers began to rise. "Prowl, a moment, please?"
Prowl frowned, but complied, sitting down again. "Of course, Prime."
"At ease, Prowl," Optimus said with a slight smile in his voice. "This isn't a formal meeting. I just wanted to check in and see how you're feeling. I know this can't be easy for you, with the mech you've been seeing caught in the middle."
"It's not, but I believe it clear now that Mirage is innocent," Prowl said firmly. Where he'd had justifiable doubts before, Mirage could not have committed the fifth murder, and it was too similar to be a copycat. "The data backs that up, and beyond a reasonable doubt with the addition of Jazz's information from last night. Mirage could not have separated from the group and committed the murders, then returned and hidden. In addition to the impossibility created by the timeline, Jazz used his vampire senses to locate Mirage and would surely have detected a false trail."
"I believe you," Optimus promised. "And I believe Mirage. But even so, you care about him, and he's under suspicion. Have you had a chance to go see him since last night?"
"I saw him briefly last night, in Medical," Prowl said. "I haven't had a chance to visit again." Not yet. He had every intention of going as soon as he could.
Optimus' tone was gentle. "You know I'd agree if you asked for some time to go see him, Prowl. I'm sure he'd like to have you there."
"Mirage is from the Towers," Prowl replied, arguing against what he wanted. "He understands duty."
"There's more to life than duty. Go see Mirage, Prowl," Optimus said kindly. "At least until the scan results are back. I'll make it an order if I have to."
Prowl ducked his head in acknowledgement. "You've no need, Optimus. And, thank you."
When First Aid released Mirage from Medical, Hound, who had also taken a few dings while out on patrol, walked him back to his quarters. In contrast with the Autobot area they walked through, where mecha chatted as they went about their business, the civilian sector seemed empty. Mirage imagined its inhabitants were all remaining in their own quarters, worried and afraid.
"Are you going to be okay on your own?" Hound asked when they reached Mirage's door. "I can come in for a while if you'd like some company."
Mirage felt better, much less shaky than he had before, but he still did not want to be alone. "I'd like that, Hound, thank you."
The Mirage that had existed before the Towers fell would probably never have encountered a mech like Hound, much less had them in their living room for conversation and fuel. Present-day Mirage found he enjoyed it very much. Hound was friendly and funny, with a wealth of stories from his time working in various security forces. After what he'd experienced the night before Mirage had expected it to be some time before he laughed again, but he did just that at a story Hound related about a pedigreed cyber-kitten stuck in an arsenic willow and the kitten's panicky owner.
"…so I wound up covered in mercury," Hound finished up, "and as I'm climbing out of the pond, the kitten just hops down out of the tree. Casually as you please. Didn't need us at all!"
Mirage laughed and was about to ask what happened next, when his door chimed, accompanied by a brief ID ping from Prowl. Mirage didn't open his door when he didn't know who was on the other side.
"Hello Mirage, hello Hound," Prowl greeted them with a polite nod as he stepped inside.
"Hi, Prowl," Hound said with an easy smile. "Guess I'll be on my way, then." He waved off Mirage's automatic invitation to stay. "It's no problem, Mirage. But comm me any time you want to hear some more stories."
"I will, Hound," Mirage promised with a smile of his own. "Thank you."
"I'm glad Hound was able to keep you company," Prowl said once the green mech had left. "I was concerned, given your flashback last night. I have not had one myself, but I understand them to be disconcerting and unpleasant in the extreme."
Mirage nodded, trying to put the previous night out of his mind. "It's certainly not an experience I care to repeat," he said, even though he knew it wasn't something he had a great deal of choice over. "I apologize for my rudeness, but I'd rather speak of something else."
"Of course," Prowl said, running a soothing hand down Mirage's arm. "Tell me what you'd like to do."
This was the first time they'd been alone together with real privacy, but interface or anything even approaching it was among the last things on Mirage's mind, even if he did want closeness.
"Would you hold me for a while?" Mirage asked. Their embrace in Medical had been very comforting, and he wanted to have that feeling again. Prowl agreed, and they sat on the couch, Mirage's head resting on Prowl's chest listening to the spin of his spark. The other mech's arms went around him, and Mirage shut his optics off and stayed there until the completed analysis of the scanner data came in, and Prowl had to leave once more.
"I don't know if I'll have time to come back after my shift. I expect that with the data and the timeline from Perihelion, a kill or capture operation will commence tonight. But I'll come back as soon as I'm able," Prowl promised as they walked to Mirage's door. "Will you be alright in the meantime?"
"I think so. I expect I'll recharge for a while as I didn't get any last night. I'll comm Hound or Bumblebee if I feel I need company," Mirage replied. "I hope you'll have good news for me when next we see each other."
"So do I."
Prowl could not tell him anything about the results yet, of course, as they were still classified. Mirage had to trust that they would be able to prove his innocence. All he could do now was continue to wait.
"I'm pleased to report," Prowl said to the assembled command staff, "that the scan data gathered by the patrols last night has yielded a result. We now have a functional scan profile for the entity believed to be abducting and murdering citizens. It is a very close, but not exact, match for the fool's lights profile I developed previously. It's probable that either the data was inaccurate or incomplete, or that this is a variant of the fool's lights entity that has not previously been recorded."
"Or someone fragged with it," Jazz suggested. "The Senate, Shockwave, the Institute – pick one, really."
"We can determine whether or not it is altered or unaltered once we've stopped the murders," Prime said. "Prowl, can we detect this fool's light and stop it?"
"The analysis indicates we can, yes," Prowl confirmed. "Though I would recommend a small team this time instead of multiple patrols. I'll coordinate with the armoury priests to provide the team members with the appropriate protective amulets and sanctified weapons. Save, of course, for Jazz, who I expect will want to head the team." And who could not handle the amulets and sanctified weapons. Not that a vampire would need them against a relatively minor predator as a fool's light.
"Sure will, Prowl," Jazz said, lazily transforming the claws of one hand out and back. "You want this thing alive? Pretty sure Flatfoot's not gonna want to put a light on trial."
"Fool's lights are not recognized as sapient in Cybertronian law and so cannot be put on trial. If you can capture it, do so," Prowl informed him. "It will be valuable for study, especially if your theory that it is an escaped or released Decepticon experiment is correct. Capturing it is not the priority, however."
Jazz shrugged. "I'll give it a shot anyway if I can. Got any ideas on how to kill it?"
"Fool's lights are energy-based," Prowl told them. "A high-powered disruptor should be able to provide a kill shot."
"I think me and my mecha can manage that," Jazz said confidently. "Get my team armed, and I'll get 'em briefed." Claws flashed. "We hunt at nightfall."
Jazz scaled a tall, mostly sturdy pile of debris that had once been a bank and transformed entirely to vampire mode. Around him, the night sprang into a different focus, an overlay of ethereal vision painting his surroundings with traces of prey and predators alike. The corners of everything were sharper, and the lack of moonlight was no obstacle. The cold night air, scented with past destruction and the living energon of his team, flowed over and around him and Jazz grinned to feel it on his fangs. He could hear his team moving toward the target zone, where Prowl estimated the fool's light would strike tonight. Now that Prowl had the data to draw the conclusion from, Jazz had no doubt that was where he'd find his target. His prey.
As far as Jazz was concerned, most of the time 'capture if possible' was a suggestion, not an order, especially if the target didn't have any kind of intel.
Jazz brought the scanner feed from his team up on his HUD and compared the scanner trails of the target with the prey trails from vampire vision. He'd hunted everything else that was out tonight except a fool's light so it should be the one thing he didn't know.
There! Right were Prowl'd said it would be and Jazz's team was closing in.
Jazz headed street-ward to join them. He was not hunting for fuel, but when he hit the ground, he let himself run as if he were chasing down prey, thrilling to the feel of the chase and the night on his skin. It was harder to track the fool's light on the ground, but fortunately, Jazz wasn't alone on this hunt. He commed his team.
'I'm on my way in.'
'Glad you can join the party, Meister,' Bumblebee teased over comms. 'Fashionably late?'
'You know me, Shadow. I like to make an entrance. Where's the guest of honour?'
'About to join our circle of friends. You should see them on your right any nano-klik now.' Bumblebee included the coordinate grouping where Jazz could expect the light.
'Gotcha. Let's go and say 'hi' to our new friend.'
Jazz moved to intercept, trusting his team to move into position without further assistance. He saw the light, right where Bumblebee had said it would be. Even in his vampire sight, it was lovely, glowing the colour of energon, and enticing. It also showed as a predator and was lightly shot through with the ethereal signature of prey – last night's victim, Jazz guessed. The faint outline of a mech was visible around the light, the figure's doors and chevron tips standing out, but Jazz's immunity to the supernatural let him resist the lure. A mortal would have seen a complete illusion instead of an outline. Jazz could feel the suggestion that he should trust this mech, they were someone he knew, and he should go with them, follow them, that emanated from the light. The lights got around protections by coaxing their prey into trusting them and probably letting them touch, later. A mortal, especially a civilian mortal with just standard protections, had a much, much smaller chance of resisting the lights' lure.
Jazz stayed still, pushing down his impulse to take down the prey, to await the time to strike and the light didn't waver. It even came closer.
Why aren't you running? Jazz wondered. Lesser supernatural predators should have fled the presence of a vampire. This one didn't even seem to recognize that he was anything other than a mortal and Jazz didn't like it. Yeah, someone's messed around with you, alright. Wonder if you were harmless all along or if your predator drives got moved up somewhere along the line.
Jazz turned the gain on both his scanner and his own sensors to the max, gathering as much data as he could for as long as he could. But his team was closing in, and he couldn't risk them. He knew predators, how they behaved, and if the prey proved too strong, you picked another, culled the weak even if 'weak' was a relative term. Jazz was resistant because he was a vampire, but he was still picking up what the light was putting down and his team would too, despite their protections. Showing someone what or who they wanted was potent leverage, one of the surest ways to get to a mech and nobody was one hundred percent immune to that. Nobody was without a weakness.
Jazz ignored the Prowl-shaped illusion and considered his options. He had a disruptor and a capture device. He could capture the creature, or at least try, and the data would be useful. Mirage would officially no longer be a suspect, and the road would be clear for the noble and Prowl to be together. Killing the creature would mean there was always doubt about Mirage's innocence. Prowl could not be the Autobot's head tactician and have a relationship with a suspected murderer. It would drive a wedge between them, no question.
Mirage had been dreading the unannounced chime at his door for deca-cycles now. When it came and late at night at that, his fuel pump skipped, and he hesitated. There was no use putting it off, however, so he answered, hoping it wasn't the IMD with stasis cuffs and an arrest warrant.
It was Prowl. It was Prowl, and he was smiling. Mirage began to hope.
"You're cleared," the tactician told him, reaching to take his hand. "We caught the fool's light. It has traces of the murder victim's energy signature in it, and Perceptor is confident we'll find some remnant of the signatures of its previous victims. You're cleared, Mirage," Prowl repeated. "Flatfoot will make the formal announcement later today, but it's official."
Mirage thought absently that he should have gasped, or swayed, or had some sort of outward physical reaction. Instead, he stayed perfectly still and silent, Prowl's hand warm around his, and felt only a profound sense of relief.
"Mirage?" Prowl prompted, taking a small step closer.
"I'm fine. Really. I'm only surprised it all ended so…suddenly." Mirage gave a short laugh and put a hand on Prowl's arm. "But I'm relieved as well. Very, very relieved. I don't even know how to feel beyond that. I-I'd offer you a drink but I've nothing on hand save what comes from the dispenser, and that doesn't feel strong enough for this. Staying in the habsuite doesn't feel right, either. I-I'd suggest going out to celebrate, but nothing would be open this late, I'm sure."
"Would you like to drive? The base racetrack is technically for training purposes but officers have access at all hours, and I could certainly sign you in," Prowl offered, perhaps a little shyly. "You've spent so much time contained, and I'm sure you'd like to use your alt mode again."
Mirage had always loved to drive, to race, to hunt. He hadn't even realized he'd kept himself cut off from it since his emergence from the Underground.
"I'd love to, Prowl," Mirage said sincerely. "Especially if you'll race me, though I must warn you that you're not likely to catch me." Mirage hadn't yet seen Prowl's alt, but it was clear it was a pursuit vehicle, built for endurance and not speed, as Mirage's racer alt was.
A corner of Prowl's mouth lifted. "Perhaps not on the track."
"It's the only place you haven't caught me yet," Mirage teased. "Shall we?"
The Autobot racetrack was not up to the standards of the one that had belonged to Mirage's Tower. It wasn't even up to the standards of Crystal City's roads. It was the best thing Mirage had felt under his wheels in meta-cycles. He laughed with joy as he sped through lap after lap, Prowl in pursuit.
The horizon was starting to lighten by the time Mirage did a final lap and transformed, Prowl right behind him. Mirage stretched, a little unaccustomed now to having spent time in vehicle mode. The slight ache of long-unused components was a welcome one.
"You seem much happier," Prowl observed, joining him.
"I am," Mirage replied, smiling down at Prowl. "It's been such a long time since I've been able to drive like that, I'd forgotten how good it feels."
"I'm happy to sign you into the track any time you ask," Prowl told him. "There is a smaller civilian racetrack that opens three times a deca-cycle, but it's often crowded and, frankly, not in as good a condition."
"I could also enlist," Mirage said, testing Prowl's reaction. "I've been giving it some serious thought. I haven't decided yet."
"The Autobots could use you," Prowl said neutrally. Mirage couldn't quite read him.
"I don't think it's going to be possible to remain civilian – neutral – for much longer," Mirage continued. "Although that isn't my only reason, as you'll recall from when we spoke of penance. Then, I could not think of something that felt appropriate, sufficient, for such a thing. Now, I think that joining the Autobots would be – that it feels right." He gave a little laugh. "Certainly, they have treated me better than my fellow civilians have. I'm sure Jazz has a stake in that – after all, nearly everyone who has approached me in friendship has been a member of his team. Am I correct in thinking he wants me for Special Operations?"
"You are," Prowl confirmed, tone still carefully neutral. "I'm sure you understand why."
Mirage nodded. "Of course. Am I also correct in thinking that Autobots have regulations regarding fraternization between the ranks?" The flicker of disappointment in Prowl's optics didn't go unnoticed, brief though it was before he controlled it.
"You are. They are not as strict as they once were, but we would not be able to serve in the same division." The second-in-command of the Autobots frowned slightly. "My position and rank would present difficulties, since nearly everyone works under me in some capacity, but there are ways around that." Prowl looked away a little. "Jazz and I technically hold an equal rank, but I work with and coordinate his team often enough it could be a problem."
Mirage was a little uncomfortable bringing this up but he had to know. "Prowl, you and Jazz…?"
"Colleagues and friends," Prowl said firmly. "Jazz had – has – stronger feelings for me but they are not and never have been reciprocated. I've made the boundary clear and he will respect it. I don't believe he will interfere, not least because he does want you in Special Operations."
"Yes, and I'm sure Jazz has ways of getting around obstacles when there's something he wants," Mirage said. "That is if, between a mech who can turn invisible and a master tactician, we need the assistance."
"All very true." Prowl agreed. He looked back up at Mirage. "It's still your decision, Mirage. I'm not comfortable providing input – I would feel as if I were trying to influence you."
"You're not," Mirage assured him. "Prowl, I was in the dark for such a long time. My way of life ended when Crystal City was destroyed, I despaired of ever getting out of the Underground, it was a complete accident that you found me when you did – you've no idea how close I was to not going into that room, Prowl. Then I was rescued only to find myself a murder suspect and I still can't shake the feeling of – well. I want to enlist, but I also want to be with you. If there is a way for me to have both, even if it isn't easy, I'm willing to work with you to have it."
Mirage knew he was one of the few mecha to ever see Prowl's expression as soft and fond as it was now. The tactician put a hand on Mirage's arm.
"And I with you," Prowl told him. "Can I do anything to help you, during this time?"
Mirage brushed the backs of his fingers over Prowl's cheek, feeling him lean lightly into the touch. "Maybe. For now, watch the sunrise with me? It's been too long a time since I've seen one."
Prowl smiled. "Gladly."
At the end of that day's shift, Jazz saw Prowl in the hallway, actually leaving on time for once and looking happy. Well, happy for Prowl, who didn't generally show a whole lot in public, anyway. Jazz liked to think he had a pretty good read on the other mech, but this was the kind of happy anyone could see. No question why either: Mirage had been officially cleared as a suspect last night.
"Gave Mirage the good news, did you, Prowlster?" Jazz asked, sauntering up to him. Unicron's beard, the mech smelled tasty. Jazz had fed last night, from a living donor no less, but sometimes a hunt that hadn't ended in a kill left a vamp hungry for a while, even if they'd fed a different way. As a result, Jazz had been picking up people's scents more than usual today, and it was harder to ignore some than others, and Prowl was one of the hardest. Today more than usual it was a good thing he had the don't-creep-on-Prowl algorithm working for him.
"I did," Prowl told him. "In fact, I'm expecting him shortly. We're going out to dinner to celebrate while there is still a decent restaurant open. Jazz." Prowl changed his stance and tone to something more serious. Uh oh. "I noticed something when I reviewed the data from last night. You seemed to have a standoff of sorts with the fool's light. You were in proximity to it for some time, which seems unusual. I would have expected it to flee from a vampire."
Oh, good, Prowl probably wasn't going to ask the tough questions. Probably. Jazz relaxed, even though he hadn't shown his tension in his structure. He didn't show his relaxation either.
"Yeah, me too," Jazz said with a nod. "Not sure why it didn't. It tried to lure me, and I picked up on it, but there wasn't any kind of impulse behind it. Probably not something that's happened to it very often. Maybe it thought it could pull me in? Might've been somebody messed with it, like we thought."
"A distinct possibility," Prowl agreed. "Fortunately, it's contained and being tested now. I'm hopeful that we will have answers soon. If experiments are being performed on supernatural entities to make them more dangerous, it's important we find ways to detect and counter them."
"Yeah." Jazz didn't particularly want to talk about the fool's light he'd chosen to capture. Prowl might miss social cues sometimes, but he picked up data points like nothing else, and Jazz didn't want him picking anything out of what Jazz said. He changed the subject. "Hey, you said you were expecting Mirage, and I wanna go see if anyone's wearing red today, so I'll see you later. Cool?"
"Yes, of course," Prowl said with a nod of acknowledgement and even a faint smile. Mirage must really be making his spark spin. "I'll see you tomorrow, Jazz, and thank you for capturing the light."
A lifetime of practice let Jazz kept his smile on. "No problem, Prowlster. I'll see you later."
Prowl nodded again in acknowledgement and walked away, confident, handsome, and smelling so, so good. Sometimes when an unfinished hunt left a vampire hungry, it made their emotions run high too, and the algorithm couldn't solve those, just the thoughts that came from them. His desires for Prowl were running pretty high right now, and Jazz told himself not to feel badly about the tactician never seeing him as more than a friend, especially now that Prowl had Mirage. Jazz should be happy for him – and he was, yeah, he was, but he shouldn't feel anything more than that. Ever.
At the end of the corridor, Prowl met Mirage. Jazz couldn't see either mech's expression, but he saw Prowl's shoulders relax and the slight change in the angle of his doors, pleased at the sight of his date. The two mecha didn't do anything overt, of course, Prowl just touched Mirage's wrist, but they weren't hiding anything either. It was obvious they were together.
Jazz tried again to force himself not to feel jealous. Prowl wasn't his, he never had been, and he was never going to be. There was no guarantee anything would've happened between them even if he hadn't come on too strong and pissed Prowl off last meta-cycle. Prowl was a friend, a good friend, part of Jazz's enclave, and that's all he'd ever want to be. Jazz could live with that.
He had to.